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.

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

The Four Simple (But Not Easy) Secrets to Business Success

Your list may differ – feel free to rant (or rave) in the comments – but this is the list that I’ve come up with after 24 years running my own businesses and teaching and coaching other people to do the same.  The choice of which is most important has changed in those 2+ decades, but I can look back over the entire time and find them all firmly installed.

Have Vision

If you can not imagine where to go, you will end up somewhere you would never have imagined – yes, a tautology, I know, but stay with me.  Others have said that if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail and while that is true, I do not view “vision” the same as “plan”.

Vision (to me) is more like a “big why” or a BHAG whereas a plan is how to get some distance closer to that imagined long term outcome.  Vision is what must inform all the plans, both large and small, along the way.

Be Fearless

You can’t think long term while worrying about next week’s dinner budget.  The primary cause of business failure is time and again listed as “under capitalization” which is kinda of catchall like the NTSB’s findings of “pilot error”.  Running out of money, or crashing the plane, is not the cause of the problem, just the result of it.

If you don’t have enough money to stay the distance until you can get to breakeven then you should stop the bleeding, change the business model or accelerate revenue.  At least one of those is always possible so the real cause of failure is “pilot error”.  But there we are again – what caused that?  Almost always it is fear.

It does not take much in the way of brains to cut expenses, help with your business model is available for free from SCORE or for a beer from your buddies, and accelerating revenue is more often than not just being aggressive with sales or doubling down on production.  Business is not really all that technical, but it is damn scary!

Pretty much of the entire job is scary:

  • we are the top sales/marketing person; we hold all of our employees’ livelihoods in our hands;
  • our own financial future and good name are at risk;
  • we are always out of balance in terms of work, pleasure and health;
  • and with the exception of other business owners, no one appreciates what we do or can even understand it.

Sounds like a great gig, eh?  You have to control fear.  Choose your own poison, but mine is a unique form of faith long enough in form that it must wait for another day.

Check Your Ego

Where confidence leaves off and ego begins I have no idea, but I have seen many owners – myself included more than once – fail because they would not ask for help or admit they were wrong.  That’s a big problem.  When you get married to your decisions and refuse to correct them to save face, you will eventually make that one big mistake that crashes the plane.

BTW, ego is the primary cause of failure to delegate so if you are not hiring and outsourcing and doing the work yourself instead … check your ego … you’ll find that you are NOT nearly as good at your job as you think.

Embrace Discipline

No one in your company will ever do more than 75% of whatever you do, so do absolutely as much as you possibly can.  Set the bar high and by demonstration show other people where they work and how they are expected to behave.  This is not just about “hard work” – that’s easy – this is more about emotional discipline.

That means being on time; remembering action items, milestones, deliverables and appointments;  and it means always being a productive mood and never losing your cool.  Companies do not run themselves, people do, and they (we) are emotional creatures.

All The Things Not On The List

Here are a few common “secrets of success” from other lists that are not on my pwn because they are not causes – they are symptoms.  If you have these symptoms, check for your likely underlying causes above.

  • Hiring and Outsourcing:  Yes, you should be.  See Ego.
  • Documented Systems and Procedures: See Vision, Fear and maybe Ego.
  • Delegate Authority as well as Responsibility: See Fear and (as important) Discipline.
  • Business Model: See Vision.
  • [Enter your choice here]:  See all of the above.  :-)


The Third Age of Search

In the beginning…

Search engines were born to index and make available “information” and the web was just one really big library – well, not that large at first actually!  But it did grow at an enormous rate and started a transformation in the way we access information, both reference material and current events.  Witness the decline, and almost certain demise, of print newspapers and the much reduced attendance at libraries.  This was the first age of search.

Then along came e-commerce.  Mostly with information products at first and many folks figured that is all it would ever be – sort-of-a library with a little bookstore stuck in the corner – but it did catch on and pretty much everything was available for purchase online.  BTW, the success of online commerce we owe as much or more to efficiencies in overnight shipping as we do payment systems and shopping carts, but that is a post for another day.  Whatever the ultimate causes, this was the second age of search.

And then came local.  As the web matured and our use of it grew, it became not just where we learned and managed information and conducted a large and growing share of commerce, but it has now become the guide to our immediate physical world as well.  Just as most people in metro areas use GPS rather than maps, nearly everyone now uses search instead of phone books.  What we call the “world wide web” is increasingly used to explore our own backyards.  We are now in the third age of search.

The three ages – informational, commercial and local – are marked not just by user behavior, but by dramatic changes in the search engines as well.  Those of you that have been in this field the dozen years that I have already know what I’m talking about, but let me refresh everyone’s mind with some key highlights.

Adwords, Ansense and Google Shopping (originally Froogle, remember?) were clear signposts of the commercial age.  Moreover, as Google went public and online commerce grew even stronger, we saw more and more of the “organic” results chewed up by paid ads.

Maps, Places and the general emphasis on mobile mark where we are now and will be for some time.  Mobile is growing for faster than anything since The Big Bang and shows no signs yet of slowing.

But what does this mean for non-local e-commerce? [as most of my long time follows are involved in]

Answering that in detail is a longer story, but there are a couple principles that have always been true that you can still use in this, and any subsequent, age.

First, don’t fight the tide.  We’ve already learned the hard lesson that clawing our way to #1 with 3 paid ads plus a comparison ad with sitelinks above us is a bad use of time, money and talent – better to focus on those places that are not as clogged with Adwords.  This is still true, plus add local to the mix. :(  Sure, this might mean you are driven to use more longer tail searches as that will very often yield better ROI.

Second, don’t be completely reliant on Google organic!  Sure, “free traffic” is great, but having only a single supplier of business is never a good idea, and traffic is what supplies your business.  With the growth in social media and the availability of huge traffic through paid programs, you should NOT have “all your eggs in the organic basket”.

And finally, just get better at SEO!  Sure, it sucks to be at position 1 and to be below the fold – happens in may short tail commercial terms – but just as we have been “pushed down” by paid and local, the volume of searches and the willingness of searchers to spend money online has EXPLODED.

Complain if you want, but making money online is still the most wonderful thing ever invented – even if it is a bit more complex today.