15 years ago

On May 22, 2002, at 2PM Pacific time, Michael Campbell (website no longer active) announced OptiLink to his newsletter subscribers.  This is the first of ground-breaking tools that “put me on the map” in SEO.


I know it seems hard to believe for you new kids, but way back in the old days, no one was talking about link text.  The tools of the day measured keyword density and link popularity (the count of inbound links, but not the text used).  OptiLink was the first tool to provide a means to spider the backlink results for a URL; locate the anchor text used; and report in a manner that led to anctionable decisions to dramatically improve rank – usually in the next “dance”.

Sidebar:  You remember the Google dance?  The batch update that happened every 4-6 weeks?  Yeah, Google was not always realtime.  :-)

I never told the “behind the scenes” story of OptiLink – the person that gave me the idea, the secret that was “hidden in the open” that no one else saw, the crazy 6 months building the first release, the phone call from Google (that’s a priceless story), the affiliates that got banned, the one forum post that got them all restored, why I ultimately stopped selling it, and the two other gems I found along the way.

Maybe it is time for the OptiLink memoir.



Hockey, Cross Checking, and Google Penalties

My son played Hockey as a kid and later went on to ref it for a time.  It’s a great game – if potentially a bit violent.  You’re wondering what this has to do with Google, right?  Stay with me.

The rules of Hockey are pretty well established, but there is this tendency in some venues to be lenient on enforcement.  As a referee you are given “broad latitude” (code for unlimited) to call what you want – or not.

One especially dangerous rule violation is “checking” from behind – that’s running into someone violently from behind with the intent to take them out of the play, out of the game, or way worse.  There is no continent on Earth where a cross-check is legal, but there are many individual games where it is overlooked pretty routinely.

Which gets us back to Google …

The webmaster guidelines ALWAYS (how do I shout louder than bold caps?) stated that “linking to achieve ranking” was not acceptable.  Period.  No exceptions.  It’s cross-checking, but unenforced until January 2011.  Then there came a new ref.

Has the game changed?  Yes.  The rules?  NO!  The rules DID NOT change, only enforcement, and yes, that did change, A LOT!  If we can not be honest with ourselves and each other about this one point, we just can’t move forward: the rules did not change.

Look, I least of all will be the one to fault anyone for playing the game the way it was enforced rather than the way it was ruled.  It can be (successfully?) argued that I invented some of the most successful Google-games, but if you recall closely, I did mention at some point the risk and the rational preparation every business owner, game players especially, should make should the ref (suddenly) decide to call foul.

That time has long since come.  The old games are done and it is now time to adopt new game.  Is this bad news?  I don’t think so.

Ironically, as a widely recognized “Google game player” I don’t view the post-Panda Google as much different than pre-Panda.  Sure, the “game” is no longer trivial (yes, that really IS the right word), but this is definitely weeding out a lot of competition and if you are willing to stay the course and commit to a “real” business … there is never a better time to do so.

I know.  Ironic, right?

  • Link spam: dead.
  • PageRank Sculpting: largely ineffective.
  • Leslie: happy.


When I entered the 3rd grade I was faced with this thing called “new math”.  The post-Panda age is just “new math”, but instead of PageRank math, we finally get to focus on real business metrics – kinda like I did for 20 years before Google.

So, yeah, I’m okay with the new Google.  I really loved cross-checking my opponents back in the day, but I’m okay playing “by the rules” too.  Leave the cheap shots to the brutes that don’t have a real game, play a smart game, and any Google will do just fine.

The Skill of Not Doing

It used to be that every link was a good link so “back in the day” [pre-2011], pretty much any SEO was better than no SEO.  This meant that “taking action” was the primary factor driving success.  Even just doing a bunch dumb stuff, some of it would stick long enough to make enough money to get trained to do some good stuff to stick longer to do more stuff and … ultimately … be successful.

That was then.

Today, fast forward just a bit over 2 years and not all links are good links.  In fact, links are just as likely, or maybe even more likely!, to be toxic rather than helpful.  Starting out dumb and letting search traffic pay for an education is not really a viable path any more.  The dumb stuff you do now will almost certainly not work well enough to pay for much more than a few Kindle books and (worse) it will haunt your rankings for all the days of your (site’s) life.

Massive action is no longer the path to success.

And this is not just about Google.  Every online marketing platform – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, LinkedIn, you name it – have to combat SPAM, but the problem is especially significant for Google.  The problem for the new marketer is recognizing what is, and is not, SPAM.  For someone new, all SEO pretty much sounds alike and the continuing siren song of the “grays” and the “blacks” that easy money is just one magic software button click away, is more than most people can resist … until they get burned a couple times.

If you can make the judgment between the good stuff and the bad stuff, that makes you – more-or-less by definition – NOT a “new marketer” and this post might (but only might) not apply to you.  But returning to the new person … what is the right path?

In today’s SEO, “not doing” is a skill.

There are so many ways to “get it all wrong” compared to the very very few ways that are designed from the ground up to work into the foreseeable future, that “action” from a purely statistical perspective is more likely than not to cause harm!

The wrong links or the wrong content can be so toxic and taking no action at all might be the better choice.  It’s sad really.  One of the things we’ve for years coached out of our students is “analysis paralysis” and now we are installing precisely the behavior we previously tried to kill!

Earn while you learn is dead … you gotta learn first.

Way back in the day, pre-Internet, actually, pre-indoor-sanitation, the Masons were actual masons – brick layers.  Doesn’t seem like much today, but getting the dimensions of an arch just right so it didn’t collapse and kill people was just about as valuable and mysterious as SEO is today.  So much so, that it was the foundation of a cult where the only way to learn the esoteric practices of stonework was to apprentice.  This is a well know pattern – think Star Wars – for good or evil: “The Force” is learned by apprenticeship and (largely) oral tradition.

Here’s my point (yeah, I know, finally, right?)

SEO is so fraught with bad info, uncertainty and unquantified dangers, that it is (for now at least) an art only to be undertaken with a mentor … and I’m not just saying that because I are one.  :-)

Actually, I think DIY SEO might be dead or close to it, but that’s another post, for now …

The question is how do you learn SEO?  Well, you do have to actually do stuff, take action, because otherwise you don’t actually know if you’ve learned it.  So what should you do?  That’s the bitch of it.  For every 10 things you could read about or be sold, 9 of them are harmful and they ALL sound alike to the uninformed.  Bummer.  But there is an answer – in two parts.

1. Find a teacher with happy and successful students

2. Don’t start doing stuff until you’ve actually learned how

I wish my answer was different.  In fact, it used to be and I liked it way better.  But this really is my best answer today.  Sorry about that.  In a couple years, my answer might change again.  In the meantime, careful what action you do take, because Google has a very long memory.

Natural is a Surprise

At The SEO Braintrust, we both advise students and provide service to clients on link penalty cleanup.  Often, these folks come to us having already done one, two, three or (gasp) more reconsideration requests – denied each time of course or they wouldn’t be talking to us.

In almost every case, one of the causes of recon denial is the difference between what the webmaster thinks is “natural” and what the Google SPAM team considers “natural”.  Here’s a simple rule that is generally a good one to live by:

If the link was a surprise – it’s natural.  If you knew it was coming – it likely isn’t.  Let’s consider some examples, in order from most obvious to less so.

Bookmarking, forum profiles, and blog commenting.  I shouldn’t even have to list these, but I’m still seeing them!  This stuff is just about as far outside the guidelines as you can get.

Article marketing.  Still totally obvious in my opinion, but once widely accepted and still an area where webmasters resist removing the links.  But look … it’s not like you weren’t surprised when the article you wrote and published linked to your site so how can that be “natural” or “editorial”?  Take all that crap down.  I bet money you’re not getting traffic from those sites anyway.

Blog networks.  This is just article marketing on (illegal!) steroids.  Again, how were these “earned”?  They weren’t – they were paid.  Case closed.  Kill it all!

But what about guest blogging?  Sure, the blog accepted your article as good and worthy content so if you cross your eyes just right and pretend that the whole web is hanging on your every word, you could (almost) call that keyword rich text link buried in your “about the author” paragraph an “editorial endorsement” by the blog, right?  Wrong.  First, you created the link, not the blog owner.  Second, this is entirely transactional: you gave the blog owner something of value (content) and s/he gave you a link?  That’s a non-paid link precisely how?

This is not to say that guest posting is bad!  For from it, but you should be doing if for the brand exposure, audience building, and targeted traffic, so by rights you should be using your company name or domain name and nofollowed links will work just as well for that as followed will.

By far the very safest think to do is to never syndicate anything with a link of your own in it and insist that webmasters using your content link to you only using your URL or text that would constitute a “navigational query” for your domain.

Why is this so important?  Because keyword links are!  Far from being “dead”, keyword text links are still very important to ranking – otherwise why would there be a penalty for overuse?  The difference today from pre-2011 is that now the guidelines are actually being enforced – with a vengeance!

Real natural links are not that hard to get when you do real marketing, so don’t risk your rankings on the marginal links.  Even if you don’t have a penalty today, if you’ve ever “built links” you should take a look at your link profile with “new eyes” and do some preemptive cleanup.


The Ins and Outs of Buying an Existing Web Business

Buying an existing web business is much the same as refurbishing a fixer-upper house. If you have the skills, money, and time, flipping real estate is a good business in pretty much any economy. The same can be true of refurbishing a web business as well.

As with anything, success is all about making the right choice. To continue the real estate analogy, a cracked foundation or a significant termite problem can be so hard to fix that you won’t make a profit. The perfect house to flip is one that is sound but looks like crap. The same holds true for websites and the same purchase criteria and mindset should apply.

The easiest stuff to fix is conversion related, so an ugly site that still somehow makes money is a good place to start. By fixing conversion, often through cosmetic and usability improvements, the existing traffic brings more revenue and your acquisition is immediately worth more money.

A significant portion of the purchasable value of a site (unless, of course, it’s simply a killer domain name or has special significance) will be the traffic that it gets now that and you can reasonably project to continue. Here is where you better look hard for termites!

At a minimum, I would require reporting access to their analytics, not just the reports they ran for me, and then I would take an in-depth look at where the site gets it’s traffic and where it is getting it’s linking. What I’m looking for, in a word, is fraud.

Make sure the external links are not from the seller’s own properties and verify every way you can the sources and consistency of traffic.

If this checks out, then use analytics to look at their visitor value and their conversion funnels for places you can improve.

Finally, do a “Make or Buy” analysis. What would it cost you in time and money to build the same site from scratch?

One of the several ways a web business is just like any other business is that it is run by some owner, and these owners vary widely in the skill and attention they bring to the table, so naturally some of them end up not doing a very good job and decide to throw in the towel. Because of this, sometimes purchasing a business in distress can be very lucrative.

That being said, one major difference between sites and houses is that web businesses often have relatively little cash invested and almost no cash valued assets, so owners are just as likely to simply close them as they are to try and sell them. You should therefore try to understand why the site is being sold and how the owner came to decide to sell it.

The bottom line when buying real estate or a business is to do your homework, be on the lookout for deal-killer problems, and use some simple common sense.

Please Vote for My Friends’ Kids :)

Please help. Darrin, my tax attorney, consulting client and long time good friend has kids – who knew – with the entrepreneurial spirit we love in humans both large and small and it is the small ones that need the most help and encouragement. Please take a couple minutes and support a fun kid’s project. It costs you about 30 seconds, it adds unknown wonders for a couple kids and is a positive Karma move for you! The worse case is you help a big company justify planting some trees at a school – how could that ever be bad?

Here’s the unedited email from Darrin – jump to the end for the links and please like’em and vote’em. The vote link is below the video and the super video you should vote for is labeled “Ryan M”.


Can you help with this?

Some of you may know that I have been blessed with two wonderful children, Ryan (10) and Rachel (8). They are very entrepreneurial. A couple years ago when Ryan decided that he wanted to win first place in the popcorn selling contest to raise money for Cub Scouts, he sold over $2500 worth the hard way….mostly in face to face, door to door sales. He did that thru hard work with encouragement and support from me and my truly amazing wife, Heather.

Today I am excited to announce that Ryan and Rachel have been selected as finalists in a NATIONAL video contest put forth by Scottie’s Facial Tissue. The name of the contest is Trees Rock. Their assignment was to make a three minute video demonstrating what trees mean to them and to their school. We worked on this assignment as a family brainstorming on a road trip to Tennessee. We came up with the concept and shot the video in LaGrange, GA at Nana’s house. There were ups and downs during the preparation and shooting phase of the video. I’m pretty sure I made my baby girl cry. (BAD DADDY)

Ryan did ALL OF THE EDITING ON THE VIDEO. I did nothing but help him get it rendered and uploaded to the contest site at the end. He has a love for technology and an enthusiasm for learning that I learn from every day.

The video came out great. Still…..I wasn’t sure that they had done well enough. At the beginning of December we got the call! Scottie’s loved Ryan & Rachel’s video! They were to be among the 12 finalists in the whole country! They have already won their school, Veteran’s Elementary $1000 but the Grand Prize lies ahead for my little industrious kidlets, $10,000 for their school to plant trees and make a shaded luncheon and instructional area.

This leads me to how you can help. The Grand Prize winner will be selected solely by the largest number of votes made from January 15, 2013 to February 15, 2013. You can vote once PER DAY during this time frame. You can see their winning video below and make sure to opt in to our reminder email list. The kids have also made short tree jokes videos, one per day, to remind you to vote for them every day. Please, please like their Facebook Page at Trees Rock Tampa at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Trees-Rock-Tampa/353155531449091?fref=ts and share their tree joke videos every day. If this can go viral, I have no doubt that they will win that money for their school.

Let’s show kids that you don’t win by doing nothing. You don’t win by sitting on the couch playing video games. You win in life by taking massive action. They have taken massive action by doing what average people won’t do. I have no doubt that, with your help, we can propel them and their school to winning the Grand Prize.

You can see the winning video at: http://treesrocktampa.com/the-winning-video/

Darrin Mish

Why is Search So Complex?

Well, mostly it is because of “scale”, which this infographic doesn’t really do justice to, but it does show some really good measures of the scope of the problem.
Why is Search So Complex?

Matt Cutts and Eric Talk About What Makes a Quality Site

Another great interview with Matt Cutts. Some interesting little tidbits – something about “frogs”, maybe princes too but I didn’t read that far. :-)
Matt Cutts and Eric Talk About What Makes a Quality Site

SEO essentials for startups in under 10 minutes

This is a pretty decent summary (by Google no less!) of stuff everyone should get right on a new site. Certainly there is way more I think you should do, but start with this for sure and then learn the rest.
SEO essentials for startups in under 10 minutes

Example email to a hacked site

Most amazing is that “hacked sites” is the second biggest category of SPAM problems that Google has to deal with. Wow.  Lesson here is this: protect your site! Because it is clearly a common problem.
Example email to a hacked site