Over the years, marketers have attempted all sorts of SEO techniques to rank at the top of search results.
Some are ethical, while others are not.
These days, rewarding websites that use ethical SEO has become a priority for search engines.
Read on to learn what ethical SEO entails and how it helps searchers find what they’re looking for. You’ll discover how your website can get higher search rankings while maintaining integrity and transparency.
What Is Ethical SEO?
Ethical SEO is the practice of optimizing a website and its online presence in ways that adhere to search engine guidelines and prioritize the user experience (UX).
With an ethical SEO strategy, you aim to achieve higher search engine rankings and brand visibility through legitimate, sustainable methods.
In other words, you don’t resort to manipulative or deceptive tactics to “game the system.”
There are two main components of ethical SEO:
- Strategies that comply with search engine rules and guidelines
- Accessibility for a broad audience of users
Accepted SEO Strategies
Ethical SEO makes use of accepted SEO strategies. These are proven techniques for improving your website’s search rankings, increasing traffic, and driving more conversions.
- Create quality content: When publishing content, focus on quality, offering real value, and meeting the needs of the searcher. Quality content is well-researched and well-presented. It exemplifies Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trust (E-E-A-T), principles that Google uses to qualify web pages.
- Adherence to search engine guidelines: Stay compliant with guidelines and best practices recommended by search engines. Ignoring these could lead to penalties or ranking drops. Staying true to them sets your website up for long-term success.
- Research keywords and optimize: Satisfying search intent is Google’s top goal, so your keyword research and optimization tactics should do the same. Your ethical strategy should identify relevant keywords and optimize content naturally. Don’t keyword stuff or use spammy practices.
- Focus on the long term: SEO success doesn’t often happen overnight. Look to the future by developing an ethical strategy that will grow your business long term. Don’t seek short-term gains achieved through risky, unethical practices (which we’ll cover later).
- Earn links in a natural manner: Build links via legitimate tactics, such as content marketing, email outreach, unlinked brand mentions, and digital public relations (PR). Engaging in link schemes or link farms is not a natural method of procuring links. The consequences of doing this can result in being penalized by search engines, leading to a loss of organic visibility, rankings, and even your brand’s reputation.
- Respect the intellectual property of others: Ask for permission before using content that belongs to another party, like copyrighted material and user-generated content. For instance, images are part of a person’s intellectual property. It’s ethical to respect that person’s work and remain within legal boundaries.
- Be transparent: An ethical marketer is transparent about their approach to SEO, providing explanations of strategies, tactics, and the work being done. In an agency setting, you might include clear reporting and communication with clients. In-house, you might relay this information to both leadership and team members.
- Offer a good user experience: A positive user experience is important to Google. That importance has manifested itself as ranking factors, including page experience, which considers how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page. Optimizing website speed, mobile-friendliness, and usability ensures your site visitors can easily navigate and find what they’re looking for.
Want to ensure your website offers a good experience and follows sound SEO practices?
You can get started with a technical audit. It allows you to find and fix issues throughout your website and improve your Google rankings.
Semrush’s Site Audit tool scans your website and provides data about the pages it crawls. The report helps you identify various technical SEO issues. The overview looks like this:
To set up the audit report, first create a project using your website’s domain. Here’s an example:
Then, a settings window will appear. In this window, you have the option to configure as many of the settings as you like.
You can follow this setup guide to get through the settings. Or, you can simply leave all options as default. If your site is larger than 100 pages, or if you don’t know how large it is, set the “Limit of checked pages” to a high number to ensure the crawl captures your entire site.
Check the box to receive an email whenever an audit is completed. Then, hit the “Start Site Audit” button.
After the tool crawls your site, it generates an overview of the health of your site, including a grade on a scale from zero to 100.
To identify what aspects of your site need to be improved, navigate to the “Issues” tab. This section lists “Errors” and “Warnings” you can address, as well as recommendations for how to fix each item to adhere to SEO best practices.
Language, Translation, and Accessibility
Language, translation, and accessibility are integral to ethical SEO practices. They play a significant role in ensuring that your content is accessible to all types of people.
Your audience could be quite diverse with different spoken languages, locations, and abilities.
Here’s how these elements are important to ethical SEO:
Implementing multilingual and multiregional SEO strategies allows your website to meet the needs of diverse linguistic and regional preferences. It helps your content become accessible and relevant to people all over the world.
Offering content in multiple languages makes your site more inclusive for people who may not speak your primary language.
For instance, if your business largely speaks English but a significant portion of your customers speak Spanish, a Spanish version of every important page (or all pages) could be very helpful.
Your website would become a more accessible, user-friendly experience.
Here’s an example where Autodesk gives users the option to switch to another version of the site for other countries and their respective languages:
Translating content accurately into different languages improves the user experience by allowing readers to better understand the information you’re presenting to them. Eliminate potential language barriers by making your content available to a diverse audience.
As an example of an accessible website, take NPR. The website uses contrasting colors throughout the site, and its navigation and audio player can both be explored using the tab key on your keyboard. There’s also a text-only feature so you can browse without the images.
Accessible websites can help provide a positive user experience.
For example, in a study of 847 websites to determine if accessibility helps with SEO, 73.4% of domains saw organic traffic growth.
Ethical SEO serves as a “force for good” on the web by helping people find what they need and improving their online experiences.
Ethical practices create a better online environment that connects searchers with the information, products, and services they’re looking for in a relevant, user-friendly manner.
It aligns the collective interests of users, businesses, and search engines. Simply put—it’s good digital marketing.
To truly understand the importance of ethical SEO, we must also shed light on what unethical SEO entails and why it can have negative consequences.
What Is Unethical SEO?
Unethical SEO is the act of using tactics that disregard or violate search engine guidelines to improve your website’s rankings by manipulating search algorithms.
Google has clear guidelines for what to avoid, and any intent to manipulate rankings and mislead users is against policy.
Search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo are transparent with the tactics that go against their terms. Using unethical SEO practices can result in your website being penalized by way of manual actions or algorithmic filtering.
Marie Haynes is a notable SEO consultant and Google algorithm analyst. In this video, she explains the differences in those penalties and how they could impact your website:
Here are unethical practices that should be avoided:
Misinformation, Deception, Discrimination
- Malware: Executable files or mobile applications that engage in behavior that negatively affects the user’s browsing experience
- Misleading functionality: Claiming to provide certain functionality (e.g., an online dictionary of some kind) but intentionally leading users to ads rather than providing the expected content
- Deceptive redirects: A server redirect that’s intended to deceive either the users or search engines. For example, showing search engines one type of content while redirecting users to something different.
- Scams: Impersonating another business to trick users into paying money, pretending to provide customer support on behalf of a legitimate business, or providing fake information
Shady or Manipulative Tactics to Improve Performance
- Cloaking: Showing a page about one topic to search engines while showing a page about a different topic to users. This involves detecting the user agent of the incoming request and presenting content that may be keyword-stuffed or optimized solely for search engines.
- Hacked content: Gaining access to another site (such as a competitor) to inject malicious code or spammy content. This is an aspect of “negative SEO,” where a person uses unethical SEO tactics to harm their competitors’ rankings and improve their own site.
- Hidden text: Placing text on a page in a way that makes it invisible to users, such as setting the text color to match the background color. This text is often stuffed with keywords with the intention of manipulating search engine rankings.
- Keyword stuffing: A prevalent practice involving the excessive and repetitive use of keywords. It won’t benefit your SEO efforts, and you can easily identify it when the content lacks a natural flow. Here’s an example:
Exploiting Flaws or Loopholes to Achieve Rankings
- Content scraping: Copying content from other websites and publishing it on your own site without proper attribution is unethical. It could even become a legal matter if the original publisher discovers their intellectual property has been stolen.
- Content spinning: Don’t bother taking your existing content (or content published by other websites) and “spinning” it into a different version. These days, search engines are more adept at recognizing spun, unoriginal content.
- Paid links: Not to be confused with natural link building, paying for backlinks for the sake of ranking is an act of link spam. An exception is paying for sponsorship purposes. Remember that links should be earned, especially when considering they’re votes of trust from other websites.
- Private blog networks (PBNs): PBNs are groups of websites that link to each other, link to websites outside the network, or both. It’s not against search guidelines to have a legitimate blog network with quality content that links to other pages within the network, like a group of recipe blog sites. But it’s unethical if the sole purpose of the PBN is to offer backlinks. This strategy was more effective in the past, but search engines have improved their ability to identify and penalize PBNs, making them riskier.
Benefits of Deploying an Ethical SEO Strategy
An ethical SEO strategy isn’t just about achieving higher rankings—it’s a commitment to building a sustainable online presence that benefits both you and your audience.
This approach offers numerous advantages, with an emphasis on long-term success, transparency, user experience, and risk mitigation.
Sustainable SEO Results
Ethical SEO usually lends itself to stability.
Once you start ranking for target keywords, there’s potential to maintain those positions over time, assuming you keep up with algorithm changes and optimize your site with best practices.
Ethical SEO ensures that what people see in search results matches the content on the landing page they visit. This helps foster trust and credibility with users, enhancing their overall user experience.
Stronger Brand Reputation
By prioritizing content and experiences that put users first, you build a positive reputation that resonates with both people and search engines.
When searchers consistently find what they’re looking for thanks to your website, it helps establish your brand as a reputable source. You improve your credibility this way.
Ethical SEO practices reinforce your brand’s reputation as one that’s trustworthy and plays by the rules of search. Delivering a great online experience can only enhance your credibility.
Better User Experience
Adhering to search engine guidelines and web accessibility standards provides a good user experience for all types of visitors, helping them trust your brand and what you offer.
When searchers find what they’re looking for on your website, they engage further, stick around longer, and even come back again.
Accessible design ensures that content is usable and decipherable to as many people in as many situations as possible, regardless of their abilities or impairments. It can even extend the reach of your site to a wider audience.
Lower Risk of Penalty or Legal Problems
By optimizing your website according to search engine standards and simply avoiding any kind of manipulation, there’s a lower risk of being penalized and losing organic traffic.
Refraining from plagiarizing content from other publishers or using negative SEO will keep you out of legal trouble. It’s possible someone could bring action against you otherwise.
Ready to Rank Ethically?
Complying with search engine guidelines and improving site accessibility may take time to grow traffic and rankings, but it’s the safest way to improve your search presence.
You’ll likely see higher search engine rankings and brand visibility via legitimate, ethical SEO methods rather than trying to “game the system” with tactics that could get your website penalized.
To get started, try Semrush’s Site Audit tool. Scan for over 140 technical site health and SEO issues to help you improve website function and user experience.
Semrush also offers an all-in-one SEO platform to research keywords, enhance your site’s overall performance, identify backlink opportunities, and boost your SEO—ethically.
Sign up today for a free trial to explore the entire suite of tools.