Lots of myths and misconceptions circulate about SEO. People are afraid of attracting search engine penalties to their websites or ecommerce stores, and many people simply can’t tell good SEO from bad. It’s about time people started being more clued up about SEO, and that we embedded SEO within a wider context of online ethics. Here’s what you need to know about the 50 shades of SEO…

What do you need to look for?

Don’t get sucked into the hype and trust your gut.

Unhelpful rumors and hard selling have marred the industry’s reputation. Whether it’s an SEO sales email that comes in promising the world, or a clickbait blog post that has done the rounds – navigating SEO from the outside world can be confusing.

  • Any rankings promises should raise eyebrows and are a warning sign. This is not something SEOs can guarantee.
  • Emails to your website about your SEO are generally automated and not worth responding to.
  • Just because a big news item is doing the rounds doesn’t mean your supplier is now obsolete (the phrase ‘SEO is dead’ has been doing the rounds for over a decade now).
  • Good SEO days isn’t always cheap… but there are also things you can do yourself and that you don’t need to pay for (always get a clear picture of what you are actually paying for – SEO is a broad term). It’s important that you get clear and detailed reports that outline any backlinks gained and rankings fluctuations.
  • Sometimes the way in which search engines work make it hard for SEOs to know a 100% what is going to happen. Please be patient and know that SEO optimisation will take its time to be felt as a rankings or traffic benefit.
  • Ask for second opinions and always try to get to the bottom of what is actually being done – it will make you feel way more empowered and will help you manage your
  • SEO suppliers much better. It’s great when you can start to talk the same language a little bit more.

What are online ethics?

If you are trying to figure out whether something feels ‘right’ for you, have a think about it within the wider context of online ethics. Bring things back to your website users and whether you are benefitting them.

Here are some things to think about:

  • Don’t mislead or trick the user – serve the information seeker.
  • Be transparent and disclose any affiliations, whether that’s links or products.
  • Respect copyright and don’t plagiarize, misappropriate, or use someone else’s content without a credit or acknowledgement.
  • Add value to the conversation, marketplace or environment.
  • Give everyone a chance to enjoy themselves online; no matter what their ability, by optimising content for screen readers and other accessibility devices.
  • Accept a duty of care for people’s personal details and provide secure online financial transactions.

If alarm bells are ringing and you are being asked to make changes to your site that you don’t agree with, then it’s important that you speak out. Get things down in writing and be open to negotiations.

Usability tests and third party opinion are a great way to iron out any minor disagreements in ‘vision’ between you and your suppliers. SEO is always a delicate balance between search engine rankings, usability and visual design.

What forms does SEO take?

Official Google webmaster guidelines discourage any link building for rankings effect, and as new algorithms are rolled out, more and more old-school SEO tactics are falling out of favor. SEOs tend to classify themselves on a grayscale from black to white, to show a sort of loose ‘allegiance’ to accepted ranking tactics.

  • Black hat SEO is a riskier form of SEO often avoided by brands and businesses
  • Gray hat SEO is a term that describes an SEO middleground
  • White hat SEO is SEO that is mainly content focused

Black hat link building schemes like link farms have been targeted with search engine penalties and are thus seen as high-risk tactics. Black hat SEO tends to be more automated and will be practised on a larger scale. A lot of the black hat tactics won’t have made it into mainstream SEO journalism that tends to focus on content, user-experience, PR and conversion rate optimization. The term ‘black hat’ has its origins in the hacker world, but black hat SEOs are not hackers.

White hat SEO bears more resemblance to PR and effective content marketing and tends to be the type of SEO that makes it into big publications and blogs. Though there is definitely some overlap, SEO is still a separate discipline from content marketing. It would be too simplistic to equate white hat SEO in 2017 with content. There are still plenty of technical SEO issues like indexing, schema and metadata that need to be addressed.

Gray hat SEOs are the most difficult to define and the most elusive types of SEOs. They are usually professionals who have made the ‘jump’ from one camp to the next and so have the experience of both. They may also reverse more experimental tactics to ‘side projects’, using more white hat tactics in their day to day jobs.

What do SEOs think?

SEO sparks lively debates, discussions and arguments. SEOs are some of the most active web users, found in forums and blogs across the world. Even if a tactic is not accepted by other SEOs, case studies are often read and trawled over with great interest.

A lot of SEOs freelance and work together so there is a lot of sharing of ideas, tools and content that goes on. Most SEOs stick to their guns and their territories, but it doesn’t stop them from learning from each other and contributing to the conversation.

What should you do when you hire an SEO for your website or ecommerce store?

If you are looking for someone to help you rank your website or ecommerce store, and they are going to be doing some off-site SEO work on your behalf, make sure you have a frank conversation about risks and SEO longevity before diving in.

  • Seek testimonials and reviews, preferably from businesses like yours. It’s important to hear from others how the relationship panned out. But be mindful of how tricky supplier relationships can be and how much of SEO remains confidential. Ask for anonymous testimonials if that helps.
  • Always try to meet face to face once or twice to gauge their character and commitment. You can tell a lot about a person in just one meeting. SEOs work very closely with their clients so it’s important to find someone who is a good fit both personally and professionally.
  • Most SEOs know whether they want to work with clients or not (here’s why client SEO isn’t the only model for some practitioners), so if they are selling their services to you then they are probably invested in long term, white hat SEO.
  • Find an SEO who can break things down for you in simple language and has good reporting skills. SEOs deal with large numbers of data on a daily basis so they should be able to help you understand your SEO data with graphs and spreadsheets. Work on a reporting frequency and format that works for you.
  • Someone’s own website and social media channels can also tell you a lot about how much they value their audience and content. Sometimes SEOs are too busy to manage a very complex website themselves, but if you can’t find any credible listings or content online – that’s definitely a big warning sign.

Ethical SEO is completely possible, and unethical SEO also exists. Like with any morality tale, it’s important to not lose sight of the people behind the hype. What do you think of SEO ethics? Do you find it hard to know where to draw the line?

Written by EcommerceTips
Patrick Foster, ecommerce coach & entrepreneur.