Ethical internet marketing in an unethical world

I’ve never been a great fan of television but this last week or so I’ve been down with flu and often unable to sleep for coughing, but when I wasn’t in bed I had very little concentration to do any work that I felt I could rely on, so had to resort to the dreaded tube to while away the hours while my body fights off the virus. So I’ve been seeing rather more adverts than I’d like.

Now being an SEO means I’m involved in marketing, and that’s something that didn’t come easily to me. In fact I once, many years ago, defined marketing as persuading people to buy things they don’t need by lying to them. That was back in my book trade days with James Thin when one of my colleagues was doing a marketing course. One of the reasons I enjoyed working in the book trade was that we basically took an ethical approach to selling books. We kept as wide a range of quality books as we were able to sell profitably, and we mainly sold to people who loved books and wanted the knowledge and literature they contained. (Maybe that’s why the old book trade has largely been wiped out by more business-savy competitors who were prepared to play dirty!)

Gradually I wised up and came to realise that marketing is at least a necessary evil if you’re going to stay in business, but in my subsequent move into website design, search engine optimisation and ecommerce I’ve always tried to stick to honest businesses and quality approaches to advertising, in the same way as I try to write quality content rather than regurgitated rubbish. But the problem is the world doesn’t always work the same way.

Those TV adverts I mentioned I’ve been seeing; I’m fine with the ones trying to get you to come to their store by highlighting cheap prices, even if they aren’t always typical. I’m ok with the ones selling dreams – “your life will be far better if you only had a …..”, even if they don’t always seem very realistic, caveat emptor and all that. I start to have problems with banks who advertise great interest rates which turn out to be fleeting or misleading, especially when we just bailed them out with money the government will claw back from us. But the one’s I really dislike are at another level entirely. What are those? Well for example there’s all those companies trying to part people from their gold jewellery at knock-down prices, who thankfully are reportedly being investigated (though it doesn’t seem to be discouraging the ads). Now there seems to be a spate of “need money quickly” ads with staggeringly high interest rates – 2356% APR on one I saw. (Isn’t that kinda like the rates that illegal moneylenders charge?)

TV ads like those make me ashamed to be human let alone be in a marketing-related business. The people who fall for them may be guillible but they might also be desperate, and I see no justification in taking advantage of them. We’re supposed to be a bit more evolved than that.

I sometimes wonder if the internet is evolving in the wrong direction. It started very ethical with lots of optimistic, almost utopian visions, but it’s become progressively more commercialised and with that has come the seedier side of human nature. I seem to remember a promising internet company that had a motto. What was it again? Oh yeah – “Don’t be Evil”. For some time everyone wondered how they would make money – all they seemed to want to do was provide good quality search results. Then they invented Adwords and money started pouring in. Unfortunately they also went and invented Adsense, and that generated loads of spammy low-value sites built purely for rankings by Black-hat SEOs to generate money-making clicks. And to combat those leech-like sites more people started more trickery and more low-value, often autogenerated or scraped content sites.

I could build loads of sites like that and make money, but that’s not my way. I want the internet to be better than that and I care more about being able to look at myself in the mirror than being rich.

Flu-fuelled thoughts aren’t always the clearest and I when I came back to it I realised that this post was meandering a bit. While I was working out how to finish it off I saw a new post from Aaron Wall – Slow & Steady vs Hype, Crash & Burn – which deals with the sort of get-rich-quick scammy marketing that I dislike so much. This is the sort of thing that gets internet marketing a bad name. Yet remarkably often the perpetrators have developed sufficient reputation to get away with it for a long time before the smelly stuff hits the air distribution system. I’m reminded
of the heavyweight financial gurus and dodgy accountants that turn out to have been swindling their customers for ages (and then often get let out of jail on grounds of age and ill-health). And I’m horrified that my daily SEO group updates from LinkedIn seem to be increasingly populated by Multi-Level-Marketing related posts. The last thing the SEO industry needs is to be associated with such blatant pyramid schemes or the stuff that Aaron’s talking about.

I still haven’t thought of a snazzy hook but maybe that’s the point of this post – there aren’t any shortcuts for good businesses. Good long-term marketing has to be built on solid ethical approaches.

So if you’re looking for someone to get you search rankings for some get rich quick scheme by dodgy black hat tricks or worthless comment spam then move on, you’re in the wrong place – don’t call me. I’ve spent a lifetime developing principles and I don’t plan to break them now. On the other hand if you have an honest business and you want advice on how to maximise it through ethical internet marketing and SEO then that’s the way I like to operate (when I don’t have flu).

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