Outing is Unethical like Price Fixing is Ethical

The whole idea of not outing paid links kinda seems like price fixing to me… a secret agreement between SEOs to not out each other, like a secret agreement between companies to fix a price and not undercut each other.

It feels like people always approach the ‘is outing ethical?’ question with two fallacious things in mind;

  1. Using manipulative tactics is a victimless crime
  2. Nothing good will come from outing

Both statements are quite clearly wrong. Any website using manipulative tactics to increase their rankings is negatively impacting the other websites who’s rankings are dropping as a result. Outing manipulators will improve the SERPs for everyone (in theory) – this is not merely “some” good, but arguably a net benefit.

Sure, you could make the argument that you have an obligation to do whatever it takes to get your client ranking but you can use the same argument to support outing paid links ie. outing your client’s competitor so their rankings drop and your client’s improve.

Some people would have us believe that focusing on our own sites and not on what others are doing will always produce the best outcome but this simply isn’t true. There is no magical “kama” that inhabits the universe and makes sure ‘what goes around comes around’ and everything will turn out in the end. The good news is we don’t live in a liberatarian society. Most people agree that there are some activities that should be discouraged to improve the lives of everyone and this applies to business too. For example, it’s considered perfectly ethical to out businesses that make false claims in their advertising. This is an activity that negatively impacts the unknowing public and their competitors. In a way, manipulating the rankings is making the false claim that your website is good enough to deserve a high ranking so how is this different?

Every increase in rankings means someone else has decreased in rankings and visa versa therefore every outing has a silver lining with the added benefit that you’re improving the results for everyone (in theory).

So where does this idea of outing being unethical come from? Perhaps its fear of retribution or simply wanting to preserve a mutually beneficial situation. We can certainly run a cost/benefit analysis, both individually and as an industry as a whole, to decide if the practice of outing produces more benefits than costs. But this isn’t ethics. If someone runs that analysis for themselves and their clients and finds the benefits to be higher than the costs then you can’t say that’s unethical… that’s just business. That’s just life!

My guess is its part of our tribal instinct to want to help our fellow SEOs and shun the outsiders. We see this herd morality all the time in ‘us and them’ situations. Perhaps some wish we could go back to the 14th century and form an SEO guild to protect our interests and formalise this non-outing mentality.

I’m happy to go through the cost/benefit analysis. Perhaps we decide that its better in general for the industry if we discourage outing… but you’ll have to produce some evidence to back that up.

Compiled from a series of my comments originally appearing on this article.