SEO Lessons from the Cleveland Cavaliers

Tyson Braun
by Tyson Braun 22 Jul, 2014

To NBA fans, the "Dan Gilbert Letter" is officially a thing. 


The open-letter, penned in July 2010 by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, posted to the Cleveland Cavaliers' website on the heels of the live TV spectacle called "The Decision" on which the best player in the NBA and Cleveland hometown hero, LeBron James, publicly announced his move to Miami, due in large part to failures of Gilbert in running the Cavaliers.


Below is the letter in its entirety; it will likely be quoted and referenced for years to come, following James' announcement he is returning to the Cavs. Gilbert's letter has become an essential chapter in the story of LeBron James. 


Google searches on "dan gilbert letter" surged in 2010 after it was posted, but dwindled as LeBron moved on and led the Miami Heat to four-straight Eastern Conference Championships, and two NBA titles. He became a champion. Meanwhile the Cavs languished pushing the letter further from the minds of the media and the public. 


After the 2014 return announcement, demand for the letter surged again even more so than in 2010- fueling a national conversation on the power of forgiveness for LeBron, and regret and forced humility for Gilbert. 



(Source: Google Trends. Spike 1 is July 2010 after Lebron leaves and Gilbert posts the "letter," while spike 2 is in 2014 after Lebron announces his return, ostensibly forgiving Gilbert for it.)


For search engine marketing professionals, this is where things get interesting.


This month, while LeBron was privately weighing his options for where he'd play the 2014 season, it was reported that the Cavs finally removed the letter from the team website, perhaps a clue that LeBron was leaning toward Cleveland and the Cavs needed to clean out their digital closet.


According to Gilbert however, the page was removed from the site "years ago" and that "there was some remnant link from the NBA site that someone discovered a few days ago and when our people were notified, it was immediately killed ... The concept that we had the letter up for four years and just took it down is absurd and flat-out wrong."


The facts are that the letter lived at from July 10, 2010 until four days before LeBron's announcement on July 7, 2014, when the URL was updated to display the contents of the team's "news" page. Prior to this, the Cavs merely removed links to the article, leaving it available to Google or linking websites, of which there were many.



The handling of the "letter" reveals a lesson in SEO mechanics, and a live opportunity to synchronize SEO and PR on a major sports news story. 


Below are the 10 options the Cavaliers have for their begrudged, but everlasting content: 



1. Leave the letter up on the URL, but remove any links to it 


This is the route the Cavs went prior to July 7, 2014. A visitor would not find a link to the letter on the website, but according to Michael Wilbon, co-host of ESPN news show "Pardon The Interruption," as of the July 11, 2014 show, the URL could still be found via Google. 



2. Leave the letter URL but display irrelevant information 


Since July 7, 2014 the Cavs opted for this strategy. Web users looking for the letter at this location will find a collection of recent news articles, but no trace of the Gilbert letter.



3. Leave the letter up on the URL unchanged 


It happened. We all make mistakes, as LeBron said in his own public letter announcing his return. This option keeps the link viable as intended by all those that have shared it, and it's plausible to believe search engine algorithms may reward a website that maintains its content - a big bonus, if true, that would earn ranking positions for valuable terms like "nba jerseys." 



4. Replace the letter with a PR message 


Since this letter will likely remain highly sought and this URL forever referenced, the page could be replaced with a written apology from Gilbert; an attempt to flip the narrative toward that of new beginnings. 



5. Update the letter with a PR message 


A combination of #3 and #4, this is my favorite choice, for Google and others will likely prefer to relay the "dan gilbert letter" searcher to a URL where the letter can be read. This move would maximize the team's chances to influence the message by reaching the most interested readers from Google.



6. Re-direct the letter URL 


The Cavs could re-direct the URL, either to a new page or existing page like the home page. This would effectively delete it from public viewing, but keep the site in line with Google's request to re-direct content if it is moved.



7. Allow the URL to be a 404-error 


A 404-error would mean the Cavs took the content down from the site, a strong gesture that they simply do not support the former sentiment of their owner.



8. De-Index the letter via the meta=noindex tag 


This would remove the URL from Google, distancing the team from it, but allow those coming in from links from other sites to continue to access it.



9. Block the letter via robots.txt 


This would block Google from crawling the URL, but they would very likely continue to relay traffic there because other pages link to it, as explained in the Webmaster Tools Help Center.



10. Submit a removal request in Webmaster Tools 


This is a private request to Google to remove the page from consideration without having to make any changes to the site. It's possible the Cavs have done this, as the URL is no longer indexed in Google or Bing (but still in Yahoo!).



As the "Dan Gilbert letter," lives on and people re-live the four-year breakup and reconciliation arc of LeBron and Gilbert, it'll be interesting to see those involved synchronize (or fail to synchronize) efforts around this content. Whether the Cavs or LeBron like it or not, this letter will live on as a lesson on impulse, forgiveness, winning and the power of good SEO.



The Letter


Dear Cleveland, All Of Northeast Ohio and Cleveland Cavaliers Supporters Wherever You May Be Tonight; 


As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier. 


This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his "decision" unlike anything ever "witnessed" in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment. 


Clearly, this is bitterly disappointing to all of us. 


The good news is that the ownership team and the rest of the hard-working, loyal, and driven staff over here at your hometown Cavaliers have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you. 


There is so much more to tell you about the events of the recent past and our more than exciting future. Over the next several days and weeks, we will be communicating much of that to you. 


You simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal. 


You have given so much and deserve so much more. 


In the meantime, I want to make one statement to you tonight: 




You can take it to the bank. 


If you thought we were motivated before tonight to bring the hardware to Cleveland, I can tell you that this shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own has shifted our "motivation" to previously unknown and previously never experienced levels. 


Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there. 


Sorry, but that's simply not how it works. 


This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown "chosen one" sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And "who" we would want them to grow-up to become. 

But the good news is that this heartless and callous action can only serve as the antidote to the so-called "curse" on Cleveland, Ohio. 


The self-declared former "King" will be taking the "curse" with him down south. And until he does "right" by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma. 


Just watch. 


Sleep well, Cleveland. 


Tomorrow is a new and much brighter day.... 


I PROMISE you that our energy, focus, capital, knowledge and experience will be directed at one thing and one thing only: 


DELIVERING YOU the championship you have long deserved and is long overdue.... 


Dan Gilbert

Majority Owner

Cleveland Cavaliers