What do you value more as a freelance writer -- money or your reputation and professional ethics? For me, it's the latter without a doubt.

It's not uncommon for me to turn down new prospects for ethical reasons. There are some niches I won't touch. And there are clients with histories I wouldn't want to associate myself with. They include anything from sponsorships from content mills that exploit my colleagues to shadier marketing firms that have no respect for their clients' customers or readers.

What is uncommon is for a long-time client's business to suddenly cross that ethical line. And that's what happened last week.

Why I Gave Up the Gig

First let me be clear. I respect this client. I don't plan to share his, or his site's, name here in an effort to protect his privacy. I've worked with him for five years now. I plan to continue working with him. But previously I blogged for two of his websites on a regular basis. Over the course of a year, that gig would bring in around $37.5k, not including one-off projects like drafting e-books.

Recently there have been SEO changes to one of those sites as a result of a new hire on his side. And SEO is one of those areas where my ethical lines are strict. The changes made me more than a little uncomfortable. They're not things I would ever do. And they're not things I can support and put my work behind. These changes don't affect the second site, so I'm continuing to write there. The portion I gave up came to a little under $19k per year.

Note: Since writing this post, I've actually walked away from the full $37.5k per year. After some other changes to the client's business I couldn't justify staying on at the lower rates I charged them. I took the opportunity to make a clean break of it and I've since moved on to much better things.

Here are some examples of the changes recently rolled out that led to my decision.

  • Keyword targeting wasn't about what readers actually wanted. It was about choosing a keyword phrase that Google hadn't yet penalized in the niche as a result of spamming, and then creating that kind of content spam.
  • That general principle is bad enough. But when I expressed concern, I was assured it would only be the five article topics that were suggested. But the next set of suggestions revolved around the same keyword phrase. To make it work, we were not only being obscenely repetitive (which can hurt the site's reputation with visitors), but we were even repeating some basic material we'd covered only two months ago. In other words, there was absolutely no value add for those readers. The content was being written solely for SEO purposes. And no content should be written for SEO over readers.
  • The SEO person set up several new pages on the site, again targeting that keyword phrase in a very spammy way. First of all, this kind of landing page spam is pretty old school SEO. I was surprised to see someone still trying to get away with it given Google's recent history of trying to crack down on low value pages and sites. What's worse is that two of these pages even covered the exact same topic. They simply worded things differently. There's no good excuse for that.

There were a couple of other, more minor, concerns recently. But these were the big ones. And when it goes from one questionable SEO decision to a trend, it's time to move on. This is the kind of SEO that can't produce lasting results in the sense of traffic. They're the type of actions that eventually gets penalized (heck, it's why so many other keywords in the niche carry penalties already). This is tail-chasing SEO. It's what some firms use to keep clients coming back for more (every time algorithms change and prior work is penalized, clients have to go back to an SEO person for a new strategy).

I'm not saying this guy had any particular ill will in the strategy. He seems like a nice guy. He probably just comes from a school of thought that differs drastically from mine.

But I have my own many years of experience with SEO -- working with major media sites, dozens of blogs (both my own and clients'), and even respectable SEO firms. And rankings have never been an issue because we put readers first. When you do that, you don't have to worry about penalties. You don't have to worry much about link-building (because your loyal readers do it for you). And you don't have to worry about your rankings being short-lived because you were too busy chasing the latest algorithm changes. Guess what. It works.

As I'm sure you already know, I also have a background in public relations and social media. So I understand the effect bad marketing tactics can have on a company's or website's reputation in the long run. And as someone who used to have to help clean up those messes, I can't put myself at risk of being a part of them.

Did it hurt to cut this gig in half? Absolutely. Our living expenses are much higher now than they were a year ago thanks to the move. Another client recently cut back on his own recurring gig. And my websites and blogs took a major income hit over the last year because of my move, my wedding, and my illness that lasted for several months this summer. Things are only now starting to get back on track. So yes. It hurts.

It comes down to one thing though -- respect. If you can't respect yourself professionally, you have no right to expect anyone else to respect you professionally. And that's not a position I'm willing to put myself in.

What to do if You Have Ethical Concerns of Your Own

Now look. My ethical standards don't have to be the same as yours. You might be perfectly okay writing for clients with the above kinds of SEO policies. I'm not. You might be happy to write for adult sites or gambling sites. I'm not. And you might even be okay with mill work. More power to you.

But what happens when you do come across a freelance writing job that crosses your own personal ethical line? You basically have three options:

  1. Take the gig anyway.
  2. Walk away.
  3. Make your case to the client, if appropriate. They might not realize what they're doing could have negative implications.

I chose to walk. I simply let the client know I had ethical issues with some of the recent SEO changes. I didn't go into detail about it. And he didn't ask, so I left it at that. You'll have to decide which of these options is right for you based on your financial situation, your history with the client, and your existing professional reputation (and how the work might affect it).

That said, walking away is often your best option. Here are some reasons you might consider it:

  1. You never know how much exposure a project will get in the future. What seems like a quiet little gig now might explode later and bring the "wrong" kind of attention with it.
  2. Taking on a questionable gig now could hurt your ability to attract new clients later. You can essentially brand yourself in a negative way.
  3. Even if no one else will know you wrote the content (like in my case, where I was a ghost blogger for years), you will know. And sometimes your own judgment and fallen respect is the worst you'll face. If you get too comfortable crossing those ethical lines whenever you need money, it can be difficult to go back. It's better to avoid the habit in the first place.
  4. Every gig you take on that doesn't meet your ethical standards gets in the way of a potentially better gig that does. No matter why you lose a freelance writing job -- from you walking away to a client cutting back -- it's more of an opportunity than a loss. It's an opportunity to raise your rates and move on to a better market. It's an opportunity to pursue a project you've always wanted to pursue. Or it's an opportunity to find another client that you'll love to work with.

I haven't yet decided what I'm going to do with my "extra" time. I've wanted to cut back on client work to focus on my network of blogs and my books anyway. So more than likely, my time will go to those projects. But I'm sure I'll take on a few new freelance projects too. That extra time starts next week. In addition to four recent site launches, I have a few more in development. So my hope is I'll get at least two more launched before I take on new client work. Plus I'm finishing up the next e-book to be released here at All Freelance Writing under my new 3 Beat Books brand. That's exciting.

So what about you? What would you have done in a similar situation? Have you ever had to walk away from a freelance writing gig because it violated your professional ethics? What exactly crossed your comfort zone? Tell us in the comments.