Ethical SEO & A Conflict of Interest

Darn, 15 minutes ago I was just referred to a company that competes with a client of ours whose SEO campaign just wrapped up about 3 months ago. They are in maintenance mode, maybe a couple hours a month to keep an eye on things. All of a sudden this new opportunity comes to us, as usual it is referred to us by someone that works at the prospects company, so he’s way vested in picking a good SEO company. For the record, I would never proactively go after an old client’s competitor, but this one was referred in.

This put me in an awkward position, and one that I think most business people wouldn’t worry about, but I do. The minute I found out the industry they were in my jaw dropped, for the first time in our 6 years we were referred into a direct competitor. Something immediately felt bad in my gut, I felt like I was cheating, even though the client and SEER have a very minor relationship on SEO, we are running their SEM. I told the new company that I looked at it as my job to kick their butts, for our existing client. How could I have spent the last 12 months trying to kick a company’s butt to only turn around and try to help them kick my old client’s butt?

Then the business side kicks in and makes me say, wait a second. This might come back to bite us 5-10 years from now if I keep this feeling of dedication to past SEO clients. So I talked about it with one person from our team, and decided I would leave it up to the client.

SEE the beauty of calling our existing client to tell them (which I already did) was:
1- They a REALLY fair people who would not tell us NOT to take it unless they REALLY did want us to
2- We are still working with them on SEM and they are very pleased with our team’s work
3- They have referred us 2 new opportunities and have been a reference on numerous calls for new prospects
4- I would imagine that it displays SEER’s ethics by running this by them FIRST for their feedback before we make a decision

I left the call saying, if you tell us not to take this we wont!

I guess what drives me crazy here is that the business side says, how can you turn down a big job for a new client to just do 2-3 hours a month for maintenance for an existing client? The karma side says, even if the SEO project is small, they’ve been great to us, and deep down I want to see every one of our clients kick their competitors asses, and helping someone whom I wanted to put out of business 15 months ago, just doesn’t feel right.

What are your thoughts? I am about to just call the old client and say, we were with you 15 months ago and we’re with you now, and turn away this new opportunity. Our pipeline is good and deep down it doesn’t feel right. On the flipside, am I not them being fair to our company by not solidifying new business even if it competes with a client we are basically done SEO work for and are still running their SEM?

I know from time to time we talk about ethical SEO as being tactics but I think it also gets into how you treat your clients and how upfront and honest with them you are about campaigns, and yes, even new business with a competitor.