I would dearly love to believe that so-called ‘negative SEO’ was not possible in this day and age of human editors, link checkers and auditors. Given my recent experience with a museum who were manually penalised, I can say ‘Negative SEO’ is alive, well and easily executed.
It all started when a museum launched a longer-than-average exhibition. They gave this exhibition its own domain and featured blogs from the curators. This was a significant enterprise for them and they worked quite hard on promoting it. My company gave them some support so we had a relationship with them and started helping ensure they could be found but we were not engaged to do SEO at this point or any sort of search support work. Everything was going along well until one day they were hacked.
The hack wasn’t too sophisticated so it was immediately visible that it had happened and they were able to flag it with their IT department. As these things go it was dealt with moderately quickly but the hack was up for awhile. Once resolved we went back to business as usual for them. Lurking in the background, unbeknownst to them or us, was a ticking time bomb.
Eventually we were contacted by them in a panic as they didn’t know what to do. They had dropped out of the rankings completely for their key terms (a phrase they invented). Upon examination we found they had dropped for their own brand term, their key terms and once we got Webmaster Tools access we found they had dropped for almost every key term and there was a message. They had received the dreaded “un-natural links” warning email. Disaster, but why?
Looking back over what they had done we could find nothing they have actively done which would explain the problem. They were a museum engaging in only the normal PR work – so what had caused the problem? Well, a few brilliant minds came together and one spotted it – the spammy links causing the manual penalty. Apparently once the hack happened, it caused a bunch of pharma links to be pointed at the museum site.
The weird thing was, those pharma links were irrelevant and should have been passing no value at all. So why did the museum, who were not selling anything like those links indicated, get a *manual* link penalty? The links were irrelevant and the anchor text was irrelevant so the links should have been passing no value.
What we have is an excellent example of how ‘Negative SEO’ works.
Manual checkers aren’t using common sense to check the sites it seems. How a museum could have been mistaken for a site benefiting from pharma links is unknown to me but it did clearly demonstrate ‘Negative SEO’ was still possible.
It only worked for a short time – eventually Google saw the lack of wisdom in the decision and when we contacted them they removed the manual penalty. This seems to me to be a really effective seasonal ping – throw the spammy links at a site just before a major shopping holiday, rake it in as your competition disappears and voila, you’ve won.
What should you do if you think you’ve been hit? Firstly check Webmaster Tools. We got a note, you’re likely to as well if you got a penalty. Next, check your back links. You can check Majestic SEO on your own site, Google Webmaster Tools, SEOmoz, and a number of other tools. Look at the anchor text of your back links – this is super easy in SEOmoz, Majestic SEO and a few others. Look to see if there is anything untoward or suspect. You should *never* have more keyword links than brand links and your keyword links should be on the theme of your site. If there are spikes on the Majestic SEO graphs around the time just before you got your penalty it could be due to volume of acquisition and in that case you might not have gotten an alert. We didn’t when we accidentally tripped a volume flag. Just dig using free or paid tools and see what is going on.
Once you find the errant links, if they are irrelevant as these were, use a WHOIS lookup and use the email contact to request that the links be removed. If it like it did for us, they will all bounce or be ignored. Once done, use that spreadsheeted list of the bad URLs and include them in your reconsideration request, stating that not only did you clearly not build them but they were contacted to ask for removed and emails bounced or went unanswered. It, of course, helps to be able to email a Google engineer but hardly anyone can. The above should work without extraordinary intervention.
Negative SEO is still possible, poisonous links do still exist and you can still harm an irrelevant site with bad links despite attempts to do so not always succeeding.
I was fortunate enough to attend BrightonSEO a couple of weeks ago – big love to Kelvin and the team for organising another fantastic event. For me the stand out presentation of the day came from Dave Trott on Predatory Thinking.
Don't panic, this is not Dave Trott.
Dave Trott is the Executive Creative Director for CSTTG. He trained on Madison Avenue at the end of the Mad Men era, when the three-martini lunch and golf course advertising was for dinosaurs, and the creative revolution was just starting. After 4 years, to avoid getting drafted for Vietnam, Dave came back to London. Some of the advertising he worked on included: Ernie the Milkman for Unigate; Aristonandonandonandon (quoted in a speech by Margaret Thatcher); Red Rock Cider with Leslie Nielsen; the Holsten Pils campaign featuring Griff Rhys Jones and dead Hollywood film stars; and a controversial multi-media campaign, made entirely for free, that helped get the Third World Debt discussed by the world s governments.
There are a wholebunchofroundupsyoucan read for further info on Dave’s talk and the conference in general, but I wanted to focus this post purely on predatory thinking, and what that might look like for SEOs.
If there’s one thing I love about this industry it’s that we are not backwards in coming forwards. Whilst there are a number of fantastic conferences run by larger organisations, dedicated event and publisher groups there is no shortage of people that are creating, organising and growing independent or not-for-profit conferences within this sector. I wanted to find out about the challenges these (often volunteer) conference organisers face and if the benefits to them or their business match the time and effort put in. I asked the following group of indy conference and event organisers for their thoughts on the same topics:
Jo: I have not considered charging people for Search London, nor would I want to as it would go against the principles of Search London which is a place where people can share information freely. It is important to keep Search London open for all, which means not charging a fee. There are many conferences with great speakers but due to the expense, many people miss out and cannot attend. I am lucky to have some of these fantastic speakers talk at Search London.
Gus: I’m determined that the OMN events, such as they are now, will remain free, or virtually free. The main issue with this is that it’s virtually impossible to judge how many people are going to turn up as there’s no commitment further than a click on an RSVP button from members. This is a challenge as there’s a legal capacity in most venues, so if we set the max limit too high, and everyone turns up who RSVPs ‘yes’, then we could be in trouble. As the group grows bigger we’ll potentially implement a token charge that will go straight behind the bar. Maybe. Who knows? I don’t have a tip about this as I’ve not got it right yet.
Dan: We had over 100 attendees booked at the May SotonDigital event. 50% didn’t turn up. I think that free conferences are not valued compared to paid ones. As an organiser, this is very depressing, it’s like saying “you know all that hard work you did? yeah, I don’t really care”. About 10% (of non-attendees) apologise with some decent reasons for not attending. Makes me wonder about the other 90%!
Kelvin: We’ve always been free for the main event and I can’t envision that changing anytime soon. As soon as you charge even a single penny you change the relationship between attendee and organiser. It’s tricky to make the sums add up but not impossible, before I spend a single penny I need to ask myself what does this really add to the conference? is this something the attendees or sponsors will value? And it’s about spending the money in the right places as well.
Getting Bums on Seats (Or Fannys, for our American Readers)
Sam: Having a free event you will always struggle to get a 100% turnout on the day, so I always overbook the event and work to a 40% drop out rate. I don’t know what the ratio is like with other free or paid events but this seems to be about right for Digital Females.
Kelvin: We’ve fortunately never had a problems getting people along to BrightonSEO, with a sell out in less than an hour for every conference. But it never ceases to amaze me how many marketing events are poorly marketed. We understood very early on that scarcity makes people value the tickets more, so we push that, each conference will have it’s own angle but it does need a marketing strategy, not just a book it and hope approach.
Jo: Once you have the fantastic speakers and you have announced the event (sending out emails or publishing on your blog), getting bums on seats is not that hard. It is very important to have a venue in a central location making it easy for people to attend, otherwise you will not attract many people. I always Tweet about the meetups I host via Linked in and I also advertise it on my own seo website. When I attend other meetups in the run up to mine and where relevant, I mention to those I speak with during the night, that I am running an event and ask if they would like to come along.
Gus: OMN was originally run by someone else, and called the Online Marketing Networking Group on Meetup, had about 100 members at its height. They ran events on Saturday’s to which only 3 or 4 members would turn up. So there’s tip number one, don’t run professional events at times that most people consider leisure time.
My main business, Quad, has offices on HMS President, which as well as being a pretty unique place to be spending my working life, is also one of the best events venues in London, and I was already considering setting up an event to take advantage of the space. So, when the disheartened organiser of the Online Marketing Networking Group stepped down, I took over the group and OMN was born. Tip number two, get a good venue.
Sam: We have only run four meet ups so far so finding sponsorship hasn’t been too difficult. The first event was sponsored by Koozai to help get it off the ground and subsequent meet ups have been sponsored by Linkdex, Manual Link Building and Distiled. The last meet up was sponsored by Distilled and I was able to secure this sponsorship because we had Hannah Smith talking and we also helped push SearchLove and DistilledU in exchange.
Dan: This is tricky, as it’s tough to ensure sponsors get value. Invariably, it’s about visibility, but I’ve found that sponsors are only interested in sponsoring once the event is popular.
Kelvin: Being a free event we’ve never had the luxury of ticket revenue so we’ve had to build great relationships with sponsors, that means understanding what they want and helping them achieve it, as wanky as that sounds. In our case for the conference it’s the sponsors who are really are customers not the attendees so we try our best to put as many of the right people as we can in contact with them. And try and charge a fair amount for it.
Jo: It can be difficult to confirm sponsorship. It is important to have the speakers confirmed, a date in mind and a venue with the costs before you ask for sponsorship. I am hosting my next meetup on Tuesday 18th of September and I pleased to say that MoneySupermarket are sponsoring the event. I did book the venue and arranged the speakers before I had spoken to them about sponsoring. However, for my last Search London event for the year which takes place week commencing October 22nd, and where Craig Bradford from Distilled will be speaking, I have yet to confirm a sponsor. If you are interested, please get in touch with me via Twitter.
Attracting Quality Speakers
Kelvin: We’ve never had a general call for speakers, for two reasons. One it makes you lazy as an organiser, the temptations there just to choose from those people who present themselves to you. Some of our most successful ever speakers have been the people who wouldn’t have put themselves forward for an SEO conference in a million years they only got involved because we asked them two. Secondly you’ve got to realise a lot of your friends and social media buddies are going to want to talk at your event, there’s only limited slots and often they won’t be the right person for the gig even if they’re a great. Anything I can do to avoid that situation is good in my book.
Dan: I’ve found that inviting as many people as possible to speak allows you to choose the best range of topics that suit the audience. Give yourself a choice from a range of talks. Most potential speakers are aware of how they can boost their profile by speaking at a well-attended event.
Gus: We set an event for a couple of months in the future and reach out to industry connections, such as SEO chick extraordinaire Nichola Stott, (Author Note: I swear I did not pay him to say this) who we knew had a lot to offer the online marketing community and membership grew steadily. Tip number three, it’s all about the topics and the content. Get great speakers, talking about topics that are popular and you’ll get an audience. OMN is now a 2000+ strong community of London’s best and brightest online marketers, supported by a blog with a growing following and we’ve big plans for the future.
What Attracts People to Your Meet/Conference?
Jo: The topics and the speakers are the most important factors in attracting people to Search London.
Sam: Networking with like-minded individuals in an environment that people feel comfortable in, then after that the speakers.
Kelvin: I think our price point as always helped us, we instantly wipe out the biggest objection people would have to coming to an event. Originally I think the party was one of the main attractions but I think that’s changing over time, now we’re lucky to have such a huge audience its becoming one of the places where there’s the greatest likelihood of you bumping into someone within the industry you know or who you would like to meet.
In which ways do you benefit? (If you do benefit?)
Gus: OMN is purposely kept separate from my main business, Quad, as I’m very conscious that I don’t want it to be seen as a sales event, although on the occasions that we sponsor the bar I’ll put a sponsor message in a group email, and this normally generates a few enquiries into our content marketing services. It’s about building genuine relationships
Sam: I didn’t create Digital Females to benefit me individually; it was set up to help increase the number of females attending some of the larger conferences in the UK. Many of the larger conferences are very much male dominated and I know there are a lot of females in the industry that don’t go attend them at the moment and I want to see this change over the next two years.
Jo: People have often asked this question. I enjoy arranging the meetups and meeting the speakers and the attendees. Everyone talks and works online, but it is nice to meet in person and also share knowledge with others. The search industry constantly has new updates and Search London is one of the ways to get real “how to” knowledge to stay ahead of the news and implement best practice for your websites and clients.
Kelvin: We benefit financially, BrightonSEO is slowly but surely becoming a ‘proper business’ in it’s own right. It’s no big company yet but if it brings in more than you spend it’s much easier to continue investing emotionally into the project. It’s been great for the profile of the city and me individually, I’m much better known as a consequence but I could have achieved a similar effect with much less effort if that had been my aim.
What I enjoy the most is seeing the friendships, business partnerships and successful careers that have been built to some extent as a consequence of BrightonSEO, someone came up to at the last event and told me how a freelance contract he’d won at the event had the potential to change his business. That’s hugely gratifying, seeing speakers who spoke first t BrightonSEO presenting all over the world is hugely gratifying, seeing things like Dave Trott’s book sell out on Amazon after speaking at BrightonSEO that’s gratifying too!
Dan: I generally get more visibility in the area which in turn benefits my own business profile, but I’ve found it short-lived. I’d need to keep running events to maintain it. However, there’s been no new business as a direct result.
Why Should Anyone Consider Organising an Independent Conference or Meetup in their Area?
Kelvin: What are you going to do differently, just being in a different location isn’t really enough, also don’t under-estimate how hard it can be to get sponsors or ticket sales, I’ve known of at least one event that was launched under blaze of publicity and if my sums are correct will have lost a bucket load of money. That doesn’t mean it won’t go on to be a huge success but if the people behind it thought they were going to make a huge ammount of money after event one they were mistaken. I think most people are better of starting small, Think of the smallest the event could possibly bean and make yours smaller. I think there’s a brighter future for someone who sells out a fifty person event than someone who sells a hundred tickets to an event that they thought would attract 250.
Dan: It’s great for the community, but be aware, it will eat up your time, far more than you’d expect… although it depends how much effort you put into it.
Gus: Running OMN takes a LOT of time. Managing the members, the event, promotion, speakers, sponsors, door people, cloakrooms, etc. could easily be a full-time job for someone, and in the very near future it probably will be. I don’t make a profit out of the events, and for me it’s a labour of love. It’s a chance to give something back to the community that I love being part of, that provides my income and feeds my passion for digital marketing. Tip number four, be prepared to put your reputation on the line and give up evenings and weekends. If anyone reading this is interested in starting a Meetup/conference of their own, sign up to OMN, come down to the next event and grab me at the bar for a chat, or get me on Twitter @GusQuad. As I say it’s a passion of mine so I’m more than happy to discuss your plans with you and help if I can.
Sam: It is a great way to get people together but I would recommend looking around first to make sure there isn’t something already running. If there are already conferences or meetups in your local area, you need to find a specific niche that you can start to run with. If there isn’t anything in your area, go for it! It gives you a real sense of achievement when attendees come up to you after the event and say how much they learnt from enjoyed the event J
I‘d really like to thank Sam, Kelvin, Dan, Gus and Jo for taking the time to respond to my questions. One of the clearest points that each of these guys have stressed is that even though there are indirect or sometimes direct financial reward as a result of running these events, on the whole there is a huge amount of consuming time, effort and energy required to make these events a successful learning experience (and usually a whole bunch of fun.)
If you have ever attended, spoken at or simply joined one of these events for the fun networking, I hope you will join me in thanking these guys for their very hard work.
Nichola just asked me this: Which sectors have you found surprisingly competitive and why? I decided to answer this from my own billion-feet-in-the-air perspective, ask my link builders, and ask a few SEOs who don’t do exactly what I do. The results were pretty cool but not cool enough to put into any form of spreadsheet or nice set of graphs. Just read.
The floral industry was insanely difficult and pricey in my opinion. This totally surprised me as I’d worked with that industry before and thought it was quite easy at the time but that was when I did regular SEO, not link building. I knew they would of course do big holiday and seasonal pushes as they’re obviously going to be selling more flowers on Valentine’s Day than they would on Feb 17th, but it still surprised me to witness both the client and webmasters going so over the top with money. If I could have spent triple the budget on links, any way I could get them, I could have gotten that budget easily.
Gambling is very competitive but has been the easiest one for us overall. I don’t have a problem with gambling and I have always thought it was quite a fun niche to work in. However, this was an interesting choice for me to pick because most of my link builders do view it as a tough one even though they link for it very well. From my perspective, we do a great job, and they get some great links but those great links are definitely tricky.
The finance sector has been fun but there are both low and high ends there, and we’ve done both. The higher end stuff is trickier I think, as if you’re building links for a well-known financial client, you aren’t going to be asking Mommy bloggers for links or trying to appeal to every fool who has a 4 post site about how he earns a living through selling crap on eBay. I’m not a financial type in any respect (lovely quality for a business owner, no?) and I don’t find a lot of it to be overly interesting so the brainstorming has been harder for me personally with that industry. The low end financial niche was actually pretty damned easy because due to the nature of what those guys did, we found it very easy to relate it to just about anything. I’m proud to say that my link builders agree with me here, as otherwise I’d smack them all.
What has really surprised me about quoting jobs is that there’s one major niche that stands out as never, ever wanting to pay anything even close to what I ask for, and that’s the legal profession. I’ve probably done at least 15 quotes for lawyers over the past few years and every single one has seemed outraged that I actually want money. This industry wins the award for “is sent proposal and never emails back” too. I’m not sure if that really has anything to do with “surprisingly competitive” but it did spring to mind so there you go. Anyone have this same experience? Note: Todd mentions the legal industry in his piece below, which is interesting…is PPC the usual route for these guys, thereby causing them to think anything else is just a waste of time and money?
Overall, I think that the competitiveness of a lot of industries comes down to what clients are willing to do in terms of ideas, resources on their side and ours, and money. Generating and implementing creative strategies that are designed to do well in the long-term takes a lot of energy and time, and clients don’t always want to pay for it. Many times it is more expensive than just throwing cash at us and asking us to buy links. We have spent countless hours brainstorming ideas for content creation and promotion, and only rarely have we been asked to implement them because they’re expensive. Due to this, I’ve stopped giving out proposals for strategy because I’m quite tired of spending the time and handing it off for free.
I asked a few other people about this since my ideas of difficulty differed from that of my link builders in some cases. Here’s what they had to say.
James Agate, Director of Skyrocket SEO and overall genuine nice guy:
“We have found a number of local markets to be incredibly competitive to work in – not all of course, but some are certainly much more challenging dare I say it than for our clients in travel insurance, gambling and finance. We don’t have a lot of “local business” type clients but from time to time an opportunity to work with a good one (read: I like the owner or what the business does) comes along.
I guess we find these often to be surprisingly challenging for the following reasons:
Competitors hustle like they mean it – I am often surprised how closely local SERPs are monitored by competitors, at a local level we see competitive reactions much faster than in any other markets that we work in. I put this down to the business owners taking it very personally, not only do they like the trophy of being the number 1 locksmith in town on Google (they’ll check rankings daily) but they really rather enjoy all the business that it sends them.
Their competitors dominate and I mean really dominate – we see quite a few of our competitors with multiple domains and such a thirst for SEO that they’ve left NO keyword unturned (practically no opportunities for quick wins/low hanging fruit) just a long hard slog to the top.
A small business is hiring us because they’re new to the market or they’ve been ‘missing out’ – This often means that they are way behind their competitors which I think to me and my team makes the market ‘feel’ more competitive as we seek to overcome a greater natural search gap.”
Peter Attia, banjo-playing SEO extraordinare and Cucumber Nebula master says:
“One of the industries that caught me completely off guard was HIPAA Compliant Hosting. HIPAA Is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which helps regulate certain standards for health insurance.
I’ve worked in both insurance niches and hosting niches before and understood how competitive they could be. However, when I looked up “HIPAA Hosting” I saw that it only got about 200 exact match searches a month and this was one of their highest searched terms. I figured it couldn’t be that hard to make a dent in.
What I wasn’t aware of, is this type of hosting contains potentially sensitive information of people and/or businesses. This required very heavy security, making each account worth thousands of dollars if not more. So, even though their weren’t many sales coming in through this term, each sale was worth several times more than a normal account.
This made me realize I should never let my guard down, even if something looks like an easy win.”
Bas van den Beld, founder of State of Search, nicest Dutchman ever: “The most obvious ones here are off course finance related (loans, insurance) because that is a competitive space. But that is hardly surprising. What is becoming more competitive is an interesting one, namely apps and social in general. Try doing a search for ‘whatsapp’ and you will have a lot of work getting to the top on that term. Or terms like Twitter and Facebook themselves. If you are for example a company who is consulting in that area you will have a big issue getting found in the first place.
I don’t know if you can call this surprising, but at least it is something different than say five years ago when apps and social media were easy to rank for, after all, we didn’t know as much about them then as we know now.”
Todd Mintz , Sr. Account Manager at PPC Associates and possessor of the best taste in films of anyone in the industry said: “In paid search, pretty much everything is competitive :.)
However, I’ve found that anything in the legal area (especially in the high ROI arena of finding plaintiffs for contingency lawsuits) is especially brutal. It isn’t just because lawyers have some of the deepest pockets (because there are other finance areas with rich PPC budgets). The keyword niches are so incredibly narrow that there really isn’t nearly as many relevant keywords that are in play to bid on, meaning it’s an arms race for top position. With the demise of Yahoo PPC (which frequently favored long tail keywords), the old PPC tactic of adding every keyword variation under the sun to your campaign to poach long tail traffic doesn’t really work anymore. AdWords will favor high bids on short tail terms, squeezing all the cheap clicks out of the auction.”
And then there’s silly David Wiseman, SEO Account Manager at Kahena and koala fan who simply said “We had a client who sold machines that helped farmers pick low-hanging fruit. You would be amazed how competitive the low-hanging fruit industry actually is.”
Thanks to everyone who contributed…and if anyone has anything to add, we’d love to hear it! Unless it’s rude, you bunch of nuts.
So it’s that time of the month (shut up!) when I need to write something clever here but you know what? I’m out of clever today.
However, recently I’ve been having fantastic conversations with my link builders about ways to keep our job interesting, and we’ve been coming up with some insanely silly discovery ideas and search terms, none of which I will repeat because the best ones are offensive and would make us look highly unprofessional. Sometimes we are. I’ve also been really, really enjoying some of the truly poor comments that I see on sites and that led me down a nostalgic SEO-Chicks comment-path, which is here for your viewing pleasure…wow, we had some good ones!! 3,389 ones to be exact.
Here are my favorites.
“You are freaking weird!” by Rob Kerry, going by evilgreenmonkey back then, which Lisa once confused with a donkey so the poor man had to endure that for donkey’s years.
“Some men find that attractive Lisa – just ask the trainer at my gym *winks* *LAUGHS*” by Judith, the little scoundrel.
“ wish I commonly misspelled only 100 words.” by David LaFerney
“I am lovely, aren’t I?” by Patrick Sexton.
“ha ha I’m laughing so hard I might wee myself…how’s that for attractive?” from, you guessed it, Lisa Myers!!
“I don’t mind kicking you up your backside by the way…” (this may have been mine)
“That white cat reminds me of Steve Winwood for some reason.” again mine, and possibly the oddest one I can think of.
“Sometimes the same word is an entirely different product…
chips — crisps
fries — chips
There are many other examples.” from g1smd. Truly he’s a soothsayer.
“WHAT? Do I look like a girl that likes PINK? I also had a question whether we made SEO chicks t-shirts in pink, now why the fuck would we do that? The site is green, why would be have pink t-shirts. If you can’t figure out that I’m a girl and you need colour coding you need your eyes checked.” yeah, Lisa again there.
“Does the flash drive for women come with a hook to hang a dish-cloth on maybe?” Ciaran Norris. Yeah watch out Australia, he’s coming fer ya!
“Decent post.” from someone called Daz. (thanks for the accolades Daz!!!!)
“I love your site. They really look very nice. The articles provided are long enough to provide great content but not so long as to be totally engrossing, if you know what I mean…. ” from Kuvashan. Hey thanks!! We never wanted to be totally engrossing. Also not sure about what the “they look really nice” refers to but I am frowning at you.
“I would have your balls on a plate” from Lisa, again, sigh…
“I have a mother your age, and I can tell you for a fact that she would regard you as an old cranky pants.” Ah, Jane Copland!!! My lovely Kiwi bear!!
“I’m done with this conversation. I have a daughter your age, and I can tell you for a fact that she would not have the same mindset for any type of business. If she did, she knows she would also get a spanking,…. just like the one you and others need as well.” from the “who could forget him??” master Doug Heil. For the record, he didn’t get the pleasure of spanking any of us.
“I’ve seriously Tronned myself into the tertiary level navigation. Not even John Rambo could find me…” from Nichola Stott.
““maybe Tamar Weinberg?”” from Tamar Weinberg, in an infinite loop of commentizing.
And to conclude let’s revisit that most epic of photographics, the one of us as Spice Girls.
There have been a lot of discussions about online privacy recently, from those of us who work in the online world to newsrooms and parliaments. I want to take a look at what really matters to people when they’re online and highlight a few areas that are often overlooked.