But it raises the question as to whether ethics, unlike relevancy, should be considered a binary condition. Or is ethics more accurately described as a continuum? Can you be a little unethical? Mostly ethical?
I actually have an answer for that, but I'll have to reference Aristotle. Warning! When Ian quotes dead philosophers the debate has either moved to a higher philisophical plane or (more often) is WAY off topic!
But I'll bite
I once asked my constitutional law professor, Dale Gibson, about that. Dale was one of the lawyers who helped draft the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for the government and is a pretty cool guy to boot. I had been struggling with binary issues for a while and he introduced me to Aristotles "Law of the Excluded Middle" when I began asking questions on how a law should be written.
There are all sorts of ways to deal with binary choices (also known as black and white issues). You see, logically (and this is a good example of logic failing when not given enough data) anything that can be worded positively can also be worded negatively. So, logically, "Thou Shalt Not Lie" is the same as "Thou Shalt tell the Truth." But of course it's not. There are many "shades of grey" that can pop up and cause havoc. Aristotle noticed this and formulated that the only way to deal with this in a binary system is to declare the shades of grey to be either black or white.
The next step of course is to figure out how to resolve this. The answer was to make a value judgment: Either Grey things are declared white or they are declared black. You can't split them down the middle because in order for something to be grey it can't be known perfectly. Sometimes something is not right or wrong, it's totally neutral!
Telling a small, harmless lie is either considered not lying at all or lying and that is that. This is important to the legal system because you can't "kind of" throw someone in jail. They are guilty or not. It's generally considered that "modern" legal systems lean towards acceptance - unless it fits the strict definition of a crime, it's not a crime, even though it kind of looks like one. Reasonable doubt is related to this, as well as other legal structures.
That's why all sorts of people can spout all sorts of nonsense and still be protected under Freedom of Speech. Our system starts with the idea that everything is legal UNLESS there is a law against it. There are other systems that basically say that unless the law says you can do it, you can't. These tend to be fundementalist in nature.
Lets look at SEO from this angle, then, shall we? There are 2 ways to approach grey area SEO. Let's pretend for a moment that there are clearly outlined things that are right and wrong. Lets also pretend that there are things that are in the middle and kinda shady. It is impossible for Google or anyone else to "kinda ban someone", so they have to make a decision. Is this shady thing (that isn't clearly wrong) to be treated as wrong, or right? As a value judgment, Google has apparently decided to lean in favor of permissiveness. Shades of grey tend to be resolved in favor of not being punished.
Of course, just like lawmakers, Google is constantly updating what is right and wrong (via it's algorithms and policies). And something that is in a grey area today may be either vindicated or punished tomorrow. There are a lot of posts in this forum from people asking if this or that is ok, because it seems to be borderline.
Some people treat this grey area as if it's perfectly ok, which is not unreasonable since Google is defining it that way (for now). Others take a more conservative view and do their best to "stay in the light". There are good and bad issues for each. I tend towards a conservative approach because it works and it's safe. To do grey area SEO when good SEO accomplishes the same result is, to me, negligence. Most negligence is the result of a combination of short cuts and greed.
"Grey SEO" is a calculated risk, and appropriate for those comfortable taking high risks. If you want to practice grey SEO, be my guest. But no whining if the rules change and it catches up with you. My real issue is with grey SEO for clients.
Under no circumstances should a professional perform grey seo for a client who has not signed a release that clearly states all of the risks involved (not that it's risky, but the actual risks and possible results outlined and explained). Even if you do not consider this to be a moral issue, I guarantee you that it's a matter of time (a short time) until an SEO gets sued because of engaging in grey seo without the client clearly understanding the issues and absolving them of it. And there are very few clients who will not turn on an SEO like a rabid dog once they get banned.
As a paid professional you have the legal obligation to act in your clients best interests. If your client gets banned, or punished in anyway, the assumption under the law will be that the professional is responsible. It's hard to explain to a judge that the client "understood the risks" when your client had to hire a professional to do it. One pretty much cancels the other. It's not ditch digging - you will have a hard time arguing they knew all about SEO but were just too lazy to do it. And they will be on the other side of the courtroom telling the judge they didn't know anything. I've been there during those type of cases (not SEO, but other consultants) and the client almost always wins.
Is there a grey area? Yes. Should you use it? NO!
HEY! I took so long to write this a bunch of people have posted.... grrrr