July 16, 2024

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SEO – Ethics and Game Theory

5 min read
SEO – Ethics and Game Theory

Most internet users will agree that SEO has become a bit of a concern. Virtually any search brings up half a dozen sites that are trying to sell you something. If you are looking to buy, this is fine. But searching for information is becoming difficult.

The process of SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, involves tweaking your website in about 30 different categories to make it more “search engine friendly”. The search engine most commonly targeted is Google, but Yahoo and MSN are close in second and third. This makes complete sense. If you want more sales, get more traffic. If you want more traffic, get ranked higher on Google. The marketing advantage of “top Google ranking” can make nerds in their basements overnight millionaires. So what is so wrong about getting a marketing advantage?

Allow me to outline an example from my senior philosophy class – loosely based on John Nash’s ‘Game Theory’:

Consider the oceans, and the fish in them. Imagine that we (or in this case, website owners) are all fishermen. If we all agree to take our own share by legitimate means, and rely only on our own skills to catch fish, then we will all be able to feed our families, and perhaps sell some more off for profit. However, if we use some kind of illegitimate means to catch more fish, we will gain an unfair advantage. If there is no threat of punishment, there is only the threat of the extinction of the fish. But so long as only one or two are cheating, they get a larger share of the fish, and grow fatter than everyone else.

Now, everyone will start to catch on. If there is no law enforcement body in our little village (and there is almost none on the internet) then nothing stops the unscrupulous from doing whatever it takes to lure in all of the fish. So everyone starts doing it, using the argument, “If I don’t, my family will starve.” This is, as far as game theory is concerned, perfectly legitimate. To sum up:

If everyone is cheating to give themselves an unfair advantage, then you are creating an unfair disadvantage for yourself by not cheating

I would like to draw your attention to Google’s Information for Webmasters The article is about what is and is not accepted with regards to SEO. The Google guys end the article by saying,

“It’s not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn’t included on this page, Google approves of it. Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles listed above will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit.”

The Google corportate motto is “Don’t be evil.” They continually update their search bot algorithms — as do the other search engines — in order to filter certain behaviours out. keyword META tags (the string of keywords you sometimes see under a search result) are not even considered by Google as they are such common sources of keyword spamming.

If you run a website that is not trying to sell something, you still want a lot of traffic. Non-commercial websites without huge SEO budgets might be the sites you want to find, but your chances of doing so are almost zero. I live in South Africa, and the most-read blog around here is one called 2OceansVibe. I don’t think they have even submitted to a single search engine, or made one organic link. This blog gets thousands of hits per day purely on word of mouth. They have excellent content, and they update with an original post every day. Isn’t this the kind of traffic you would rather have on your website?

Unfortunately, the nice guys don’t finish last in the SEO arena, but that’s what the good folks at Google are working on while their plan to dominate the planet is still being worked out. After reading their page, I have begun the process of removing excessive keywords and tags from my blog, WriteNonsense. I am removing anything that isn’t 100% relevant in my tag list and links, and increasing the frequency and quality of my posts.

The ethics of SEO pose a significant dilemma for me, because I make my living writing SEO articles and helping websites get more traffic. I do not do the SEO work myself – I am a freelancer and I don’t have a lot of control over my projects. Unfortunately, it has reached the point that if we don’t cheat, we will be left out. I keyword optimized the title of this article — I do want it to be read, after all. However, because accepted criteria for SEO practices are constantly narrowing, I believe (and so do Google) that in the long run your website will be far more successful if:

  • Your content is king — Have good quality content that is all relevant to what you say your site is about.
  • You link organically and reciprocally — Paid linkers always get caught. Spend some time every day telling people with related sites about your site, how it can help their visitors, and how you can help each other. Offer to put a link on your site if they put one on theirs.
  • You design your site for visitors, not search engines — It might sound strange, but any sneaky SEO techniques will eventually get you weeded out. If you use sneak SEO tactics you will constantly have to build or pay for links, but if you make a good quality website links to you will start appearing all on their own, without you even having to reciprocate.
  • At the end of the day, having goodwill and a respected internet presence is something you cannot buy or steal, and the onlykind of visitor you want is the visitor who wants to be on your site. Remember that one college student telling his friends about your website is worth far more than hundreds of paid links, or thousands of pages of keyword-rich, content-poor articles. By all means, make your website more visible, but do not make the internet more frustrating and expensive for the rest of us to use.

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