The Ethics of Link Building Through Content


Link Building and Content Marketing EthicsI think I’m pretty safe in speaking for my coworkers when I say one of the things we all love most about our jobs as Internet marketers is the opportunity to work with a roster of diverse clients. Some agencies focus on one, maybe two industries that are large and complex enough to sustain exclusivity, and that works just fine for them. For me in particular, because a large part of my job entails content creation, being able to switch gears from one client to another is ideal. It keeps my mind engaged, and prevents boredom. If I had to write about just one industry day in and day out, my brain would turn to mush. Hats off to the writers who do that, and do it well.

Luckily for me, our clients are anything but boring. From e-commerce to entertainment, and a few industries in between, it’s never a dull moment around the Outspoken Media office. A couple of our most interesting clients have been small law firms, not only because they’ve been great people to work with, but because some of the areas they focus on come with built-in controversy.

Personal injury attorneys, by their nature, specialize in some pretty hot-button issues, and naturally, those issues must be addressed in their law firms’ marketing plans. Where that really becomes apparent is in one of the methods we use in our link building services—guest posting. Which brings us to a question of ethics—what do you do when you disagree with a stance a client takes in order to gain customers?

In other words, just how far would you go to get a link? I’m not talking about questionable link building tactics that both the search engines and reputable SEOs frown upon. And I don’t mean deceptive statements like saying you have a kid when you don’t to get a link from a mommy blog. I’m talking about creating controversial content that compromises your own principles and beliefs in order to get a link for your client.

I’ll give you an example. One of our clients is a law firm owned by an attorney who is a big proponent of motorcycle helmets. The firm often represents riders who have been hurt in accidents, and the injuries can sometimes be gruesome. They feel it’s their responsibility to advocate the wearing of motorcycle helmets.

Let’s say you take on a law firm client like this, who believes in and supports wearing a helmet, but you’re one of the many motorcycle riders who feel it’s a matter of personal freedom. You agree with those riders who, while they acknowledge the safety benefits of wearing helmets, also point out their weaknesses—that they impair the rider’s vision and hearing, and that they don’t come with any warning labels the way a car airbag, another important safety mechanism, does.

What do you do? You have some options, but with each option comes risk, or at least compromise.

Don’t Take on the Client

If there’s an aspect of a law firm’s—or any client’s—business with which you strongly disagree, you don’t have to work with them at all. But you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth denying yourself business, income, reputation enhancement, and potential referrals because of just one part of an overall really good client.

You could also decide to take on law firms, but not those that have personal injury practice areas. Maybe you can just work with divorce attorneys. Or corporate attorneys. I’ll let you use your imagination to ponder the respective cans of worms both of those types of practices can open up. Do you really want to close yourself off to an entire industry?

Refuse to Market That Area

When hammering out the contract with your client, you could explain your aversion to helmets (or whatever it is you have issues with), and let the client know you won’t be marketing that portion of their site. The client could, in turn, refuse to work with you. That’s the first risk.

If you both decide to move forward, though, the risk becomes providing a substandard marketing strategy. And if the client has to either market that portion of the business on his own, or hire a second agency to fill in the gaps, you’re not providing a cost-effective solution to your client. Either way, you’re engaging in less-than-optimal business practices, and that’s no way to build a reputation for quality.

Write the Content

Some people have a knack for separating their personal feelings from their business. If you’re able to do that, maybe you can just write that guest post that says every motorcycle rider should wear a helmet, and then leave work on your motorcycle with the wind blowing through your hair, and not give it another thought.

But if your business decisions are informed by your principles, and in the interest of keeping a client happy—and just keeping a client—you go ahead and create that content advocating helmet use, it may leave you feeling as though you’ve betrayed yourself, not to mention your fellow motorcycle-riding brethren. You may never be able to watch Easy Rider again.

If that’s the predicament you find yourself in, you have one more option:

Outsource the Content

You may not agree with your client’s stance on a topic, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find someone who does. It wouldn’t be difficult at all to find a freelance writer willing to put together a guest post about the benefits of wearing a helmet. It’s still a bit of a sticky wicket, though, because you’ll still have to place the content, thereby contributing to its dissemination, but they won’t be your words. A small distinction perhaps, but in my opinion, an important one.

Ethics are seldom cut and dried. That’s why an entire discipline has been built around the concept, and why ethics have been debated for centuries. Often, making an ethical decision will come down to making a choice based on what you feel is right.

Ethical Marketing is a Two-Way Street

The helmet debate is just one example with one type of client, but it’s not the only ethical dilemma you may run into as a writer or marketer. It’s also not a one-sided affair. Remember that while you’re picking and choosing the companies you’d like to work with—and the ones you won’t—those companies are also seeking marketers who can understand and get on board with their businesses.

Clients understand the human factor in marketing, not just on the customer side, but on that of the marketer. Any writer, link builder, or SEO who has issues with a business runs the risk of not putting forth their best effort, and no one wins in that scenario, least of all the client.

We’ve run into ethical questions with a few other clients and potential clients. In some cases, we worked it out, and in others, we didn’t take the client on at all because we knew it wasn’t the right fit for us, or for them. Here’s just a handful of the industries where we’ve seen this happen, or where it has the potential to happen:

  • gambling (online gaming, casinos)
  • finance (payday loans, sub-prime mortgages, credit cards, etc.)
  • pharmaceuticals (expensive brands over generics, side effects)
  • law (helmet laws, environmental law, dog bites, nursing homes, etc.)
  • hidden charges and pyramid schemes (not necessarily industry-specific, but areas where policies and costs aren’t obvious)
  • health and fitness (quick weight loss, supplements)
  • nutrition, food, beverages (high fructose corn syrup, soy, organic)
  • alcohol or cigarettes
  • medicine (stem cell research, reproductive rights, assisted suicide)
  • LGBT organizations
  • pornography and adult entertainment
  • fashion (fur, country-specific manufacturers, sweat shops, child labor)
  • cosmetics and cleaning products (animal testing, chemical use, environmental concerns)
  • kids’ products (drop-side cribs, country-specific manufacturers, lead-tainted toys)
  • pet products (tainted food and treats, dangerous toys)

While these industries may raise ethical questions, they are also excellent proving grounds for competitive SEOs and Internet marketers. When you find that perfect situation where your values align with the client’s, it’s an opportunity to do some fantastic work. Our industry wouldn’t be as fascinating and rewarding as it is without the challenges it presents every day.

What kinds of ethical issues have you run into, either as a marketer or as a client? Have you encountered any situations you found shocking? Anything that made you change the way you do business? Tell us about it in the comments!

Your Comments

  • Charity Hisle

    This is a very interesting topic and very difficult choices. But if I had to choose….

    Personally, I would cancel a contract if it required that I go against a strong moral or social conviction. There are some things that, no matter how much you are paid, aren’t worth the trouble they will bring. We are known by the company we keep and the business we take. Trust is the most valuable asset – and my other clients trust me not to tarnish their reputations by doing business with a morally corrupt or socially irresponsible companies. But that is just me. :)

  • Jeff Bronson

    “they are also excellent proving grounds for competitive SEOs and Internet marketers.”

    This is an important point, which can help both the client and your firm alike.
    However, I’ve come across clients wanting a ton of “fake reviews” created across multiple sites. While some firms will agree to do this, in the name of Reputation Management, we didn’t feel comfortable with it at the time.

    Going forwards, especially with the new Google + Local pages roll-out, this type of practice becomes even more difficult.

    • Michelle Lowery

      I agree, Jeff. I also think sometimes requests like that come down to a bit of ignorance on the client’s part. Not always, but sometimes. I would see that as an opportunity to educate the client and steer them toward better tactics, if they’re amenable. I would imagine in some cases it’s that clients simply don’t know any better because their only previous experience was with less-than-reputable agencies or individual marketers. If we can get a client on board with above-board marketing and help them see results, it’s all the more rewarding. Thanks for commenting!

      • Jeff Bronson

        You mean all clients aren’t ethical, willing to wait a year for results and let you just do your job? j/k.

        You’re right, it’s a great opportunity to educate the client towards more ethical methods, which will have a long term impact.

        • Michelle Lowery

          Haha! Well, luckily, I think there are more good ones out there than bad! Same goes for SEOs and Internet marketers. :-)

          Exactly. We’re all about the long term, education, and ethically-achieved results.

  • Mackenzie Fogelson

    We do a lot of research before we even sign a client to do our best to align our values, culture and approach with theirs. If it’s not a fit then, it definitely won’t be once we start generating content.

    P.S. you have no sense of humor ;) we like the links you placed in the article!

  • Jonathon

    Some great thoughts! I have turned down work that I did not agree with on moral grounds,…and I have also taken work when my conscience was suggesting that I shouldn’t and it bothered me afterward.

    Unfortunately though, there are far too many people who think money first, ethics second. Being able to separate personal ethical or moral concerns from business success seems to be fairly commonplace. Plenty of people do very unethical things in business and can manage to sleep at night, believing “it’s just business.” I am not one of those people; I cannot separate the two since I am one person, with one set of moral convictions.

    • Michelle Lowery

      You make some great points, Jonathon! I agree–it’s difficult to separate business decisions from personal beliefs, morals, ethics, etc. I also think that difficulty is increased because we’re in such a competitive industry that places so much value on ethical methods and behavior. I think for the most part, using personal ethics to guide business decisions will rarely steer you wrong. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  • Jill Whalen

    It definitely depends on the situation. I’ve worked with clients whose websites were very religious in one way or another. One was a very extreme religion and another was more mainstream, but still extreme to me since I’m not religious at all! I don’t mind too much helping those types of businesses as long as they believe in what they’re doing and they’re not out to trick people. The mainstream religious one was tough at times as they have very extreme views on gay people that I wasn’t comfortable with, but for the most part that aspect of their beliefs and “treatments” didn’t matter to the work I was doing for them. I don’t write articles for clients but if I did, I definitely wouldn’t have for either of those two. I do have a copywriter I refer people to who was fine working with the mainstream religious business as it also fit in with her beliefs, but she wanted nothing to do with the other one!

    • Michelle Lowery

      I definitely think there’s a big difference between performing SEO for a business or organization, and creating content for them. That’s why I included this in the section about outsourcing: “…but they won’t be your words. A small distinction perhaps, but in my opinion, an important one.” As a writer, it would bother me immensely to have words I produced–but with which I strongly disagreed–distributed, and potentially influencing people’s opinions, beliefs, or behavior, whether I had a byline or not. I feel a great sense of responsibility with my writing, especially when writing on behalf of clients.

      By the same token, I want to produce the best content possible for our clients, and if I had to write something that was in direct opposition to my own beliefs, it most likely wouldn’t be my best work, which goes against my work ethic, so no one wins in that situation.

      Thanks for weighing in, Jill!

  • Chloe B

    Having to swallow one’s pride is commonplace in business. Ethics aside, there will always come a time when we have to deal with people we don’t like/value/agree with.

    The question of morality is not an easy one. On the one hand, you can make a stand and choose not to benefit from a client whose values could be deemed substandard.

    On the other hand, they are a legal entity in that the are registered to pay taxes. The government doesn’t mind taking their dirty money, so why should. And inadvertently, as members of the public we benefit from their tax collections.

    Taxes were created as a form of social protection. If a particular niche becomes overly profitable or is deemed as potentially destructive to social fabric, then one would expect our governments to tax accordingly.

    It doesn’t matter what kind of business an SEO (hate the word) company is promoting – somebody somewhere will find a moral argument against that industry.

    • Michelle Lowery

      Thanks for your comment, Chloe. I agree that at times, we all have to deal with people we don’t like, or with whom we disagree. And there may be times when doing something we find morally or ethically reprehensible is, unfortunately, unavoidable. As I said in the post, ethics as a philosophy is complex, and it’s applicable to so many areas of life–it could be debated for years! In fact, it has been, and continues to be. :-) That’s part of why the focus of this post is as narrow as it is–creating content.

      But more than that, it’s about making personal decisions that are in line with our values and beliefs. Yes, plenty of companies exist that have what many people would call “substandard” values. But there are still personal decisions we can make–not to shop in that store; not to buy that company’s products; not to use that company’s services; or not taking that company on as a client.

      Sometimes ethics is just about controlling the things we can, and making the decisions we can live with, even if those decisions don’t represent the ideal.

  • Elmer Boutin

    Very interesting discussion, Michelle. You bring up some interesting points to consider.

    This question likely really hits home to solo and very small shops in which one client can mean the difference between paying bills and going bust. In those cases, the temptation may be to take on a client they otherwise might not.

    I’ve read of a few companies who have fired clients because the client treated their team members badly. While a slightly different subject, it illustrates the same kind of point: Where do you draw the line with clients?

    Lastly: While I believe in freedom of choice regarding helmets – I rarely ride without one AND I wear bright yellow reflective vest which can be seen from the moon if the light’s right. That vest may look crazy, but it’s saved my bacon more than once. Except when the guy hit me from behind while I was stopped at an intersection – but that’s another story. I was glad I had my helmet on that day, for sure.

    • Michelle Lowery

      I think you’re right in that having to make these kinds of decisions can have a greater effect on smaller and independent marketers. But I also think it’s applicable to larger agencies that produce content for clients because ultimately, it’s one person who has to write one piece of content, and that’s where the dilemma lies.

      I can see how, as a company grows, it moves away from the more personal influences on business decisions. But that’s also a common complaint among consumers–the big, faceless corporation that doesn’t really care or seem to have any ethics, and makes decisions based solely on profit potential.

      When to fire a client–that’s a whole other blog post! :-) But yes, I do think there have to be boundaries, and the philosophy of the customer always being right doesn’t extend to abusive behavior.

      I’m glad you had your helmet on that day, too! Thanks for joining in the discussion!

  • Sherry Gray

    The subject matter would have to be absolutely abhorrent to me not to write it – like white supremacy site copy. Most issues are not so (pardon the pun) black and white. In your example, there are arguments on both sides that make sense, so I would write what the client required.

    I worry about ethics because I see my politics creeping in to paid blog posts and I know it’s wrong. I try to avoid injecting opinion into professional work, but some of the industries I write for have political issues built in and it would be remiss to avoid upcoming legislation that concerns the entire industry. So far, I think I’ve been able to report without crossing the line. But I know I have skirted the edges. It’s difficult to remain impartial.

    • Michelle Lowery

      Sherry, I appreciate and respect your honesty.

      You bring up a good point–“In your example, there are arguments on both sides that make sense, so I would write what the client required.” This is where ethics gets really tricky because where you see both sides making sense, there’s probably someone out there who thinks one side or the other is ridiculous or just plain wrong. Granted, wearing a helmet or not isn’t as dire a subject as white supremacy, but where some might be indifferent to it, there are those who are passionate about it. That’s true for any subject.

      As I said in a previous comment, I feel a sense of responsibility in my writing, so there are times when it does become difficult to remain completely impartial. For example, as an animal advocate, I would find it difficult to write about how to breed pets there are so many animals in shelters waiting to be adopted. I can see how I could easily steer the stance of that content toward adopting instead of breeding. I understand that what is unacceptable to me is acceptable to others. I just don’t want to advocate something with which I so strongly disagree whether my name is on it or not.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    This isn’t an uncommon problem for content marketers that write on behalf of clients. Ultimately, you should feel comfortable with what you are writing. If you have opposing beliefs, it’s probably better to not take on the work because the quality that the client is looking for may not be there.

  • Scott Golembiewski

    When I meet a new potential client either in person or over the phone I include a few questions to gauge whether we can work together well. For example, I will present a situation that gauges how much they value a long term customer relationship. This gives me a good idea on how far they are willing to go and what risks they will take to try new ideas. Also, if they are willing to dedicate staff who are ready to take on new responsibilities that’s another great indicator.

    I think that working in an industry that you are passionate about is going to bring the best results to the clients. But, I can work well in other categories as long as the client is passionate and likes taking a unique approach to the work.