Last month, the owner of a Dallas-area search marketing firm wrote an impassioned open letter to Google, asking what he, an honest marketer, should do when Google continues to bestow higher organic rank on his competitors, despite their blatant violation of the Google quality guidelines. Unless and until Google answers his rhetorical challenge by eliminating all web spam, practical marketers are left with this question: what are the risks and rewards of short-term tactics up to and including manipulation, and how do we balance management’s demands for results with the realities of search?
To answer that question, I’ve pulled together five different cases in which manipulation was involved to some degree. Each one illustrates a different consideration related to the decision to take a shortcut. It may not be possible to put precise numbers to the gains and losses before, during, and after some form of manipulation, but it is possible to see the outline of when it might and might not make sense to cut corners.
Consideration #1: The Return Period on Increased Revenue
When you start using a tactic to manipulate rank, you don’t know how long the technique will be effective. Forget about Google’s active effort to combat them directly – the ever-broadening universe of signals Google incorporates into its algorithm will reduce the effectiveness of any tactic.
In the case above, the company enjoyed a year of elevated ranking. How much was the time worth? In this case, the gain was roughly 50,000 users a month in a competitive space – perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars. That might not seem worth the stretch, but the site had labored in obscurity for years before suddenly (and not at all suspiciously, I might facetiously add) taking off. The increased organic search no doubt got the site (which has some decent, though not great, content) in front of a lot of people. It’s hard to argue in this case that it wasn’t worth it, especially since the site appears to have held onto a significant amount of traffic in 2014.
Consideration #2: Potential Impact on Company Operations
In early 2011, a major retailer was caught in a wide-ranging link-buying scheme. Google quickly took manual action, and the retailer’s numbers in organic search dropped for at least three months, with possibly some recovery over the next five months after that. Arguably, they remained below prior run rate for two whole years, a period during which its paid search spend increased significantly. Its later jumps in organic traffic correlate, ironically, with press mentions related to executive turnover.
How much would the drop in traffic have cost the retailer? The number was likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars just over the first eight months after the penalty. Assuming the chart is representative, it lost 75% of its organic traffic. In 2013, the company did approximately 9% of its business through its website. In 2011, its annual revenue totaled roughly $12 billion. Even adjusting for lower rates of internet adoption in 2011, the impact could be as high as $400 million.
This downturn didn’t trigger store closings or layoffs (its own disastrous corporate strategy did that by 2014), but had more than 9% of their revenues been coming from organic search, the impact could have been much larger. While the company reported stellar results for the holiday season in 2010, there’s no way that would have offset the impact of the lost revenue in 2011. Ask yourself: how much of your company’s or client’s revenue gets attributed to organic traffic? If you increase that and then lose a major percentage of it, would the subsequent loss of that revenue cause disruption to its strategies and operations in future years?
If you can budget for the uncertainty of future penalties, the trade-off of higher revenue for some period of time followed by reduced traffic may be acceptable, but in my experience, companies don’t understand the concept of revenue you can’t count on. Budgets get set based on run-rate projections from prior year, which means the downturn will force contingency planning within the current year. That can cost people their jobs and set the company back – not something most marketers would want to answer for.
Consideration #3: Organizational Development
In this instance, a company developed ways of pushing lots of sticky content out relatively cheaply and employed a number of techniques for building links – things like guest posts with exact match anchor text, link-bait articles that were slightly off-topic for their site, and the occasional paid link. As Google introduced Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird, the company’s site came under pressure.
How did the company respond?
First, it focused all its energy on diagnosing the penalty and taking corrective action: removing pages of off-topic content and finding ways to add depth to programmatic content that looked “thin.” After more than six months, it effected a major recovery. Life was good, although a certain paranoia had seeped in: any new page would undergo massive debate as to whether it was thin content or semantically relevant. Every dip in traffic was met with another round of investigation: was this a penalty?
When site traffic dropped even more, attention turned to undoing all the links that had been built up through link schemes. During this process, the company was hit with a manual penalty.
In between, the company tried to do what Google advises: build truly high-quality content and use social media to spread the word. However, its history had taught company management to expect a certain number of links, making the authentic link-building effort seem slow and cumbersome. Meanwhile, content development seemed expensive – the company wasn’t used to placing big bets on content. It also didn’t understand how to make social media drive engagement and traffic.
Without these competencies, the company struggled to adapt new tactics, and its site staged only a minor recovery before management decided to focus its efforts on other sites. This is the biggest hidden cost of using short-term tactics – the development of lower-value skills over those that build sustainable competitive advantage:
|Competencies Associated with Gaming Rank||Competencies Associated with Earning Rank|
|Making paid links look real||Building real relationships with related companies and organizations|
|Understanding Google||Understanding customers|
|Keyword analysis||Content development|
|Link removal||Driving engagement through social media|
Consideration #4: Lost Future Revenue
When a penalty gets lifted, site traffic doesn’t instantly return to normal; even more critically, a site might lock itself out of the highest organic ranks indefinitely. The chart above depicts an online retailer that was penalized in early 2011, much like the other retailer listed above. While the other retailer staged a more or less full recovery two years after penalty, this retailer has never hit the same levels of traffic again. It made a very quick initial recovery, but only showed signs of regular seasonal increases a year and a half after the penalty. (Admittedly, some of this may be a result of intense competitive pressure – the company operates in a very tough space.)
Google holds a patent on using historical data in evaluating a website. It can use information on pages that used to be published on a site and, presumably, user behavior in relation to that site in the past to evaluate how to rank it today. When a site gets penalized, it starts amassing data like click-through rate from a position deep in the search results. All that data then makes its way into the history Google can track. To counteract the impression of being a low-quality site, the company has to amass new quality signals.
Unless you have the ability to throw the baby out with the bath water and start over with a new domain, it’s fair to conclude that your site will never fully erase the negative data that is now part of its site history. In the case above, this wasn’t even remotely an option: years of brand equity and sizeable traffic flows are associated with the domain.
Consideration #5: Stage of the Business
The numbers above are from a bootstrapped startup in an intensely competitive space. Keyword bids routinely range north of $20. The company tested AdWords campaigns briefly, but not surprisingly, found it could not generate meaningful traffic at bid levels it could afford.
At that point, the company had two choices: begin a slow process of building its presence, probably starting with a very intensive effort through social media, or find some shortcuts. It started working with an SEO firm that charges a relatively small monthly sum for some basic on-page optimization analysis and link-building. For the price, there is no way the link-building can be anything but paid – it simply wouldn’t cover the cost of doing serious outreach. The effort is having an effect – though the numbers above are small, the company’s rank is increasing steadily (it’s hard for a source like SEMRush to have fully accurate numbers at this small a scale).
On the surface, it seems like a risky move, but the company has little to lose - no brand equity to put at risk, no existing rank to worry about. The alternative – slow growth – carries an even greater risk: the risk of failure that affects 90% of all small businesses.
So, what’s an honest marketer to do?
The same thing every marketer has to do: look at your options, weigh the risks and rewards of each, push for the course of action that you think is best for the given situation, communicate the expected performance and associated risks to your management, work like hell to make the plan succeed, and be comfortable with the decisions you made and why you made them.
For my own part, the impact on organizational development is the nail in the coffin for any kind of link schemes or manipulation. Even if it will drive rank, it’s not worth my time to help an organization get really good at things that don’t involve establishing real relationships that matter. Yes, it’s hard to do, but you can get good at it. If you do, it will make your company or client successful in the good times and the bad.