The Ethics of Link Building Through Content

May 30, 2012
By Michelle Lowery in Online Marketing

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!

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