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Branding & Marketing

SEO and Its Checkered Past

SEOs checkered past

Like professional cycling with its doping scandals, SEO marketing has a checkered past. But while almost everyone on the planet knows about Lance Armstrong’s doping, hardly anyone knows about SEO’s shady side.

The fact is, most people don’t have a solid grasp of what SEO is, let alone how it works and whether the money they’re spending on it is doing them any good. They also don’t know SEO’s history.

The Cycling Analogy

SEO is a bit like professional cycling in that both cyclists and digital marketers have an incredibly difficult task to perform.

Cyclists have to ride and race their bikes basically every day of the year. The racing calendar starts in January and ends in October. During the offseason, they have to begin building fitness for next season.

Digital marketers have to figure out what Google wants.

For those familiar with Google and SEO, that sentence could stand alone. For those less familiar, let’s just say that figuring out what Google wants is akin to figuring out what the intelligence industry is up to.

Google, Briefly

Google’s search algorithms have grown considerably more complex over the years, driven by some of the best minds on the planet. At this point, they’re likely as complicated as anything the NSA (National Security Agency) has going.

They’re equally elusive, too. Because Google has complete dominance over the search market (about 90% of search occurs on Google), the company is ultra secretive about how it all works.

For one thing, Google has to be secretive about how the algorithms work because shady marketers out there are continuously trying to game the algorithms—figure out how they rank websites and do whatever that is.

Keyword Stuffing

Years ago, this was a far bigger game than it is today. When Google’s algorithms were in their infancy, they needed a way to rank websites and decided to use significant words that would illuminate what a site is all about—keywords.

However, blackhat marketers started exploiting this approach. Regardless of what a site actually sold, the site could rank highly for anything just by having a bunch of keywords in the metadata and content of the site. (Google used to use metadata for search rankings. Used to.)

They could also write content that purportedly provided expert information on a given topic yet were merely nonsensical bunk stuffed with keywords—keyword stuffing. So their article would rank highly on a topic even though it provided very little expert information.

In fact, an entire industry emerged based on keyword stuffing—content farms. These companies would provide “expert” articles (for a fee, of course) to help other companies raise their search rankings.

Bogus Links

While links still factor highly into search rankings, Google’s algorithms are now much more discerning regarding the quality of links.

Back in the day, quantity mattered more than quality. The more outside links a company had (i.e., other websites linking to their site), the better the site ranked. Predictably, many companies found ways to exploit the system.

In fact (no surprise here), an entire industry emerged based on bogus linking—link farms. These companies would create bogus websites that would link to customer websites (again, for a fee, of course) to raise those sites’ rankings.

Content farms and link farms worked for a time, but they were houses of cards. It was only a matter of time before Google’s algorithms evolved enough to discern between quality content and quality links (the company knew all along about the blackhat tactics and were working as fast they could to deal with them; it just took some time).

The Murderous Tour de France

Everyone knows about Lance Armstrong and the other pro cyclists who doped during the 1990s and 2000s, but these guys were hardly the first. In fact, the first were the first.

The Tour de France was the initial grand tour—races that go for weeks at a time, day after day, around an entire country. (The other two Grand Tours are the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.) Needless to say, they’re grueling events.

And the first Tour was a marketing campaign. Really.


Nothing like the Tour de France had ever been attempted before. Journalist Geo Lefevre had dreamt up the fanciful race as a stunt to boost the circulation of his struggling daily sports newspaper, L’Auto.

Henri Desgrange, the director-editor of L’Auto and a former champion cyclist himself, loved the idea of turning France into one giant velodrome. They developed a 1,500-mile clockwise loop of the country running from Paris to Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes before returning to the French capital.

The Tour went way beyond anything pro cyclists had done before. It pushed them far beyond what they were accustomed to.

In the 1910 edition of the Tour—the year they introduced the high Alps—eventual winner Octave Lapize called the race organizers “murderers.” To their faces. As he rode up the last bit of a mountain pass, he reportedly yelled out to the race directors in their car: “Vous êtes des assassins!”

The tour was such a difficult task that many riders turned to drugs to get through. Among the substances reportedly abused were alcohol, amphetamines, painkillers (ether), strychnine and even cocaine and heroin.

The trend continued. In fact, it wasn’t until the death of British pro Tom Simpson during the climb up Mont Ventoux in 1967 that cycling really started to crack down on drug use. Obviously, the effort continues to today.


Just as cycling has a long history of cheating, SEO has a long history of blackhat tactics. For many, the whole thing was a game.

It worked because Google’s algorithms hadn’t evolved enough to deal with them yet. However, they would.


By Charlie Smith

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