How low-quality SEO can wreck your website

poor seo practices

Black Hat SEO practices are not only unethical, they’re downright dangerous. No doubt if you are a small local business owner, you’ve gotten this call or email:

Hi. I noticed your website was not ranking in the search results. Our SEO company can fairly quickly promote your website to the top of the search rankings with no long term contracts! How would you like to be on page 1 of Google for your keywords in X amount of days—guaranteed—or your money back?

A lot of people know such promises are too good to be true, but a lot don’t.

The snake oil peddlers in the SEO industry are getting tougher and tougher to spot. Like the mafia, they all promise you something that you desperately want: more leads. Fast. However, they never tell you how they do it.

This is a story about trusting the wrong people …

I spoke with an old friend of mine from high school recently who had a true tale of woe. For the purposes of anonymity, let’s say his name is John and he is a bankruptcy attorney. John hung out his shingle in Atlanta about 5 years ago after leaving a larger law firm. It was a gamble, but he knew he could do it, and although he didn’t have nearly the advertising budget of some of the “big boy” competitors who advertised on TV and newspapers, he planned to out-maneuver more traditional-minded competitors with a nimble online strategy.

After launching his website, he began receiving unsolicited calls and e-mails from search marketing firms – some from overseas and some from the states. John decided to work with an SEO firm in Arizona that promised to put him on page 1 for “bankruptcy attorney” – a highly competitive term. With an aggressive strategy that focused on some blogging and site optimization, but mostly on link building (the process of obtaining links from other websites), John’s very new bankruptcy lawyer website quickly ascended the search results pages to the lower half of page 1.

The SEO firm approached John about more aggressive link building. Happy with the results so far, John agreed and decided to invest more. The link acquisition strategies focused on directory submission, social media bookmarking, regional directory submission, press release submission, forum links, article directory submissions, social media profiles, and blog comments.

John’s website blew past many well-established, decades-old law firm websites and scaled to the top half of page 1, and oh how the leads were pouring in! The case load was too much for John to handle alone, so he hired two more attorneys and legal assistants and moved his office to a larger space. He now had more money to invest in offline advertising.

Then sometime in April 2012, the online leads started slowing down – the hose blast went to a trickle. Quite suddenly, his website had been buried on page 8 of the search results for the high-volume “bankruptcy attorney” search term, as well as even more specific terms (called “long tail“) such as “bankruptcy chapter 7 lawyers” had been knocked down past page 3. Although John was still getting some referrals and leads from the offline campaigns, his budget and overhead was high, and with the primary source of new prospects having dried up, he was in big trouble. Shockingly, the SEO firm was pushing hard for him to double down on his linkbuilding strategy and invest more!

That’s when he reached out and asked me to look at his analytics. When I pulled his back link profile, it immediately set off alarm bells because of the low-value of the links. And of the almost 800 back links, most of them were random directory websites, or very low-quality articles published on article directories, forum comments, and social bookmark links. Even worse, almost all of the links pointing to this website had “bankruptcy attorney” in the anchor text. I can see why he was penalized – that sort of thing looks unnatural to the search engines. Think about it: what are the chances in the course of doing business and acquiring links the honest way, that all these websites are going to link back with the same text?

John had been taken in by SEO hacks who used what are known as “black hat” methodologies. And while I was sorry for him, felt he should have take a more active role, asked more questions, and been a little more skeptical of the “too-good-to-be-true” results. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what could be done to undo his tangled web. In the end, what I advised him to do and what he ultimately did, was to start over with a new domain name.

“Much like that terrible girl you dated our sophomore year, your website’s reputation just has too much baggage,” I said.

photo credit: The snake oil serum via photopin (license)

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