The controversy surrounding a New York Times expose of alleged 'black hat' SEO practices by a large U.S retailer raises the question of what it means to do ethical SEO. [If the retailer has released a statement about its point of view, a Google search doesn't find it easily:)]
The answer is not all that tough to figure out especially since Google provides relatively clear direction to webmasters on its search policies:
Quality guidelines - basic principles
- Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. Don't deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as "cloaking."
- Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you'd feel comfortable explaining what you've done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?"
- Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or "bad neighborhoods" on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.
- Don't use unauthorized computer programs to submit pages, check rankings, etc. Such programs consume computing resources and violate our Terms of Service. Google does not recommend the use of products such as WebPosition Gold™ that send automatic or programmatic queries to Google.
Seems unequivocal to me.
My company's newly appointed global head of digital communications -- Andrew Bleeker -- put it this way in an email to our social web team: "At Hill and Knowlton, we believe in a transparent approach to search engine optimization that still achieves the results we need . . . but still adhering to the spirit of how these search engines operate."
That's probably all it takes to ensure that you don't suffer the kind of reputational hit the retailer has received.