Webinar On-Demand: Human First — Digital Ethics in Marketing & Business
What ethics apply in the digital space? And how should they shape our businesses? In this very special webinar, Deepcrawl’s technical SEO experts tackle digital ethics in marketing and business.
This is the inaugural webinar in Deepcrawl’s Human First series, examining ethics in our digital worlds and the responsibilities we have as marketers and technology specialists.
In this webinar, Deepcrawl’s Jamie Indigo, Senior Technical SEO, and Ashley Berman Hale, VP of Professional Services, provide an introduction to the questions we should all be asking ourselves around digital ethics—and how we should be incorporating these concepts into our roles as digital marketers and tech business leaders. (Keep an eye out for future webinars in this series, as Jamie and Ashley will be diving deeper into these important questions in the months to come.)
The following article provides our key takeaways from this latest Deepcrawl webinar. (Be sure to also check out the full webinar and presentation in the video above!)
What is ethical digital marketing?
As SEOs, questions of ethics in the digital marketing sphere are never far from the work we are involved in.
As Jamie and Ashley highlight from the outset: whether we like it or not, marketing is, on some level, about manipulation and influence. In search engine optimization, for example, we are trying to influence people’s behaviors by steering users towards our websites, content, and products. And of course, discussions of black hat vs. white hat SEO techniques, and whether our work is catering to humans or Googlebot have long been part of our work.
Today, digital marketing is ubiquitous. And that’s precisely why we need to consider digital ethics across all of our marketing activities.
Jamie suggests the following question as a starting point for considering ethics in digital marketing:
- “Am I treating this person as a human, wholly and independently? Or am I acting upon them just to get a desired outcome?”
There are many ethical frameworks to approach ethics digital technology, but Jamie points to philosopher Immanuel Kant in her guiding questions. To take a Kantian approach, ask yourself:
- “Can I rationally will that everyone act as I propose to act?”
- “Does my action respect the goals of human beings rather than using them for my own purposes?
In a world inundated with analytics, traffic, bounce rates, and ROI, it can be easy to forget that behind these data are real people.
Examples of ethically questionable online marketing campaigns
Indigo and Berman Hale provided several examples of questionable digital marketing campaigns—ranging from out-and-out bad actors who have duped healthcare institutions, to political misinformation campaigns, influencer-marketed ‘diet teas’ with negative health consequences, and platform gatekeepers who shirk editorial and fact-checking responsibilities in favor of increased engagement.
This last point should be a major consideration for digital marketers and SEOs, according to Jamie and Ashley—prioritizing an often oversimplified KPI such as ‘user engagement’ (something SEOs understand to be crucial in maintaining online visibility) without concern for what users are engaging with can end up pushing incendiary content or hate speech to millions of users on platforms without sufficient content moderation. Jamie pointed to recent actions taken against Facebook with regard to unmoderated user-generated content.
What are our ethical responsibilities in digital marketing?
For those of us working in digital, Indigo and Berman Hale put our primary ethical responsibilities in the digital space into three groups: accessibility, legal, and moral.
The drive to promote equal access to information is vital – even in an age where more people have access to digital channels than ever before. This is already a challenge when we acknowledge that the majority (63.4%) of websites are written in English, while only 25.9% of global internet users speak this language [data from W3Techs and InternetWorldStats]. Even before we dig down into ethical considerations for algorithms and code, it’s easy to see how inaccessible the internet is to some people.
We also have legal responsibilities – such as GDPR in Europe. Yet, it is the third moral responsibility of SEOs which many of us potentially underestimate.
Indigo and Berman Hale point to research from Amsive Digital (formerly Path Interactive) that shows how members of the public use Google to make important financial, legal, and medical decisions.
51% of respondents said they used Google to make important financial decisions. 39% said the same about legal decisions. And 46% said the same of medical decisions.
Is code ethical?
While algorithms and code are non-human, they still inherit the traits of their human creators.
The inherent ethics of online platforms are shaped by those who have developed them. And much of this code has been written by white, wealthy, English-speaking men rather than a more globally representative mix of creators and developers.
We see evidence of Google’s SERPs promoting ethically dubious content all too frequently. Indigo and Berman Hale point to the recent example of Hitler showing up at the top of the results pages for the keyphrase “people who did good things”, based on a Biography Online article about “100 People Who Changed the World.”
While the search giant amended this SERP fairly quickly, even today we can still see questionable, clearly inaccurate image results for the same search phrases.
Search algorithms clearly suffer from limitations—or blindspots—when it comes to ethics. The code which underpins the service is limited due to the narrow experience of those who have developed it, but there are also limitations evident when it comes to language and sentiment.
As we can see in the ‘people who did good things’ example – the algorithm is not ethically intelligent enough to push famously bad people down the rankings when there is content online describing such individuals as having done some ‘good’ things.
SEOs need to be mindful of these limitations and blindspots.
How can tech employees respond when we see a problematic blind spot?
While Google does have a ‘send feedback’ option at the end of every results page so users can report any questionable content that appears there, it can be difficult for employees to point out the ethical shortcomings of the technology they and their employers are using or developing.
Not all company cultures offer an openness to hearing ethical questions from their employees who want to flag these issues. In company cultures where there isn’t already a built-in prioritization of ethical considerations, Ashley suggests framing these concerns to business leaders in terms of how they may affect the business. For example, when approaching concerns about diversity in tech, she says: “We know that if we have different folks working on stuff, then we inherently will start having less bias because we’re going to have broader conversations. Diverse leadership ultimately equals more money for you, longevity for the company…”
Similarly, training AI such as facial recognition on more diverse data improves the technology and reduces security risks—incorporating diversity into your code and product development makes for fewer vulnerabilities.
Starting and continuing the digital ethics conversation
Ethics have long been a topic of discussion within the world of SEO. But we still see evidence of questionable digital marketing campaigns, ethically dubious content in the SERPs, and platforms prioritizing engagement KPIs above the welfare of the users who actually use them.
Businesses such as Google and Facebook certainly have responsibilities here. But so do those of us who are working to persuade customers to visit certain sites or try out certain products. We cannot assume that the underlying code and algorithms that are powering the platforms we use every day are inherently ethical or produced with considerations for larger ethical issues. We need to remember that there are actual people behind that data and analytics we look at as digital marketers.
We should be talking about these ethical blindspots within SEO and digital marketing communities, within our businesses, and with regard to the platforms that we use so often.