Starting From Scratch in a Fair Market vs Building an Honest Sustainable Competitive Advantage

Naive Excitement

When you are new to the field of SEO there is a certain excitement in starting a site from scratch and growing it out into a flourishing enterprise. You ask someone to link to you and when they do you get excited. When you get cited without asking for it you get excited. And when the rankings start to show up you get excited. At some point you may even develop an irrational emotional attachment to some of your websites. I know I have.

Fair is Fair

Search engines teach you that there are equitable rules to follow. The rules keep shifting in accordance with the search engine's business models, but somehow they are always fair. You see other people doing things that are "spammy," but refuse to. When you submit your site to 100 directories, donate money for links, attend every conference that will link at you, or when you syndicate your content to dozens of websites it is not spam. Your content is quality, you follow the rules, and one day you will be rewarded for it. One day...

Who Starts From Scratch?

But do you have to start from scratch to be doing SEO?

In Cosmos Carl Sagan said that "to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe." I tend to think the same way about SEO.

  • Some people who jumped on the web and were immediately successful started when the marketplace was much less competitive.
  • Some companies like lost millions or billions of dollars building their brands.
  • Others carried offline success and relationships online.
  • Some people have jobs or schools that offer them the opportunity to publish content on a trusted domain.
  • Some companies can do whatever they want because they have a big brand and/or a large ad budget.
  • Some people who are better salesmen than you may borrow your ideas, re-package them, and then talk trash about how ignorant you are.
  • And yet another group of people have a large following because they are highly biased and/or lie (ie: Fox News).

What is Fair?

Are any of the above categories unfair? Or is the concept of fair nothing more than bogus self-posturing by profit hungry corporations? Many companies who helped fund the large networks (affiliates, for example) later saw their sites classified as spam or priced out of the same markets they built by quality scores which said their sites are no good as the network got more competitive. Mind you many of these changes were not algorithm related, but were driven by direct human intervention.

The rules keep driving value (and profit) to the networks. They appear fair so long as your interests are aligned with those of the network. But behind the public rules, they fund theft of copyright work hoping it leads to the original publisher giving in and partnering with them to wrap their ads around the content. In other cases, if you get too successful human intervention within the network votes against you while leaving your competition unscathed. Why did Text Link Ads get penalized while Text Link Brokers still ranks?

Leverage Your Assets

Not every strategy works for every person, but if you are starting from scratch thinking that you are following the rules, you are missing out on some fundamental truths of the marketplace. If you are not leveraging and building upon your knowledge, passions, curiosity, and social relationships every day you are losing money (likely to an inferior and/or less honest competitor).

Take the Red Pill

Some of the most effective SEOs buy and sell links, buy and sell websites, buy and sell companies, rent personalities to promote their sites, openly engage is link schemes, use successful positions to promote other similar positions, expand out to other high profit market positions, and do whatever they see fit to profit. It is not our job to create the algorithms, we just satisfy the criteria to rank.

Take the Blue Pill

Others start every project from scratch, hoping that one day the market will be fair and shine a light on them. One day...

Published: February 28, 2008 by Aaron Wall in business


February 28, 2008 - 12:44pm

Hi Aaron,

Thought provoking as always. Is there a third way? A purple pill perhaps?


February 28, 2008 - 12:53pm

"And yet another group of people have a large following because they are highly biased and/or lie (ie: Fox News)."

Dude, you should stick to SEO and don't try to get political. Your comment about Fox News is enough to make me quit visiting your site. See ya.

February 28, 2008 - 1:21pm

^^^ lol ^^^, omg bud, it was an opinion you socialist Fox fanboy. :)

Anywho... I like the clean approach, starting from scratch. I just don't feel comfortable even doing the "gray hat" techniques in fear of a Google slap. I take the road less traveled it seems.

February 28, 2008 - 1:36pm

It's a motivational thing. I'm starting a project from complete scratch. It's taken me a year so far, and it's slow, but why not. There's one main competitor that I want to over take. And they're not selling.

If you're in the business of pure profit, buy and sell web sites, and that's fine.

February 28, 2008 - 1:45pm

geez, seoisfun... Every news source lies and/or colors the truth based on the expectations of their viewers. If you don't understand that about mankind yet you're going to waste a lot of time writing snippy retorts on the web.

February 28, 2008 - 1:58pm

If you want to succeed in moderately competitive markets, Aaron is right, the only way to do it is to 'cheat'. Google does not seem to be punishing my clients' competitors for paid links and they are working for them.

Understand the risks and do whatever needs to be done to beat the competition or there is a bigger risk: You'll fail!

February 28, 2008 - 1:58pm's been about 6 months since my SEO efforts began. I'll let you know in 6 more if the blue pill worked. :p

February 28, 2008 - 2:34pm

ROFL, Aaron, you're too funny. This is exactly why I started buying websites. My only regret is not having more cash resources to buy more sites, there's so much opportunity out there now that I feel like a kid in a candy shop with a pocket full of change.... what to buy, what to buy!

February 28, 2008 - 3:02pm

I prefer the buy approach. The web changes at such a fast rate, if I can buy a site that will save me 6-8 months of development time, I feel like I can win.

February 28, 2008 - 3:53pm

Sad but true. That's why I went for the "no more mr. nice guy" way of doing things, after years of struggling by following the rules.

February 28, 2008 - 5:10pm

I prefer starting from scratch, because the buying approach the spamming approach never worked right for me.
I mean to do it right you have to measure the profitability of your market before venturing in it, now I am working on something I always wanted to work on and I think I'm on the right track.
I will hopefully see some profit in the coming 3 months.

February 28, 2008 - 7:46pm

Loved the post, Aaron, especially the part about these nefarious people who publish content on trusted domains :)

February 28, 2008 - 9:43pm

Good post Aaron.

Everyone leverages off their assets. I don't see anything unethical about that.

I'm curious, are you going to teach us 'Red Pill' tactics?

Search Engine O...
February 28, 2008 - 11:49pm

Starting from scratch seems to be the most non controversial way to approach SEO as well as the most fulfilling when it succeeds. I must say, this was one thought provoking post!

February 29, 2008 - 12:58am

Great Post Aaron. You have a razor-sharp grasp of the difficulties the "little guy" faces today trying to compete on what is increasingly becoming an unlevel playing field, dominated by corporate behemoths.

It's clear that what irks you the most is the utter hypocrisy and sheer hubris of the organizations involved - who preach "fairness" - yet engage in all manner of skulduggery behind the scenes, invisible to all but the most discerning eyes.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, they strike a chord because they ring so true.

February 29, 2008 - 2:07am

I started from scratch about 15 months ago and I am worn out. After building the damn thing now I have to market it, and the marketing will never end. But, I did it with under $500.00 startup cost. I do think that I would get better results faster if I put on a "grey hat". The problem is I'm probably not good enough to do it with out getting busted. So, I'll have to keep learning, which brings me to my next point. I don't care if Aaron is a liberal, a conservative, or a Transylvanian transsexual; I'm going to keep reading his book.

February 29, 2008 - 2:29am

If you take the red pill you become what you hate the most, in the end money will not buy Forgiveness. I will start from scratch everytime then just contact the Red pill takers and try to show them the path. Atleast I will be able to sleep at night even if in a tent.

February 29, 2008 - 4:53am

But many people who take the blue pill are lucky to be able to even afford a tent to sleep in.

February 29, 2008 - 3:19am

Nice and timely posting. Although I am not much into SEO ( my sites are earning just a dollar a day in total) I never forget to read this blog.

After reading this post I remembered "make money to make money" from "Rich dad poor dad". Is that all about "gray hat"?

February 29, 2008 - 5:21am


What, no pithy insult?

February 29, 2008 - 8:42am

I deleted their spam. Ick that stuff was aggressive. Don't get too much of that anymore since we required email confirmation on accounts.

February 29, 2008 - 5:27am


I am confused.

What's your take actually?


February 29, 2008 - 8:57am

My take is that if your strategy is playing by the rules and hoping people will one day discover you is your strategy that you are probably going to be waiting a long time.

To create profit you often need to be aggressive and operate in the gray area. :)

February 29, 2008 - 11:21am


So you don't recommend the blue pill. Does "the gray area" mean gobble red pills or purple ones? What sort of "aggression" do you suggest in order to generate lots of bright white light shining down?


February 29, 2008 - 11:36am

Red pills :)

Stay away from the flying purple people eater!

February 29, 2008 - 1:02pm

I'm a terrible pill popper. I'm going to keep on trying the purple ones for a while longer. Remember to send round the men in white coats if I haven't weaned myself off them in 6 months time!

March 1, 2008 - 7:24pm

Let's see how far down the rabbit hole we can go ;D

March 2, 2008 - 6:41am

I just listened to your WSJ interview plus went through some articles.

I like how you combine a high risk tolerance (i.e. street smarts) with being well-read (book smarts).

One of the challenges in business is finding partners that have the same risk tolerance as you have.

People have been brained-wash by the larger forces in society to believe that if they employ the same tactics as those larger forces do, they are "breaking the rules".

Well to me when it comes to the "gray area" the only rule that matters to me is the "Golden Rule" - I'm not going to do something terrible to someone else I wouldn't want done to me.

Having said that, when it comes to competing with some of these larger companies and the largest of them (whom I won't name), my take is that if they are playing in the gray area (or beyond), you have to do the same thing.

We aren't even going to discuss how many Fortune 500 companies employ a "don't ask don't tell" policy when it comes to SEO consultants they use who end up outsourcing work to people they know employ BH strategies.

Wouldn't yo agree this happens more often than they would ever admit?

I believe in aggressive, risk-adjusted tactics that don't break scam people. But the fact of the matter is alot of the so-called policies out there are just created to keep companies' stock price high or to maintain their monopoly positions....

March 2, 2008 - 8:43am

Thanks for the great comment.

We aren't even going to discuss how many Fortune 500 companies employ a "don't ask don't tell" policy when it comes to SEO consultants they use who end up outsourcing work to people they know employ BH strategies.

I advised one large Fortune 500 company to use a much cleaner strategy than they were planning on using. They sort of listened, and then had to come back for more consulting. ;)

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