What Does It Mean to Practice Local SEO Ethically?

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The question in this column’s headline has been on my mind lately, prompted in part by the recent announcement of the LSA’s new Digital Marketer Certification Program. As part of their announcement, the LSA notes that small businesses today get an average of 24 calls every month from marketers trying to sell them something. The sheer volume of these solicitations is probably enough to make business owners wary of anyone who approaches them. What tools to business owners have to distinguish between valuable services and spam?

The LSA is attempting to address that problem through certification, claiming that its certificate “demonstrates that a digital marketer is reputable and meets industry standards of ethics and best practices.” Just what it takes to qualify as an ethical local marketer is spelled out in a document called LSA Certification Standards and Best Practices.

This document is worth reading regardless of your interest in becoming LSA certified, because it conveys in strong terms principles that can be applied broadly to any marketer-client relationship in local search or digital marketing in general.

In addition to such topics as clarity in contracts and protection of client privacy, the heart of the document is a section covering 11 principles that govern the way marketers should work with clients. I note them below in summary form, leaving out some of the supporting detail which can be found in the document itself.

According to the guidelines, the marketer should:

  1. Make its best effort to help the client understand the products and services that are being sold.
  2. Seek to serve the needs of the client through the products and services recommended or sold.
  3. Not sell products or services that are primarily for its own pecuniary interest and that do not provide meaningful benefit to the client’s needs.
  4. Not misrepresent the product, service, program, campaign or any other marketing being sold.
  5. Not misrepresent the member’s competence, credentials, experience or professional capabilities.
  6. Accept only client assignments that it can manage effectively.
  7. Set reasonable expectations regarding results or outcome of its products and/or services.
  8. Hire, train and educate staff appropriately to be qualified for the tasks required to service clients according to the contract.
  9. Communicate appropriately with the client to meet demands of the service being provided.
  10. Provide relevant information and disclose all material facts sufficient for clients to make informed decisions regarding purchasing marketing services, management of the clients’ account and campaign options or strategies.
  11. Have policies and procedures for resolution of disputes.

Note that the tenor of these guidelines is that marketers need to be above board with clients. Don’t sell the client something he or she doesn’t need or doesn’t understand. Don’t oversell your own ability. Make sure that both parties agree what the marketer’s services are intended to accomplish. Communicate with the client any challenges or difficulties you face in performing the service effectively. Allow for reasonable dispute resolution.

A lot of this should go without saying, but the fact that such a certification program exists speaks to at least two challenging realities about local search. The first is that scammers and underhanded practices are a longstanding problem. For years now, telemarketers have been calling businesses and claiming to represent Google, promising top ranking for top dollar and failing to deliver. Some percentage of those 24 calls every month is coming from disreputable companies making claims that sound too good to be true, and so the industry has good reason to worry that ethical practitioners will be tarred with the same brush.

Local search publishers are vulnerable to scams as well. Google, having the most valuable traffic online, is also the biggest target. Fake listings created by predatory local businesses, black hat marketers, pranksters, and protesters have finally caused Google to plan the shutdown of its crowdsourced Map Maker platform, but as Joy Hawkins recently noted, the problem could grow even worse when the anonymous “Suggest an Edit” tool in Google Maps becomes the only channel for users to submit changes to listings. In short, any time Google creates a method for the public to influence Maps content, someone is bound to take advantage of it.

The second challenging reality is that of the real complexity of local search marketing. Despite what some marketing claims would have you believe, there is no easy fix to the challenge of creating and maintaining compelling and competitive market presence for local businesses, especially when you must contend with the differing standards and shifting policies of big players like Google, Apple, Bing, Yelp, Facebook, and Foursquare.

As anyone who works in the industry can tell you, it’s not easy just to explain what you do to many clients, let alone convey the value of that work. In light of this, the temptation may be to oversimplify, even when you know you are misrepresenting the facts or overstating your own abilities. Alternately, it can be all too easy to give the client the impression that this type of marketing is too hard from them to really understand, so they should just trust you. Either way you’re setting the stage for a relationship that is not based on ethical behavior.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi. SOCi is the leading CoMarketing Cloud for multi-location enterprises. They empower nearly 1,000 brands to automate and scale their marketing efforts across all locations and digital channels.