A couple of posts that caught my eye this week focused on a sticky little problem at the heart of all marketing and advertising: honesty, or lack thereof. These posts raise the question, is it possible to market a product without crossing any ethical lines?

Jill Whalen wrote a post this week called “Deceptive Marketing: A Necessary Evil for Search Marketers?” From the title, I expected this to be about truth in advertising – in other words, does marketing copy always stretch the truth? Instead, Jill was writing about link building and the little white lies we sometimes tell in order to score a link.

She tells a story about a link building technique she read about several years ago. The marketer, Melanie Nathan, recommended finding broken links on a site that you want a link from, writing to tell them about the link and suggesting they replace it with a link to your own site. Not a bad idea, eh?

Jill liked this strategy. What she didn’t like so much was Nick LeRoy’s version, in which he asked the webmaster to link to a site because it was his favorite spot to buy toys for his son:

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

… 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?

Jill goes on to write that “Lying in any form is deception.” (Well, yes, by definition.) The question is, is deception always a part of marketing? Does it have to be? This isn’t a white hat vs. black hat issue, she says – “It has nothing to do with hats.” For Jill, this is about ethics. And she contends that questionable ethics are never okay, and you shouldn’t have to lie to be a marketer.

She also says that linkbuilding is an inherently deceptive practice:

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.

I’m inclined to agree that outright lying is never OK, even if it’s a “white lie” – the justification for white lies is usually that “no one gets hurt,” as several people say in the comments on Jill’s post. But the fact is, when people find out they’ve been lied to, they usually are hurt. Most people don’t like being lied to – or, to put a finer point on it, they don’t like knowing they’re being lied to. Your wife may want you tell her she looks great in her new dress, but she doesn’t want to find out you actually think she looks absurd. And with any lie, there’s a risk of being caught. In Nick’s case, he was exposed in the comments of his own blog post about the technique.

On the other hand, I’m not sure I agree that linkbuilding is a form of deception however it’s carried out. Some people want links not just to improve their rankings via the Google algorithm, but because more links usually lead to more traffic and therefore more eyes on your content. A lot of linkbuilding is just a form of promotion. If you write a book, you have to promote that book if you want anyone to buy it and read it. And in the end, that’s what you want – readers – not just sales per se.

How to Lose Potential Customers and Piss Off the FTC

The second post I read this week about lying tackled the idea of false advertising more directly. Kristi Munno of the Desert Rose blog is “calling bull@#$!” on an HVAC company that promised very low prices on vent cleanings. She looked for “loopholes and fine print” and finding none, she called them out for a cleaning. But the price they quoted her after looking at her furnace and vents was six times the original quote. She writes:

Turns out that “cheap price” only covered one main and any vent not connected to a return. Apparently, I have two mains and every vent is connected to a return. I expressed my disappointment and sent the workers packing. And when their corporate office called to ask why I cancelled, I continued to express my frustration.

Kristi says that getting people interested isn’t worth it if you’re just going to piss them off in the long wrong. By then, you’ve not only lost the sale, you have a potential reputation management problem on your hands:

My HVAC incident got me thinking about why companies would use false advertising. With the legal risks aside, why bother irritating numerous clients? Not only was I mad that I was blatantly told there was “no catch” when there was one, I then wasted an entire day waiting through the way-too-long timeframe for them to show up.

With today’s Internet-savvy consumers, one tweet, Facebook status update or blog post about how [insert company name] tried to pull a fast one on me, and they’ve just lost hundreds of my followers, friends and readers. Is false advertising really worth the risk of losing hundreds of prospective clients?

Interestingly, Kristi chose not to expose the name of the company that had deceived her and wasted her time – I wonder why?

If you’re reading this blog, you are probably a marketer in some form or another. The temptation to lie is always there. But you’ve also been on the other side, because we’re all consumers. We all make choices on how and where to spend our money, and marketing and advertising undoubtedly have an effect on our choices. As noted above: most people don’t like knowing they’re being lied to.

Knowing this, how can we, as marketers, hit our goals (whether it’s links, traffic, leads or sales) without committing any ethical crimes or misdemeanors? Where do you draw the line? Are white lies okay? Exaggeration? Do you think linkbuilding is always deceptive? Have you ever stretched the truth to get a link or a lead? When was the last time a marketer lied to you?

While you mull on that, feel free to jam out to some Fleetwood Mac.

More Search Marketing Highlights

Google “I’ll Buy Anything” Inc. turned some heads with its latest acquisition: Zagat of restaurant guide fame. This proves Google is serious about local and competing with Yelp.

Cyrus Shepard shares 10 SEO tools that aren’t so easy on the eyes but kick butt anyway: think Xenu and RankChecker.

Marty Weintraub explains how to do a 60-second PPC self-audit to find expensive keywords with no conversions. (Hot tip: You can do this with our free AdWords Performance Grader and learn a lot more besides.)

Aaron Wall presents a screenshot demonstrating how Google is eating up its organic search results.

Danny Sullivan says that no one sees/hears a tweet after three hours, so you should give your followers a “second chance” by tweeting out your stories or posts again later in the day.

Read more: