Google “SEO Horror Stories” and you’d see so many out there. Google burning the BMW website back in 2006 for inflating rankings is one of them.
I’ve been in this business for over 20 years. I’ve seen and read about all kinds of search engine optimization gone bad. And I’ve learned a lot from my own and other people’s mistakes.
To celebrate 2017 Halloween, I’d like to blog about my personal SEO horror stories – from my own clients.
So here goes…my successful SEO clients that almost failed.
Case #1: Death by Redirects
Terror Scale: 12
A longtime client of ours had been enjoying top five national rankings for his money phrases for years. Earlier this year, all those top rankings tanked – from page 1 down to page 4 or 5. The ranking pages pretty much disappeared overnight.
So what changed?
Their backlinks were solid. There was nothing shady in the backlink profiles.
Content was good. Evergreen. We published technical papers and blog posts on a regular basis.
Site architecture? Nothing had changed except for their migration to https that we recommended to their webmaster.
Competition level? They are in a very competitive, technology niche. Competitors were starting to outrank them in various areas.
At first, we thought the competitors were just getting better at beating us.
But the major decline in rankings still bothered me. This was not a scenario where the client slowly dropped from page 1 down to page 2 over time.
I lost sleep over it. I kept thinking What did we do wrong? and What am I not seeing?
So I audited the site. And there it was, right in front of me: a chain of “Bizarro Redirects” (I’m borrowing from “Bizarro Jerry” episode in Seinfeld). I knew I found why the rankings had tanked.
The entire site returned different types of URL redirects. Pages were being redirected from http to https, then back to http and then https again.
This was beyond confusing to a human eye – let alone search engine spiders.
Here’s the exact redirect chain I found:
Never in my life had I ever seen this.
Long story short: I pointed out the bizarro redirects to their webmaster and they remedied the problem. Rankings shot right back up to top of page 2. We are now back in the top 5 for our money phrases.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we have stopped working though. SEO is always a work in progress.
Case #2: Death by Link Building Experiment
Terror Scale: 10
Link building is a pain. I’ll admit it once and for all. And getting those high quality and authoritative links – that’s the hardest part.
If you’re a junior SEO or DIY entrepreneur just getting your feet wet in this industry, I truly feel your pain.
At SEO Advantage, we never use paid links. We are as “white hat” as can be. But one day, I decided to test out one of these link building packages because, of course, link building is hard and I was curious to see if there was an easier solution that actually worked.
I picked a link building company online, subscribed to their newsletter and read their opinion on link building. They were convincing. They talked about working with big publishers, clean websites that don’t violate Google guidelines. They claimed to have the highest standards…and on and on.
They even had a lot of great testimonials – happy customers boasting about what great rankings they have.
Needless to say, I was impressed.
Fast forward a few months of thinking it over and reading all sorts of testimonials advocating what a natural link building package this was. I decided to take this puppy for a test drive.
I bought an introductory link-building package that placed my test site on the homepage of a number of publisher websites (less than 10 sites). All with varying PageRank degrees between 3 to 5. (Note: PageRank may or may not be partially dead, but that’s for another post.)
The company showed the publisher’s site authority value with their SEO scoring software. I should have scored it through Link Research Tools (our go-to toolbox) which might have given a more accurate picture of “real” backlink value.
I was still impressed…until, thirty days later, when I received the first report.
I looked at the list of sites, then asked for all my links to be removed and immediately asked for a refund.
The link building company had placed my links in a group of sites built on one humongous network (or maybe several large link networks). The problem with these massive networks is they’re built to be trashed in a heartbeat. Quick to pump out…quicker to burn.
Also, the content was extremely poor quality. It read like someone had copied a chunk of text from an English textbook and paraphrased it only slightly to avoid copyright infringement.
Then there was the domain names. Oy vey!
Forget branding – I couldn’t even pronounce the names. They were either a bit tipsy when they created them or they have an automated name-picking program that randomly generates a (laughably terrible) domain name.
Surprisingly, despite these obvious issues, the sites had high page score – precisely what the company advertises.
The sheer volume of this network was so large that the number of sites linking to each other in all kinds of ways is the reason, I believe, for the artificially boosted page score.
When I traced their backlinks, some of these domains have links back from .edu sites. How about that?
However, upon further investigation, these .edu sites – at least the ones I reviewed – were not really academic sites. Some had already been burnt, meaning the links were broken.
Why did I even give a link building service a try, you might be asking?
Spoiler alert: It’s not because I had faith in quick link building.
Really, I wanted to see their sites. I was curious about all these high page authority sites that promise a home page link for less than $100. And I got exactly what I paid for.
Of course, these companies are merely supplying what many consumers demand: the illusion of little investment for a great result. There’s an entire industry out there for link building. Google “link building service” and you’ll see millions of results.
“These companies are merely supplying what many consumers demand: the illusion of little investment for a great result.”
I have no doubt that there are link building companies that produce legitimate long-term results, but most services simply can’t replace the real deal.
The fact is you can’t get good backlinks for a one-time fee of less than a couple hundred bucks or for “one low monthly fee.”
Sadly, many businesses don’t see it that way yet. I regularly analyze and monitor competitor backlinks for several of our legal industry clients. Often, our clients’ competitors have their links placed on sites with content so spun that no human could understand it. One would think that content spinning software would be virtually obsolete by now.
I suppose these site owners get some comfort in being told they are earning new backlinks every month. And they probably get them for next to nothing. Someone sold them the idea that the quantity of backlinks will drive up their site rankings. If you want quality, that’ll just cost you more. And they took the bait – hook, line and sinker.
Long story short: There’s no shortcut to quality link building. You can’t get a return without an initial investment.
The late Eric Ward once told us about a marketing company he consulted for that charges their clients in the upper $10,000 for link building and outreach alone. And that was years ago.
At SEO Advantage, we offer link building service to clients with mature websites featuring a healthy collection of extensive high-quality content we can promote.
Want to know how long it takes to get a few high quality links? Up to 6 months. Seriously. This includes time spent researching linkable topics, writing unique content (and sometimes designing infographics), reaching out to real websites that might be interested in your piece, content promotion and much more. It’s tremendously time-consuming. It’s relationship building to the max.
Link building is hard. It’s really hard. But it can be done effectively with the right approach and some time. SEO Advantage and other search engine optimization companies out there who are doing it successfully are living proof that it can work.
Case #3: Death by Noindex
Terror Scale: 10
A local client of ours had multiple page 1 rankings for his home page. But his home page URL suddenly disappeared after the page redesign. Poof. Disappeared without a trace.
I spent a few hours checking the entire site and spoke to a few of our people, brainstorming how something like this could happen.
I rechecked the html code on the home page and there it was:
<META NAME=”ROBOTS” CONTENT=”NOINDEX,FOLLOW”>
Our designer had forgotten to remove “noindex” from the page after a redesign went live.
This is a case of missing the obvious, but you’d be surprised how often such mistakes happen in this industry. We thought it was something more sinister. Google indexes all internal pages, subdomains, etc., but not the home page. I should have seen it right away.
Long story short: You can never be too careful. You have to check and doublecheck your work when building and marketing websites.
The good news is that our client’s home page is showing back up along with rankings in our organic results.
Case #4: Death by Canonical
Terror Scale: 6
Another short story: Our copy director sent brand new, souped-up copy for a new service landing page. We were confident this upgraded page would perform well.
And yet, after rolling it out, my boss couldn’t find the page indexed in Google. I thought it was the resurrection of “Death by Noindex,” but it wasn’t.
Turn out the new page was alive and well online, except its canonical URL pointed to another page.
Thankfully, we caught this one very early before any damage was done and the page is now performing well and back to normal.
SEO consists of various moving parts. In my humble opinion, no one can get it 100% right. Mistakes will always be made. And that’s A-OK – so long as you find them, fix them, learn from them and move on. There’s always room to learn new things.
Just be careful. Most of the time, it’s the little things that kill.
I’ll leave you with a line from “Little Things” by Bush:
“It’s the little things that kill / tearing at my brains again / the little things that kill / the little things that kill…”
Have your own horror stories? Air them out.
Share your comments and feedback in the comment section below or via Facebook. Thanks for reading!