Searching for Yourself: Is Search Engine Optimisation a Recipe for ‘Selling Out’?

Selling Yourself

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is an undeniably crucial aspect of a brand’s online success*. Achieving a high Google ranking through effective SEO can consist of “tinkering… websites to enhance the characteristics that search engines consider positive” (The Economist 2006), including ‘metatagged’ keywords, targeted landing pages, making archived product information visible to search engine bots, rewriting copy to include the use of (relevant) heavy-traffic search terms and ‘farming’ for link referrals (links to your website from other sources who are deemed reputable in the eyes of the ranking algorithms) (Jones 2013; Dick 2011; Patel 2015). When exploring these techniques, I became curious about the relationship between successful SEO and integrity. That will be the discussion of this post.


So, can writing for an algorithm forfeit a content-makers integrity?

Consider Murray Dick’s research, exploring the employment of SEO in British News Media:

This research shows that approaches to SEO go beyond mere ‘‘common sense’’. Standards in journalistic writing reflect best practice and ethical concerns, and help publishers pull together a consistent news brand. But this research demonstrates that SEO is applying pressure to these standards not in the perceived interest of the reader or because of publication constraints (as once may have been the case), but in the interests of a third-party commercial arbiter in online distribution: Google.

— Murray Dick, ‘Search Engine Optimisation in UK News Production’, Journalism Practice, 2011.

Dick’s argument (2011), as supported by his evidence, certainly suggests that the integrity of content, or, at least, of journalism, can be compromised by SEO, as writers may be required to write in the interests of an algorithm, rather than an audience, code of ethics, or, to put it candidly, the truth.

Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, claims that the “link-selling economy”, attributed to Google PageRank (a public PageRank score that was retracted from public view mid-2016) “ruined the web”, via link spam, “garbage comments with link drops” and other forms shameless ranking exploitation (2016). Sullivan’s observations are mirrored by The Economist:

…the influence of links begets abuse. Unethical methods, known as “black-hat SEO”, include renting links from popular or long-established sites (their links carry more weight). Some unscrupulous SEO outfits even exploit loopholes in website-management tools to place hidden links on prestigious sites, such as those maintained by universities.

— ‘Dancing with Google’s Spiders’, The Economist, 2006.

Even more ethically devoid is the practice of ‘SEO attacks’, in which “parasitic spam attacks can hijack and abuse a host site’s authority and SERP [search engine results page] position” (Dye 2008) and “scraping”, which involves copying all content of a website and cloning it, modifying internal backlinks and essentially stealing the victim’s SEO (Anjos 2016). These are all malicious in their own right, however, Dick and Sullivan make the most convincing arguments regarding the integrity fo content-makers (for hackers, scrapers and spammers, I’d argue, integrity was never the predominant intention).

Closed Open for Maintainance

Most scholars, however, seem to praise SEO as a way of maintaining integrity (Visser & Weideman 2014; Tohmatsu 2003). Visser & Weideman, for example, note that optimisation reduces “unnecessary clicks and visitor frustration” and cleans up the web by encouraging a strong focus on ‘website usability’ (2014). Tohmatsu argues that SEO does not detract from integrity, but, rather, contributes to refining search indexes and more accurate results, by offering the user the best possible experience as well as making money from paid advertising and, thus, creating revenue for the search engine which can be pumped back into further search improvements (2003). Perhaps, as Patel argues, finding the balance between integrity and a good ranking is in fact precisely “what SEO copywriting is all about” (Patel 2015).


Works Cited

Anjos, C. (2016, August 29). Cloned Websites Stealing Google Rankings. Retrieved from Sucuri Blog:

Dick, M. (2011, February 23). SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMISATION IN UK NEWS PRODUCTION. Journalism Practice, 5(4), 462-477.

Dye, K. (2008, March). Website abuse for search engine optimisation. Network Security, 2008(3), 4-6.

Green, D. C. (2016, June 24). Search Engine Marketing: Why it Benefits Us all . Business Information Review, 20(4), 195-202.

Jones, K. B. (2013). Search Engine Optimization: Your Visual Blueprint for Effective Internet Marketing. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.

Sullivan, D. (2016, March 09). RIP Google PageRank score: A retrospective on how it ruined the web. Retrieved from Search Engine Land:

The Economist. (2006). Dancing with Google’s spiders. London: The Economist.

Visser, E. B., & Weideman, M. (2014). Fusing website usability and search engine optimisation. South African Journal of Information Management, 1-9.

*Featured Image Credit: #sellout

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