What constitutes right and wrong behavior for online reputation management and public relations companies? It's similar to how ethics in the media are treated. There is a lot of confusion. We hope this article will help outline what really is, or is not, ethical in the online reputation management industry.
Reputation X is often called upon to clean up messes caused by firms claiming to be reputation management agencies. When a reputation firm engages in unethical behavior, they are hurting not only their client, but the people who rely on the information they distribute. Our job is often to reverse that. The sections below outline what can go wrong ethically during a badly executed brand improvement engagement.
Creating fake reviews
Does your company have bad Glassdoor reviews? Why not just login and write some fake ones to boost your rating? While it's fairly easy to write fake reviews, is it ethical? The companies call this practice "unethical" but is it? If a review platform like Yelp or TripAdvisor is found to have a high number of fake reviews, their credibility may be damaged. But the real damage is steering people who rely on reviews to make decisions in the wrong direction. In other words, writing fake reviews is bad for review platforms like Yelp (but let's be honest, who really cares about the companies), the real damage is the possibility of manipulating people into making a decision about something they wouldn't have otherwise.
Are fake reviews even legal?
No. The United States FTC considers an owner to have engaged in deceptive marketing. False online reviews fall under FTC "endorsement guidelines" that state "reflect the basic truth-in-advertising principle that endorsements must be honest and not misleading"
[The guidelines] "reflect the basic truth-in-advertising principle that endorsements must be honest and not misleading"
For more information on how the FTC treats fake reviews, paid endorsements, and influencer marketing, check out this link.
Using alternative facts (lies)
Some reputation management companies will outright lie about their clients. For example, they'll create and publish online content about charities they never gave to, awards never won, or refute negative product safety claims using false information. While common, this technique is probably not just unethical, it's often illegal.
Straw man techniques
A "straw man" is a fake person. Straw men are sometimes confused with "sock puppets" (see below). When a real person writes under the name of another made up person it is called a pseudonym. Benjamin Franklin was well known for penning opinion pieces under another name. Franklin would often create an entire persona for the "writer", which could be male or female. That false personality is sometimes called a staw man.
An example of a straw man as used in online marketing would be the creation of social media accounts, websites, and other online content meant to be used as an online footprint. Is this ethical? It depends.
If a strawman is created to simply shield the identity of an entity, and it is not used for nefarious purposes, then it's probably ethical to do so. For example, if an entity wanted to pose an unpopular point of view but be shielded from the backlash of social media. But if a straw man is used to spread false information, or to manipulate opinion in a malicious way, it's probably unethical.
Sock puppets in online marketing are often (but not always) real people that were paid to promote something. The term is related to a legal term that can be explained as "A [straw man is a] person who legally owns something in name only. This is done to hide the identity of the real owner."
When a person or group of people are paid to write positive reviews or online content they are sock puppets. Wikipedia is full of sock puppets. According to the site "A sock puppet (also called a "sock") is an extra account used by someone for abusive purposes."
Twitter has a real problem with sock puppets as well, but these are not usually real people, but "bots". These bots are often controlled by a single point and were famously used to affect voting opinions during the 2016 US Presidential election. It is unethical to use a botnet of sock puppets? We believe that in most cases they've been used it has been unethical because the consumers of the information believe they are the opinions of different people.
Spam is a technique used by some PR and reputation firms to try to overwhelm Google with poorly created, often false, information in an attempt to alter search results. Spam makes internet content less reliable, can alter peoples opinions by spreading inaccuracies, and is heavily frowned upon by Google. But is it unethical? We believe it is.
Ethics and search engine optimization
There is a long list of search engine optimization techniques that work, but that Google prefers not be used. A partial list includes automatically-generated content that may create large amounts of "garbage" (spam) on the internet, buying links to your site, using automated programs to create links to your site, forum comment links in guest signatures, and many more. But are these SEO techniques unethical or just not something Google wants you to do because it can affect their algorithm?
There is a difference between guidelines published by a company like Google and ethical behavior. Some of the guidelines published by Google fall into the category of good ethics, but not all of them. According to Google "If your site violates one or more of these guidelines, then Google may take manual action against it. Once you have remedied the problem, you can submit your site for reconsideration." But the vast majority of SEO an online reputation management agency performs isn't on your website.
If your site violates one or more of these guidelines, then Google may take manual action against it. Once you have remedied the problem, you can submit your site for reconsideration.
Another thing to consider is that what is ethical for one search engine like Google, may be unethical for another, like Bing or YouTube. When someone makes a statement like "Ethical SEO can be defined as search engine marketing using only techniques and strategies that search engines consider to be acceptable." Search engines? Why do search engines get to decide what is "ethical"?
Does Google decide ethics?
One dictionary definition of ethics is: "a set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values.". Google is a machine, does it have moral values? If not, does it get to decide what is ethical? Probably not. But people, as a group, do.
List of unethical search engine marketing techniques
So what SEO techniques are ethical? If they hurt people they are probably unethical. Here is a list of SEO techniques that are, we believe, unethical in the true sense of the word:
- Low quality content
- Content that misrepresents facts
- Techniques that take over a persons web browser in some fashion without permission
- Methods that show one version of content to search engines, and another to people
- Content filled with inaccurate keywords meant to game search engines
Why are the above SEO methods considered unethical? They are unethical because they hurt people in some manner. They either waste peoples time, damage their systems, provide false information, or misrepresent information to search engines.
Ethical online reputation management
What is the difference between morality and ethics in reputation management? Morals usually denotes subjective preference (for example: it's up to the individual), while ethics tends to reflect a more universal fairness within a group. It gets a little murky when comparing the ethics of different groups. Everyone thinks they're right.
Ethical reputation management is that which uses techniques that do not violate an individuals rights, doesn't knowingly generate false information, and which, in the end, makes the internet a better place. That's why we're picky about who can or cannot become a client of Reputation X.