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Deceptive Marketing: A Necessary Evil for Search Marketers?

September 7, 2011

A few years ago, I read a good article by Canadian SEO Melanie Nathan called "The Reciprocity Link Building Method" in which she outlined a technique she sometimes used to build up high-quality links for her clients' websites. The gist, as I understood it, was to first find a website that would be good for your client's site to link to. Then you'd click around to see if any of their current links were broken (went to dead pages or sites). If you found some, you'd use this information as an opening to start a dialogue with the site owner or webmaster, and eventually mention your client's site as a substitute for one of the broken links. I thought it was a very clever idea, a great way to make contacts in your client's industry, and a win-win for everyone involved.

More recently I saw another article on this topic by Nick LeRoy, a search marketer in Image Credit: nestor galinathe Minneapolis area. Nick talked about the same basic technique Melanie had mentioned, and added a real-life example email he had used. In his example email, he mentioned to the webmaster that he had a favorite site from which he liked to buy stuff for his son on birthdays and holidays. Nick again mentioned "his son" in a follow-up email, saying that he liked the products at this particular website because they made his son think.

All sounds good so far, right? Except that Nick doesn't have a son!

I made the following comment on the post:
"Nick, I didn't know you had a son (as per the emails requesting a link). If indeed you don't, are you suggesting that people create a trust relationship with these webmasters by lying to them?"
Lots of comments ensued, which I encourage you to read over at Nick's site. For me, what he did was certainly not ghastly, but the situation does bring up a ton of questions.

Was it necessary to lie? Isn't that sort of thing exactly what gives marketers in general (not just search marketers) a bad reputation? Couldn't he have done things exactly as he did without the lie?

I contend that he could have.

Nick claims that telling the webmaster that you're looking for links on behalf of a client has less of a success rate for securing the link. It would certainly be interesting to test that theory, and it may very well be true. But even if you get fewer links out of it, that doesn't justify lying in any aspect of business--or in life. (Are they really two different things?)

Lying in any form is deception.

Even if it's just a tiny white lie. Even if it gets you more links. Even if it gets you more business. Even if it makes you look better in the eyes of your boss or client.

Which brings up another point: As the boss of someone using this technique, how would you feel about it? If your company culture is one of honesty, then any form of deception within your business should be a no-no. I can tell you that if I found out that an employee of mine did this, I would be very disappointed in them and explain why we don't use deceptive practices. I would also wonder why I had to explain such a concept to an adult.

And what about the client?

Did they know that their search marketing company was using deception in order to obtain links? Is their company culture such that it's not a problem for them? Or did they not even know exactly how their links were being obtained? If you're being deceptive on your clients' behalf, one would hope that you get their permission and written sign-off so it doesn't come back to haunt you at some point.

Personally, if I hired a company to perform a service for me and they did it in a way that involved any form of lying, I would wonder what else they were doing that was deceptive. Were they overcharging me? Did they even have the skills they claimed to have?

Not to mention the unsuspecting webmaster on the other side who gave out the link.

How would they feel later to find out they were duped? Would they have a bad taste in their mouth for not only the marketing company, but for the company they were linking to? What if they felt so duped that they decided to go public on social media with the information? How would the client like the technique if they ended up with a reputation management nightmare?

Surely I'm being dramatic here, because we're only talking about a little white lie. But does the size or color of the lie make it any less deceptive?

And we are talking specifically about link building here. There's a reason that I dislike it and don't do it. As far as I'm concerned, link building in and of itself borders on being a deceptive practice because it's usually done to secure a fake "vote" for a website. It's an industry that shouldn't exist, and wouldn't exist if Google didn't place so much weight on links. If it weren't for that aspect of Google's algorithm, we'd have website owners giving and getting links for the right reasons, with a lot less deception (and payment) going on behind the scenes.

We can debate ethics forever and never come to a consensus because they are often seen as situational. What might be unethical in one situation might not seem so unethical in another situation. Certainly, life-or-death situations are not the same as marketing ones. If a lie is going to somehow save someone's life, then by all means, please lie your head off!

But marketing isn't a life-or-death situation.

Lying and deceiving to seek someone's favor is generally agreed upon by most cultures as being wrong.

This is not a "black hat vs. white hat" issue.

It has nothing to do with hats. When it comes to search marketing, I don't care what techniques you use or what methods you use to gain more targeted search engine visitors. I don't believe that there are techniques that are more or less ethical than others. I don't care what Google puts in their Webmaster Guidelines, because there's no reason to need to know. If you fundamentally understand that all Google cares about is that your website isn't being deceptive in some manner, then you can't run afoul of them. They have to know that they can trust the information contained on your site and the information that you provide to Google. Nothing more, nothing less.

So many ethical conundrums come down to one simple question:

Is it deceptive or not?

I worry about search marketers who believe that deception is a necessary part of their job if they are going to get results. It's not only incorrect, but a sad commentary on our industry and perhaps our world.


Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, Jill Whalenan SEO Services Company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen

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Post Comment

 Steve Huston said:
Great article, Jill, and very refreshing. I can see why @diannahuff speaks so highly of you.
 Jill Whalen said:
Thanks, Steve. Glad you liked it.
 Nick LeRoy said:
A snippet from the e-mail newsletter that I would like to re-post.

"While it certainly sounds like you're all wonderful non-deceptive marketers, I do wonder if those who disagree were (rightfully) keeping silent."

Too many marketers are afraid of going against industry norm. I have no problem backing up my technique and the example displayed on my blog post. If half the people reading the newsletter understood that most SEOs don't get the luxury of cherry picking their clients - they may understand the value that a tiny little white lie offers.

I very much look forward to continuing the conversation and seeing if anyone else is willing to stand up and admit that SEO isn't all black or white. It's strictly about wearing the "right hat" to deliver results that make clients happy.
 Jill Whalen said:
Nick, I don't think they're afraid of going against the industry norm, they simply don't want to openly label themselves and their companies as possibly using deception as part of their marketing. (Which is why I'm fine if anyone wants to post here anonymously.)

In addition, I don't understand what cherry picking your clients has to do with being open and honest in everything you do, business or otherwise.
 George said:
Is it deceptive? yes. unethical? yes. lying? yes. an unnecessary tactic? yes. Does it work? yes. I think there are way worse techniques being used by SEOs to get links. Well, actually techniques that involve deception with SEO have been around since SEO has been around, because they work. Using and advocating techniques like that may earn you a bad reputation. So those who use those types of SEO techniques should realize they might be throwing their reputation down the drain.

I wish everyone in the SEO industry had high moral character, but that's just not the case.
 Finn Skovgaard said:
I totally agree. Deception, lies and manipulation may work short term but not long term. If you cannot trust someone in a limited matter, then how do I know I can trust him in more serious matters? Won't he just be trying to scrape off the cream in any dealings for himself, whether justified or not? I'd generally stop doing business with anyone caught out in such practices.

It is said that people do business with people. If there is no trust, then there is no business.

Claiming one has a son when one hasn't may seem innocent, but once someone finds out that lying works, then that person may be tempted to lie the next time and in a more serious matter and to get into an inflation of lies, including bloated invoices, passing confidential information to others, lying about the characteristics about services and products. This is how one becomes a politician, and we know what we think about them ...
 Jill Whalen said:
@George, agree. Unfortunately, deception can work in marketing and in lots of other areas and that's why it's used. It's also sometimes easier than being truthful. Although, I wonder with some people if it's more difficult to keep track of their lies than to just be honest to begin with!

@Finn yep, yep, yep! I've experienced exactly what you're talking about--many times!
 Fran Irwin said:
Good for you Jill. I think "link building" is a BS service, too- it's 100% based on deception! We need more posts like this one from industry heavyweights calling out garbage tactics. Thanks for the article!
 Nick LeRoy said:
Oh boy Jill... I'm so tempted to introduce my "white hat" is just another ... you know your favorite article of all time. I'll hold off for right now and just say that I still believe in everyone's line of whats ethical or not is different. :-)
 Jill Whalen said:
Nick, I can't fathom how you can assert that whether deception/lying is okay or not okay is a matter of opinion.

It's not okay, and it never will be okay.

As I stated in this article as well as in the comments in your follow up article I'm not talking about SEO techniques and whether they're "white hat" or "black hat."

I'm talking about a very simple concept: deception. It's bad under any circumstance (that's not life threatening).
 Don L. said:
Does this even need a comment?
Purposefully lying is simply unacceptable - business, personal, anytime, anywhere.
 Veronica said:
Lying when marketing is a ticket to the lobby; not a seat with the main chief... Ultimately, potential clients / consumers who really need the services / products that are being marketed to him / her will make the right questions. They face life / industry problems everyday, and likely have imagined what characterizes a solution. In my opinion, primed prospects will judge the scenario wisely
 MikeTek said:
For me, this kind of tactic is less about being "ethical" in the outward sense, more about not feeling like a slimy bastard when I lie down at the end of the day.

Nick's lie is white - I don't think we can say he hurt anybody by pretending to have a son.

Except, he hurt his integrity once it came out. And there's the rub.

Even if nobody finds out you lied, even if everyone is the better for it, client's happy, linking site is happy, SEO gets a pat on the back and a check to pay the still know you lied, and I would suggest every time you do so you erode your integrity just a little bit.

I'm not willing to do that. Not for a buck, not for a client. Some things are more important than making some money.
 Finn Skovgaard said:
After the 'white lie' comes the 'loaning' of others' copyrighted work on the Net when people 'forget' to ask whether it's ok to copy entire copyrighted articles onto their own sites. I waste a lot of time sending out DMCA notices and looking up webhosting companies on to get an efficient angle of attack (some webhosting companies have very short fuse and take the entire offending site offline if they don't react within just 5 hours - much more effective than filing a DMCA notice with Google). But it's theft, pure and simple, theft of copyrighted material, theft of ad revenue, theft of potential clients, and theft of my working time wasted to chase offenders. Once the lid is off for lying, there seems to be no limit for some.

Incidentally, the latest site to remove a pirate copy of an entire article from one of their discussion threads was Someone clearly missed a lesson at law school ...

Google's new author identification feature may be a great help for genuine sites with original material to stay ahead of junk sites. One creates a Google profile in which one links sites for which one is author. On one's own sites, one adds a button to link back to the Google profile to certify that one really is the author. As there are so many bogus links around on the Net now, one can only hope that Google will begin to tone down the emphasis on links and increase the emphasis on original authorship. The author feature works together with the +1 feature.
 Don Rhoades said:
"Isn't that sort of thing exactly what gives marketers in general (not just search marketers) a bad reputation?" If you mean getting better results for your client equates to a bad reputation, I have to disagree. I'm with Nick, there are some methods that yield far better results. Who got hurt here? I client with more links or a webmaster that thinks you have a son? Answer is no one got hurt. Are you telling me you've never withheld information to protect your clients' interest? That could be considered deceptive. I'm about as bare-knuckled as a fella can be to my friends and family, but when it comes to acquiring sustainable results for a client, I do what it takes to win. That doesn't mean I cheat every chance I get. It just means I do everything in my abilities for the client. I also inform them of what I am doing and how it could potentially backfire. Most that are not in the marketing space consider marketing to be a form of deception. Burger King Whoppers NEVER look as they do in advertisements, that's because they didn't really use the real ingredients to make the ad. Same goes for cereal as they use glue instead of milk to make their product look more appealing than it actually is. This is like saying method actors become liars when they take on a role because they rely on a proven tactic to get the most out of their performance. I get what you're saying, Jill. I just can't say that 9 of 10 clients would agree with not getting more value for their dollars spent on your services just because the vendor wants to remain 'ethical' . Marketing means, communicating value and nothing more. Real deception is when you promise Ruth's Chris and you hand them a McD's cheeseburger and expect no backlash.
 Joshua Mathe said:
This is an industry based on reputation and a sterling reputation is something very easily taken away. My thought is why even lie and say that you have son? Why not say something truthful "I have a site you may find useful." You're forging the connection, you're offering help, you're offering a win / win situation. Above all you're acting in an honest way that has no potential to come back on you negatively whatsoever.
 Anonanon said:
Advertising and to an extent marketing is all about selling a dream. What if it was e an anecdote based on a testimonial or his nephew instead of son. I don't put fabricating or embellishing a story to this degree as deceptive as automated seo techniques. I also don't see a problem with buying and selling links. Motivation and value can be fickle.
 Don Rhoades said:
I feel you on that Matt, but to put this in another perspective: Criminal defense attorneys have a code of ethics that is very unethical by my standards. They must aggressively advocate the innocence of their client, even if they know for fact their client is guilty. It's their job. Saying that Nick loses integrity because he told a white lie, is like saying that all criminal defense lawyers are scum because sometimes they have to do their job, regardless of morality. Nick did what was in the best interest of his client, nothing more. I hope no one is ever wrongfully accused and their lawyer throws them under the bus for an easy plea bargain, but it happens. I am certain that if you were a defendant, you'd want your lawyer to do everything in his power to keep you from behind bars.... even if you were guilty. I know there's a difference between marketing and advocating for criminals, but not all lawyers are liars and not all marketers are bound to practice what someone else deems ethical.
 Halvorsen said:
Jill -
As you have pointed out, link building in itself is a a gray area. It is not at all something you are supposed to do. The links are "supposed" to come in naturally. I have a huge problem with link building in general. When I worked at an agency, the link building we did was a complete joke. We sent out the same crap emails over and over again and rarely ever secured a link for a client. I am generally turned off by any link building efforts because they usually are deceitful. The client is left in the dark and has no idea what the SEO they hired is actually doing. I can't tell you how many times we billed clients after half assing link building. We just added a line on the bill that said "link building" and used clients entire budgets for months on end to only secure a single link.

I wrote about it a while back:

Link building is one of the worst gray areas of SEO. It is usually a bunch of snake oil and an easy way for agencies to overcharge. Link building is a cop out for SEOs that can't think of any other work to do. It's an easy way to drag a campaign out. I am glad I don't work at an agency anymore.
 CLW said:
I am not an SEO person, but this whole conversation on "deceptive Marketing-A Necessary Evil" reminds me of several articles I have been reading about the Marxist, Saul Alinsky. He believed that in each and every situation in life, "the end justifys the means". Our current president was a follower of Saul and considered him his mentor - he actually taught Saul's principles in Chicago. I wonder how many of the negative comments are from Dems/liberals? Something to think about??!! :-)
 Jill Whalen said:
@Halvorsen and here I thought I was the only one in the search marketing industry that despised link building and all that it stands for! Thanks for posting. (I made your link live as the default here is for them not to be.)

@CLW we'll definitely not turn this into a political debate. Politics are not allowed here. Suffice it to say that I believe there are those who are honest and those who are dishonest on all sides of the political spectrum.

I also wanted to mention that I'm not trying to pick on Nick, specifically. He knew I was writing this article and was fine with it, even happy about it. And also, it's nothing personal. I have enjoyed chatting with Nick online for quite some time now.
 Nick LeRoy said:
What Jill has said is true. We had a very lengthy chat about the subject at hand and while we have very different view points the entire conversation was civil. Jill did run the idea of this newsletter topic by me and I was very pleased with the idea of getting a larger audiences opinion. It's obvious from both the audience from my blog and Jill's that some agree with my point of view while others agree with Jill.

Just remember, its not about being "right" or "wrong" here.
 Russell said:
You are absolutely correct. There is no such thing as an inconsequential lie; no matter how small or "white". This is a powerful example:

Thank you for keeping it in the forefront.
 Elisa said:
Hi, Jill,

This was one of a couple of posts I read this week about honesty in marketing. Great questions you raise. I wrote a wrap-up of the two posts at the WordStream blog -- you can click my name to read it. Thanks for the idea!
 Jill Whalen said:
Hi Elisa,

Good post summing up the various issues. Thanks for sharing, and glad you stopped by!
 Jim Of The North said:
As George said "Is it deceptive? yes. Unethical? yes. Lying? yes. An unnecessary tactic? yes."

And as Finn and others have been saying, once you catch someone in a lie, no matter how small, you suddenly realize that person is a liar. Then all trust flies out the window. It's really that simple.

As you've been trying to point out, this has nothing to do with SEO, white/black hat or otherwise. It seems that Nick would be fine with his significant other having an affair behind his back, so long as he is lied to so he doesn't find out about it. After all, Nick feels that lies are perfectly acceptable to achieve certain outcomes in certain cases. Oh well, doesn't make sense to me.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Jim, while I agree with you and dislike lies of all kinds, I don't think a small white lie is exactly the same type of deception as say, having an affair. But I do think that people who start with small lies are possibly more inclined to also tell larger lies.

On Nick's blog, I did comment that I hoped he remembered this whole episode when his future son or daughter gets caught in a lie...
 Alicia Frick Laguarda said:
Jill, you make me feel good about being a marketer. Thanks for not being wishy washy and for standing up for what you believe.
 Felipe Bazon said:
People do anything for a link these days. But throw the first stone who never ever made up a little lie to get a link. Like "What a great website you have, nicely designed with tons of valuable information and I strongly believe adding a link to my website would provide even more info to your visitors" when in fact you wanted to say "Hmm, not a bad website, reasonable content it will be easy to get a link here".
I'm against what Jill described on this article but I little lie sometimes won't hurt and could get you that link. ;)
 Jill Whalen said:
@Felipe so you're really not against it at all then.
 Jim Sewell / Deverill said:
We are people so it's in our nature to tell what we consider little lies. The brilliant thing about people, though, is that we can agree, explicitly and implicitly, to be better than just our nature.

Criminal defense attorneys were mentioned but they are representing another person and they are bound by law from telling blatant lies to do that. They must support their point with evidence and it's up to the jury to decide whom to believe. They can ask a defendant where he was the night in question but the lawyer himself can not say "the CSI team planted my client's DNA on the gun and lied about the GSR test" without strong evidence of that.

Likewise, even marketing is not allowed to lie outright. An ad can have someone on it saying "this pill makes me feel great!" but they can't say it will cure cancer... ever see the fine print? Sure, they try to make you think it's better. "People who switched save $438" and they don't tell you that people only switch when it can save them money, but they can not say "Everyone could save an average $438 by switching to us"... it's simply not true.

You don't have to make up a fake kid to tell someone they have value to their site and you'd like to link with them. Just tell them the truth and don't sound like spam mail and you'll likely make a bigger impression than lying about a son, especially if they find out about it.

Thank you Jill for the honesty and tenacity to stand up and call right "right" and wrong "wrong".
 Kate Hutchinson said:
Ah the Ethics of Marketing--what my husband calls an oxymoron. I can easily see how Nick was tempted into creating a son for starting a conversation, but at the same time, I just wouldn't do it. One of my ways of communicating through social media for my company is commenting on blogs, Quora, and other conversation building sites, but I always make sure that I am stating clearly that I am the company's Marketing Manager. Full disclosure is the way to go.

Recently I was hiring for a marketing assistant. One applicant for the post grabbed my attention because she had social media experience, working for a startup company that ran errands for people. When I Googled her and her email address, I found comments on Mommy blogs where she had posed as a "busy mommy" and praising the errand company for "saving her sanity." That was a dealbreaker for me. I didn't even call her for a phone screen.
 Ammon Johns said:
I'm with Jill.

Now, I don't often say that, because Jill and I have a LOT of differing views about SEO tactics and strategies. I like white hat seo for example, but will use black hat where the circumstances and client call for it, and where the client understands the risks, waste, etc of going that route.

Outright lies are a terrible side of marketing, whether that lie is a terrible company like some of these indian outsource spam SEO charlatans claiming to be 'the best SEO company in the world', or whether it is Nick saying his nonexistant Kid likes X, Y or Z. It is a lie, and bad, bad practice.

If you don't have the 'luxury' to represent a client of which any honest good claims can be made, one should at least be clever enough and creative enough to spin the unfortunate truth in a way that does not need a lie.

e.g. Nothing cleans better than our product (means our product is the same as everyone elses).

8 out of 10 people in our survey (of our own repeat customers) preferred our product!

But don't we all love the refreshing sense when an advert is just honest, and great because of it?

Remember: Volvo. They're boxey, but they're good. :)
 Jill Whalen said:
@Ammon Johns, long time no see!

For anyone reading this, Ammon is *not* kidding whenhe says that he doesn't agree with me often!

Thanks for stopping by and providing your thoughts.
 Gill McLeod said:
This article has certainly stirred up a hornets nest of reactions and got me thinking a lot in numerous ways. So good job Jill, I love an article that makes me think for a while after I have finished reading it. Firstly, I can't help but admire the honesty of some of the comments here - even though they tend to be defending the case that lying is somehow acceptable in certain areas of marketing. However, knowing that these people are capable of practising such methods, makes me wonder. It makes me wonder if they truly believe it to be an acceptable way of promoting themselves/clients, or are merely justifying their own actions because they use these tactic day in day out? I'm not sure its really about the actual lie (white or not) in itself. For me more about the taste it leaves in your mouth when you discover the truth.

As has been pointed out already, many products/services are "enhanced" for the purpose of advertising. With actors and celebrities claiming to "use everyday" or "can't live without" a certain product/service. Anyone with half a brain knows that they probably wouldn't be making these statements unless there was a pay check at the end of it. Yet, this type of advertising works or companies wouldn't do it. However, if the same celebrity is later found to be continually using an alternative product, or worse still, is caught on camera talking about how much they actually hate the product they were paid to advertise, then all hell breaks loose. The celebrity is branded a liar, the company in question is given bad press .... and for what? Not for the initial lie (everyone knew the actor/celebrity was being paid to promote the product) but because the lie itself was confirmed, exposed or brought out into the open. Does it stop people buying the product if they like it? I don't think so.

What I'm trying to say is, the only real way we know if a product or service is any good is to try it out ourselves. If a website is impressive, provides me with what I'm looking for or entertains me enough to return, does it really matter how I found it?

I don't like the fact that Nick lied about having a 'fake' son because I know he lied. However, if his practise led me to a product or service that I love - A product or service I would not have otherwise found - then surely the question is... Do I really care?

It's thought provoking stuff Jill, well done on a great article. It certainly got the cogs of my brain turning!