Yes, ethical SEO works—but how well does it work in comparison with various unethical SEO techniques? Let’s make a few comparisons.
Ethical SEO Compared To Content Leeching
One of the least ethical SEO techniques in my opinion is content stealing, better known as content leaching. This is where a scammer copies your site but puts his own advertisements on it.
Content stealing must be effective—too many sites do it for it to be entirely unprofitable—but the margins are very low and the risks are high. The margins are low because Google tries to put content thieves out of business and the risk is high because the thieves could always be caught and taken to court (although that rarely happens).
Probably the oldest form of unethical SEO, it predates the term SEO. Keyword stuffing started when people tried to stuff as many keywords as would fit into their meta keywords HTML tag.
When Google started ranking pages by PageRank, meta keyword stuffing almost disappeared—but it was replaced by people who stuffed keywords into the page body. But you can’t just stuff keywords into a page—particularly a popular page—or can you?
Hidden Text Versus Ethical SEO
One of the favorite ways scammers stuff keywords onto a page is using hidden text. Hiding text is really simple using Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) instructions such as “display: none”.
Since Google doesn’t usually read style sheets, it won’t realize that nobody but it can see the hidden text. So the page may look to you like an advertisement but to Google it may look like a well-written keyword-dense article.
Why Google Blocked BMW.com
Another technique Google thinks violates ethical SEO is the doorway page. A doorway page is a single-page site stuffed with keywords which includes a single link to another site with the real content.
A real-world example was the BMW.com site. It included a number of BMW keywords in the text, but when you visited it, it just told you to click a link to the German BMW website.
Google opposed this kind of behavior and, in 2006, they briefly removed BMW.com from their search results. BMW quickly fixed the problem by adding actual content to BMW.com and were relisted in Google. (You and I would probably not receive such quick service from Google.)
Good Content’s Worst Enemy: Spinning
You may have heard of content spinning—it’s taking an article, either yours or someone else’s, and rewriting every sentence to say the same thing in different words.
The spun articles are then often re-posted to the same site to fill out its content, or they’re posted to other sites to attract more total traffic.
Many companies use spinning because paying for original articles is too expensive, but both readers and Google hate spinning, and I expect the long-term cost of spinning will rise greatly as Google gets better at detecting spun articles.
I should note that there is a legitimate use for of spinning which is usually called multivariate testing. It’s usually used as part of landing page optimization to discover which wording is most effective at selling a product.
There’s nothing wrong with multivariate testing—Google even helps you do it with their website optimizer in Google Analytics.
Link Farming Versus Ethical SEO Links
Linking farming, also called “a mutual admiration society”, usually means joining a collection of sites who all link to each other automatically. Link farms were highly popular a decade ago, but Google figured them out quickly and almost put them out of business.
After Google’s attack on them, many link farms went underground—they became smaller and smarter, asking each member to only link to 10% of the other members.
Modern link farms may actually work to improve your Google listings, but you risk being caught by Google who will ban you from their results for one or more months. There are far better ethical SEO steps to take when starting a WordPress website from scratch.
A better way to get links is to make individual link partners. You each agree to mention the other person’s site once a month or so in an organic fashion. Google doesn’t ban regular cross-site partnerships such as this, and as long as you write fresh, original content in between links, Google will happily help your link partnership succeed.
Forum, Wiki, And Comment Spam
Probably the thing that makes ordinary website readers most annoyed at ethical SEO (although ethical SEO experts don’t do it) is forum, wiki, and comment spam—leaving junk information on a site just to include a link to your site.
This sort of spam used to be a huge problem when Google counted every link as a fully-qualified link. But several years ago Google introduced the rel=nofollow hyperref tag and we all thought this sort of spam would be a thing of the past.
Unfortunately, although the amount of spam temporarily diminished, it quickly rose again as scammers discovered some people will click any link no matter how scummy it looks.
It isn’t clear whether Google penalizes sites who use this technique, but the technique is clearly unethical, so I recommend ethical SEO experts stay away from anything like it.
Cloaking, Is It Ethical SEO?
Google says not to use cloaking, but Google itself uses cloaking, so what’s the lesson here?
Cloaking is creating different versions of your site for different Web browser user agents (Not the same as cloaking affiliate links). One well-known example of cloaking was the New York Times website which for a long time displayed full versions of articles to Googlebot (Google’s spider) but required everyone else to pay a fee to read the article.
(Many of us at the time installed a Web browser plugin to change our Web browser user agent to Googlebot to fool the NY Times website into giving us access to the article for free. Not me though. SMILE)
The problem with cloaking is that it can be used for legitimate purposes. For example, older versions of Internet Explorer are incompatible with many Web standards, so some sites (including Google) displayed different versions of their pages for Internet Explorer users.
It’s not clear how closely Google monitors cloaking, so you can probably get away with some cloaking on your site. But if you create a version of your site specifically for Googlebot, I suggest you be warned—Google does not consider that to be ethical SEO.
The “Do's and Don'ts” of SEO are sometimes hard to figure out and that is why I have a free eBook for new webmasters explaining SEO my way.