This month will see the introduction of new UK regulations: the Consumer Protection From Unfair Trading Regulations, aimed at stopping aggressive, misleading and otherwise unsavoury trading practices. These regulations make particular references to certain unethical marketing and advertising practices that are so common they are seen by many to be an essential part of the business world.
It's not hard to see how these new regulations can be applied to the world of online marketing in particular - a world notorious for being underhand and aggressive. A quick browse through the WWW throws up some fine examples of shifty marketing that will soon be made a thing of the past. Purveyors of misleading banners, pop-unders and spam could all soon find themselves at the receiving end of a fine - and not a moment too soon!
But what about those not-quite-white-hat SEO professionals? Could the people whose aim is to fool the search engines fall afoul of the law aimed at stopping consumers being fooled? Oh yes.
Black and grey hat search marketers beware. From May 26th, when these regulations come into effect, Matt Cutts and his mighty notebook may be the least of your worries when you partake in these soon to be banned, fineable offences. The regulations strictly forbid:
"Falsely claiming or creating the impression that the trader is not acting for purposes relating to his trade, business, craft or profession, or falsely representing oneself as a consumer."
"Using editorial content in the media to promote a product where a trader has paid for the promotion without making that clear in the content or by images or sounds clearly identifiable by the consumer (advertorial)."
As we all know, breaches of these abound online more than anywhere else. From fake comparison sites to fake blogs, reviews and forum posts, SEOs are always coming up with inventive ways of getting inbound links. Unmarked advertorials are often used to cover up link buying deals and wouldn't paying a blogger to review your site amount to exactly the same thing?
The truth is, such practices are not seen as unethical at all in some circles whose members point out that tricking Google is not actually a crime. Well, soon it may well be if it can be seen as misleadingly influencing consumers as well. Many of the above practices will now need to be reviewed, cleaned up or done away with completely. Social media marketing in particular may change quite drastically as a result and will no longer be the carefree marketers' playground grey hat SEOs love so much.
OK, to be fair, it may take time for this law to catch up with the online world. The internet has traditionally been the refuge of law benders and breakers, who enjoy certain immunity from offline laws by virtue of their trade being poorly understood by the legal system. It took years, for example, for libel and defamation laws to catch up with the net. Copyright violators and hackers still go about their online business mostly untouched, although they are obviously breaking some very well established laws.
Still, with governments taking more and more interest in what's going on online, the lead times are getting quicker. Now that there is a framework in place for defining unlawful marketing practices and prosecuting the guilty, it's only a matter of time until this framework is successfully applied online. Will it put an end to black hat SEO? That is unlikely. That is a risky business to begin with and the possibility of a fine, as heavy as it might be will not deter everyone. After all, the amount of financial damage caused by a simple Google ban is often much higher than any such fine.
The classification of some previously borderline practices as criminal, on the other hand, is bound to draw clearer lines between white and black and could well redefine or completely do away with the grey area, making those who dabble in it think twice and forcing them to make some serious decisions about how they do business.