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SEO Confessions of a Former “Dirty Little Secret” Keeper

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SEO

Righteous systems judge the ethical value of wealth by the ways in which it is obtained.  This timeless axiom has never been consistent in the world of search engine optimization. In fact, most mature SEO practitioners’ roots are planted deep in algorithmic subterfuge.  The “Dirty little secrets” of SEO, recently glamorized by the New York Times and regurgitated by many, is not a secret at all.  Back in the 90s, one’s ability to thump the search engines for better rankings was what made you great. The stakes were not nearly as high then, as our search industry came to be.

What’s different now is that, while there used to be veritable legions of “SEO professionals” adept at leapfrogging SERPs competitors by playing beat-the-algorithm, the black art of gaming Google and Bing has become a much more elite endeavor, reserved for executive cheaters who chase moving  targets for obscene (though transient) profiteering. As a result we’re headed for a period of upheaval because Google and Bing can’t really stop cheating, only limit it. The mainstream media is figuring it out and heads will roll.

Spam detection is like divorce with children and NCAA football playoffs: imperfect solutions for impossible problems.

Google and Bing actually do a pretty good job given the massive challenge and sheer technical gall of global cheaters. Pay close enough attention to SEO-reality in the current environment and some things become crystal clear:

  • The intersection of organic content marketing, holistic social integration, paid search and contextual PPC and PR is ultimately the only timeless method by which to predictably win “organically,” whatever SEO means.
  • Google can’t always tell what a bad link is, who wrote the original content, which pages are valuable, who’s righteous and who’s full of horse pucky.
  • Choosing to market by mechanized link building means a commitment to slug it out against the unscrupulous and financially motivated minority, no matter how holistic or do-no-evil you are personally.
  • A lot of good and bad SEOs and businesses get hurt and it’s going to get worse for both.
  • The hot white spam detection light has been switched-on in the mainstream by recent exposes like the JC Penney Times article.
  • Having number one rankings, whether you cheat or not, now exposes your operation to third party independent watchdog vigilantes, as well as Google’s quality team. Google is about to go through an uncomfortable and dangerous in-between era of public challenges to it’s ranking criteria. The mainstream media wants know why some businesses, atop the rankings for incredibly valuable keywords, enjoy that lofty perch…rightfully so. There is so much money at stake.
  • PR sound bytes and glamor shots of quality team members won’t placate angry businesses for long, as the reality of what SEO has always been comes top-of-mind to mainstream consciousness.
  • The search engines are not the only problem. The more experienced the SEO practitioner, the more likely he or she comes from a background gaming search engines.  Though most of us quit trying to get over by artificial means years ago, a subculture of artificial content and automated tricks bubbles under.
  • Spamming works.  That’s why people do it.

Let’s Play Beat-The-Algorithm!
The first time I ever “optimized” a webpage was in mid-January 1994. Jonathan Fletcher Stirling’s creation, JumpStation, was most likely the first search engine to truly crawl the web.  I had been using Archie to locate FTP files around the world since late 1991. JumpStation was hosted at Scotland’s University of Stirling and mined document headings and titles to index web pages by bot. It was completely intriguing to enter keywords in a web-based form, search and receive a list of unranked URLs meeting the query’s criteria.   At the time figuring out how to dominate the index with keyword-driven titles and headings, for my own web content, was a fascinating hobby and super easy.  To my mind, I was helping to make valuable content more discoverable. Still, it was sport. The term, “SEO” had not yet been coined and I had no idea how important the concept of sculpting pages for discoverability would become in my life and to the world.

By the late-90s as AltaVista’s multi-threaded crawler, innovative indexer and austere UI roared to prominence. The Internet’s value to businesses became obvious to early adopters and mainstream media began its love affair with search.  As early as 1997 AltaVista earned $50 million in sponsorship revenue. Businesses were flocking to the Internet in droves.

Suddenly the art of getting webpages ranked had serious cash value attached because it saved advertising dollars. A massive industry of cheaters was born, amongst the authentic.

In the late 90s’ the best SEOs were mashups of venerable demographic research acumen and pseudo-scientists, adept at finding loopholes in search engine algorithms.  The ability to lightly game for SEO success made you in-demand, and perceived, not only as appropriate, but great.

Did I optimize content I did not believe in our care about simply for money? Of course I did. Getting ranked  then was easy as pie and I started making cool cash helping business. All it took was great research and tagging pages with sufficient keyword density.  In about a week sites would show up in AltaVista.  It was like having gilded keys to an exclusive castle. MSN, Lycos, Excite, Yahoo, Netscape and Info Seek all had their idiosyncrasies but the main commonality was that, by whatever method each engine utilized to discover and rank sites, the algorithms were super easy to beat.  You didn’t have to be very smart to be an SEO, just willing to take time, read early bloggers and test a lot. Our industry was born out of tricky techniques. Trust me, the more experienced the SEO professional, the more probable their skillsets were born of simple semantic and technical artifices.


Even in competitive keyword spaces, footer spamming in conjunction with optimized page text title and description tags, were enough to dominate SERPs in 2002. This footer spam, blended into the background, made my employer over 5.5 million dollars in converted leads before we took took down the page in 2003.

The Age of Executive Cheaters
Yahoo was the last engine standing as our industry departed the thrilling 90s’. The new Millennium begat Google’s storied PageRank, a brilliant technology never perfected. Google was easy to game back then too, until the ecosystem of rankings purchased by paid links was blown apart by Google’s well-meaning (albeit self-righteous) war on buying and selling links.  That’s when the weeding out of low-grade spammers began in earnest.  Google caught some big talented fish and barracudas, but mostly murdered minnows.  There are probably still some 22 year old pimple faced affiliate marketers hanging out in ‘Vegas with their American Express Black Cards, making 50K a day scamming Google today. Not as many though.

The good news is that, in the cheater-world, SEO has evolved from an system of easy revenue amongst many slimy practitioners, to survival of the uber-fittest and most nimble hacks. Still, like any indestructible cancer, the get-rich-quick leeches were never fully defeated because the cesspool is deep.  SEO has entered the exclusive age of executive cheaters.

Good SEOs Evolved…and Watched Their Back
When universal and personalized search hit hard in 2007, I knew that to survive as an SEO professional, grow relationships with high quality clients and build aimClear’s brand, that my SEO jamming spamming days needed to be all-the-way-over. In February of 2007, I decided that I had bought my last link from Asian brokers, months before Google’s painful paid link Jihad hit.  Our company made a commitment to never cross over to black.  In some ways it was like trying to swim upstream with no paddle. Spammers sometimes creamed our clients because Google could not filter bogus social media profiles and other common back hat tactics.

It was imperative that we test so of that we could learn how Google handled social media profiles built on literal keywords, in order to defend our clients.  In 2008 I spent 3 months undertaking much-maligned and revered avatar experimentation. At the time, the most famous conference speakers in the world were preaching use of social media avatars as reputation defense mechanisms. In reality hard-core spammers were deploying virtual armies of sock puppets and taking over chunks of organic SERPs for keywords.

Though I personally was roundly thrashed for presenting our tests at SMX Advanced 2008, at least I had the guts to share the loopholes in public with our fellow online marketers.  Yes I was Marty-Hyperbolic and milked it for all it was worth. However, that phase of testing only lasted for about 15 minutes in our company’s history. Yes, being the eternal PR buzz monkey, I rode the furor to a level of notoriety in the debate, made many friends, and (sadly) a few lasting enemies.  Most importantly, I dissembled the spammers’ social profile tactics in order to better defend against it.

The Renaissance of Content Marketing
There is reason to feel hopeful, though there may be a frightening amount of JC Penney-type link bombers and other flavors of cheaters out there.  Awesome and unselfish content can dominate to build SEO reputation.  The best SEOs in the world help clients attain wealth by teaching them to leverage the equity of their product or services true value.

  • The junction of organic content marketing, magnanimous social participation, search and social PPC and public relations is ultimately the only enduring approach by which to predictably triumph, “organically.”
  • Google can’t always discern what bad links are, but usually understands great ones. Earn them by a never-ending stream of brilliant content.
  • If you never cheat, you won’t get caught. Make a commitment to never practicing black hat. If tests are in order to determine how spammers are beating clients up, share the results with the world.
  • The best way to succeed with SEO is still brilliant keyword research, in market-segment-defining niche’s that are attainable for the authority the website has earned. Optimize the site like a ninja on glorious array of semantic structures.

Virtuous systems judge the ethical value of wealth by the ways in which it is acquired.  This everlasting adage has never been reliable in the ecosphere of search engine optimization. The dirty little secret of SEO, recently romanticized by the New York Times, is not a secret at all, and need not scar out industry forever. SEO is dead. Long live  SEO.

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10 Comments

  1. @mediasres on February 16, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Beautifully written and informative. Is some of this excerpted from a book chapter? (Should be, if not.)

  2. Marty Weintraub on February 16, 2011 at 11:16 am

    @mediasres: Thanks for the kind words. Nope, though I should have been working on my book rather than writing a 1700 word blog post at 4AM :). Thanks for stopping by and we’re glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. @mediasres on February 16, 2011 at 11:21 am

    @marty well, I look forward to your book. Your skills of narration and information-giving, even at 4 am, are much appreciated. :)

  4. Todd Mintz on February 16, 2011 at 11:53 am

    I wrote my own version of this a while back: http://www.sempdx.org/blog/toddmintz/remembrance-of-spam-past/

    Most of us veterans have similar stories…

  5. Marty Weintraub on February 16, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    @ToddMintz: Thank you… I think :)

  6. Kevin Burke on February 16, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Great post and very well written. At least we know things will not get bornig anytime soon.

  7. Brian on February 17, 2011 at 9:55 am

    I’ve been shouting this on deaf ears for months… “Earn them by a never-ending stream of brilliant content.” has been a near perfect tactic for some time now.

  8. Jasmine on February 17, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Oh wow, this is really interesting. I like the ethical angle.

  9. Matthew Edward on February 22, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    It’s encouraging to read stories from SEO veterans that have crossed over to the lighter shade of new marketing. Bravo!

  10. Jey Pandian on May 31, 2011 at 2:48 am

    Well written article sir. You answer bring many questions in my mind to surface but don’t quite offer answers which in my honest opinion, I may have to seek out the answers for myself. What advice would you give to one such as me who has strong moral ethics, has practiced ethical to marketing to date but is starting to cross over to the dark side? Is it worth it? Methinks creating spam / clogging up the SERPs is never worth it but I wish to make money. Is there an ethical way to do so?

    Do you believe that the “costs of evil are minimal in a disconnected world?” http://blogs.hbr.org/haque/2010/04/the_case_for_being_disruptivel.html

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