The Google Endgame: the End of SEO Cheats and Shortcuts
Why is Google so aggressive about fighting SEO cheats and shortcuts? Why do ‘white hat’ strategies and tactics produce better payoffs at the end?
Let’s say you’ve optimized your site to the hilt. You’ve engaged on social media to promote blog posts and special offers. You also launched an email blast to target audiences and some PPC (pay-per-click) advertising. Yet, organic traffic is still a trickle. Your best page ranking is 40+ so the only meaningful inquiries come from the PPC campaign that you intended shut down after a few months, but that's the only thing that works to drive traffic. What do you do next?
You are not alone. Most sites rank poorly without the boost from a PPC budget. They’re gone from the top rank pages the moment the campaign ends. I find a lot of wishful thinking about how to solve the problem. For a surprising number of SEO consultants, the easy fix is an SEO cheat, or at least a shortcut. If you manage or own a site and considering a move into this space, take pause.
Every Trick in the Book
I’ve tried just about every trick, every cheat ever invented. As my reward, between 1997 and 1999, this website—heavypen.com—ranked in the top 100,000 overall according to Alexa (at the time, a leading source for free site analytics). My site ranked in top positions for every keyword that mattered: freelance writer, freelance public relations, marketing consultant, and so on. The long version and all the gory details can be found in another post, SEO: The Temptation and Peril of Spamdexing. The short story: I tried everything back in the day when everything worked.
During that period, I had a friend who ran a very successful link farm. What’s a link farm? One very important bit of ranking value that remains the same today is the number of backlinks that point back to a website. The higher the number of links, the greater the perceived value of a site, thus better the ranking. Nowadays, complex algorithms weigh each link for relevance with the site being ranked. They also measure the domain authority between linker and linkee—a statistical ballast to ensure that users find the link useful.
But the algorithms used by search engines were crazy simple back then. And they had no defense from anyone with the tools and knowledge to game the system. We knew this and, like so many others, took advantage of the weakness. My friend and his associates created hundreds of sites, each equipped with hundreds of links to unrelated sites he didn’t own. The sites contained simple lists of links—no headlines, no descriptions. As his main website soared into Alexa‘s top 5,000, we sold ad space in the link farm. One very early success story from that time was an elaborate link farm branded as the “Internet Link Exchange”; dumb backlinks disguised as ads. We imitated and for a while, it all worked very well.
Those were great times.
The Day Google Changed
The statement is misleading. There wasn‘t a single day that the world of SEO turned upside down. Google launched in 1998, and things were fine. About a year later, the changes began and things were not so fine. Google was first. Later Yahoo and Bing joined in. Month after month, we realized our tricks weren’t working. And one by one, our site rankings fell well below the 1M mark. To be honest, this is where we belonged. Not only was our just punishment for ‘gaming’ the search engines, but our ranking was not a true reflection of our actual value to people who use search engines.
There was a ‘day’ we realized there was nothing we could do to stop the fall. I think it was April or May 2000 that my friend (with the big farm site) called me. I remember his words: “I’ve been f***g delisted!” What he meant was his main site was removed from all search results. By the end of the day we discovered that most of his sites were gone too.
My site—Heavypen.com—had a significant structural difference over most other websites. In the backlink ecology, I was one of a dozen producers. Heavypen.com had no ads, no ecommerce and few outbound links. Just a lot of words and pictures. My site also had a total word count of about 40k words—considered large for that time. Members loved my site, and it was thanks to their links that Heavypen ranked so well.
By contrast, most of the sites in our “network” had less than 10,000 words, and mostly as anchor text for the links. If you know anything about backlink management, this is the classic example of a ‘spammy’ site. Of all the thousands of spammy sites in the affiliated farms, none ever returned to search pages.
Site with a better balance of links to non-linked words recovered somewhat. And ‘producer’ sites like Heavypen returned to keyword searches, but never to their former glory. Bottomline: our business model became defunct. Incidentally, the Internet Link Exchange went on to greater success, but that’s another story for another time.
Historical perspective: Why Google Does What Google Does
If you were online in 1996 - 1999, you remember AltaVista and the utter chaos of pure machine-driven search results with none of the semantic results we rely on today for high quality search results.
On AltaVista—and about 10 other top search engines—search input was based purely on the keywords used for the search. I once searched “vegan restaurants” (to arrange a lunch for a relative who is a vegan) and got pages of various vegan organizations, but nary a restaurant.
Search engines have always relied on software (called “spiders”) that crawled every bit of content on the net. The spiders did a superb job of recording links and words used in the associated webpages. It was so easy to game the system. All you had to do was join a link farm or link network. There was little incentive to create useful content.
Google algorithms now watches for old SEO cheats (like link farms)—so don’t try them. You’ll get yourself banned. This is what’s pushing Google’s unstoppable success. In the last few years, Google now generates the most relevant search results I’ve ever seen. Now if I search “vegan restaurants,” I may still see vegan organizations, but now “vegan” and “restaurant” weigh in with my geographic location. I will see lists of local restaurants that serve to the vegan target market along with photos, menus, food ingredients, and directions on how to get to the restaurants. This is Google’s next level search world. Each search query deserves more accurate and relevant results.
They’ve moved away from delivering results based on keywords. They’re producing results that weigh in favor of the searcher. Everything about the searcher counts: the context of the search, location of the search user, time of day, search history, and the device they’re using. Google even checks word usage to weigh context with the requested search and the quality of the text presented (e.g., grammar, diction, spelling, et cetera). It’s called semantic search, where software ranks content based on the fuzzy value of the searchers intent rather than fixed values like the number of times that keywords appear in the text. Therein lies the measure of the Google Endgame - all of this effort in service for the true master: the people who use Google to find stuff. Google HAS to get this right.
And that... my friends... is why there’s no room left for bad SEO cheats and shortcuts.
Five Big Lessons
What I learned from that experience was that the real ‘sure-fire’ method to entice search engines is producing content that takes advantage of the semantic algorithm magic of modern the search engine spiders (Google, Bing, et al.). If you do the things I suggest here, your website will be automatically enrolled into a database that will match you with high quality, relevant traffic, straight from your target demographic: people who are engaged in searching out your product or service (or nonprofit mission). Once you get started, you won’t believe how easy it is to keep going. It takes little investment. They’re no new software or subscriptions to buy. And - know what? It’s totally “white hat.” Years of work has proven that THIS method is the single, most effective way to generate high-quality traffic. Sound too good to be true?
- Write high-quality, topically relevant content. In effect, turn your website into a repository of active, engaging information. I have posted a few articles about how to do that. Here’s one on rewriting existing content with a slightly different angle. If you follow the guidelines, you’ll add a significant safety against Google’s anti-duplication rules. Another article examines content “geometry”; strategies for writing content that almost seems to expect your target audience’s interests. And here’s one about content silo strategies; stacking your content for your target audience; give them more than enough reason to reach out and contact you as their expert.
- Don't get hung up about word length. You don’t have to write long 1,200 word articles. While some of mine run 2,000 words or more, that‘s because I’m a freelance writer. THIS is, after all, my product, service, and benefit all rolled up into one little ball of words. In most cases, you just have to keep up with your competition. In most vertical market segments, you may want to add about 300-400 new words to your website per month. Other segments where there is higher competition, you may have to bump that up to 600-800 words; very high competition, you may need upwards of 1,200 new words per month. The only way to know for certain is to run a SERP assessment (search engine results page). I include that assessment as part of my pre-assessment survey before engaging content writing services, I perform a complete analysis of the competition: total word count of competing websites, keywords used by the competition, emphasis and word count all in one swoop. THEN, I start writing. As long as your site GROWS (in terms of word count and other content), the spiders will come and your ranking will rise.
- Don’t shirk all automated processes. Some automation is fine as long as it doesn’t put a great big Blacklist Target on your website. For instance, get accounts on Hootsuite or Communit. These are great social media tools to distribute your key messages on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIN, and Instagram. Think of them as productivity tools to help save you gobs of time. They’ll also help you devote more time developing high quality content and engaging with your audience.
- Be cautious about anything that sounds cheap or easy. There are new programs and schemes popping up all the time. Some cost quite a bit of money. The worst part is that the search engines have gotten very efficient at spotting any activity that may hinder their “endgame.” Take for example agencies that sell backlink generation programs. Some have fabulous backlink building programs that really do wonderful things to ranking. Others are flat out rip-offs. To sort it out for yourself, run a backlink report on the seller's website and check the "toxicity" level. Programs that produce lists of non-relevant and static links with low ranking (spammy) sites get a high toxicity ranking. Even services that claim to create “dynamic” or database driven backlinks are suspect because the algorithms track the domain names. New ones claim to be “content networks” with automated “safeties” to prevent perceived abuse, but these can also fail because Google can easily see relationships (the same domains linking to each other). Most of the low-quality backlinkers charge a bundle: $500 or more per month. I have tested these services and to be blunt, I’d rather spend the money on a PPC campaign, or a more robust program that actually builds high-quality backlinks to high quality domains.
- Remember the goal of the Google Endgame. It all comes down to the endgame. Not just for Google, but for all search engines. At least, the ones that really want people to visit. Around the last years of AltaVista's dominance, the strategists at Google were among the firs to realize that the path to growth was making it easy for THEIR audience to find what THEY want. It's harsh to say this, but you and your website is of secondary concern to them. Therefore, if you engage in spam, they'll cut you out. It's as simple as that. However, if you play by their rules, you're all in. The fact is, they want you to connect with your target audience and they really want audiences to find you. All they ask is that you act like someone the audience wants to meet. Be bold about your offers, but be interesting. The search engines hold all the cards, but there are easy ways to make their endgame work to your advantage.
A Reformed Spamdexer
My total reform began in 1999 when I won a contract with the California Courts. It was sheer luck that they found my site before the big delist. They were so impressed that my website ranked so high that they hired me on as a consultant to solve a problem that I (along with many of my colleagues) had caused through our intensive spamdexing.
I love irony.
A mishmash of attorney offices, nonprofits, bail bonds agencies, and even porn sites absolutely buried the official California Courts Self-help section. The big question—how to dig them out.
They had already developed an impressive quantity of content that covered a wide range of self-help court-related topics—every detail about the courts and their proceedings that a plaintiff (or defendant) would want to know. My first recommendation was to convert all of that content into individual PDF documents. We optimized each doc to the max with good titles, descriptions, and tags (this is something that people forget to do even now). Then I imbedded the docs into link pages that were also heavily keyword optimized.
In less than 6 months after posting these new pages, California Courts dominated the first two results pages for a wide swath of legal search terms in California. We bumped off the “spamdexers.”
And we produced a lot of good backlinks with other websites that had great reason to link like attorney websites, law schools, legal assistance nonprofits, and even a few newspapers and magazines. In other words, we developed backlinks to highly relevant content—something that Google pushes today. Keep in mind, this was well before social media, so we didn’t have the added resource of off-page links we could create at will. But to be honest, we needed nothing else. What caught me off guard was how fast the situation changed in our favor. That was it for me. I turned the corner and went all “white hat” and never looked back.
Since then, I’ve expanded my understanding of search engine ranking and how original content linking works to your favor. But the most important lesson is the manta of the “Google Endgame.”
The Google Endgame is the endgame for all search engines. They run a business. They offer a free service that draws in eyeballs, but their core business is advertising and website promotion. And for that they need users who trust them to deliver high quality searches, not spam.