Can Liking and Sharing Be Unethical?, an Opposing View, For Now

“Just as iron sharpens iron,
a person sharpens the character of his friend.”

~ Pr 27:17 (CJB)

Can liking and sharing be unethical?  That might seem like an odd question, but I assure you that I’m being serious.  If it can be, then under what circumstances?

Now, I am not talking about the time that an elderly lady was asked to stay home from services because clicked Like on a Facebook post.  Rather, I am referring to asking members to share and like articles to gain visibility for a particular website.

I’ve been doing this a while.  I remember the World-Wide Web (WWW) right after it first got started.  I remember the first web browser, and I even remember what came before it.  Perhaps I am even jaded to a degree.  In the end, though, my current line of thought it that God judges the intent of the heart and mind, and actions that outwardly might seem incorrect are not necessarily so.  Intent, of course, means one has to have intention (i.e., with “thought”, from the French entencion) and not mindless robotic actions.

Some people have questioned my fondness for reading Seth Godin.  What does a computer geek have in common with a marketer, anyhow?  For one thing, I have a website (or two, or three, but who’s counting?).  In “How to make a website: a tactical guide for marketers”, Godin wrote:

Every website is a marketing effort. Sooner or later, your site involves an interaction with a user, and that interaction won’t be 100% technical. You have to sell the engagement, the interaction and the story you have in mind. While websites have always involved technology, the tech is secondary to your ability to get your point across.

The web in reality is just one huge marketplace.  Sure, it might have gotten its start with the discipline of the military and the stuffiness of educational institutions, but even then you could say everyone was “selling” something.  The product may just be an idea, a thought or a theory, and the payment may be simply hits on a website, but the transaction is real.  One thing that is for sure: If they cannot find you, you won’t “sell” a thing.  That goes for companies.  That goes for blogs.  That goes for churches.

The way this is done is generally through search engine optimization (SEO).  It is basically using techniques that are known to enhance one’s ratings in the ongoing search engine wars.  One study shows that 94% of users click on first page results, while only 6% ever go to the second page and click on something there.

There are good ways to do this, and there are bad ways to do this, and you’d be surprised at the junk out there!  For example, in my Helium article on “Why keyword stuffing is not a good idea”, I wrote:

Keyword stuffing can take various forms.  There is a keyword meta tag that is used on webpages that once were largely abused for this purpose.  Many search engines ignore this meta tag now as a result.  It can also be done by listing a bunch of words on a page.  Sometimes, the word is repeated in order to enhance the effect.  If someone wants to be particularly slick, they will make the font the same color as the background, so that the keywords are hidden from human eyes.

However, search engines now account for this type of behavior, and it is definitely considered black hat SEO.

In case you were wondering, “black hat SEO” is just like it sounds: renegade methods of trying to improve search engine rankings in an illegitimate fashion.  Yes, believe it or not, there are standards developed over time because some people like to jerk things around too much, thus threatening to thwart the very reason search engines exist to begin with.  I further give an incredible example with documentation via link of one site that was banned for creating a tiny, almost imperceptible box of text on the website filled with irrelevant search terms in order to pull in traffic from web searches.

Ironically, an “Ex-Google Employee Says ‘Forget About SEO’”, according to the ineedhits blog.  The whitest hat possible in SEO land is to write content that people will want to read and share.  The biggest problem the ex-employee, Andre Weyher, implies is overdoing SEO, and thus hurt yourself in the end.

Still, that seems a bit naïve, if I may say so.  People are still searching with certain keywords, and real SEO involves using the most relevant of those keywords in articles dealing with the topic at hand while writing about something that is engaging and human readable.

Furthermore, to ignore the value of links is to sign your own death certificate.  It has been proven time and time again that quality links improve SEO rankings.  Furthermore, in a 2010 article by The Daily SEO Blog, “Google + Bing Confirm that Twitter/Facebook Influence SEO”.  This points to why social media has become a very Big Deal in the SEO universe and why several companies are jumping on the bandwagon to tweet this and like that, and even news programs all have their own Facebook page.

All of this points out why David C Pack is still willing to shell out money for Google AdWords, UCG has been so busy putting out blogs and other web media and both UCG and COGWA has been busy with social media campaigns, particularly Facebook.

So, again, is there something sinister in all of this?  Is there something sinister about getting your membership involved to “spread the word”?

The Search Engine Journal talks about “Building Your SEO Dream Team”.  On of the items they list is to staff your team with experienced “link builders” whose job it is to build inbound links to your site(s).  Done correctly, this is a legitimate business practice.  What is frowned upon is building link farms, whose sole purpose is to have incoming links with no other redeeming value.  What can hurt your company website is a lot of low value links, which can include websites ranked much lower than your own, including spam sites.

At any rate, the important thing is that it is legitimate to pay people to build a “webutation” for your site.  However, nonprofits often don’t have the funds to hire extensive staff, so they will get volunteers and/or their regular staff to pitch in and help “spread the word” via Facebook, Twitter or other social media.  Even businesses are now starting to do similar things, but even the most hardened understand there is a fine line difference between a nonprofit asking this of their employees and a regular company.

Should employees be pressured to do this type of promotion? What are appropriate boundaries?

This is both annoying and increasingly common.

You used to see it mainly in nonprofits, where the assumption was that you support the cause they’re advocating and would want to share advocacy opportunities (or whatever) with your connections. But then it spread to businesses, and it got a lot more annoying, because asking people to share ads for businesses is really an imposition. (And to be clear, I’m not saying nonprofits should require it either, just that it’s less ridiculous to suggest a share in that context.)

~ “When your company wants to hijack your social media accounts”, Ask a Manager

The lines often get blurred between personal and business, but suggesting a member of a nonprofit organization help out isn’t all that far-fetched.  Or, is it?

Well, what does Facebook say about it?

A Like that doesn’t come from someone truly interested in connecting with a Page benefits no one. Real identity, for both users and brands on Facebook, is important to not only Facebook’s mission of helping the world share, but also the need for people and customers to authentically connect to the Pages they care about. When a Page and fan connect on Facebook, we want to ensure that connection involves a real person interested in hearing from a specific Page and engaging with that brand’s content. As such, we have recently increased our automated efforts to remove Likes on Pages that may have been gained by means that violate our Terms.

~ “Improvements To Our Site Integrity Systems”, Facebook Security

So, I read this as mainly referring to a Facebook page, but I think the philosophy could extend to pages shared from outside of FB as well.  If an employee or even a member of a nonprofit is not truly interested in the organization and is not engaged with the “brand’s content”, then I have to wonder why they are part of it to begin with.

What that nonprofit is a church, then the engagement is even more compelling, I believe.  Does anyone remember what the Great Commission is?

18 Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

~ Mt 28:18-20 (HCSB)

I have long maintained that the “pay and pray” attitude of the general membership just won’t cut it!  The beginning Book of Acts is filled with accounts of people who spread the Gospel everywhere, and they did it in the midst of chaos and persecution.  There was no large central organization because people were killing them!

24 And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus.

25 This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John.

26 And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, …

~ Ac 18:24-26b

Did they take him to the side and tell him, “Now, look.  Only a minister authorized by headquarters can do such things”?  No, they instead:

…expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.

Each of us has a role to play.  It might be being a good example to our neighbors.  It might be being that strange person at work who gets passed over for a promotion because you don’t work on Saturdays.  We are required to be witnesses, and we are required to do it within our own sphere of influence.  When we talk to our children’s teacher, are we being salt and light?  When we ask for the Feast off, are we showing the proper respect to those in authority?

We are called to be partakers in spreading the Gospel.  This is more than just sending money to some central organization.  We are called to do so in at least as offensive fashion as possible (which is not always possible, as the message itself is offensive to many).

That extends into the virtual world as well.  Certainly, if all we are doing is resharing tons of articles we ourselves have never read, people will get annoyed and just block all of our posts (or maybe even unfriend us).  Being annoying is not the answer (usually).  However, since when was silence ever the answer either?

And so, it would seem natural that an organization would want to help get the word out and assist in SEO all at the same time, no?

Well, our friends at Quintessential Leadership seem to have a slightly different tack on it.  While I agree with at least 85% of “Quintessential Leadership: Discerning, Verifying, and Holding on to the Truth”, there are parts I am not so sure about.  It caught my eye, as charges like this have been leveled by COG critics in the past, and it sounded a bit too much like them.  Perhaps if iron sharpens iron, there can be more clarity about this subject.  My intent is not to rip it to shreds so much as to dissect it piece by piece and analyze it as to why some of these things bother people.

This is not the first criticism of using accepted SEO practices I have read.  It is just that usually the criticisms I’ve read of this type are leveled at the COG organizations and come from some very unfriendly sources.  As a consequence, they usually are not well articulated.  However, this one has been articulated well, and it is not meant in the same spirit as happens in the anti-COG blogs.  Still, it bears examining as it is similar in some ways and needs to be fleshed out as to whether or not it is valid.

First, the article is about truth.  It is not about SEO practices, per se.  However, it was given as an example of not facing the truth.  Some of it bothers me because of possible perception, but some of it bothers me because I wonder how true it could be.  I know, it may be odd to wonder if something is true in a article about truth, but there you have it.

The second example is one that has become very common organizationally, but is dishonest at its core. Many organizations ask people internal to the organizations to promote their internet sites and products, which are for people external to the organizations, by flood-writing positive reviews and continually hitting the site from multiple IP addresses and sharing links as often as possible on social media.

This sounds fine and innocuous on the surface and many people jump on the bandwagon without thinking or questioning the reasoning behind it.

Well, actually, it does not sound fine or innocuous as presented.  There are companies that engage in unethical behavior, but let’s separate out the unethical from the ethical actions here.  There are two very different things being presented:

1. “Flood-writing positive reviews”, which is a no-no and unethical.  This is what businesses engage in with product reviews by pretending to be someone from the outside evaluating a product to cover up all the bad reviews it got.  I should mention too that these reviewers often receive compensation for their reviews.

To put it another way: Companies often do ask you to go to an online site such as RellerRatings and write a review for them.  Sometimes, they will pester you until you do it.  Are they asking for you to give a bad review?  No, I don’t think so.

When you buy something from such a company, you become part of a group called “the customer base”.  As that select group, you may or may not voluntarily give a good review.  In effect, you cannot be forced to give either a good one or a bad one (although unscrupulous companies may pay for good reviews).

With a nonprofit or even a company asking employees to voluntarily (although that last one might be enough to make me want to look for another job) promote their products (blog articles, magazines, webcasts, etc.), that is hardly flood writing positive reviews.

2. Continually hitting the site from multiple IP addresses.  Actually, this is likely to be done anyhow.  Most people have a computer at work, a computer at home and/or a smartphone with web access.  Again, this is nothing new or original.  Some companies send emails with specials on their sites to print off coupons in order to get you to visit their site.  There are various tactics for getting people to hit sites often, and some go as far as to offer you an app just to make sure you can stay in touch.

What I do have a problem with, if true, is people jumping on the bandwagon without giving it any thought.  In fact, I would hope that the classes being given to various congregations about websites would include the why behind it.

The reasoning behind this activity involves manipulating the system. Those who ask about the integrity of doing this will get this answer.  ”Everybody else is doing it; this is a standard business practice.” But, while that answer will pacify most people, the fact that everyone else is doing it still doesn’t make it right.

True, just because everyone else is doing it does not make it right, but it is a standard business practice for a reason.  We have already covered the black hat methods to some extent, but this is not one of them.  Furthermore, it is only manipulation if someone is being coerced into it or being offered a reward for doing so.

People who are internal to organizations are asked to write positive reviews, for example, to boost the credibility of the organizations and get more site hits or sales. However, it’s creating an illusion of being bigger and better that is not based on facts. It’s a lie.

I already covered the positive reviews.  Companies ask for them all the time, and the practice is neither unethical or illegitimate unless there is fraud involved.

The web is an amazing leveling field.  I can look “bigger” as a one-man company because of the web.  However, rather than bigger, it really shows I am competent enough to market my company on a website (a real advantage for a technologist, I might add).  The web gives everyone large or small almost nearly identical means to market their company, their ideas, their product or even themselves.  That’s what is so great about it, in fact.  The web is the great democratizer, and it is the governments and large companies that want to control it so they can make the field once again unlevel.

However, the main point isn’t even so much to look bigger at all, but to be found.  If I try to market my small company as “bigger”, then it becomes self-defeating.  Sooner or later, someone will want a large number of repairs, and then what?  Well, since I have not marketed myself as “bigger”, it does not matter.  I simply reply that is not my market segment and move on.

That does not mean I don’t want “bigger” as in a bigger web presence, though.  While my market segment may be “smaller”, it still will not exist at all if it cannot be found.  That’s what SEO is all about: being found.  The rest is up to the website to retain and get people to come back again.

One, a small group of people internal to the organizations are making sites developed for people external to the organizations look much more popular than they, in actuality among that larger external population, are.

In reality, it is getting in the rankings in order for people to find the product.  Remember, if you don’t make page one, you’ve lost 94% of your audience already.

I notice that QL makes a caveat for those paid to create a social media presence.  However, how is that any better?  Is getting paid to “inflate (manipulate) their rankings” make it any better?  To my mind, that just makes it worse.

In fact, what about paying for more air time?  Newspaper space?  How does any of this advertising get justified, since it is all intended to make something look bigger and/or better?

OK, now we come to what I consider the most troubling parts, actually.

However, most of the of people internal to the organizations  just hit the sites randomly or share everything because they’re told to, not because the content means something to them personally – which, in most cases, it wouldn’t – since they’re designed for audiences external to the organization), so the hits and shares lack credibility in objectivity and spontaneity in the big picture.

I can like a lot of things I would not myself do.  I enjoyed watching Gangnam Style (the first couple of time, that is), but I wouldn’t be about to go out there and do any of it.  That didn’t keep me from sharing the video, though.

However, when it comes to nonprofit organizations, again, what part of it would not mean something if it is authentic?  If I belong to an anti-abortion group, then every like is authentic, even though obviously I myself cannot have an abortion or would choose one if it were up to me.  The group may be targeting “them”, but I don’t have to treat it like it is an “us vs them” sort of scenario.

Is it true, though?  If people are really just hitting sites randomly or sharing everything without any judgment involved, then that is not authentic by any definition.  In fact, that is exactly the sort of mindless behavior I have been on a campaign against from the beginning.  Christianity is a thinking person’s religion.  Your religion only goes as deep as you think about it.  Hopefully, that paragraph does not apply to any COG.

Third, when sites’ statistics are given or published, the illusion is given that lots of people external to the organizations are hitting the sites or sharing content, when in fact, it’s the same small groups of people internal, in some way, to the organizations.

Yet most of the people internal to the organizations seem to believe the illusion that a larger, external population is hitting the organizations’ sites, because they don’t step back, research and verify the facts, and find and hold on to the truth. In fact, they don’t even think about it. They’re just doing what they’re told to do, believing that they’re doing something good, when in fact they’re participating in a dishonest – and untruthful – activity.

Again, I ask, could this be true?  If so, then the brain is still not engaged, it would seem.  It seems ironic that you would be busy being part of the activity to bring up the links, hits, likes and ratings, but then turn around and apply the results differently.  Here, the untruthful activity is not in the action of aiding in the rankings, but the untruthful activity would be to either present it as being all from outside or by believing it is all from outside.  Again, this seems to hit close to home.

So, what are the actual rankings?  Isn’t that where the real results would come from?  Do the search engines reflect what is being sought for?  Has anyone made that goal?

Now, I could pull up Alexa or Quantcast, but those do not reflect search rankings.  I tried one supposed “page rank checker”, which put Life Hope & Truth on page one, but it gave no indication of keywords, so that was a useless exercise.

Some of you know the difficult times I have been going through, and I missed the little web class we had locally.  I did get to catch one short presentation back in December, but that is hardly enough for me to be able to answer all questions or quell all concerns.

It may surprise you, but my mind shuts off when they start talking about website statistics.  I’ve even had one marketer get really upset with me because I barely even look at my own.  I have that nice little Sitemeter that tells me the number of visitors per day (not the gadget, but what’s behind the gadget), but I don’t look for conversions and what-not.  The honest truth is that it would not be true for a lot of reasons no matter how hard I tried.

The dirty little secret about SEO is that in the end, web statistics are all lies anyhow.  The measurements are at best imprecise, but they are usually terribly off.  Like many business metrics I have seen, they usually measure all the wrong things.  That’s why the first measurement ever devised, the number of hits a page gets, was long ago abandoned.  It was totally meaningless.  There is no good measurement, but some are more poor measurements than others.  The only measurement worth anything is that page rank, but even that is not the be-all and end-all that many SEO “experts” pretend it is, and pursuing it can actually make you lose out big time.

Not only that, but it is always a short term gain no matter what you do, unless of course you provide quality content that keeps them coming back for more.  Having people come to your site may get you on page one, but it won’t keep you there unless you give visitors a reason to stick around.

With all this sharing and linking, what is really important, anyhow?  Maybe the important thing should be getting the word out there.  Maybe the important thing should be letting the truth be heard while it still can.  If it is meaningful and relevant, then share away!  If that pushes the page rank up, so much the better!

However, if you are just spamming for the cause on your Facebook timeline, then you’ll be ignored just like the mindless spambots filling your email inbox with Viagra ads will be ignored.  That will do you no good, your church’s website no good and may even in the long run hurt the page rank you are trying so hard to push up.

So, I agree with about 85% of QL’s article, but there are a couple of things where I just don’t see it that way; especially that the actions are at their core cheating, which implies they are against the rules of the game (and they are not).  It seems that is one area frequently targeted by some as something that a couple of the COGs do “wrong”.  However, I’m more concerned with whether it is just a mindless point-click-numbers game or if any real thought is going into how the actions affect the outcome.  That’s assuming the picture is as bad as painted, of course.  However, the act itself of liking, linking and sharing seems to me to be anything but dishonest, as long as people are doing it intentionally.

Jesus said to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Mt 10:16), and He commended the dishonest steward for this shrewdness (not for his dishonesty, however; Lk 16:1-8).  Therefore, it would appear to me that we should be able to within ethical boundaries use the systems and resources provided, including for spreading the Gospel.

That’s my take on it, at the moment at any rate.  What am I misunderstanding?  Perhaps one of you has a cogent argument that will change my mind?  If so, talk to me.  At least perhaps I can gain clarity as to why some view this as a problem.