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?

“Holding so much hourly work is selfish”.

I freelance on Upwork and visit the community forum every once in a while. Today was one of those times. That’s how I noticed a post in the forum, made by a fellow freelancer:

Basically some of the Veteran freelance are kept on Farming hourly work although they already have so much in list, this is a nice strategy in securing income but too selfish for those freelance with no work and newbies. Hourly job count should be limit into a small number.

(Emphasis theirs.)

Naturally, this led to a rather “spirited” debate in the forum, with a lot of critics talking about free market economics and basically shutting the OP down with the equivalent of “It’s called Capitalism, stoopid.” (Also: grammar snobbery, which I don’t truck with anyway.)

What’s a social democrat to do?

My comment on the situation:

First of all, why assume each one of those hourly contracts is active? I’ve got some 7 hourly contracts and all but two of them basically function as a retainer of sorts. Weekly hours worked are on a sliding scale, going up and down as the clients need. So why do I still have them? Because the clients like what I do, they trust me to do it, and we’ve both invested in a working relationship that stretches back years now.

I’m a bleeding heart liberal but this isn’t just the free market working–this is individual autonomy and freedom to choose and to consent, to enter only into the relationships we want. Newsflash: clients who want to work with other people work with other people! Why should those who don’t be forced to find someone else just because one project ended? Why should the freelancers they prefer to stick with be made to feel guilty for not “cutting them loose”? What, would you also suggest that because it’s so hard to find love in this world, all romantic relationships should have a built-in expiry date and it’s selfish to be in a long-term relationship (don’t even get me started about polyamory) when there are so many single people in the world?

Clients are not text on screen and a nice wad of cash in your bank account. As freelancers, we don’t deal with “money”/”jobs”/tasks. We deal directly with real, live, human beings. People are not currency to be passed around and redistributed in the interest of “fairness”. Relationships matter. They might in fact be the most important determinant of job success. You can learn to code, write, draw, manage–whatever hard skills you have, they can be standardized, measured, and improved through a clearly defined learning program. But your job is not to push pixels around. Your job is to help someone. You might be able to become a better PHP programmer after reading a technical book, but you can’t just become a better communicator overnight because you read a book about communication. And personality? Forget about it–nobody can pick up a book and just “learn” to have a different personality. That match is precious and I can understand why freelancers and clients would both be reluctant to give it up.

But hey, for all this, I still don’t get paid for hours I don’t log–if a client won’t need anything from me till October, does that mean I don’t have any bills to pay till October? I don’t only exist when somebody messages me either. I have to eat, too. So yes, if I see a project I like that sounds like something I want to commit myself to, I go for it. If the feeling is mutual, I get the job.

Quit shaming people for being honest and autonomous in who they work with and how. There are real problems with the freelance economy, but these things aren’t those problems. The one contract “arrangement” I find objectionable is when (often veteran) contractors bid and win a project because of course they’re overqualified for it, but then they secretly subcontract it to newbies/less ‘visible’ freelancers. I feel this exploits both the client (who paid to have YOU work on it) and the subcontractor (who doesn’t get a smidgeon of credit, and only a fraction of the budget the original client allocated for the job, despite all their hard work). That’s about it.

Transparent, mutually consensual and respectful long-term working relationships are neither exploitation nor unethical. They are something to aspire to as a personal and professional goal. Redirect that energy to finding people who are looking to work with someone like you. And once you find each other, you might also discover you’d rather not work with random other people either.

To Poach or Not to Poach? The Ethics of Marketing to Competitors’ Customers

Derek Halpern has a new post that provides some good food for thought: is it ethically acceptable to pitch to a rival’s clients? His conclusion: it’s not black and white, but why cross a grey line when you’re better off finding entirely new customers?

Put those gloves back on, ladies and gentlemen.

I asked them how they’d feel if I went down their client list, and messaged each of them. Both of them said they wouldn’t like it. Naturally.

Oh tech people.

They notoriously HATE marketing and selling. And they’ll slam people who try to grow their business…

…but then we look at their actions. Behind closed doors, when nobody is looking, they’re marketing and selling in the worst way possible.

I’m me. I LOVE competition. I grew up playing chess, had a stint as a professional gamer, and nothing makes me happier than beating someone who’s trying to beat me.

But this has got to stop.

Not because it’s slimy. Not because it’s border-line unethical. It has to stop because this is a HORRIBLE way to win business.

Is it? Is it slimy? Is is borderline unethical? (And what does that mean–almost bad or almost good?) Is it a horrible way to win business?

I’ve been following Derek’s blog for a while now: I love his ideas, consider him one of my mentors, and hardly ever comment on his posts because I’m too busy nodding in silent agreement. But besides being an introverted admirer, I’m also passionate about things like ethics and social justice. When it comes to business practices, “borderline (un)ethical” doesn’t cut it.

So I thought about it, and most of what I thought, I also posted as a comment on the blog post. Here it is with some differences.

“I don’t like it” is Not a Marketing Strategy

“Slimy” is an expression of personal disgust, not a strategy breakdown. “Horrible” is a subjective perception, not an objective assessment.

The objective assessment: unless you know exactly who to approach (the visibly unhappy, the barely interested), pitching to your rival’s clients runs a significant risk of being futile from the get-go. As a marketing strategy, it is ineffective. Not morally reprehensible. Not horrible. Not always useless. Just far more trouble than it may be worth.

You’re not going to get very far if you don’t focus on growing your own little garden of goodwill. But short of a mudslinging campaign (unless it’s a battle of the brands done right, with humor), underhanded viciousness (see also: buying toxic backlinks to mess up a competitor’s site), or outright lies and slander, I don’t see what’s unethical about scoping out your competitor’s lawn.

More Freedom, Fewer Gag Orders

If it’s not illegal, not malicious, not slanderous, not based on falsehood, and not even occasion-inappropriate (like telling somebody to sign up on on your job site after they just quit another one) then how is that message unethical? Since when did good business become all about coloring within ‘grey lines’?

Sure, pitching to another company’s clients may not win you friends (and that’s something you need to think about) but here’s the thing: Derek is right when he says tech people don’t ‘get’ marketing or selling. Because those guys are wrong–not when they go after his customers, but when they feel upset at the thought of him doing the same to them. That’s not how it works–you don’t grow by limiting the messages your customers receive, you grow by beating those messages with a better one. Monopolies aren’t fair to anyone, not even you in the long run.

My job as an entrepreneur is to make something that makes people’s lives better. My job as a marketer is to create value, not control what people say about it and to whom.
There are lawyers for that.

Every Time You Lose a Customer, Everybody Wins. Including You.

No, seriously.

Somebody on the post pointed out that they offer pain relief through massage therapy and that other massage clinics are not viewed as competitors. There’s a reason for that, and it’s the same reason why doctors and teachers don’t generally view other healthcare and education professionals as “competitors” in the traditional sense even if that’s exactly what they are: the bottom line is the welfare of the client. This is naturally more accentuated in some industries than others.

But here’s the thing: that’s exactly why competition is necessary.

The idea of client loyalty being something that must be earned and maintained is exactly what drives many of the best of us, but it doesn’t work if every company stakes out their patch of earth that nobody else is allowed to trespass on–and here’s the key part–by virtue of it already belonging to them. No. Just no.

There’s no grey line here: the people who love your service are NOT going to be swayed one bit by this approach, and Derek is absolutely right that if a marketer doesn’t realize when they’re barking up the wrong tree then they need to stop. (And preferably get another job.) If anything, this will only make those clients even more loyal to you because they’ll have consciously put themselves in your corner when propositioned to betray you. (Just spend two minutes watching a political or religious debate and see the power of cognitive bias in all its reinforced beauty.) Honestly, thank those competitors for that; you couldn’t have done it without them!

BUT then there ARE people who might be swayed. These are the people who weren’t happy with what you had to offer, for whom your service was not such a great fit. So what does that mean? It means somebody found a service they are (or think they will be) happier with, you got rid of an unhappy or unmotivated client, and the country’s economy is better off for it on the whole.

It’s a lot like romantic relationships, I suppose: if you love someone, let them go–if they don’t come back, they were never yours. You may or may not expect out of courtesy that people won’t hit on your partner, but even if they do–your relationship is only as committed as your partner’s decision to flirt back. That commitment is what makes the difference to your future together, not other people’s interest or lack thereof.

Because really. They’re people, not eggs.