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What will Google’s expanded policy on harmful content mean for SEO companies?

Google recently announced that it will be expanding its hate-speech policy for publishers that use the company’s ad network.

It’s an effort to address concerns about ads funding inappropriate content online. While Google is constantly updating its policies, this particular update could have a significant impact on the way digital marketers select clients.

It also raises an important question for SEO companies: do we have a role to play in combating harmful content online? And how should we go about navigating Google’s new policies if so?

Google’s new harmful content guidelines

Google made the decision to change its policies for a number of reasons, one of the biggest being the early 2017 Youtube controversy. In an effort to guard against “explicit” content with its restricted mode, the company mistakenly targeted multiple LGBTQ+ creators.

In its original response to the issue, YouTube said the mode was only applied to LGBTQ+ issues that also addressed mature subjects such as sexuality and politics. But as more creators, including musical duo Tegan and Sara, Tyler Oakley, and others began to speak out, it became clear that innocent creators were getting swept up into the “explicit” content list.

And, of course, the spread of “fake news” in search results and social media forced Silicon Valley titans to confront some thorny issues. In the months since these two big issues, The Hill reported that Google banned more than 200 publishers from its search results.

According to Rick Summers, who oversees the development and implementation of Google policies impacting publishers, the new policy additions are geared toward creating a safer, more positive Internet.

Specifically, Google’s new policies will “address a more divisive and toxic online environment, where an increasing amount of content is frankly right at the edge of what we consider traditionally to be hate speech,” Summers told Recode in April.

In addition, these changes will effectively broaden Google’s definition of hate speech. Now, it will include populations such as immigrants and refugees under its discriminatory language guidelines. It will also address more directly those pages that, for example, deny the Holocaust or advocate for the exclusion of select groups of people. Previously, the policy was more selective (in the United States, at least).

According to Recode, the previous policy addressed “speech that was threatening or harassing against defined groups, including ethnic and religious groups, and LGBT groups and individuals.”

A Google spokesperson said that while the changes will be global, they will also take time to implement on such a large scale. Google’s top business executive, Philipp Schindler, penned a blog post in late March in an effort to better outline Google’s up-and-coming policy changes.

In his blog, Schindler tells readers that Google “[has] a responsibility to protect this vibrant, creative world—from emerging creators to established publishers—even when we don’t always agree with the views being expressed.”

The post goes on to discuss the controversies mentioned earlier, as well as a list of upcoming policy changes and their goals. These policies, Schindler says, will both respect the values of Google and the creators who depend on it, and help advertisers reach the audiences they need to.

But what does that mean for SEO companies?

Ultimately, it means some digital marketers may choose to be more selective when accepting new clients. It’s hard to help someone rank if they’re being excluded from Google search results.

But that also begs the question, how do SEO companies decide what defines a “good” client? Should companies even be applying ethical judgments like this to clients? If so, is the decision dependent on each company’s individual code of ethics, or is it up to Google to decide?

You know you’ve stepped into a minefield when you have to use this many rhetorical questions in a row.

The resources out there for clients seeking SEO services are practically limitless, but the same isn’t necessarily true for SEO companies seeking clients. Google has even released official guidelines for companies searching for the right SEO company:

Clients looking for reputable SEO services are often told to follow Google’s guidelines if they want to find a reputable company. Fortunately, SEO companies can also utilize that practice to vet potential clients.

Take HubShout, for instance. Here, following Google’s AdWords guidelines essentially takes the decision out of our hands. While we have values as a company, following these policies to the letter allows us to select only what Google deems “good” clients. This also ensures that no personal or political biases influence our decision making. In short, as long as a potential client meets our policy — not in violation of Google AdWords, not unethical, small business — we will take them on.

Prohibited content, according to Google, includes content that markets counterfeit products, dangerous products or services such as recreational drugs or firearms, and content that enables dishonest behavior.

In addition, content including “bullying or intimidation of an individual or group, racial discrimination, hate group paraphernalia, graphic crime scene or accident images, cruelty to animals, murder, self-harm, extortion or blackmail, sale or trade of endangered species, [or] ads using profane language,” is considered inappropriate by Google’s standards.

But as we discussed earlier, those policies may be updated in the near future, providing SEO companies with an even more extensive resource for determining which clients to take on. In the end, Google and other search engines often serve as the standard by which the vast majority of digital marketing companies must operate.

Finally, we have one last rhetorical question, and it’s a big one: Will Google’s new and improved policies actually create a safer, more accepting internet, or will they simply tuck away the dark corners of the web we don’t want to see?

Fortunately, digital marketers aren’t philosophers; it’s not our job to answer these big questions. It’s our job to help clients get onto those crucial Search Engine Results Pages.

And if there’s less hate speech and inappropriate content along the way, then hopefully the internet will become a better place to work.

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