The Flourless Chocolate Dome

I was once highly disappointed by a dessert, to such an extent that it’s become a metaphor for anything bad that happens to me.

The Flourless Chocolate Dome of Doom

I was in a restaurant with my best friend Melinda when, hearing the sound of our waiter and smelling chocolate, I smiled in anticipation of the flourless chocolate dome, expecting it to be, well, bigger than a freaking truffle. It was tiny. Tiny is being NICE. It was a dinky, dinky thing, just big enough to piss me off. Had I known in advance what I was getting, I’d not have been so pouty. Setting expectations is critical when you’re doing anything. Had the waiter said “well nice choice but beware of its teeny nature” then I’d have either chosen something else, or I’d have not whimpered aloud when it was put down in front of me.

Managing expectations is very difficult at times, as when we’re trying to sell something, we sometimes exaggerate our anticipated results in order to close the deal. If things don’t go as planned, this can lead to a great deal of frustration.

To illustrate, here’s Jane looking disappointed.

Unhappy Jane

Here’s Jane looking happy. I almost said satisfied but sadly, you’re all a bunch of perverts.

Happy Jane

You want your client to make the happy Jane face.

How do you do this? Well, as cliched as it sounds, I like to underpromise and overdeliver. We don’t always overdeliver of course, depending upon the collective emotional state of my link builders, but I can assure you that I always, always underpromise. A DBA that I worked with years ago once joked that we’d be the two worst salespeople in the entire world, as we’d both be saying “you know? you really don’t need this. The price is just stupid and honestly, you’re fine without it. Sorry to have wasted your time.” Now, I think that everyone needs link building of course…but I never make any promises about the effectiveness of what we do, as it’s always something that is determined by many factors out of my control, such as budget, client’s site, client’s willingness to listen to SEO advice and make appropriate changes, history of the site, willingness of people in the niche to link, etc.

Public Enemy

Google’s Toolbar PageRank (TBPR) has become the absolute number one enemy of mine lately, if you don’t count the people who try to get out of paying me. It seems to be the only metric that clients really view as important. After bitching loads about this to the lovely ginger SEOIdiot, I quickly realized that it’s actually all my fault. In this way, Paul resembles my mother, but with better hair.

Anyway, he pointed out that it’s critical to set the value for the client, before doing the work. Pretty simple concept really, but I was so sure that by underpromising and refusing to guarantee results, I had it all covered. He learnt me good.

So, if I gently yet emphatically explain to my clients beforehand that TBPR is really a load of crap, maybe when they get their reports at the end of the month, they won’t all fuss about why we got them some PR 0 and 1 links, right? Riggghhht.

As I learned from all this, I wasn’t quite clear on my definition of value either. As the Director of Operations, I was so used to making sure we didn’t run under or over budget and that we didn’t get worthless links that I didn’t take the time to think about much else. TBPR is a very easy number and it makes it easy to price links if you’re those types of nasty people who buy them. If you can’t rely on that for value, what is there? Defining quality is always difficult. Getting a client to agree with my definition of quality is even more difficult. (see my quality link may not be your quality link) Documenting quality on a client report is, like, fifteen hundred billion times as difficult. So what can you do?

Figure out what you want to get out of marketing, first of all. More traffic, higher rankings, more sales? The figure out a plan to make that happen. Throw away the idea of TBPR representing value up front…god knows we’ve all seen some amazing sites with low or no TBBR and some truly ridiculous sites with high TBPR. Once you’ve been doing link building for awhile, you can just look at a page and tell if it’s going to be a good one to get a link on. You can look at some high TBPR sites that may send traffic to your client’s site, but it will almost all be worthless traffic, as the niches are totally irrelevant to each other.

Since I’m heeding the advice of gingers, Scott Cowley had an awesome post on client expectations that brings up another big Flourless Dome area when link building: quantity and quality of links. At Link Fish, we keep loads of stats and can easily find out what the average cost of a paid link is for a year for each of the niches we’ve worked with, but the fact remains that averages are subject to change. In the past year alone, we’ve seen that the cost of a paid link on a gambling site has gone way, way up. German gambling links in particular have gotten pricey. Thus, if you give us $5000 to spend on links, you may see 50 links, but you may see 25. Clients really, really hate it when they’re used to getting a set number of links in a month, and then that changes for whatever reason. We sometimes decide to tighten up our in-house standards (for the greater good), and clients sometimes decide to change their standards midway through a campaign, which always wrecks the quantity balance unless the budget is adjusted. The quality then becomes an issue because clients get tired of having to pay more money for fewer links, and they consider going elsewhere to get what they think are cheaper yet better quality links. Err on the side of caution: assume the client will change his or her mind about guidelines and that links will get more expensive, and state this up front.

This also applies to non-paid link building of course, perhaps even more so. When you’re not offering money, things can get a bit harder. If a client comes to you after dealing with a paid link campaign and now wants to go all whitehat, he or she may be very surprised at the low quantity of links that you can get for the same effort. I’ll admit that the quality of non-paid links can definitely be much better than that of paid links…but it can also be much worse. It’s probably a good idea to get a nice history of any backlinking work that’s gone on when you take on a new client so that you can adjust expectations accordingly.

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16 Responses to “The Flourless Chocolate Dome”

  1. Scott Cowley says:

    I love food analogies, and I love this one Julie. I’ve been thinking a lot about the adage “over promise and under deliver” over the past couple of days, and even asked people about it. Like Pete Meyers told me, “I think of it more as ‘Deliver what you promise + throw in some surprises.” This makes more sense to me. We’re in an industry with intelligent people who don’t like to be “underpromised” to.

    What’s interesting to me is the ongoing battle that many SEOs have with PageRank. I don’t even touch it. It only comes up if a client brings it up. And it seems like clients bring it up only when all of the other metrics are looking good and they still need something to moan about so they can feel like they’re “managing the campaign.”

    Thanks again for the ginger shout-out! :)

  2. Julie Joyce says:

    Thanks for the comment sir…and I agree with you, especially about how clients really will bring it up when things are great but they feel like just having a go at you. God forbid any of us would do a great job you know.

  3. James Dunn says:

    Let it be written that Gingers will rule the world (because we are awesome)!

  4. Rhys says:

    Are paid links not considered black hat, then?

  5. Julie Joyce says:

    They might be, if people don’t know what black hat stuff really is…paid links are insanely tame honestly. They are just not what Google wants. Meh.

  6. Rhys says:


    What would you say the difference is between paid-links and black-hat?
    Are both not creating unnatural links?

    I thought white-hat was generating natural links via marketing, and on-site SEO to make sure a site is targeting sensible keywords?

    As far as I can tell, paid links are only “tame” because anyone can do it, whereas much black hat can require quite heavy coding skills. However, the purpose is the same – get unnatural links.

  7. Julie Joyce says:

    Is any marketing truly natural?

  8. Rhys says:


    I’d say the difference is that marketing is to positively raise a profile, whereas spam (for which I’d include paid links) is to trick people into clicking something second rate.

    By “natural”, I meant designed for internet users to see, rather than just to spam search engines. Most paid links are not designed to advertise to the users of that website (which would require market research for the best target audiences) – they are merely there because a site has good page rank / relevance.

    Personally, I’d say “white hat” SEO is making a site rank as well as it can for it’s quality – improving the code etc., but after that – if it is not just spam – it needs proper marketing work so it can gain natural links from real people. There is marketing skill in that. If you are just buying links, you are not doing marketing.

    Indeed, Google say they will penalise paid links, hence I’d say it’s a black hat approach unless you warn a client of this risk. Why would you say it is different to more elaborate black hat methods, apart from being easier?

  9. max says:

    of course a paid link is black hat. fast links. what else?

  10. Doc Sheldon says:

    Great piece, Julie. I tend to agree with Scott, that rather than under-promise, it’s better to over-deliver. When you’re bidding against another SEO, it’s a dangerous game to under-promise, if you really want the project.

    As for the blackhat vs whitehat question, I agree completely. Although I’ve never bought a link, I HAVE had my butt kicked by competitors that did. It’s really pretty tame stuff. I know some SEOs that buy the vast majority of their links, that have a lot of integrity and professionalism. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not blackhat, it’s just a bit more risky than I care to operate.

    “Is any marketing truly natural?” Lordy, we could start a marathon discussion with THAT question! ;)

  11. Emily says:

    I’m not entirely certain that even google knows what it wants these days. I’ve seen big spammy sites disappear this last fortnight from the index only to be replaced with some other similar spammy sites.
    It seems to have fixated on the marketing skills of a Uk voucher site though and that’s almost entirely dominant across a whole range of search phrases. Which is fine if you don’t mind your landing page lying to you about codes they claim to have for online shops. Another merchant complaint came to light today and they don’t even have an affiliate program to abuse – but google lets the voucher site traffic steal so well.

  12. Julie Joyce says:

    The black hat issue just annoys me…I should never have used any of those phrases. It’s simply a “this or that” mentality that vilifies certain necessary practices. The hat debate seems to come into play no matter what anyone writes about, no matter what clients want, and it’s just a bit old.

    For all of you who are protesting about paid links always being black hat…I have a few questions.

    1. Have you ever actually REALLY ranked a site in a hyper-competitive niche more than page 3 without using ANY “black hat” or semi-questionable tactics? I know it’s possible, but I fail to believe that it’s all that common unless you’ve been in control of the site and its SEO for the last decade.

    2. Why do you assume that all paid links are shit?

    3. How would you propose to compete in an industry where everyone else buys links? Just sit back and say “well not us, we’ll wait until our quality content (which is probably crap anyway) gets us to the top”?

    Lastly, if the first thing that springs to mind when thinking “black hat” is paid links…get out more and actually interact with someone in this area. Black hats aren’t just sitting there buying shit links. They’re doing things you’d probably only dream about.

  13. Rhys says:


    “1. Have you ever actually REALLY ranked a site in a hyper-competitive niche more than page 3 without using ANY “black hat” or semi-questionable tactics?”

    I’ve marketed my own site that way, but would be dubious about selling such things to a client. My problem with buying links is that it’s a gamble – if they get found out they could be blacklisted, and yet I don’t believe SEOs mention this to their clients, or mention that it’s merely a temporary fix.

    “2. Why do you assume that all paid links are shit?”

    Because they are temporary. You have to keep paying.
    Also, the methods used to buy links are usually simply spam. I have a good PR site and rarely do SEOs ask to buy links for SEO reasons, they say they would like to advertise, not warning the person they are buying links off that they could be penalised for hosting them.

    “3. How would you propose to compete in an industry where everyone else buys links? Just sit back and say “well not us, we’ll wait until our quality content (which is probably crap anyway) gets us to the top”?”

    From “which is probably crap anyway”, I am assuming you don’t write content (fair enough, I’m yet to see an SEO who does). However, why do you not think good content works? Most high page rank sites have got their PR through quality content. If an SEO is merely buying links from someone who has a successful site through good content, then it looks to me that the wrong person is in the marketing job – the person with the naturally successful site should be doing it.

    “Lastly, if the first thing that springs to mind when thinking “black hat” is paid links…get out more and actually interact with someone in this area. Black hats aren’t just sitting there buying shit links. They’re doing things you’d probably only dream about.”

    Please clarify what the difference in the ultimate purpose of both practises is, though? Both go completely against Google’s guidelines. One is crafty and one is simple, but they are both designed to get an unnatural position.

    White Hat seems blurred now to mean “Things anyone can do”, whereas Black Hat is “Things people with coding skills can do”.

  14. Sasha says:

    Wow, love the food metaphor! …I’ve had that moment way too many times to count -_-
    Why are so many people so fixated on the Google Rank. The rank alone will not bring you success…Isn’t it a lot more logical to look at you conversions, links, visitors, etc?

  15. Julie Joyce says:

    @Rhys I have to imagine that you only have experience with SEOs who buy links and lie about it to clients…I don’t know anyone who does that, thankfully. It’s the first thing we tell any potential client. If we’re buying links, it’s because the client has ok’d it, and that is after we make sure they are comfortable with (and understand) the risks.

    Regarding this comment “Most high page rank sites have got their PR through quality content.” well…that’s quite untrue, and do you think only high page rank sites rank well? If the toolbar pagerank is built on links for the most part, how can you justify saying it happens out of content? If you haven’t seen any SEOs who do write content, I’d love to know where you’re lurking.

    What, in marketing, is NOT designed to get an unnatural position? And there are other search engines than Google, remember. Placing a billboard in a highly trafficked area is designed to get more attention than putting it somewhere else where no one will see it. Thus, the one that gets seen has been unnaturally marketed, correct? And is that bad? Or is it just smart?

  16. We love Ginger too… yum yum yum :)

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