Lance Armstrong, Professional Ethics and SEO

Broken promises from Lance Armstrong represented in this broken bracelet

Image courtesy of Andy Miah from Flickr

As stated in my brief Twitter profile, I have been a TdF fans (that’s Tour de France for those not geeky enough to follow the niche sport of professional bicycle racing) for many years. I’ve been following the 3-week, 2,000+ mile TdF as it unfolds every July since the days Greg LeMond was riding and winning (back in the late 1980s). The race is grueling, extremely competitive, tactically fascinating, and the participants, no matter how good or prepared they might be, are subject to momentary external events beyond their control (flat tires, inclement weather, oblivious spectators & their dogs, road furniture, crazy drivers, crazier sprints, and more), which more often than not determines who will not win the race. The winners typically just go with the flow, are highly consistent, and stay out of trouble, but the secret is that they more often than not simply work harder than anyone else (kind of reminiscent of SEO, isn’t it?).

I remember following past great riders like LeMond, Miguel Indurain, Richard Virenque and Jan Ullrich, as well as superstars of today Mark Cavendish, Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador and Thomas Voeckler. Then, of course, there is Lance Armstrong. Even if you’re not a cycling fan, you probably know of Lance.

I remember in the early 1990s hearing about this up-and-coming American kid named Lance when he rode in the Tour DuPont, a now defunct, 12-day stage race held in the United States. He was young, brash, bold, and on fire as a rider. He was also a bit of a wild man, untamed, undisciplined, and a likely candidate to shine bright but burn out fast. I then remember reading he was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain – he was only in his mid-20s. It was horrible news for any young person, when life should be about endless possibilities, not end-of-life mortality. I followed with great interest later news that Lance had miraculously beat back the disease and was even getting back on the bike. He appeared to be a different man at that point. Thinner, more restrained, and much more disciplined. And he had been transformed into one hell of a cyclist. He genuinely trained harder and longer than anyone, sought to leverage every new advance in aerodynamic cycling technology, and brought a new, hardcore discipline to the sport.

I watched with heart-swelling, vicarious pride as he stood on the winner’s podium wearing the famed yellow jersey in his first year back in the TdF at the end of July, 1999. And he then repeated that most incredibly unlikely feat six more times – in a row! I’ll never forget Lance’s iconic TdF moments like “The Look” in 2001, the off-road emergency shortcut down a mountain in 2003, the musette entanglement in 2003, the time trial up the mountain Alpe D’Huez in 2004 – these are just a few of the incredible memories burned forever in the minds of TdF fans. He rode like a man possessed – perhaps even super-human.

Well, not super-human, but certainly not normal, either. Lance Armstrong’s extraordinary performances were the stuff of legend, and rumors of performance-enhancing drugs and blood doping dogged him for years. He vociferously denied them, shrugged them off as sour grapes from jealous competitors, threatened (and sued and won against) people who publicly accused him of such, and defended himself by boasting he had never failed any of the 500+ drug tests he took (while many of his competitors certainly did!).

But did Lance cheat. He lied. He bullied people who knew the truth, and used the weapons of the popular press and aggressive attorneys for endless, expensive legal entanglements to attack his enemies. And lest you accuse me of libel, unless you have not been keeping up with the news, in 2012 the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) produced a report with over 1,000 pages of supporting materials detailing testimony and evidence that showed Lanced cheated. He was subsequently stripped of all of his past professional racing victories starting just after he returned to professional bicycle racing after beating back stage 3 cancer in 1998 and is now banned from competing professionally in any USADA-sanctioned sports events for life. And just recently, he went on the Oprah Winfrey Show and publicly admitted he cheated. And lied. And bullied people.

Up until about a year or two ago, I really wanted to believe Lance when he said he would never do something as foolish as doping to his body after nearly dying of cancer. Because of the many tales of his toughness, his perseverance, and his amazing athleticism (including those I witnessed), Lance had become a hero to me, but no more. Ethics are something I value more than incredible athletic feats, and Lance utterly failed in ethics.

Ethics and SEO

Speaking of ethics, I keep hearing from a specific segment of the SEO population a lot of talk about their peculiar definitions of white hat vs. black hat SEO. I hear accusations made against people who are now known for being white hat but “used to be” black hat. I hear of highly notable people in our industry being attacked as surreptitious black hats. I have no idea if any of that is true. But what I find most interesting is when some of these talkers make such bold pronouncements as “there is no such thing as white hat SEO. All SEO is black hat” or “SEO is SEO and thus it is all white hat”. Right…

How do these folks do it? Are they really unable to understand the difference between right and wrong? Ethical and unethical? Could it be that they are attempting to rationalize some potentially dubious ethical business behavior on their part, or are they just paranoid about being caught?

Lance Armstrong understood the differences between ethical and unethical behavior. He knew the rules, and the rules specified that performance enhancing drugs and blood doping were forbidden. He worked hard to actively cheat while knowing that being caught would ruin his career, but he still cheated anyway. He rationalized it by believing everybody else was cheating.

I believe a penchant toward unethical behavior is a natural human condition among a small segment of humanity. Unfortunately, that behavioral inclination spans across the globe and runs back throughout the course of time. Consider not only modern entities such as organized crime and drug cartels, but ancient ones as well. Tomb robbers were a major concern to ancient Egyptians, and I have seen counterfeit Roman silver coins that were, just after being minted, actually plated with a silver veneer to falsely raise the coin’s value (I own one of those). History is full of tales of thieves, charlatans, usurpers, and scammers.

SEOs are people, too, and some people are sadly inclined toward cheating behavior rather than ethical behavior. It’s a shame, really, and search engines spend huge amounts of resources to manage and mitigate malicious web spam, but it’s a never-ending war. And worst of all, the SEO industry is getting such a bad name because of these few unethical players that some SEOs have decided to rename their work as Inbound Marketing (talk about an urgent need for online reputation management!). If you can’t fix the broken reputation, just change the name (sort of the same way today’s Altria Group, Inc. used to be known as Philip Morris Tobacco).

Clarifying questions to ask

To help those SEOs who just don’t understand the ethical differences between black hat and white hat SEO (or Inbound Marketing), let’s ask ourselves a few questions. I think it’ll help bring some clarity to the issue.

  • Are you using SEO tactics that you would not admit to publicly because you know they violate the search engines’ webmaster guidelines? If so, you are probably black hat.
  • Are you adding concise, relevant page descriptions in the <title>, <meta> description and <h1> tags where none (or junk text) existed before? This is white hat.
  • Are you doing things that you would not dare tell Matt Cutts or Duane Forrester in a face-to-face meeting? If yes, then I’m guessing you lean toward black hat.
  • Are your pages filled with useful, authoritative, and interesting content to human readers? This is another example of white hat.
  • Are you hiding text in your webpages with HTML tag attributes “display: none”, using CSS to make the text incredibly small, or formatted in the same font color as the background? If so, it’s looking like you wear a black hat.
  • Do you write text that describes the subject matter of a digital image file and add it to the <img> tag’s alt text attribute? This is standard white hat work.
  • Are you sniffing user agent identities and showing the search engine crawlers a different set of content on your pages than you show to common web browser user agents in an attempt to build up artificial keyword relevance? Yes? Then your chapeau is definitely a black hat.
  • Are you adding more text-based content to a page to fully develop a theme, a topic, or demonstrate your authority of knowledge on a subject? This is reputable white hat behavior.
  • Are you creating a network of junk blogs or crummy, low-value websites across the Internet for the primary purposes of link farming to create the artificial impression to search engines that the linked site is more popular than it really is? This sounds like more black hat work.
  • Are you using social media to build a community of people interested in your product/service/content to reach out to them and help them learn more about your site/products/services/content? That’s solid white hat.
  • Is your intention to dupe or deceive the search engines or users of search engine results page data into believing your site is something that it is not? No question – this is black hat.
  • Lastly, do you believe because a certain segment of the human population consists of liars, cheaters, thieves, and charlatans that everybody else has (or at least you have) a right to behave in the same way? If so, you should probably think harder about the nature of ethics.

The truth is that most people are ethical by nature, and we can all be thankful about that. This whole black hat vs. white hat distinction is really not that hard to figure out. The bottom line question is this: are you actively working to deceive some entity, be it either the searcher or the search engine algorithms? If so, you are like Lance. No, not as a former world-class athlete, but as a cheat, a liar – a black hat. And one day the game will be up for you, too. You may see some limited success today with a few of those tactics, but the pressure is on you to continue to achieve the cheater’s success, and that’s only getting harder to do. Search engines continue to crack down on web spam, slowly chipping away at your toolbox, your tactics, and your success. If you’re not convinced this is a losing path, just ask Lance how it all worked out for him.

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