Thoughts on SEO Ethics

One of the most important things an SEO can do when speaking with a prospective customer is to qualify the customer first. There are people out there who are ready to pay you money for your time and services that you should turn away. There are a couple of major reasons why:

  1. It’s just good ethics to turn away a potential client that you can’t help
  2. You should want every client to become a success story, because that is how you build a great reputation. As a result, it’s bad business to take money from someone you can’t help.

When we get engaged with a new client we always start with a detailed look at the big picture. What does the competitive landscape look like, where do the opportunities lie, what types of content or tools will the site need, what will the demands on development needs, etc. In fact, a very preliminary look at the big picture is an important part of how we qualify clients before taking them on.

When we take a look at the big picture before accepting a new client, we run into several scenarios which lead to our telling the prospect that we can’t help them. Here are a few examples:

1. Business size too small: We get lots of leads from companies that are too small. For example, if they spend $20K on an SEO contract over some number of months, even if we hit all of our goals for helping their site out, they wouldn’t get the ROI. The problem here is not the quality of our service, or lack of results, it’s a lack of revenue potential for the business.

An example of this might be a small regional real estate company that serves a five towns in Massachusetts. Even if we score number one for them on all the most relevant terms, they might get enough revenue from the resulting leads from the web site to justify the SEO expense. That doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with their business. It’s just not a match for an SEO exercise, and we turn these types of prospects away.

2. Fundamental Misunderstanding of SEO: I spoke to a prospect recently that had built up a really nice amount of traffic to their site, purely through word of mouth. I spoke to the founders, and they were rightly proud of what they had done. Now, however, they were looking to get more traffic from search engines.

Where the problem started was that one of the founders kept referring to SEO as a game, and believed that the focus was on tricking the search engines into giving you traffic. Something along these lines came out of his mouth every time he spoke. And, I interrupted him every time he said it and corrected him. Needless to say the opportunity exploration ended with the first call.

There are other flavors of this problem too. For example, if someone comes to us and expects us to get them into all the places where you can buy links that still pass PageRank. This just isn’t what we do.

3. Can’t Meet the Content Demands: Part of the big picture evaluation is making sure that the prospect understands that they need to have sufficient content or tools on their site, or a strategy to promote content and tools on the web. Links are still incredibly important in SEO, and will be for a long time to come. The phrase I usually use to explain it to people is “People will not link to your site to help you make money”.

Bottom line is that you get links by having great content or tools. You can put it one your site, or you can syndicate it (publish in major magazines), promote it (e.g. sites like Digg and Eddit), or distribute it (e.g. widgets that become popular on the web). All these various strategies for getting links require some great content or tools.

When we find a client that doesn’t understand it, or is unable to invest in it, we turn them away.


Ultimately, for us it is about making every client a success story. This is the best way for us to grow our business for the long term. In addition, instead of closing a client we can’t help, we focus that same energy on finding new clients we can help. It just works out the best for everybody that way.


  1. says

    What a refreshing article. We have turned away more business than I like to think about for similar reasons. If a site has little to no SEO in place, we always tell the clients to get the traffic pointed to their site and THEN add VOD. The video won’t bring the traffic BUT it will make the viewer stick around the site once they arrive.
    Your ethics are to be commended.
    Best regards
    Kim Brame
    Executive Producer, VODSouth

  2. Ginger Makela says

    “Bottom line is that you get links by having great content or tools.”

    So well put. This is a great article. Thanks for writing it.


  3. says

    Sometimes, when clients asked me to review their PPC campaigns, they hope I can tell them that I can improve the performance and bring them more sales. However, for the similar reasons that mentioned in this article, I have to tell them that they don’t need to hire someone like me because their PPC performed quite well; it is no point to waste the money to gain small improvement that will not bring them more profits to cover the cost of external PPC experts.

  4. says

    I’ve always found that I’ve kept more clients happy if I’ve helped them find someone who could solve their problem if I couldn’t. In 99% of the cases, they still come back to me in the long run, if only because I was humble and professional.

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