The deadly dangers of riding big waves

Posted by Dave CollinsContent, SEO

The events depicted in this story aren’t based on a true story; they are a true story.

This is the story of Bob.

Not surprisingly, Bob wasn’t his real name, but every other aspect of what he did is 100% accurate and real.

Bob was an ambitious and talented software developer, who was an early adopter of pretty much everything.

For example he built his own affiliate system, before most people even knew what an affiliate system was. And he was heavily into Search Engine Optimisation – often going far beyond what other businesses were doing at the time.

Things started to look good for Bob quite quickly, and as well as growing a small and capable team, he also managed to increase his sales by five times in little more than 18 months.

So Bob could be forgiven for thinking that everything was going well. He went from having a single piece of software to a small range of similar products, his sales continued to climb, and he continued to dominate all of his competition, both in terms of search engine rankings and market share.

Unfortunately, Bob had no idea that just ahead of him lay a series of problems that were going to cause him an enormous amount of pain.

It began in 2004 – with AdWords.

All shiny new tools appealed to Bob, and he quickly saw the great possibilities that AdWords had for his business. After only a few weeks of playing with the system, Bob was consistently seeing good results from his spend.

But Bob always got bored with his new toys quite quickly, and it didn’t take long for the appeal of AdWords to start to wear off. He did want to continue running the ads, but just not have to do it himself. So Bob went looking for a company to handle his AdWords, and so began the start of a very healthy relationship between our two companies.

It was shortly after we began working with him that I stumbled across an interesting landing page on Bob’s website. When I dug a little deeper I realised that this was only the very sharp point on the pointiest tip of the iceberg, so I scheduled a phone call with Bob.

When we spoke (this was before video conferencing became reliable), I explained to Bob that I’d found literally hundreds of “interesting” web pages on his web site. The pages were blatantly designed with one thing in mind: to rank highly on Google for specific words and phrases.

When I continued to dig a little deeper into his website, I soon realised that not only was he apparently using every SEO trick I’d ever seen, but also a whole lot more that were completely new to me!

I couldn’t see Bob’s face when I told him this, but I could definitely hear the delight in his voice when he said “I know! Isn’t it great?”

Bob had an awful lot of awful content on his web site, and it had nothing to with the user experience, sharing information or demonstrating expertise. It wasn’t there to make the world a better place through rich content, it was there purely to rank in Google.

When Bob explained what he was doing, he repeatedly referred to a common theme. That “moderate strategies only produce moderate gains“, and he absolutely wasn’t in any way interested in moderation!

I, of course, had to do the responsible SEO thing. I had to make it very clear that this was an extremely dangerous strategy, and that his day of reckoning without a doubt lay ahead of him.

Bob listened to everything I said, and agreed with every single word of it. But only in principle!

Bob paused, and explained why he was doing this.

I’m a smoker Dave. And unlike many other smokers, I really enjoy every single cigarette! But I’m also a realist, and I know there’s a good chance that one day it’s going to catch-up with me. And when that happens, I may well regret smoking, but probably not! For now I’m going to enjoy each and every cigarette, and for now I’m going to ride that enormously lucrative wave that Google have given me.

It’s easy to look back in horror at Bob’s views on the dangers of dodgy SEO, but bear in mind that the only real risk back then was being added to Google’s blacklist. And that didn’t actually exist.

These were the days before Panda, Penguin and any of the other little delights that Google would be unleashing on the world.

So although I urged Bob not to continue what he was doing, it was by no means an act of insanity. Bob was doing very nicely from the wave he was riding, and had been doing so for years.

The beginning of the end.

In November 2011 the SEO world changed quite dramatically, when Google released the first version of their Panda update. This was the beginning of what I’d warned Bob about, but without spoiling the story, it still wasn’t the day of reckoning that lay ahead.

Without going into the technicalities of Panda, this was Google’s first attempt to remove websites with so-called thin content. In other words websites with what Google perceived to be low-quality content.

Bob’s website immediately saw a drop of around 20-30% of traffic from Google.

I called Bob to explain what was happening, expecting him to be shocked, but his response was surprisingly indifferent. He was irritated by the fall in traffic and sales, but didn’t see it as too great a problem. “You’re the SEO, you know what you’re doing, so please fix it and send me the bill” were I think his exact words.

So I did. I had to fix a few hundred pages on his website, but once I’d done so I explained to Bob that I was still concerned.

My first concern was that it was impossible to say how long it would take to recover. An update like this had never happened before, so we had no experience to go by.

The bigger concern, however, was that Bob just had his wrist slapped for one single act of SEO dodginess. But this was only the very sharpest sliver of the tiniest tip of a very large iceberg of SEO tricks.

I pointed this out to Bob, and explained that this was certain to only be the first shot in a very long war of SEO updates and cleanups, and that without any doubt, more SEO problems lay ahead.

Bob listened to everything that I said with a fairly open mind, as he always did, before replying. “I take your point, and I think that you’re right. But Dave I’m still a smoker! And I’m happy to accept the risks of what I’m doing, and deal with tomorrow tomorrow.

So Bob went back to work on his very successful software, and life went on as normal.

But not for long.

This time it was bad.

In April 2012, Google released their Penguin update. And again without getting into the technicalities, Penguin was all about penalising websites that used low-quality links to improve their rankings.

Bob had dismissed Panda five months earlier as an inconvenience. But Penguin started to hurt a lot faster and caused a great deal more pain.

Before Penguin, Bob was seeing around 600-800 high-quality visitors a day from Google, many of whom converted to sales quite quickly. When Penguin went live, Bob’s visitors fell from 600-800 a day to single figures. On some days he saw no traffic whatsoever from Google.

So it didn’t take long for his sales to be decimated. Within a few months, Bob was having to let some of his staff go, many of whom had worked with him for several years.

So Bob once again commissioned us to help him fix his problem. But this time it took a lot longer.

Again, you have to understand that this was completely new territory, and no-one had ever dealt with this sort of thing before.

Today we have many options at our disposal for carrying out a link audit, but in 2012 we were learning as we went along.

Even just carrying out a link audit took a lot longer than today, but after the first sweep, I managed to find well over 10,000 links that were causing Bob problems, and far more were to be unearthed over the coming weeks.

It took months to start making a difference, and it was well over a year before Bob’s organic traffic levels went anywhere near where they’d been in the past.

This time it’s safe to say that Bob was well and truly shaken up. It’s one thing to know that the day of reckoning will happen at some point, but quite another when it actually happens.

Today Bob’s business has fully recovered, and Bob is staying well away from dodgy links, or any sort of black hat SEO tactics.

But Bob’s problems weren’t really caused by dodgy links or over-optimised content. These were merely the symptoms of a greater issue.

The real issue was Bob’s determination to ride waves, without an understanding of what the consequences might prove to be.

When Bob started working on his low-quality content and links, no-one had any idea what the future might hold in terms of Google’s response to websites trying to game the system. But any SEO with any sense of responsibility knew that some form of penalties undoubtedly lay ahead, as Google were definitely going to have to take a stand against unwanted SEO practices that exploited their weaknesses.

Bob’s mistake was to ride the great waves that Google gave him, without having any idea of just how crushing the repercussions might be.

Black hat SEO for the most part isn’t illegal or immoral. But if you value the traffic that Google send your way, and this plays a significant role in your company’s success, then you’re playing with the very hottest of fires.

When you get caught, and you will eventually be caught, it may take months or longer to make a modest recovery.

Our company has been contacted far too many times by businesses who either gamed the system or used other companies to do this for them. And like Bob, their wakeup calls were brutal, and not all of them were fortunate enough to survive the experience.

Enormous waves look beautiful from afar, but they all break eventually. And when they do, the results can be catastrophic for anyone caught inside them.