My colleague Cecilia called me just yesterday the “Arsenie Boca of SEO” after making the remark expressed in the first part of the title and being honored this way I decided to keep it. But let’s get to the point: what we all love the most is probably just riding the waves when life is bright, business is going well and the horizon is promising you a fortune. But sometimes your ship gets broken and the sail is over why you see others bank where you were supposed to rock the boat. Its unfair.
This post is not about the sea but about Donny, who had a nice lead generation website for a well respected American service company. It is also about links and anchor texts, nofollow directives and why just watching some videos on googles webmaster blog does not make you a master of the web and why you are out for more. Much more.The techniques discussed here are old, out of date – otherwise I would not share them, but the mindset and approach to things is still and remains relevant.
Especially as the last Penguin 4.0 update became a real time part of the algo. Means: now its time to recover your rankings for the sites you have been hit with, it’s time to accelerate your campaigns for the rankling ones as old competitors will come back, and its time to watch out as you now can have your site, rankings and revenues fucked up also real-time =)
Likewise, I respect my clients and partners as much as their business, so I do not disclose too much details. Just that nobody gets into Donny’s business. Obviously, it is as useful as profitable if done on scale and has to do with something like transportation and shipping. People want to have some heavy goods shipped from one state in the US to another, so they look for somebody to do that job for them and get offers from different providers to compare.
The job of the website is to gather these requests for offers (leads) and connect them in real time to a broker who will sell them to the highest bidding service provider. Or maybe to more than one so the prospect can chose the best offer from many. Also in real time, the leads will be bought by interested service providers from the broker and then the service providers start to email the prospective clients or call them.
So far so good, back at this time being number one for one of these lead generation sites in that very niche just for a handful of relevant keywords could bank you easily 100k usd per month. Profit margin – up to you. If you were good at online marketing – namely SEO – and well connected you should easily have higher double digit profit margins, much closer to 100% than to 50% after some initial double digit k investments – pure imagination. Not bad for a one man show or a small team.
And where stakes are high competition is the same. These kind of services are inherently local, so you compete on the federal level with the big boys and on the state and city level with the bulk of local providers. And because the smart guys also know that there is huge money on the table they also get in. These smart guys come from all over the World. After all: Everybody speaks English and everybody wants a piece of the pie.
Many SEOs – especially inhouse SEO or those not responsible for cash – are a bit spoiled with their keyword portfolios in the sense that they just expect doing well for one term is a guarantee to also do well for closely related variants and the longtails thereof. But this is not the case for hyper competitive markets – there every keyword by itself becomes a trophy to be achieved by itself and on its own right, with own budget and profit & loss projections. long tails exist but google used to be less generous about them at those times before panda, penguin and the zoo to follow, but especially before knowledge graph. Back at this time [britney spears] and [spears britney] were not considered the same thing and results could contrast sharply. Sometimes you can still observe such a thing in newspaper seo when everybody wants to capitalize on the subject such as eurovision or the oscar or super bowl. But other than this – its the exact opposite of newspaper and content seo.
The other thing about high competition is that it gets nasty. Competitors report each other to google, try to damage their work and just to open the worm can. But Google back then always stressed that it never would penalize a site for incoming links – just devalue them. The worm can was only a bit open. Until the day came they did.
So Donny had that beautiful cashcow, with beautiful landing pages, a big “get quote now” button with bold arrows and a nice set of bright and shiny keywords desired by many. Life was good and donny was blessed until one morning when he checked his stats in google analytics and boom – his traffic was gone. He checked his lead generation stats and his daily earnings – this was no error just in google analytics because – boom the over 3k bucks which should have been there – they were not there! He checked the website – it was working. He checked google and there it was: his site was missing! For the first keyword, for the second and the third. And for most other 100 he was tracking in his rank tracking tool which was obviously not seomoz because at this time we already did not not like seomoz anymore and hipster guru rand fishkin in particular . But thats another story. Anyways, the rankings were gone except for some very minor keywords and even they were much lower in rank as supposed to be. In just one night his beautiful baby was gone and off the radar!
I can tell you from own experience it does not come easy to you when you check your stats and see your baby going down the river. Not if it is of that caliber. But I can also tell you that nothing helps, except to calm down, start working and get it back.
Not calm – Hitler being hit by over optimization penalty
Donny didn’t knew what to do. Of course, he had done quite some PR in recent times, big packages, but the high quality ones at PrWeb for 370 USD each, maybe even the extra option for financial outlet distribution for another 120 USD on top. And also, he had also some real News to announce and the syndication went straight there: where the real news was. Even on Yahoo. He was not a dumb ass SEO which used directories, blog roll links and footer link exchanges or other kind of reciprocals – that what the lazy common dumb ass SEO in 2010 and 11 would do. God forbid he would engage into blog commenting or forum profile links. Not because of ethics, but because he was to smart fort this. Not even article marketing – well, maybe a bit every now and then. And a private blog network. But a real private one, with dedicated and diversified IPs from multiple a – not only c-classes even! no relation between them and even private DNS all set. Like a boss.
No, Donny was a smart marketer who managed several such cash cows, was wise enough to respect google’s advice and had only relevant industry links because he was operating also a real business, with real people for real people and as such he would be appreciated by real people in his industry. He was one of the few SEOs doing the real news pr thing long before penguin forced others to rethink their standards and strategies (and budgets!), and to become upright walking marketers instead of monkeys crawling the earth of the early internet. So overall Donny was well ahead of his time.
He asked other webmasters, SEOs, internet marketers. He asked on Wickedfire. The one and only forum for internet marketing that kicked ass until some time ago. So i pm-ed him, as i didn’t use to post public.
Donny so far had spoken to some people, they all gave different advise, some tried to sell their Consulting and product services – another thing to be discussed in the story about my friend James, but anyways it did not help.
I asked him several questions, and had some look at the site and especially the link profile, but anyways things were not updated so much realtime back then, so you had to ask to get a good idea on what happened. Not sooo long ago For google to index a new site could take several weeks. Eli even had banked big with a service named squirt – super quick indexing and ranking tool. Eli (Bluehatseo.com) was a star. His SEO empire post had inspired me, i even printed his whole blog including the comments and read it on my holidays. And then i started my own SEO empire. 100 websites in one year I wanted to build and to rank number 1. At the end I made 40 or so in 5 months and then used them for tests – I called that my lab. But that’s also another story how this came to be. Anyways, this is how I started my lab and found wickedfire – a vibrant place for joyful experiments.
At the time of this story a site would get indexed within a week and if you weren’t to clumsy it would rank as a medium competitive EMD within 3-4 weeks number one. Anyways. I asked Donny what happened, So I learned that Donny had done some article marketing and some pr and because that worked so well he had done some more. Know-it-alls and other premium thinkers of contemporary online marketing without own practical experience of relevant scale will say that the issue is clear, the links were “black hat” and “spam” – but no – they were not. Google was still explicitly advised on using anchor texts and penalties for bad links where denied to be existent. PR link building as offense or manipulation was not even dreamed about by Mr. Fishkin and article marketing – was sometimes discussed but still not really controversial. At least a penalty would have been inconceivable if not applied manually after careful review.
But Google wasn’t really honest here. Why would they?! I wouldn’t tell you where I hide the key to my home either. But, I knew from my lab quite well what was going on. I released it in batches of 4-5 sites each, promoting it with different methods and tactics – so I could not only see and compare how they do, how fast they rank or not (usually it took me a week but not more than four to six to hit the upper page 1 spots and to keep them there – some I crushed of course along the way never to recover – these were very good candidates for negative SEO attacks after penguin by the way), but I could also compare over time how the babies in different batches would respond to algorithm updates – going up, down or stay the same?
One thing i observed and few people were using / being aware of back then were anchor text filters. And donny hat been hit by that kind of filter. To understand better what that is lets look a bit into details:
Not being a penalty – but a filter google even denied its existence. The filter at that time ran about every three to four weeks and sorted out of the results (demoted them with about over 100 ranks or so and showed inner pages rather than the homepage when the latter should have been ranking or the like- there were some very specific signs to this) or – released them back if the conditions did not any longer apply. The filter could be on the page level, but that where later versions of it and made it into the smarter versions of penguin. But the first ones were quite brute as I remember them and even applied to nofollow links. I first encountered them after building some Squidoo and other article links on one of the more “respected” content sharing and curation sites back then. The target site was ranking well, but well is not good enough if you want to max out and because i never believed in nofollow i build them anyways. Also because I always believed that a healthy and natural link profile includes all kind of links – follow, nofollow, high pr, low pr and even non links etc – its quite easy to observe if you take a look at some known non SEO practicing giants in your niche – like Wikipedia to name just the most obvious. Today, that’s easy, many of the various tools around incorporated these features, back then some excel was required to make sense of the data, and as I am a visual thinker i always transformed all data into graphics. Nowadays majestic seo and ahrefs are among my favorites to save that time.
Anyways, for that particular site I hadn’t build links except for these two for some time, and both where nofollow. It took some two days or so and off was the site. I was very sad, even though the money value was quite low. Enough to cover the cost of creation and another 50 bucks or so of income per month. But for a one time shot good enough, especially it you want to build 100 of that. So the nofollow link obviously crushed my site. The question was how to get it back. One strategy would have been to remove the links and to wait for Google to forgive and forget what happened. It may have worked, I don’t know but it is definitely not my style to leave money or links on the table, nor to say sorry to a competitor or Google’s search and spam team (to my wonderful account managers I would but I hope there is no need for it).
So I opted for the opposite – built more links which are different from those I just had built. If you had to chose between new anchors or dofollow links instead of nofollow to vary – what would you have chosen? Right, you would have been varied the anchors and kept the nofollow. I had to find out. So i put 2-3 more articles up there and varied the anchors to something completely different from the site name and targeted keyword and voila – only building a new quantity of nofollow links i could decrease anchor text ratios in such a way that my baby (something on cooking – i think it was alfredosauce.org – i know very funny – hilarious even) would be released some 3 weeks later after the filter ran again. Patience, logic, and a lot of data to compare and to experiment is key. After that I ran a lot of sites into that filter and others and then out again.
Thus, from the specific signs Donny’s website showed it was pretty clear to me what hindered him now from earning again 3,3k each day. A simple filter and the uncontrollable traps of mass syndication if your news hit the wire and your article gets syndicated like crazy – with the same link over and over again. If you are not a very very big site with tons of backlinks such a flood could easily screw your backlink profile and anchor text ratios. So what to do? I advised Donny to build more links, more of the same and the same scale but with different anchors. Neutral ones. Today a nobrainer, back then not.
It worked. Not in just one step, but in multiple. Donny had to do some work to reshuffle the ratios in the massive scale of his link profile and in multiple steps his site was released. It is obviously a disadvantage to build mass links where you cannot control the exact quantities. A reason why I was always against anchors in such cases.
If you think about it and put yourself in the mindset of a Google spam engineer – that makes a lot of sense. You want to monitor anchor ratios for what is natural or not – it became one of the most important signs of penguin later, even though the Penguin is already a complete different animal and there is much more to it especially the later versions. But that is also a different story. The point here is, that in this specific signal you definitely want to count nofolllow links. Nofollow links basically happen where UGC comes up: in wikis, open article submission sites, blog comments and forums. The realm where spammers and the lazy seos prevail and make efforts to push their keywords. It also confirms an old business wisdom: do what others don’t do. Even though the filter advise may be pretty useless today, the principle behind will remain true.
Anyways, Donny and me remained friends. He even offered me to become an affiliate in his niche. But then i already wanted to do car insurance. His story is a bit similar to James – at least how we met and the kind of sites we used to do – but James was in car insurance and after I helped him out with some recovery for well deserved manual penalties i just got the hang on it. The product was genuinely useful, and the margins extremely high for elite affiliates: 20 USD per lead instead of 5-10 for the average Joe. Now that was attractive!
Donny said car insurance is only for the big boys, but he still gave me some links to start with from his private blog network and I was very attentive about the anchors. But I don’t tell you how I did it. Try for yourself.
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