Curious case of small business and SEO

Jul 19th
posted in

We all read the advice online: don’t build crappy links. Don’t use short term benefit tactics in SEO. But do we always heed that advice? Can we always afford to?

The latest reality check came in the shape of a small online business in the UK, Children’s Furniture Store (CFS). Jane Copland  tweeted about an online letter in which they announce that, due to Penguin update, they are forced to close their business down.

This really got me. Firstly, I hate to see a small business go under. These people put their hearts and souls into the business and it breaks my heart to see them being closed especially due to changes in Google algo. Furthermore, it seems from their closing letter that they were a victim of bad SEO advice and that reflects poorly on all of us. We have enough attention seekers out there calling us out for asshattery as it is so I would rather be pictured as someone who helps small businesses rather than the one that puts them under.

A lot of people started reaching out to Children Furniture Store’s twitter account, offering help and advice. Unfortunately, it was too late for them; they have already started folding up their business and have ceased trading.

I am sure this is not the only case that has or will have happened. As a matter of fact as a result of my activity on twitter around this, I was contacted by another small business asking for help on similar issues. Other people I know encounter these situations on weekly basis.

So why is this happening? Who is to blame for this? A business is closing down, people are losing their jobs, we can’t just dismiss it as “that’s life” and “business is hard”. We cannot learn anything from this case and other similar cases if we do not take a hard look at all the possible culprits responsible for these situations and try to understand what could have been done to prevent this from happening:

This is the list of guilty parties, according to my opinion, ranked by a decreasing amount of responsibility:

The business owner

The business owner is the most responsible party here. They probably didn’t mind when the money was rolling in and never thought about the “what if” scenario. These are the things that they did wrong:

  1. Never ever put all the eggs in one basket – I think this is the most common and widespread piece of advice given to website and general business owners, yet people manage to ignore it again and again. Had CFS had various sources of traffic (which they could have developed with the profits from the organic traffic) or even had they started developing offline business, Google Penalty would have hurt much less. This is true even if you are not using blatantly spammy SEO techniques, you never know where Google’s business goals may be tomorrow and when the line between what is kosher and what isn’t is constantly moving, you never know when you will find yourself on the other side of the line. Having additional sources of traffic/business immunizes (relatively) you against this scenario. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and PAY for the traffic – for example Paid Search. Building a social presence would help too. Luckily they HAD kept their mailing list and were able to sell any leftover inventory using it – but mail is a good channel to optimize sales too.
  2. Get educated – there is a lot of SEO information out there. No one can follow all of it. But it is your prerogative as an online business to keep abreast of the most important best practices and pitfalls within the marketing channel that is providing you with the majority of your income. Had this business done their due diligence, they would know not to rely on only one stream of traffic, they would know that the practices used by their SEO provider are shady at best, they would know that they are paying too little for the SEO services for them to safely provide them with edge over their competition in their niche. They would also know what to do when shit hits the fan and not wait for a full year for the second hit which will ultimately decimate their business.


    In this case, the business owner did say that they spent a lot of time trying to read on the internet about similar issues – apparently they didn’t find any “real” advice. Should Business Owners learn to navigate online information a bit better? Or should we, as an industry, make sure that the information found on these issues is top notch? But more about that further down. In this particular case, the owner of the business did several things – tried reading about the possible problem, turned to an independent SEO (who told her to let the site die and start anew) and fired the agency that was probably the cause of all this. Still there was much more to be done and I hope other businesses will act differently in similar situations.
  3. Reach out – as their “we are closing the business” letter started circulating, more and more people started saying that they are willing to help. In a matter of minutes, both in public and private channels, a picture of what needs to be done to help this website started emerging. Getting this kind of analysis from industry experts can cost a lot of money, but if a business owner harnesses the benefits of the SEO community, either through Twitter, SEOBook Forum, Google Webmaster Central forums, SEOMoz Q&A forum, G+, Facebook groups, etc., they can get a pretty clear picture about what hit them and what needs to be done. They would be more aware of the risk levels involved with the SEO strategies they were using and would be able to move away from them much earlier, making the cleanup a more viable option. With all the misgivings of this industry, it has some of the most generous and helping people in it and this can be a tremendous asset for small businesses that are struggling to come with terms with the challenges involved in promoting your website in organic results.

SEO Company

  1. Spammy strategies – one look at the CFS’ backlink profile shows patterns of a backlink network.



    Further conversations with people that are connected to the company showed that this is indeed the case. Bunch of footer links, clearly paid-for blog posts, sidebar sitewide links from non-related sites in non-English languages… You took a small business that doesn’t know what they are doing, promised them wonders at three-digit monthly recurring price and it worked for a while. Did you warn them about the risks? Did you tell them that if Google decides to target these link-building practices, their whole business can go down the drain? Or did you encourage them to enjoy the party while it lasts? Did you instruct them to take the profits of these short-sighted tactics and invest them in diversifying their traffic sources? No you didn’t. You are no better than a drug dealer, reaping profits from the lack of knowledge of unsuspecting client, allowing them to risk their whole business and you should be ashamed of yourself for that. You sir, are an ass hat. 
  2. No responsibility – as the graph attached above shows, the CFS site was hit at two occasions, one in May 2011 and the other in May 2012. According to them, they have stopped working with you by the time WMT warning notices have arrived. Do you think that releases you from the responsibility for your work? What did you do in between those two dates? Did you take responsibility for CFS situation? Did you instruct them on how to fix their situation? How did you allow a business that found itself in a shitty situation, partially due to your actions, to get to the point where they have to close their doors? Do you honestly not care that people are going to be jobless because of the bad advice you have provided?

Google

Yes Google.

By allowing crappy linking strategies to work for so long, they have created a situation where the only viable option to stay competitive in certain niches was to join the bandwagon and use spammy links. You can stand on your soapbox only for only that long and preach “whitehat” techniques while your competitors are laughing all the way to the bank and cashing in. So yes, at some point they will probably be penalized, but until then they will have developed enough capital to be able to safely switch to some other domain/SEO strategy and have developed their brand to the point where they are practically immune from algorithmic changes. You have created a situation in which following your Best Practices was a financially unviable option for a lot of small businesses and for this you carry a part of the blame

Furthermore, you should realize that the information you give out about these penalties is not read only by sinister SEOs spending their days and nights trying to reverse engineer your precious algorithm. Why is it so hard to tell the business owner what is it they are getting penalized for? Tell them “your site has a large amount of paid links/unnatural anchors. You can find these links marked with a huge red exclamation mark in your WMT link report. Get rid of them”. Doesn’t Google have a responsibility of providing decent, informed content around these sort of penalties so that  a business owner can refer back to the source? When they penalize a business – shouldn’t it be their responsibility to say EXACTLY why? Is a bland, notification in GWMT sufficient?

When you Google “Penguin” or “Panda” etc – shouldn’t Google’s own written guidelines on recovery be ranked at top positions, so no one else gets scammed? Yes, it is not all Google’s fault that these businesses were told that it is OK to do whatever it takes to rank. Yes, Google does not owe anyone anything but it would be a sign of goodwill towards those that provide the content of the web for Google to crawl and serve ads on.

The SEO Community

How is the SEO community responsible? By greatly diluting the information space in our industry. The number of inane posts, all written in the same “10 ways unrelated-X affects your SEO-Related-Y” format, all based on conjectures and rehashed hearsay, make it almost impossible for a non-industry person to get to the meaningful information. I have seen articles with link building strategies that were covered in 2006 being peddled as “current” and “cutting edge” in 2012.

Without knowing the authors, companies they work for, their level of experience and history of their posting, there is no way that a person who doesn’t spend significant amounts of time wading through the noise created in the SEO space can know what is reliable and what not. Furthermore, the lack of propensity to call out crap information when we see one, complete avoidance of confrontation within the industry, limiting critical discussion on quality of content behind gated walls of private Skype chats and limited Facebook groups, makes the pruning of this jungle of nonsense an impossible task and for that all of us bear some part of responsibility.

I am really sad for CFS. It depresses me that a business can go under so easily from causes that could have been prevented. There are real people behind these websites, making their living, in spite of Google doing a lot to make their success harder (by promoting big brands and at a switch of an algorithm button making previously acceptable and successful practices - damaging). I hope that this post will help other businesses make sure that they are doing everything possible not to find themselves in a similar situation.

Many thanks to Rishi for helping with editing and some background info.


Branko Rihtman has been optimizing sites for search engines since 2001 for clients and own web properties in a variety of competitive niches. Over that time, Branko realized the importance of properly done research and experimentation and started publishing findings and experiments at SEO Scientist. Branko is currently responsible for SEO R&D at RankAbove, provider of a leading SEO SaaS platform – Drive.

Published: July 19, 2012

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Comments

July 19, 2012 - 9:45am

Branko - very sad case indeed, but I am very happy to see the seo community offer their help. It seems that in the last few months there has been a real maturing process in the community - at least that's my feeling.

July 19, 2012 - 10:37am

From the frame of reference of Google's older war on paid links, to me it seemed a bit weird how long Google let the paid link splog networks run for. At one point there was a site which had 5 different networks listed where they (just that one company) were running 5 different networks in parallel. It's a bit hard to know if Google was so slow to move on this stuff due to ...

  • being preoccupied with dealing with site hacking (obviously a big issue)
  • wanting to save it up to do a shock & awe blast where they did multiple things around the same time (eg: deindex splog networks, unnatural link warnings, tighter anchor filters, penguin all in the course of a couple months)
  • if they intentionally let it run long in the tooth as a form of entrapment. A few years ago we had a thread about how Google was moving from spam hunting to trap setting, but 2 years is a long time to wait for a catch.

The cynic in me wants to vote for #3 above, but the thing I find hard with that theory is the idea that Google would intentionally let the quality of their search results be degraded for years just to be vindictive. I think they care too much about search quality to intentionally let stuff run that long.

I think there are a number of factors driving the misinformation in the SEO industry...

  • the market is such an obvious market to be in that it is so saturated with providers that people are really hungry for attention & there is only so much attention to go around & so many things to write about (even as the barrier to entry in terms of costs increases for attaining rankings, the number of people referencing SEO keeps increasing geometrically over time)
  • the economics of sharing in some instances are quite hosed. some people might get punished for sharing certain bits (or, at a minimum, the cost in losing a competitive advantage can sometimes be greater than the rewards from sharing)
  • if we write things that are true today & then wait a couple years many of those items will eventually become less true. what's worse is that the economics for updating old public content are often non-existent. (even Google's certification exams are out of date)
  • experience is different for so many people (if a person just did consulting primarily for big brands it is easy for them to slag off anyone who gets hit as being a scammer, simply because they lack experience with smaller clients)
  • as Google makes the search ecosystem less and less stable (for individual publishers) that in turn increases the incentive for an SEO to market themselves as being low risk and being able to offer "risk-free returns" and such
July 19, 2012 - 10:42am

Great article! Penguin has hit small businesses very hard, and for some reason small businesses have been overlooked by the SEO pundits (SEOMOZ / searchengineland etc) when discussing Penguin. Small businesses don't win natural links easily (or at all in a lot of cases) and so just to survive they have to proactively build links. We all know this and everybody does it - it's just a case of where the lines are drawn in the sand between what is "OK" and not "OK". Right now, the message is pretty stark: don't build links at all. Don't do SEO (Matt Cutts has actually explicitly said that). If you're good enough, you'll get the links. Essentially Google are saying that your product and service will sell themselves - people will find them and link to them. This mantra has not changed but now they're actually penalising sites (i.e. small businesses) that don't have the super-strength link profiles big businesses have.

If you don't do any SEO, you lose anyway.

The whole ecosystem on the web right now makes it very tough for a small business, and it's gearing up more and more to cater to bigger organizations. Google favours big brands as has been highlighted many times already, and paid inclusion on their shopping vertical makes this even more so. Also, platforms like Twitter and Facebook are more useful to big brands than small companies. Big brands can use these platforms for public relations - small businesses TRY to use these platforms to sell/promote from, but that's a very tough proposition - these platforms aren't suited to selling/promoting products/services - there's a lot of marketing and not much MARKET on these platforms. So SMBs rely on search engines the most. And if you get one dominant player in the search engine market (Google) who make huge shake-ups to their algorithm - that can and does kill off small businesses who have no realistic, viable alternative to gaining new business other than via search engines. Email marketing gets you only so far, social networks are not great places to win customers for a small business no matter what the hype or outlier positive case study your read.

July 19, 2012 - 10:50am

"Essentially Google are saying that your product and service will sell themselves"

And yet, in spite of reaching over a billion people every month with Google.com & YouTube.com & their distributed ad network, Google still spends $2 billion a year on advertising & promotion.

"Email marketing gets you only so far"

I think email marketing is vastly under-rated, but building a list of customers (or even free users) is still a function of having exposure (like SEO traffic or paid search traffic or social media traffic). It is a good hedge to lean into if/when the others collapse, but you have to keep building just to stay flat there because email lists wither away. I bet if we emailed all the people who have set up accounts over the years here that over half the emails would bounce & then another 3/4 of what is left wouldn't be opened. Of course part of that is a function of my lack of use of email marketing in the past...I haven't worked hard to cultivate an ongoing relationship there (largely due to a distaste for how rude and demanding people are via email, especially in the online marketing space).

July 19, 2012 - 11:07pm

I am really glad you mentioned two things in this post:

1) Not only is their blame on the clients part but how much did these cheap seo tactics aid in the growth of their business. They should of built out a more holistic strategy when things were good, the fact they were so reliant on google may show they weren't a proper business in the first place. How many apparent "businesses" have gone under due to shift in Googles SERPs. If that's enough to put you under, you have to wonder how viable the business was in the first place. Online isn't what it used to be. Just like offline, for the most part you need a lot more money to beat your market if you haven't got any concrete USPS.

2) I am so glad you mentioned the quality of content in the industry. Its truly appalling at the moment. Now that every "seo" agency is now a content marketing agency it will just get worse.

July 19, 2012 - 11:39pm

Very interesting reading. I spend most of my time focusing on Local & b/c of that a lot of time on what is now called Google +Local. If you follow it closely over the last 2 months one of the worst periods of problems have been encountered by smbs. First google took down a lot of sites for violating its terms of service.

Swoosh. Wham. Lots of sites went down. Hey look its all in the eyes of the beholder. The sites that Google Local personnel focused on were sites that don't accept visitors/customers to their locations. Google has tight rules on that. I don't think the rules makes sense, btw. Google +Local is a huge business directory. That means its like the old print YP, and other web directories. Frankly for the most part those directories don't create a distinction between people visiting a location or not. Its a business directory. List the business name, address, phone number and other data like all other directories.

Google looked at it differently, set up tight TOS and recently enforced them. It appears they overshot their mark, did it in a cumbersome way....and they took down too many smbs.

Secondly, it appears they are making serious backend changes in google +Local. But as in virtually every other time they make backend changes there are serious complications and screw ups.

The result is more businesses appear to have problems now than at any other time. Its so bad that last week google +local said...we can't handle all the issues essentially...http://productforums.google.com/forum/#!category-topic/business/technica...

On July 11, when they made this announcement..they were basically saying..."we can't handle all the problems". I sensed that when that announcement came out but that is also the perspective of Mike Blumenthal who reads between the lines and understands google local better than anyone else.

All of that background abt google local is intro and a corollary to the problems this web based business had with the impact of Panda and how it was forced to close down.

Even more background and related to responsibility and commentary on it: Think of the Bernard Maddof scam of billions of investor dollars. Lots of those very wealthy sources also walked around thinking they were the smartest folks around, based on their wealth. They got scammed just as the above referenced web based furniture store did by virtue of crappy seo's that pulled tricks with crappy link buying methods. they got scammed.

Its not unique to the SEO world. Its out there in every nook and cranny of the commercial world.

I appreciate the article's effort to assign blame or responsibility and assigning blame first on the business operator. That is a commercial reality in every facet of the commercial world. Its a simple fact of life.

I operate SMB's with partners. We are the ultimate responsible ones. We have successes. We also have failures. We have to work every day to have more successes than failures. That makes us no different than any other source.

We have to diversify sources of business.

And therein is where I get to Google.

Google is a monopoly on eyeballs where it comes to intent to buy as with no other entity that has ever existed before. As it applies to intent to buy it is the worlds most significant directory of all things in all ways with its SERPS, and its local listings in PACS of local businesses. There is nothing else as powerful or significant as with Google in search.

For every consultant that advises businesses to go "Social" the simple fact is that consumers turn primarily to SEARCH when they are serious about intent to buy. That means that FB and all the other social media sources are somewhat secondary to Search when it comes to intent to buy. Similarly all the other SE's are deeply secondary to Google. All other sources of attracting leads are now secondary as the world of buyers increasingly uses Search (and that means Google (in most of the world)

And so it is a difficult environment, primarily dominated by Google, that can instantly change the environment based on algo changes, or other changes....all of which have this incredible power of life and death over different buasinesses that have come to depend on search...because the world of consumers has found SEARCH to be the ultimate world's best directory for buying everything everywhere of every source.

So yes I believe primary responsibility falls on the owner, I believe the SEO firm, based on the data provided screwed them with crappy efforts, I really don't buy into the SEO community as having responsibility due to so many other elements that intersect........but turn to Google.

With Google its a different animal. Its an astonishing monopoly of a type and different than any other monopoly in the past. Its a monopoly on all eyeballs who are pursuing intent to buy.

Therein lies a dilemma and a huge issue that should be dealt with IMHO and this sad case about childresfc is but one more example of its power and impact.

At least that is my $0.02.

@localoptimizer

July 20, 2012 - 3:32am

I literally just got back from a meeting with an online-only retailer. They currently dominate in terms of natural search coverage and yet have already begun hedging that bet by heavily investing in paid advertising channels, email, and loyalty programs.

Moreover, they're much more concerned with what Amazon is doing than what Google is doing.

The reality is that Google is lagging far behind Amazon in terms of capturing e-commerce demand. That's a fact. There's tons of data that supports this. Google is no monopoly in this particular arena.

As far as the small business that's closing down, if the design and workmanship they claim on their site is as solid as they tout it to be, I have no doubt in my mind that they can very quickly find distribution partners to help them sell pieces. If not, there are literally hundreds of other niche children's furniture makers waiting in the wings to snatch their market share via giant marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, or even Walmart (yes, Walmart also has an Amazon-like marketplace as do several other mega-brand retailers).

Lastly, and when I searched for keywords relating to this particular business, I found a fairly even mix of big brands and small businesses in both the natural results.

If you want to expose and rail against real monopolies, I'd suggest you look into the major ISPs and mobile carriers:
http://www.theverge.com/2012/7/5/3138711/five-years-after-the-iphone-car...

E-commerce search is far from a monopoly at this point in time. If Google and Amazon were to somehow merge, then we could maybe begin to see eye to eye on this, though you'd still have massive e-commerce search alternatives like eBay, Walmart, etc.

July 20, 2012 - 2:36pm

...but it won't change the FACT that Google has a monopoly on search. Even Eric Schmidt said "I'll take that" when Peter Thiel mentioned that some monopolies may be legal.

There might be subsections where other outfits have monopolies or near monopolies (eg: Amazon.com with ebooks, or ISPs). But the existence of other monopolies does not diminish the fact that Google is indeed a REAL monopoly & that even their chairman of the board agrees with the assertion.

In your counterpoint about ecommerce shopping options for baby cribs, you listed eBay and Amazon & WalMart as well as that there are "literally hundreds of other niche children's furniture makers waiting in the wings." The fact that there are so many options is precisely why none of them are monopolies the way that Google is.

[quote]when I searched for keywords relating to this particular business, I found a fairly even mix of big brands and small businesses in both the natural results.[/quote]
And, far more importantly, how has that mix changed over the last 3 or 4 years? If we are honest in our analysis we can see how much it has shifted away from the smaller players toward the bigger players.

That does not mean that all small players will fail. Rather it means that they are currently much more likely to fail than they were a few years back.

This is not to say that monolithic corporate monopolies routinely prefer to promote small businesses. In almost every case (at least in the US history of media) they have eventually done the opposite (because it was more profitable for them to do that). Google is simply more typical than they are given credit for being. If you think otherwise, feel free to explain Google's AdSense ad category for "get rich quick schemes promising fast earnings" (and those are their words, not mine!)

July 20, 2012 - 10:30am

You know what, I feel for this small business, but do I really.

The post got me thinking, should I quit SEO altogether.. ask why? because whatever I've learned and did / do to websites during optimization / link building, I have learned it from the web.

When I started people used to preach, put keywords in title/content, submit to directories and bookmarks, submit to article directories, and voila the site used to rank.

Then later came forum signatures, link dropping, blog commenting, profile spamming, link wheels, blog networks, link networks etc etc etc and all these used to work and if you do not believe me it still works.

And then the same people preach build quality content (cough...ahem ahem..cough.. guest posts, info-gs, etc) and links will come.

And the same web now says that whatever it had preached to me earlier, which got me started doing all this, is all wrong. Now it says, do nothing, build quality content. I call bullocks.

The problem with SEO is its that it is built around chasing an algorithm. You are bound to fail always. Panda, Penguin, Florida etc. because you have no control on it.

Its not like a programming language, say for example. If I want to learn Java, I pick a book of Head First from O'reilly, I learn the basics and move on and then I build something using the knowledge I gain.

For SEO, I do not build something, I am chasing something (traffic, ranks, leads etc from Google) and this is what people fail to realize.

Now whose fault is it that CFS is closing down? Branko covers them all, but I would move the community to the top of the list along with Google. Why? because if Google had never come out publicly, how it finds websites and displays them, there would have been no SEO community present. But it has, and what did the community do? It started gaming the system and tried to fool the algorithm.

And then it started sharing those details to the public via the open web. Then along came Florida and what happened then? They simply hurt themselves in the foot. Now the community still exists, techniques to game Google still exist, but it happens behind a wall. Take SEO book for example, why does it charge $300 every month? Read this and its for the world to see http://www.seobook.com/join/.

Its also part of CFS' fault. Have they shared what type of SEO did they hire? Did they just find someone in Elance or Odesk and had it done? Did they cheap out? Now cheap out, is a very interesting topic when it comes to SEO..

When some one charges 5000 USD for doing an audit for a 10 to 20 page website, I am going to cheap out.

And this raises another point, the so called third world countries. I bet people in the west, detest outsourcing. Hey, but its you people who 'do' outsource because you want cheap labor. Also, to be noted is cheap labor doesn't always translate to cheap output. Its cheap because, the value of the dollar is better than the value of the currency of the outsourced county. The founder of Windows, Bill Gates, once said, he is happy to close shop in the US and move to India. You know why? it was because of monetary reasons and not for quality of labor.

Coming to CFS, its sad. Its something that happens everyday, people go out of business and new ones come in. But it hurts when something you do or are a part of it is responsible for it. From Google to all the SEOs out there, its fun until it lasts, when you get hurt, that's when the realization kicks in.

Note - To all whom read my rant, be sure to check out AndrewL's comment above.

July 20, 2012 - 4:10pm

And then the same people preach build quality content (cough...ahem ahem..cough.. guest posts, info-gs, etc) and links will come.

And the same web now says that whatever it had preached to me earlier, which got me started doing all this, is all wrong. Now it says, do nothing, build quality content. I call bullocks.

Some SEO-based business models require that people dispense advice even when they have none to give. That is every bit as much of the problem as the algorithmic changes inside of Google are.

The problem with SEO is its that it is built around chasing an algorithm. You are bound to fail always. Panda, Penguin, Florida etc. because you have no control on it.

Agreed. The bumps and bruises and changing with the ecosystem are part of the process.

The same is true with many other forms of marketing as well. Much like search engines that feel they need to drastically change the search ecosystem, consumers are fickle and marketing strategies change. Yes your brand is still your brand, but how you related it to people & how you capture attention & move it onto commercial activity changes over time.

Its not like a programming language, say for example. If I want to learn Java, I pick a book of Head First from O'reilly, I learn the basics and move on and then I build something using the knowledge I gain.

Programming is about logic, whereas marketing is more about emotion.

if Google had never come out publicly, how it finds websites and displays them, there would have been no SEO community present. But it has, and what did the community do? It started gaming the system and tried to fool the algorithm.

There was an SEO industry before there was a Google.

Take SEO book for example, why does it charge $300 every month? Read this and its for the world to see http://www.seobook.com/join/

Not sure what your point is there. Are you suggesting that I should have worked double shift hours for a decade straight for free? Or that I should have spent over a million building up this site, but run it at a loss?

Its also part of CFS' fault. Have they shared what type of SEO did they hire? Did they just find someone in Elance or Odesk and had it done? Did they cheap out? Now cheap out, is a very interesting topic when it comes to SEO.

I think since they were giving in they didn't feel a need to divulge more. But certainly it would have been a more helpful warning to others if they could have been more precise. Though anyone can look up their backlink data and find the issues (especially with Bing now offering a free link index, in addition to all the paid services like Majestic SEO, Open Site Explorer & Ahrefs).

When some one charges 5000 USD for doing an audit for a 10 to 20 page website, I am going to cheap out.

What does that arbitrary example have to do with anything? Cost is often (but not always) associated with value. And where it is not, there are BOATLOADS of opportunities to learn for a person to do it themselves. Nobody suggests a person should be entirely ignorant and jump into a 5, 10, or 100 grand investment. Successful investing requires at least some baseline level of knowledge.

And this raises another point, the so called third world countries. I bet people in the west, detest outsourcing. Hey, but its you people who 'do' outsource because you want cheap labor. Also, to be noted is cheap labor doesn't always translate to cheap output. Its cheap because, the value of the dollar is better than the value of the currency of the outsourced county. The founder of Windows, Bill Gates, once said, he is happy to close shop in the US and move to India. You know why? it was because of monetary reasons and not for quality of labor.

It is not outsourcing that makes SEO services terrible. What makes SEO outsourcing often fail is that people want to outsource things they undervalue. So tie a low budget with work done by a person who is willing to work impossibly cheap and one does not have to be particularly bright to realize that corners will be cut somewhere. The big issues (IMHO) are not people who are doing dirt cheap work. Rather the big issues are...

  • greedy selfish customers: those who want a million Dollars worth of marketing for a couple hundred bucks & are surprised when it stops working
  • greedy selfish providers: those who charge first world prices & do poor quality outsourced work (essentially marking things up 10-fold without adding any quality or value)
July 20, 2012 - 8:32pm

eddawson, good comments. I am from a programming background and you are right about coding - you accumulate skills. You grow. You climb up. With SEO, you do not. With SEO, it's about today, not tomorrow. Tomorrow is something to fear as any SEO, no matter how white your hat is. If you're a programmer, tomorrow is an opportunity to learn even more. For an SEO, tomorrow might be the day you have to start again and rebuild your little empire. Tomorrow could be ground zero. Perversely, if you're a successful SEO, you hope tomorrow will be the same as today - hardly ambitious, hardly a path to growth and enlightenment. SEO is a negative industry where you have no control over your destiny if you dare to take any risks (and what business does not take risks?). If you're a programmer, you want to push the boundaries and hope tomorrow is even better than today, and you get inspired by other programmers. With SEO, it's more about rubber-necking at other SEO's calamaties and hoping it won't be you tomorrow. Who'd be an SEO? :)

July 20, 2012 - 9:02pm

There are of course some ways to build lasting momentum in SEO, but it is becoming far harder & margins are shrinking across the board. It happens to any medium.

Even in other lines of businesses there can be Google-like risks. For instance, if you were a health insurance screener caller before that health insurance bill went through your job is soon gone. The same sort of thing can happen due to road contruction, or a McDonalds or Starbucks or WalMart setting up shop next door and running that store at a loss (sometimes for years on end) until they drive you under.

July 20, 2012 - 12:30pm

hugoguzman, as you are no doubt aware, Amazon take anywhere between 6% and 25% of each sale plus 99c - this is a huge cost to a lot of retailers - prohibitively so for many small retailers. Getting traffic from Google is a more viable (in terms of profit) solution than Amazon for an SME.

July 20, 2012 - 2:07pm

No doubt, Andrew, but that's the nature of capitalism.

It's not supposed to be easy to make it in the business world, much less in retail and/or distribution of physical goods. Prior to the internet, the cost of doing business was also quite high and margins were always quite low.

Google essentially created a nice loophole for small business to get their foot in the door but that loophole is now closing. And you know what, the really innovative small business owners will survive and even thrive in some cases despite this change.

Besides, there are plenty of small players making a killing on Amazon. That's a fact. It's not easy, but it can most certainly be done.

July 20, 2012 - 2:40pm

"but that loophole is now closing."

That is the point I am pounding on over and over again: the transition / change in the ecosystem.

And I also believe it is primarily driven by financial impacts as well.

"there are plenty of small players making a killing on Amazon."

The tricky part is the more successful you are the more likely you are to get displaced by Amazon itself. ;)

July 20, 2012 - 3:27pm

And that's Amazon's right (and Google's). Believe it or not, even small to medium tier e-commerce businesses do this sort of displacing. I know this based on first-hand experience. They look for niches that are under-exploited and/or well old-fashioned offline brands rule the space but suck at digital and then exploit away.

There's nothing evil about this. It's actually the way business is supposed to work.

And I know that you well know (because I read a lot of the same books you've read and allude to in your posts) that this is a far cry from the truly abhorrent behavior displayed by truly unscrupulous monopolies like the ones highlighted in "The Master Switch."

The ecosystem is shifting, but that can be a good thing if you can predict where/when the shift is occurring and where it will point.

July 20, 2012 - 4:14pm

...are aligned with search would be the areas where like a certain site gets penalized & then a certain ad network pays people to shag that same content (or directly scrapes it itself) and then uses the copy in replace of the original source. It is more nuanced than paying a goon to physically tear down and burn up a smaller network's communications equipment. But the impact isn't particularly different.

Agree on the value of predicting goes up & the potential awards go up if you get it right...however not every thesis can be easily invested in. The level of thought & the number of steps you must think ahead keeps increasing if you want to make big bets.

July 20, 2012 - 7:28pm

We can boil this down to capitalism at work, and nobody's going to argue with that. However, to me it will end up wth a complete lack of competition and choice in many markets in terms of both numbers of vendors and range of products and services. Strong brands will consolidate and grow stronger. Some small players will survive through a mixture of serendipity and talent and you may point to them and say how healthy and vibrant the internet is, but it will be nothing like the choice a consumer had a few years ago.

If capitalism decides that the internet caters NOT to the consumer and NOT to the vendor but simply to the intermediator (Google, Amazon), then perhaps it won't be surprising if both consumer and vendor may eventually find other ways to seek each other out in a more direct way (disintermediation).

The intermediator is the least valuable party in any transaction, yet often the greediest and self-serving.

July 20, 2012 - 8:46pm

...I mean we have some savvy customers & in many cases Google makes more profit off their businesses than they do running the business Google feeds off of. On AdWords sometimes Google can eat 2/3 or 3/4 of the value of a transaction. And that presumes that their isn't an irrational bidder in the marketplace or a bidder that is intentionally losing money just to block out competition.

July 20, 2012 - 10:05pm

I can't help but think Google are - with cost per CLICK (not action) - way over-estimating the value they bring to the table. They're thriving off both their consolidated place on the web, and also the fear businesses have of simply going bust (in the last 4 years of uncertain times). Of course, this is what happens when one company monopolises traffic - they can manipulate the climate and the environment. Don't upset Google - play by the rules. We learn what is ethical according to Google. Perversely the intermediator becomes WAY WAY WAY over-valued and therefore controlling. In some ways Google are like a government that minimally serves the people (at the same time heavily taxing them), while also creating a climate of fear and control over the people. Such an entity like to preach ethics and values that help foment the climate of fear - see how white hat SEOs love to be the apostles of the Google creed - of ethical and unethical SEO. Don't upset our overlords.

And yet at the end of the day, what are Google? A simple intermediator - a middleman on the internet. Nothing more or less. They even do a good job of introducing the searcher to the provider, if they're willing to let themselves. If greed didn't get in the way. Also, consider this - adblock or switching to Bing (in big enough numbers) would cripple their business. They're weak and vulnerable - as vulnerable as the smallest business. That's a fact, no matter how cynical you might be. It's a perplexing situation....

July 21, 2012 - 12:25am

Also, consider this - adblock or switching to Bing (in big enough numbers) would cripple their business. They're weak and vulnerable - as vulnerable as the smallest business. That's a fact, no matter how cynical you might be. It's a perplexing situation.

I don't really see that level of vulnerability in Google...

  • AdBlock is already suggesting separating "good" from "bad" ad networks. As such, the greater their user-count the greater their incentive to sell out to Google.
  • In Europe Microsoft is required to create a user choice screen. And yet Google inserts themselves as the default choice in their own browser, pays for default toolbar install and default search on new computers, and buys default search placement on other browsers like Firefox & Safari. Google also does revenue share kickbacks with phone networks that use Android and set the default search to Google. There are a lot of businesses dependent on the Google gravy train & Microsoft has been legally crippled from behaving like Google, at least in some markets.
  • Further, Google has nearing $50 billion in cash & while they are aggressively investing in growth their margins are still about 30%. And they have only recently started to test the waters on selling search data to investors. Fully exploiting that channel alone (while not investing in more datacenters) would likely cover Google's operating expenses. And this doesn't even take into consideration that they could also license their data to various government entities, or that Youtube has to bring in over a billion a year in free cash flow (roughly similar to the current Yahoo!), or that the AdSense network outside of YouTube likely has a similar run rate, or that Google could start pulling back features on their web analytics tool that is free and generate another billion a year in profits by getting more aggressive at charging businesses to fully see their own data. It wouldn't be hard to grow Google another $10 billion a year in revenues without even counting search. And if they stop building new datacenters (which they would if they shrank) they could easily cover operating costs.
  • If any vertical publishing network looks to grow a huge slice of search share Google can dip into the $50 billion to buy it, like they did with YouTube.
  • And the above doesn't even get into the idea of an aggressive Google which uses searcher data to help feed an internal hedge fund that absolutely could dominate Wall Street. (I am not saying they would do that now, but if they were desperate it would be yet another avenue of monetization).
July 20, 2012 - 6:44pm

"Some SEO-based business models require that people dispense advice even when they have none to give. That is every bit as much of the problem as the algorithmic changes inside of Google are."

>> Isn't that the problem as a whole? If I am new, where do I get started? This leads to all this nonsense of crappy SEO and good SEO.
Not sure, how you relate it to Google as I feel the problem with Google, is googlers themselves do not understand it. It seems to have overgrown itself and putting it all into a single piece is no longer easier as it were before.

"Programming is about logic, whereas marketing is more about emotion."

>> Marketing also demands and breathes logic, which makes sure the right emotions are kindled.

"There was an SEO industry before there was a Google."

>> Yes agreed. But was it as dependant as it is now? Was internet as accessible as it is now?

"Not sure what your point is there. Are you suggesting that I should have worked double shift hours for a decade straight for free? Or that I should have spent over a million building up this site, but run it at a loss?"

>> You got to read the comment as a whole. What you did was you tried chasing the algorithm and you won. Now you realize that this can be turned to a business model and basically sell it via your website. Now there is nothing wrong with it, I am kinda fan of your free advice and may be its as valuable as your paid ones. The problem is what happens when others try to do the same, as you’ve pointed out, to innocent business owners. That’s where IMO, CFS kind of story happens.

"What does that arbitrary example have to do with anything? Cost is often (but not always) associated with value. And where it is not, there are BOATLOADS of opportunities to learn for a person to do it themselves. Nobody suggests a person should be entirely ignorant and jump into a 5, 10, or 100 grand investment. Successful investing requires at least some baseline level of knowledge."

>> The example was arbitrary to drive the point home. Yes cost gets associated with value, but what happens when people compromise value and start ripping off? Smart investment is smart, but when you have limited resources and do not fully come to turns with what you are dealing with, it’s a completely different ball game.
You got to move away from an online mindset to that of an off line business and start thinking as such.

"The big issues (IMHO) are not people who are doing dirt cheap work. Rather the big issues are...
 greedy selfish customers: those who want a million Dollars worth of marketing for a couple hundred bucks & are surprised when it stops working
 greedy selfish providers: those who charge first world prices & do poor quality outsourced work (essentially marking things up 10-fold without adding any quality or value)"

>> Amen to that brother. You hit the nail on the head

July 20, 2012 - 8:53pm

If I am new, where do I get started? This leads to all this nonsense of crappy SEO and good SEO.

I think to some degree a lot of people expect instant success. But if you compare starting a website to a brick and mortar business, the returns of the web often come far quicker. The key is investing some of those returns into making the stream more resilient.

Not sure, how you relate it to Google as I feel the problem with Google, is googlers themselves do not understand it. It seems to have overgrown itself and putting it all into a single piece is no longer easier as it were before.

I think they understand far more than they lead on. When issues don't drive revenue and they are tied to potential public relations disasters they get handled immediately. When they drive revenues it is far easier to put those urgent problems on the backburner.

You got to read the comment as a whole. What you did was you tried chasing the algorithm and you won. Now you realize that this can be turned to a business model and basically sell it via your website. Now there is nothing wrong with it, I am kinda fan of your free advice and may be its as valuable as your paid ones. The problem is what happens when others try to do the same, as you’ve pointed out, to innocent business owners. That’s where IMO, CFS kind of story happens.
...
The example was arbitrary to drive the point home. Yes cost gets associated with value, but what happens when people compromise value and start ripping off? Smart investment is smart, but when you have limited resources and do not fully come to turns with what you are dealing with, it’s a completely different ball game.

Anywhere there is value & opportunity (or even the perception of same) there will be dishonest hacks taking advantage of people. Some will get hosed early & either become more defensive & quit, whereas others will keep increasing their quality and investment.

You got to move away from an online mindset to that of an off line business and start thinking as such.

I do agree that search can lead to tunnel vision. Ironically, as the physical world gets better represented in the digital realm, a narrow focus on search will still force one to broaden their horizons as more and more transactions move through the search toll booth.

July 20, 2012 - 7:57pm

I want to reiterate about the impact google has by referencing happenings on the Local side, now called Google+Local. In late April, May, and June a confluence of events occurred wherein possibly up to several hundred thousand brick and mortar small businesses lost their visibility on google.

The number is hard to pin down and is subject to estimate but the impact is massive and beyond the scope of anything before.

Roughly two things occurred simultaneously. Google local decided to take down smb's who violated Google's TOS as to businesses that "do not see customers" at their business offices.

Personally I think, and many many many others think these businesses should have the same visibility as do businesses that do see customers at their locations. After all Google Local is a massive massive directory...and these businesses list everything. (think of the old print Yellow Pages).

Google overreacted on the "takedown" including taking down the wrong businesses.

Secondly Google is supposedly working on the backend of Google+Local (google places) and as with every other incident when they made "backend" changes, massive problems have occurred. Still more businesses lost their visibility.

The fact is that the largest monopolistic Search Engine in the world just impacted potentially up to hundreds of thousands of businesses.

It is of a scope that has never occurred before. It's "life and death" impact is of that of a monopoly.

Back to the main article. I agree first responsibility lies with ownership of a business. As always. In all scenarios.

As to inappropriate SEO work done by the SEO's for the E commerce children's furniture store.....frankly that s*cks, but that too is done in all environments outside of SEO. SEO is not the only place in the commercial world where there are scummy operators.

People are taken in all the time. Think Bernard Madoff scam.

The part of all this, though that is unprecedented and different is Google's massive and monopolistic control of SEARCH wherein people have intent to buy.

Google's control of search had impact on the Ebiz children's furniture store in that the algo changes destroyed the business's reliance on Search.

Google has that power. No other entity has that kind of impact or power. It is indeed scary, and its simply a function of monopoly, of a type that the world has not encountered before.

Its a scary environment.

July 20, 2012 - 8:57pm

...especially when you consider all the above sort of algorithmic big shifts AND then Google attacking the same industries from the top down with things like bigger adwords ads, offers, product search, hotel price ads, flight search, hotel comparison ads, etc.

And then there is the issue of the limited real estate on mobile devices that further squeezed the organic results below the fold.

July 23, 2012 - 8:32am

I think the main conclusion, of this brilliant analysis by Branko, is that the SEO community needs grow up & shed off its early “start-up” approach, as to simplify things (SEO is no longer cutting edge & ‘that weird grey area …’) and especially adapt a more business like terminology in its interface w/ clients.

In that, using less of the professional lingo and using a more common terminology (ROI, Risk easements, Business plan, Clients maintenance ext.), will help small business owners grasp the risks & benefits of a more holistic web presence approach – Especially diverting b/w social, ppc & seo and not forgetting to invest in Clients Management Systems that enable creating a long term relations w/ them and thus establish a more solid base of operations.

July 25, 2012 - 4:05am

...is that almost everyone wants to see the reward while ignoring the required risk needed to achieve that level of reward (until the risk surfaces, then they ignore the lack of investment or the returns that were achieved until things blew up).

For many (most?) SEO projects, the greatest risk is perpetual obscurity rather than being penalized.

I think the lack of standardization is driven by a number of factors:

  • when the algorithms change search engineers don't explain what exactly they did (but rather what ideals they were trying to emulate). thus many concepts are only discussed through shared analysis of symptoms & divergence between those ideals and what is seen in the search results.
  • the more obvious something becomes the lower the associated ROI (especially if it is scalable & either easy to implement or accessible to those with a limited budget). this in and of itself means that some forms of transparency are rewarded with both greater risks and lower returns)
  • whenever something sounds trusted then marketers quickly try to develop something that *sounds* similar, while being infinitely scalable at high margins. being a guest columnist for the BBC & buying a half-dozen posts on a splog network are not the same thing...though those selling the latter will try to compare it to things like the former
seojus
July 25, 2012 - 6:50pm

Hopefully the famous Aaron Hall will read this. I am new to SEO myself, and I manage a SEO Office, primarily the sales floor and tech stuff. I just created a site that has nothing to do with the company I work for. Kinda like free lance SEO. So 5 days ago I registered the site and have been diligently working on it since. The location is in Florida.P: Boca Raton and Delray Beach. So I have worked on optimizing for Florida SEO, Delray Beach SEO, and Boca Raton SEO. I am already on page 4 for Delray Beach SEO and page 9 for Florida SEO. I was wondering if that is a fluke or some other miracle? Or maybe beginners luck? Any pointers Relevance
here is the site [spam link removed] Delray Beach SEO

Response: Anchor text link drop to seojus.com removed, you spelled my name incorrectly & your account has been banned.

January 17, 2013 - 9:22am

Thanks, i like your suggestion, that Google could go more in detail when a site is penalized:

"your site has a large amount of paid links/unnatural anchors. You can find these links marked with a huge red exclamation mark in your WMT link report. Get rid of them"

In Germany the market share of organic traffic is round about 90%, so this monopol can have dramatic consequences for a business owner. If you get hit by a manual webspam penalty, you should at least know why you are going to have big problems. In the offline world, so a situation ends often up in a court.

Take care,

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