Is link building unethical?

Over at the Warrior Forum recently, a user there (who appears to be pretty new to Internet Marketing), stated that my link building service was "dishonest", "immoral" and "unethical." Those were his exact words. He didn't say that he "felt" it was that way, he applied an across the board, no-contest judgment regarding the service.

I responded with a series of questions asking whether or not he felt writing articles to get backlinks is unethical, or posting comments to blogs was unethical, or using social bookmarking sites for backlinks was unethical. The user never answered these questions, so I can only assume that he was unable to do so without undermining his original argument. He continued, however, with a series of arguments which I responded to and, in my opinion, debunked. Numerous other users chimed in to support and agree with my position, but there were some on the other side of the fence as well.

I felt there was something to be learned from the debate, and I wanted to share my perspective on link building with my readers here. Your position may be completely opposite, or you may be somewhat in line with my opinion or somewhat out of line with my opinion. But here's how I feel about it:

The basic argument from the other side of the debate appears to be that any "artificial manipulation" of the search results is dishonest, including link building. I can't say this absolutely, as the other person refused to answer my questions in order for me to have a completely clear understanding of their point of view. However, it certainly appeared that this person felt anything even remotely appearing to violate Google's Webmaster Guidelines is morally wrong.

I've heard this argument before, and I disagree with it for a number of reasons.

Problem #1: Defining "the rules"

First of all, in order for something to be unethical, you have to have a consistent set of standards by which to judge the action. To make this clear, let's use an unethical act that I think everyone will agree on: theft.

Theft is defined at as "the act of stealing; the wrongful taking and carrying away of the personal goods or property of another; larceny." Simply put, if somebody has something that does not belong to you, and you take it without permission, it's theft. I don't think there are many people who would disagree with that.

Let's contrast that with link building, using Google's Webmaster Guidelines as our "rules." Here's what Google suggestions you do in terms of building links:

  1. Have other relevant sites link to yours.
  2. Make sure all the sites that should know about your pages are aware your site is online.
  3. Submit your site to relevant directories such as the Open Directory Project and Yahoo!, as well as to other industry-specific expert sites.

Notice how vague these guidelines are. Let's go through them one at a time.

1. Have other relevant sites link to yours.

Okay, the problem here is the lack of definition of what constitutes a relevant site. For some, it would mean only sites that are based on the same subject matter. That is, if you have a site that is generally about arthritis pain relief, they feel you should only get links from arthritis-related sites.

The problem with that point of view is that it fails to take into account the vast range of subjects that fall into that category. For instance, as was shown in a previous blog post, such diverse subjects such as swimming, cycling, weight loss, vitamins, different types of fat, comfortable furniture, etc. can all be related to arthritis pain relief. So is it okay to get links from weight loss sites or furniture sites to your arthritis pain relief site? Given the lack of specifics, that can only be labeled a personal question, not an ethical one.

2. Make sure all the sites that should know about your pages are aware your site is online.

Again, vagueness is the culprit here. Frankly, since I know that links from other sites are what rank my sites in Google, I'd like every site to know that mine is online! That means getting links from as many sites, in as many categories as possible. Without a better definition of what Google means, it's impossible for everyone to share the same viewpoint of this recommendation.

3. Submit your site to relevant directories such as the Open Directory Project and Yahoo!, as well as to other industry-specific expert sites.

The same problems that exist with #1 and #2 exist with #3. What defines "relevant"? What defines "industry-specific expert sites"? From what we're given by Google, it's left for us to decide.

So, in contrast with the pretty straightforward unethical act of theft, link building can hardly be considered an indisputable breach of ethics. Now, it certainly can be relegated to a decision of one's conscience. If a person doesn't feel that building links would be right, they certainly have the option of not doing so — and I don't advocate doing anything that doesn't sit well with your inner radar. However, to claim that others are dishonest or unethical because of link building would not be appropriate, because the standards put in front of us leave a huge amount of leeway for interpretation.

This is true in many aspects of our everyday life, too. For example, we've all been taught that we should be "kind" to people, and most would agree that we should. But to what degree, and in what situations is left up to our own conscience to decide. In the end I believe we will find out whether or not we did what was right from a higher authority, but to try and group building links to your website into a great moral or ethical issue is nonsense in my opinion.

Problem #2: "The rules" aren't rules!

The second big problem in the "unethical linking" argument is that the "rules" everyone refers to aren't rules, and Google never calls them rules. They are referred to as "guidelines." Guidelines are generally much looser in their approach then rules.

For instance, "the speed limit is 30 m.p.h." is a rule. However, "you need to drive slowly" is a guideline which relies on your own personal view of what "slowly" means. There is a point at which virtually everyone would agree that another person is not driving "slowly" in a given situation, but there's also a lot of gray area where people would disagree.

Google can't call their guidelines rules because they are intentionally vague. Google seems to feel that creating too strict a set of rules would give away too much information about how their algorithm works, and so they make vague statements bordering on being almost useless.

Problem #3: I can design my website any way I want to.

The third problem with the "unethical linking" argument is that it fails to accept the fact that, as a webmaster, I have the right to design my site any way I see fit. Just as taking an object out of my house can't be considered stealing (since I own the object), the act of adding links to my site to whatever other sites I choose cannot be considered unethical.

This third point is really where the "unethical" argument breaks down. After all, as webmasters we have not entered into any kind of agreement with Google. We have not agreed to abide by their guidelines. We have signed no contracts. Google has not requested our permission to crawl and index our sites, and they do not give us any kind of compensation for the act of doing so. What Google does, Google does of its own accord and without permission.

Granted, it's in our best interest to be indexed and rank well in Google, so we want to try and do what we can to that end, but they have not asked our permission and give us no direct compensation for using our content.

So if a group of webmasters setup their sites in a way that they know will help them rank well in Google, and Google crawls those sites, counts those links and ranks those pages, can that be defined as unethical? Google has made the choice to index and rank the sites. They don't have to do so, and if they change their minds about it, they can always remove sites they feel should not be in their index.

I see services such as like a farmer's co-op. In a farmer's co-op, a group of farmers join forces to be able to have more buying power and get cheaper rates for equipment and supplies. It's in a smaller farmer's best interests to join so that they can compete with the "big dogs" of their industry and not be priced out of the market.

My linking service serves the same purpose. The "big dogs" of the web can afford to get huge numbers of links aimed at their sites through a variety of means (some Google sanctioned, some not). is a "linking co-op", where the smaller guys can join forces to help each other compete with the larger sites. You may or may not agree, but that's how I see it and why I created it.

Problem #4: We have no relationship with Google.

A webmaster's relationship with Google cannot be equated to a user's relationship with a site for which they have an account. When you create an account with an interactive site, you usually agree to their terms of service, and so any actions you take interacting with that site must abide by those terms. Thus, when MySpace sued a spammer, they won, because the spammer had violated the terms they agreed to.

However, we've never "created an account" with Google. We never invited Google to our site. They just assume you want them there (and who doesn't?) and so they crawl and index the site. But if our site is doing something Google doesn't like, we have not violated any kind of agreement, and they have no right to take any legal action.

From my perspective, all search engine optimization is a risk/reward scenario. You have to be smart about how you interpret Google's guidelines, because they certainly have the right to remove your site if you're doing something they don't like. But as the owner of the site, you have the right to create it and link to it in any way you see fit (as long as you have permission to put links where you are putting them — more on that in a bit).

Problem #5: What are the real "rules" anyway?

Also, I don't think that Google's Webmaster Guidelines are what define the real "rules" of Google. They can't, because they're far too vague. The real definition of the rules is Google's algorithm. The problem with these "rules" is that they are constantly changing as the Google team modifies that algorithm. So what works well today may not work well tomorrow. That's why it's so important to diversify your search engine optimization and link building methods, which will help insulate you from future changes that are sure to come.

I can't tell you how many threads on webmaster forums I've read where people are crying that they "did everything right" and Google obliterated their rankings in a major update. So is it really Google's Webmaster Guidelines that sets the rules, or is it their algorithm?

This behavior on Google's part has lead some to abandon the "white hat" theory of search engine optimization all together. Personally, I don't wear hats. Let me tell you why.

I don't wear hats: white, gray or black.

You've probably heard of the three "hats" of search engine optimization. They are generally thought of like so:

  1. White Hat – You do everything Google recommends in their guidelines.
  2. Gray – You don't do what Google recommends, but you don't misuse other people's web sites for your own gain.
  3. Black – You don't do what Google recommends, and you don't mind misusing other people's web sites for your own gain.

The "white hat" is a fantasy, some great ideal held up before people that doesn't exist. How can there be a true "white hat" when Google does not give specifics in their guidelines, and does not publish their algorithm? Also, since Google's algorithm is always changing, today's "white hat" is tomorrow's "unacceptable practice." To make matters worse, since we have no specific rules from Google, all webmasters have to go based on their own interpretation of Google's vague guidelines, so at best the hat is "light gray."

I don't like the label "gray hat" either, though, since that assumes that you are doing something "sorta" wrong by ignoring Google's guidelines, but you're not. You have the right to build your site any way you want. Of course, Google has the right to penalize or remove your site from their search results, but that's a quality decision, not a moral judgment.

I do, however, believe in the "black hat" label. Using other people's web properties without their knowledge or consent for your own selfish gain is very unethical in my mind. An example of this is blog comment spam. Stuffing thousands of comments into unsuspecting blogs in the hope that you can get some back links from those comments when you've never even read the blog posts is unethical to me, and I would never engage in such a practice. So I don't wear that hat either.

The difference between using an unsuspecting blog for comment spam, and designing a site to rank well in Google, is that Google comes to you. Google crawls and indexes your site of their own volition. The blog owner does not come to you and ask that you put comments on their blog for the sole purpose of your personal gain. Google, on the other hand, wants your content and indexes it accordingly. One similarity between the two, though, is that the blog owner can make the decision to delete a comment they feel is inappropriate for their blog, and Google, too, has the right to remove sites it feels are not of the quality they want in their index.

The Bottom Line: It's your decision.

I don't believe in the mantra, "it's not personal, it's business." I strongly believe that your personal ethics and beliefs should very much effect every aspect of your life, including your business. That said, there are situations that are simply business decisions. There are risk/reward decisions that every business has to make. "Will this advertisement help me make sales, or hurt my image?" Those kinds of decisions have to be made all the time, and there are good and bad consequences associated with those decisions.

To me, as long as you're not doing anything that steals links or content from other web sites, search engine optimization is a risk/reward decision, not an ethical one. "Will this hurt my rankings in Google, or will it help it?" There's always risk involved.

Google used to love reciprocal links, and so people got reciprocal links. Then Google changed their minds and decided one-way links were more valuable, and a lot of those reciprocally linking sites fell out of the rankings. Was Google right in their determination that one-way links are better than reciprocal? It doesn't matter, because it wasn't an ethical decision on their part — it was a business decision, and they had the right to make that decision.

Were the owners of those sites who linked to each other reciprocally "unethical"? My opinion is No, because it wasn't an ethical decision on the part of the site owners either, but a business decision which they had the right to make.

What about being a part of the very successful 3WayLinks network, or writing articles for backlinks, or creating blogs and posting to them for linking purposes, or posting to social bookmarking sites for the purpose of traffic and links? Are those actions "unethical"?

You have my opinion, and the bottom line is: it's your decision.

Please post your thoughts and comments below.

Source: link building