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Why I Gave up a $37k Blogging Gig Over Professional Ethics

Read Time: 6 min

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.

17 thoughts on “Why I Gave up a $37k Blogging Gig Over Professional Ethics”

  1. I’d like to think all professionals have ethics and a certain line they will not cross.

    With a health care niche, you can imagine all the different directions that can spin off to. Throw in my involvement with breast cancer walks and I definitely have lines I won’t cross. Like those who prey on cancer patients with bogus products promising a cure.

    I have had family and friends who had cancer, and some who lost their battle. I understand the feeling of desperation when all other treatments have failed. I will never judge those who choose to try any form of care, but I will not write promotions that make unsubstantiated claims.

    Reply
  2. Jenn, I make the case and if things don’t change I walk. I have, over time, managed to educate a couple of folks who didn’t know or understand… they learned and I kept the gig. Doesn’t often break that way.

    And good for you.

    Reply
  3. There have been a few discussions on this topic in some of my LinkedIn groups lately. I have two rules: first, if I wouldn’t tell my mum or dad about what I’m working on, it’s probably not a job I want to take, and b) if I bought clothes with the money from the job, would I feel dirty wearing them? If yes, it’s probably not a job I want to take.

    It hasn’t come up yet. Most of my clients have been really good. But from the beginning, I came up with a few topics/types of business I wouldn’t work for: tobacco; those alcoholic drinks aimed at getting teenagers blazed; payday loans and dodgy finance companies; gambling; anything that exploits animals (or children); certain types of alternative medicine; and churches (especially those ones that require tithing – several of those have sprung up in NZ and target those who can least afford it). Adult sites I would consider, but they’d have to meet certain criteria: they’d have to be legal (obviously) and they’d have to be harmless fun (so toys okay, sex tourism not).

    It’s a big list, but because I’m a copywriter, I could have just about any industry come to me and want writing. At least this helps me to make a call on something I’m iffy about from the outset.

    Reply
    • I love your rules. And feeling “dirty” is exactly what happened here. Once you start to feel that way, it’s unlikely you can go back. It’s sad, of course, when you’ve been with the client for years. But it happens.

      I also think you have some great examples of questionable niches. The only topic of those that I’ve covered is payday loans. And even then, it was in the larger context of a financial site, and I insist on covering both pros and cons of things like that (and generally giving alternatives while never pushing the products on people). I feel it’s one thing to educate people about options, because goodness knows they’re getting hard-sell pitches elsewhere. And it’s something else entirely to jump on that hard-sell train to exploit people. That I could never do.

      And I completely understand with copywriting. You run into that with any kind of business writing. I think I had the most questionable prospects when my main focus was press release writing. You write the releases for a wide range of industries. If I couldn’t educate them on using releases properly (like not plugging generic content into a release template for SEO purposes), I didn’t take on the project. Fortunately most clients, including respectable SEO firms, were willing to learn and go about things in the right way.

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  4. Jenn,

    Good for you for having the courage to walk away from the project. It’s always best to follow your ‘gut’ instinct.

    Yes, I had to walk away from a screenwriting opportunity for many reasons. First, it was clear to me this project would be dubbed “the never ending project.” A screenplay MUST BE wrapped up at some point. Second, I had concerns that the project was mimicking (too closely) a couple of films. Where’s the originality? Third, most producers and directors prefer it if you don’t include angles and shots — they want a writer’s script. Unless you’re James Cameron, don’t include angles and shots. Finally, my professional boundaries were being crossed. I have other writing projects and schedule my time accordingly. I can’t just drop everything for one project. I understand if it’s an extreme emergency, but writing schedules are used for a reason.

    I’m grateful for this one particular client. I learned that I need to set stronger client boundaries and ask more questions about projects. I always need to listen to my intuition and acknowledge the ‘red flags that are shown to me indicating a writing project is not for me. Lesson learned!

    Reply
    • The client wanted you to drop all of your other projects to focus on their screenplay? Wow. They clearly don’t understand the contractor / client relationship. If they want your time exclusively, they need to bring you on as a full-time employee or pay you a full-time retainer for that period. Anything else is just crazy. It sounds like you made the right decision in moving on. 🙂

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  5. That’s the way I like to look at it. I already have some feelers out about other long-term blogging gigs. I’m just not sure if I want to take on more client work at the moment or focus on my sites and books. It’s amazing how much I’ve been getting done with them lately (between having more time and having my energy back post-surgery). And I’m not sure I want that to stop yet. That said, if a can’t-miss opportunity comes up, I’m always game. 🙂

    Reply
  6. Jenn, I’d choose the latter, too. No way the money is worth losing respect for yourself and your client.

    What’s strange is how badly some people use SEO. They don’t understand that it’s not that tough if you pay attention to quality first, keywords second.

    Good for you for walking away. That’s just trouble waiting to happen.

    Reply
    • “That’s just trouble waiting to happen.”

      For the client’s sake, I hope not. It just wasn’t a chance I could take.

      I think a big part of the problem in the SEO world is a lack of education. Many forget that SEO is not new. It’s basic PR really — exposure and relationships (through linking). And “earned media” is always better in the end. This is no exception. Too many people think it’s a discipline all its own, completely outside of PR and marketing. So they don’t get the fundamentals down in those areas before jumping into trying to manipulate search rankings.

      What’s worse is that those who do try to educate themselves often “learn” from people who are guilty of the same thing. They just have more experience with the tactics, regardless of whether or not those tactics also cause harm. Now I don’t know this individual’s background, and I’m certainly not saying this applies to him. But I see it all the time. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs. But fortunately there are plenty of SEO folks who understand their role is a part of a much larger picture for their clients, and they’re usually willing to learn and move beyond those staple strategies. I used to consult with clients about these issues through my PR and social media consulting firm. But unfortunately I just don’t have the time or ambition to take on that kind of role anymore.

      Reply
  7. Good for you! If only everyone had the courage to stand up and do what is right. Good things will come to you because you did what you knew was right. I truly believe what comes around goes around and the good people always end up ahead.

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  8. Good for you! Money alone is never worth it. I was in the same situation earlier this year and could have easily made about $3,000 per month for a company. However, what they wanted ended up being against what I felt was right and so I left. It was a tough decision but I didn’t want my reputation associated with that content.

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  9. Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for this interesting article. It’s very useful to me as I develop my own blog and online presence. You experience and knowledge really comes through.

    I mentioned you in an article I just posted online about the topic of honesty and lies in writing. If you have time, do pop over to my site to take a look. Any feedback or comments you may have are more than welcome.

    Many thanks,
    Amaya

    The link is: http://ellmanbooks.com/2012/10/02/fact-is-stranger-than-fiction-but-what-happens-when-lies-help-sell-fact/

    Reply
  10. I have walked away when clients insisted on using images they didn’t own (one former client uses the Best Buy logo in every newsletter he sends!), but I’ve never dealt with a situation like the one you described. It’s easy to *say* you would walk away, but much harder to actually do it — especially when it’s a long-term client.

    It’s great that you were able to keep working on the client’s other sites. Best of luck in figuring out how to best use your extra time.

    Reply
    • Oh wow. That’s definitely a problem. Good for you for separating yourself from clients like that!

      It was certainly a tough decision given the long history with the client. I’ve since stopped working with the client entirely due to other changes I wasn’t comfortable with, and I’m happy to say I’m as busy as ever. This year I’m actually scaling back my freelance work while I turn more of my attention to indie publishing and my Web development projects and blogs. So far, so good. 🙂

      Reply

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