When Bad SEO Happens to Good People

One of my favorite SEO bloggers, Neil Patel, has a new post out about the many different kinds of Google penalties. It’s a great post–you should read it. But all this talk of how Google punishes wrongdoers rubbed one reader the wrong way: a do-gooder who had been consistently and unfairly penalized by Google to the point of harming their business.

Here’s what they had to say, edited only for brevity:

We have been online 13 years, never done any black hat anything, but the last 3 years we have lost 75% of our organic traffic.It’s always in big steps. They just keep hacking away at our business. Our graphs look like those above, but stair steps down. 15% here, 25% there, 35% there… We have laid off 70% of our employees and are running on fumes.

Google says it’s all about the user experience, however Google bases that on their understanding of what they think the user wants, not what the user really wants or needs. Our website was built for the user, not Google. And for 11 years it did a fantastic job, growth averaged 45% per 3 year period. Our customers were happy. They could find the parts they were looking for. Until 2013 and that’s when Google started implementing what it thought the world needed. The problem is Google is good at coding. It’s not good at the psychology of human beings. There is no algorithm for a human.

As a user of Google I find myself on worthless sites more and more. It takes more and more searching, page after page to find what I’m looking for. Certain search terms have become totally useless. I have found MANY sites that are clearly nothing but SEO black holes. They come up on the SERPS great, but when you get to the site, it’s empty of real information.

And I challenge Googles claims of “authorship” and “trust” based systems. I author it in an email to what I think is a prospective customer, only to find it posted later on a blog or competitors website. How is Google going to attribute that content to our site? It originated here, but they seem to be giving credit elsewhere. And really Google is an expert on every subject matter under the sun? And who are they to decide was is trustworthy?

To bring it back to the point of the article, which is helpful, but only in a historical way. You are documenting is what happened. Reading the article applying it to our website, It goes like this: No, we don’t sell advertising on our website, no we don’t do that, we didn’t do this, etc. No we don’t spam, never have, never cloaked, never paid for links (Sponsors a few website yes, but sites 100% in line with our products, and never bought links anyplace.) Then I get to this: Is there “shallow” or “the content adds no real value,” How do they decide that? I’ll give you an example, a list of numbers.. worthless right? But not if you are looking for that list of numbers because you (the user) knows what that list of numbers represents. Our top pages could be viewed as “lists of numbers” but in fact those numbers have come from years of hard work, experience and research. But to Google, they are just lists of numbers. Boom, we now have “shallow” content but to the user, those lists of numbers are very valuable. Oh and the competition just copies them. Now Google has to decide who is the author of this “no real value” content, but which is highly valuable to the customers we serve.

The Mobile issue is a big one for us, as our site is not optimized for mobile users, however that does not mean it’s not usable by mobile users. Up until the last few months our orders supported this position. We still got a proportional amount of orders via mobile system on our un-optimized site. Until Google decided for the mobile user that our site was no longer worthy of being included in their mobile SERPs. There 30% of customer hacked away.

If Google could inform us of how they are applying these penalties to us and allow us to explain it would go a long way toward finding a resolution. But they do not. I’m sure all our drops in traffic are caused by their penalties because the drops are dramatic, short sudden losses in traffic. That’s the clear indicator of a penalty. But if we go to our Google Webmasters site, the only things listed are all for the mobile issue which we know about. Nothing else.

Summary: If Google is going to apply a penalty to us, which they clearly have multiple times, we have the right to know what it is and why and at least be able to address it with them. Misunderstandings are almost always resolved with additional communication.

Frustrated doesn’t even come close to expressing how I feel.
–From: “Frustrated”

Emphasis mine.

I think the commentator brings up a lot of good points that we can all agree with: there is no algorithm for a human being (no fool proof one, at least); “trustworthiness” is a rather subjective term; and who decides content authority when the attribution trail is murky? Those are all excellent points, but I’ll save them for another post.

Let’s look at this from an SEO perspective: you’ve got a well-established domain and business all geared towards providing the best user experience and greatest value to their visitors and customers; you’ve never spammed, bought links, pulled sleazy advertising tactics, or given your readers shallow content; for eleven long years your site ranked highly, as it should, and brought in increasing returns. So far so good. Until the day that traffic began getting hacked off.

Someone might argue market trends and shifting user interests might also be to blame, but in the absence of cataclysmic events (think, a plague wiping out 2/3rds of your customers in Europe during the Middle Ages–or perhaps getting into the slide rule business just before the invention of portable calculators in 1970) naturally occurring demographic shifts tend to be slow and gradual over at least a couple of years, more like the flow of sand dunes than the flick of a switch. If you’re seeing “stair step” drops, something is going on. And it’s unnatural.

Neil and a few others chipped in with sympathy, advice, and offers of help. There are only two things that I wanted to say in addition to their comments.

If you’re sure your SEO efforts are free of any blackhat activities (and there’s really only one way to know–ask your SEO techs or the SEO consultancy you hired to sit down and tell you exactly what they’ve been doing) then that does not mean there are no blackhat activities pointing to your domain. Enter: Negative SEO.

What is Negative SEO?

Negative SEO is the practice of using every underhanded SEO tactic possible, but all of it pointing towards a rival’s site. It is petty, vicious, and entirely expected–that’s what we humans have done for all millennia, haven’t we? Somebody invents a tool, somebody else figures out how to turn it into a weapon.

Its victims are as varied as its perpetrators. While smaller, younger business are easier to crush or push out of rankings, anyone can fall prey to it.

How Does It Work?

Ever seen those ads promising tons of PR9 links for only a few dollars? There are several such gigs on popular freelancing sites such as Fiverr–and even on “curated” marketplaces such as People Per Hour. Since most legitimate SEOs, marketers, and Google themselves regularly make efforts to educate people about SEO scams, you might have wondered who actually falls for those.

Dear website owners, you cannot get: 1.”Guaranteed” top rank;
2.In only 3 weeks;
3.For $15.
Pay no attention to the blinking banner ad. #SEO— The Sarritorialist (@Sarritorialist) August 31, 2015

The answer is: not just the ignorant and the shortcut seekers. These services are an easy way for unscrupulous people to launch an SEO attack on their rivals. Mad robots are not trained to be especially critical thinkers, they’re not the “Internet police”, and they don’t owe anyone due process before a conviction: if they spot a bunch of paid links pointing to a site, they will flag the site as spammy. No payment records searched, no warrants required. Case closed. You may appeal later.

But negative SEO doesn’t have to rely only on links, because SEO itself is about more than just links. The number one rule of negative SEO seems to be: any metric that can help your site can also be used against your site.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself?

The truth is, if you’re going to make a splash, you’re going to attract unsavory attention eventually no matter what. So don’t panic, and don’t let fear or worry cow you into avoiding reaching for the goals you really want. The best way to protect yourself is by expecting that someday someone will make it their business to sabotage your business–and then preparing for it.

It’s a three-pronged approach I would recommend to my own clients:

1. Monitor everything.

And I mean everything. Bounce rates, CTRs, server loads, link acquisition, HTTP responses–anything that can be measured that can even remotely boost your search engine rankings. Remember: if it can help you, it can harm you. No idea what to look for? Hire an SEO tech to set up analytics for you.

As an added bonus, keeping an eye on everything means you can be sure what SEO tactics your own team is using–and nip any problems in the bud.

2. Evaluate everything you monitor.

Here’s the hard part, where a lot of businesses fail. Don’t wait till you see a drop in traffic–traffic might be the last indicator that something has gone wrong. Take time out at least once a month to go over every report and bit of data with your techs or by yourself. It’s not an exam. You don’t have to have stellar reports or dramatically dismal results to talk about them. Analyze the information you have, and don’t be afraid you won’t know enough about SEO to spot something odd. You don’t need an SEO tech to tell you that, if your website sells artisan crafts, and you have a bunch of incoming links from websites selling mail order brides, something is not quite right.

3. Have a contingency plan.

Sit down with an expert and draw up a contingency plan for the worst case scenario. SEO is always a long-term investment: algorithmic SEO penalties may take months, or even years to fully recover from. Cut down on time wasted by developing a protocol you can put into place the moment an attack is detected. Once you’ve got a plan, don’t just leave it to gather dust till the day you have no other option. Review it periodically to make sure it’s still relevant and in line with current SEO best practices.

I think I may be the victim of negative SEO. What should I do?

First, calm down. One reason why I love tech is because almost anything that can be done can also be undone, provided you have the time and patience to do so. If you had a sound SEO strategy in place and/or followed the tips above, you should already have a backup plan. If not, it’s never too late to create a recovery plan. Enlist everything that can help you, and take action to mitigate the effects of the negative SEO.

You can try contacting Google, especially if you have concrete evidence of attack and its perpetrator–I’m sure they don’t take kindly to people trying to game their system to hurt others. But don’t expect much, particularly in the case of algorithmic penalties, since specific algorithms typically run on a pre-determined schedule that probably cannot be changed at your request.

Someone recently asked me what I think of SEO and I said: SEO is the lovechild of tech and marketing. Keeping that in mind, the advice I gave to the OP was: diversify your traffic sources. Avoid excessive dependence on any one channel and always have multiple ways to reach your core markets.

Finally, be clear about your business goals and priorities–sometimes a domain can be recovered but at a greater expense than it would take to set up a new domain. I understand this is not always an option, but there’s no fault in going with it if you must.

A Word About Mobile Optimization

Mobile optimization as an SEO guideline is no more “optional” than natural links or unique content. If you choose to ignore it, you do so with the full knowledge you will get penalized–just like someone buying links may do so with the full knowledge Google will slap a penalty on them eventually. There is no way around it. Good SEO includes good UX and an unoptimized site just does not stack up. I say this as someone who frequently uses her phone to browse non-responsive websites belonging to businesses she loves to buy from: your excellent products or outstanding service may keep bringing me back to that site, but its teeny-tiny unoptimized layout and massive impact on my device resources does NOT add to my happiness. Have the courtesy to anticipate a need before your users start to complain. Customer Service 101.

Alright Sparky, that’s it for now!

My parting words are the same as in my comment:

Wean your business off of Google, reach customers through other channels such as social media, apps, and secondary search engines, keep doing what you’re great at, DO make sure no-one is trying to sabotage you through SEO, and I am sure in good time you’ll find Google bending to YOUR will for once. Google does, after all, follow the money: users. If you’re what they want and Google does not serve up your pages, it’s going to lose out.

It’s up to you to demonstrate that.

A Question Still Left

One thing I’ve been wondering about is whether legal action can be taken against the perpetrator who conducted or paid someone to conduct the negative SEO campaign. I’d be grateful if someone could tell me more about it. Are there any business regulations or anti-trust laws that would apply to such behavior, especially since it’s a malicious practice that can drive a competitor’s business into the ground?

Oppression is Not a Competition

Screenshot, 12th Aug 2015. I have blurred the child's face because I think it was very irresponsible of the parent not to do so in such a post; the boy is a minor who may not wish to be associated with these views as an adult and is too young to give consent here.
Screenshot, 12th Aug 2015. I have blurred the child’s face because I think it was very irresponsible of the parent not to do so in the first place; the boy is a minor who cannot give consent to be featured in a public post of a controversial nature.

This post was written by the father of a double amputee child. While I support the child, it’s unfortunate his father feels the need to begin this post by knocking down “Bruce Jenner”.

It’s a simple concept, people: there is no single definition of courage, because there is no single definition of a struggle. And there doesn’t need to be. I can acknowledge that this child and Jenner are both courageous, as are the children that manage to grow and even thrive in the conflict zones this man’s country bombs; the countless trans children and adults all around the world who don’t have access to a fraction of the resources Jenner does and still persist in living authentic lives, knowing they may very well die in the process at the hands of transphobes.

Courage is also what the abused children everywhere have, what the families in Kasur have in facing this system and trying to get justice for their children. Courage is what every honest worker has, going to work every day in a system that he knows is biased against him, knowing he has no support base to fall back upon and no advantage to leverage. Courage looks like a woman stepping on to a bus, heading off to work or to school, not letting the fear of groping hands and worse stop her. Sometimes courage is getting out of bed when you are in the deepest pit of depression. And courage can also be as simple as living life, not knowing what the next moment will be like, but silently vowing to yourself you would rather leave the world a more peaceful, happier place than you found it. These are all examples of courage.

We all know a “real” Arthur Ashe award winner–they are our friends, our family, our neighbors, and so on. Does that mean the one in my house is or should be the only one? Is my friend’s mother who beat cancer and manages a primary school for middle-to-lower income kids less deserving? Deserving of what?

Awards are just awards. If we believed awards could fully describe the extent of human achievement (and struggle), we might also have to believe that most of the people who have done anything worthy or have struggled in any way are cis, white Western men. Perhaps that is one reason why I already understand the superficiality of public acknowledgement: if it happens sincerely, it happens too late. So I don’t sit down and squabble over the merit of these awards, just like I don’t go to a school’s sports day and claim rigging/media bias/political correctness if every child is handed a prize for participation. Because these are all ultimately meaningless.

What is real is real, award or no award. Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t need an award from ESPN to validate her life has been a personal struggle, any more than Malala needed a Nobel to realize she had risked her life to stand up against the Taliban. Meanwhile, Iqbal Masih was murdered at the age of 12 and he helped over 3000 children escape from the bonded child labor that still powers a sizable chunk of Pakistan’s capitalist economy–and he got no award. It would be an afterthought even if he did.

But you know what ISN’T courageous? A grown, cis man using his child’s struggle to punch down and attack a trans woman and her struggle as somehow less worthy of attention. Do not turn your child’s pain into an excuse to invalidate someone else’s. Oppression is NOT a competition.

Castle Bookula

I spent 3 years trying to catalog my library while continuously adding to it. My favorite open-source cataloging software had a habit of routinely crashing on me, especially after I’d just spent five hours configuring everything in excruciating detail, and my second-favorite software just didn’t have that many features. (Pretty much only a funny name…which is how it became my second-favorite.)

When all else failed, you could depend on my computer to have a meltdown.

I figured the writing was (not on) the wall: it’s the 21st century, you Luddite, sacrifice your library data to the cloud.

But Goodreads is Facebook for bookworms, and partially responsible for encouraging my book-induced poverty. LibraryThing is unappealing. And so for 3 years, my library organization levels veered between “piles of books on shelves” and “piles of books on the floor”.

Last night, the answer finally occurred to me as I struggled with a double-whammy bout of marketing ennui and writer’s block. I need to give my library its own website. GitHub, I said! To database or not to database, I wondered. Foolish question, I reminded myself. This is a chance to work on myself, not an excuse to work for myself. (Which is not to say I’m unequivocally opposed to working for Myself. Myself is a great boss; it’s like we always know what I is thinking.)

I just plain refused to touch the source code.

Luckily there’s a certain very popular blogging service that doesn’t let you touch the open-source code powering your site unless you pay for the privilege of doing so.