Recently, the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization (SEMPO) suggested that a code of ethics be created to govern how SEOs conduct themselves. In light of the black-hat tactics that regularly make headlines in industry publications, it's understandable - but that doesn't mean it's a good idea, or even practical.
A Code of Ethics Will Create - Not Solve - Problems
SEMPO's proposal for a code of ethics is admirable. After all, with many self-styled SEOs still using underhanded tactics on behalf of their clients or for their own sites, something needs to be done. However, the creation and enforcement of a formalized code of ethics would create many more problems than it would solve.
Increased Risk of Frivolous Lawsuits
As numerous SEO experts have said, the creation of a legally binding code of ethics would throw open the doors to frivolous lawsuits by disgruntled clients. Imagine it - an SEO makes a promise they can't keep, the disappointed client decides they've been taken for a ride, and subsequently sues.
Not only would this waste a lot of people's time (and money), it sets a dangerous precedent. What would happen if a site were mistakenly penalized by Google in a future algorithm update, and the SEO in question weren't actually to blame? Would there still be grounds for a lawsuit? And that's before you even start to ask questions about potential damage to the SEO's reputation and livelihood.
A Problem of Adoption
Another problem with SEMPO's proposal is one of adoption.
There are basically two ways that SEMPO's code of ethics could work. Either SEOs voluntarily opt-in and sign a legally binding contract saying they won't do anything shady, or they're forced to - and both approaches are inherently flawed. The third option, which seems most likely to me, is that there is no obligation to participate at all, which renders the whole system pointless.
Firstly, how would SEMPO even mandate that SEOs agree to sign the code of ethics? A hollow ultimatum of "sign it or else," or some other equally weak coercion? How many groups, committees, and individual SEO practitioners would have to sign up for the idea before it became so widespread that not adhering to it became an issue?
The optional route is just as problematic. Just take a look at Google AdWords certification - sure, a Google logo on a website makes some clients feel more comfortable, but it's hardly a guarantee that the certified professional actually knows what they're doing.
Whether people agree to the code of ethics voluntarily or as part of a mandated industry standard, bad (or unethical) SEOs are still going to keep doing what they're doing. All the creation of the code will accomplish is a lot more work for everyone with little to no payoff.
Ambiguity Over Enforcement
One of the biggest problems with SEMPO's proposed code of ethics is that of who would actually enforce it. SEMPO's CEO has publicly stated he doesn't want the organization to oversee enforcement of the code - he just wants SEMPO to suggest who might do it.
The proposed system involves one of nominating members of regional SEMPO groups. Delegates would be nominated by their peers, and only one delegate could be nominated from each group.
This all sounds well and good, but SEMPO has recommended that groups be at least in the process of choosing their delegate by "early 2015." How much time could elapse between groups choosing their nominee, approving their delegate, and actually appointing them in an official capacity?
Then there's the matter of approving items to be added to the code. According to the SEM Post, 75% of nominated delegates must agree on an item for it to be included. In the result of a split vote, the process must begin all over again - including the appointment of new delegates.
Think of how many changes are likely to take place under this kind of system - by the time the code of ethics is in a position to be enforced, the industry will have already moved on.
Keeping Up With a Rapidly Changing Industry
In all the years I've been involved in the search industry, I've seen huge changes come and go. Practices that were once widely accepted and commonplace have become grounds for punishing manual penalties, and smaller sites struggle every day to play nice with Google and make sure their rankings aren't affected by the latest algorithm change or shift in position.
With search moving so quickly as an industry, how is the proposed code of ethics supposed to evolve with the rest of the field? How would SEOs already certified as being compliant with the code go about maintaining their certification? The rapidly changing nature of search is hard enough to keep up with as it is without adding an extra layer of legal obfuscation to the mix.
A Solution in Search of a Problem
Don't get me wrong. I have the greatest respect for the people of SEMPO, and firmly believe that it was instrumental in the evolution of the search industry in its early years. However, SEMPO's desire to create an industry-wide code of ethics is a solution in search of a problem.
Just look at how SEOs have adapted on their own to changing attitudes in search. Sure, black-hats are still out there, and naïve clients still buy into their promises of page-one rankings for cheap. However, the marketplace has adjusted, and the sector is largely self-policing - and that's without taking Google's increasingly zero-tolerance policies into account.
I believe strongly that a commitment to transparency would be far more effective than an SEO police force. For new search businesses and agencies seeking to carve out a niche, transparency could be a major selling point, and one that several larger shops have already implemented. This commitment to true transparency would be much more effective than SEMPO's Boy Scout pledge of honesty or any self-appointed task force.
A Formal Code of Ethics is Redundant
The industry doesn't need SEO cops to chase the bad guys. It needs what it already has - a thriving community of ethical SEOs that recognizes and values best practices, and their clients' rankings. Appointing a task force to do something that the industry is largely already doing is a complicated task that offers little benefit to businesses employing SEOs, the industry at large, or individual SEOs themselves.
What do you think? Is there a genuine need for an SEO code of ethics?