By Published On: July 28, 2016

The Hippocratic Oath is one of the oldest binding documents in history. It’s principles are held sacred by doctors even today: “First do no harm, treat the sick to the best of one’s ability, preserve patient privacy, teach the secrets of medicine to the next generation”, and so on. It still stands as the moral and ethical code.

Prior to the FDA, people or companies would sell products based on false promises. Even today you’ll hear the saying, “That’s just pedaling snake oil.” The point is, most professions do not require an ethical or moral guideline—people usually rely on the moral compass instilled by life’s lessons to lead the way.

Businesses today dealing with new technologies and digital complexities are a bit like patients putting their trust in doctors who have taken the Hippocratic Oath. They have to trust their internal marketing teams or outside agencies, that understand the new technology, to do the work. As such, they may be willing to buy something that might be too good to be true, in hopes that it cures their marketing and sales woes.

It seems that digital marketers are a bit like a doctor treating a patient in a coma. Just because the patient is unresponsive, or unaware of the things happening, the ethical and moral obligations to do good work do not change. Because some companies don’t really understand how to measure or evaluate the SEO or SEM strategies being executed, it’s even more important for agencies to police themselves, to be transparent and help clients understand the value and successes through measurement. Unfortunately we’ve seen this doesn’t always happen.

We’re not alleging there is some sort of super secret pact amongst agencies to bill for treatment and services not rendered. But as a client, it’s smart to ask yourself if you really know what and how your campaign is doing. Do you know where to look? Are you counting on your agency to do the work, measure, and report its success or failure?

Most agencies are trustworthy, but how can you tell if they are legitimate? Previously it was enough for an agency to get an endorsement from Google as a Google Agency Partner. They are, after all, one of the most respected technology companies out there with the motto of “Do no evil,” written right into their mission statement. But the Google Partner Agency Seal doesn’t truly hold the agency to a higher standard, and clients should be aware of red flags that might indicate less-than-ethical behavior.

For example, if an agency refuses to share access to a client’s AdWords accounts, the client could be locked into sub-standard work and performance, with the threat that they would have to start a new account over if they leave. There are examples of agencies erasing AdWords accounts, then blaming the client or being complicit in an AdWords double-serving scheme because their compensation was based on a percentage-of-spend model, which violates this policy:

In other words, the more inefficient a client is with their bidding – even if that means bidding up their own exact brand name keywords with no competitors showing ads – their agency partner would make more money for driving up their own cost-per-click on a click that should have been free.

Clients shouldn’t have to buy their own “name brand” clicks. And agencies should not be excessively bidding on name brands, which only masks the fact that the client then has to rely on other media to find true new business. This causes frustrations because according to the agency, the paid search is doing great (so long as those newspaper ads, TV, and radio get exact brand name searches). But profits often remain flat. Simply put, the bottom line does not look anything like the success the agency is reporting.

As a reaction to discontent, Google formed the “Google Performance Marketing Team,” with the sole purpose of trying to encourage agencies and internal marketing departments to start bidding differently. However, taking advice or strategy ideas from a company that stands to profit directly from their own suggestions—even if they are good ideas—can be met with skepticism and resistance.

On the flipside, in September of 2015, Google filed a lawsuit against an SEO agency for a practice referred to as “robocalling” which violated FTC and FCC standards. (

What enabled this agency to prey on so many people and misrepresent themselves and their services? Their Google Partner Status; they took full advantage of utilizing this status and leveraging it for unethical gains. There is no excuse for what this agency did, and perhaps Google played a small role in enabling it.

That’s why it’s important for clients to ask questions to ensure they get the most for their budgets. They should request administrative access to their own accounts, hire agencies that value and have transparency policies for digital work, and ask for and study the Google Analytics reports of their Adwords campaigns to understand what they are buying. And maybe it’s time Google revisits the criteria of becoming a Google Partner and sets the bar a little higher.

In the meantime, should agencies take a “digital Hippocratic Oath” promising to do no harm? Absolutely. At the same time, clients may want to keep in mind another old adage—buyer beware.

About the Author: cat-tonic

Born of curiosity and enthusiasm, we’re a scrappy group of smart, passionate marketers who work hard and play hard. We show up every day and fight for our clients who are making the world a better place. We listen with curiosity, explore deeply, ask hard questions, and sometimes put forth ideas that might make you squirm. Because we believe the status quo is good for growing mold but not much else. The way we see it, change is the way forward and the magic happens when curiosity, math, science, instinct, and talent intersect.
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