A few months ago, I had an interesting conversation with an unapologetic blackhat SEO. Now, when I initially contacted him, I didn’t know he was “blackhat”. All I knew was that most of his websites seemed to have escaped unscathed from the panda update which had hurt many other sites, mine included. I thus sought to know his secret, and his opinion on the recovery steps one should take if pandalized.
What he proposed was unacceptable, and I told him so. His argument was that Google does not give a hoot about you and your business, and that at some point in your relationship with them, they’ll screw you over and over again. This, even if you’ve always played by their rules. It might take one month, or ten years, but it will happen eventually. So if you can game their system (using blackhat techniques) and reap some benefit, you’d better do it and make the most of it while it lasts.
I thought his views were a bit extreme and misguided. And personal too (he had told me how google had terminated his high-earning adsense account with thousands of dollars unpaid earnings, for violating some unspecified terms). I thus told him “thanks, but no thanks”, I’d rather stick to the straight and narrow “whitehat” path.
A few weeks later, Google started busting the so-called link networks like BuildMyRank, and I felt vindicated. The end was surely nigh for the “bad guys”.
A few more days down the line, and they (Google) launched the Penguin update, and I knew for sure this would be the last nail on their (bad guys’) coffin. After all, Google had assured us that this update was not the much-dreaded over-optimization penalty. Rather it was aimed at decreasing rankings for sites engaging in webspam (see their official announcement here).
Alas! I should have known better. After the Penguin dust had settled, my blackhat friend’s sites were still ranking extremely well, while my most important domain was hit rather badly. I lost about 75% of my search traffic. If google (and search in general) was my only source of traffic, I would be whining and lamenting like the many webmasters who are now petitioning google to kill this Penguin.
I manage my own sites, and I try my best not to engage in webspam. But then again, webspam, like promiscuity, is relative. So if Google’s spiders and algorithms think I have engaged in it, they are right. Incidentally, I am not the only one who thinks Penguin torched some wrong targets. See this FaceBook status by Michelle MacPhearson for example. Sour grapes? May be, may be not.
Fortunately, I practice what I preach. A fundamental lesson I have often repeated here (e.g here and here) is the need to diversify traffic sources. You cannot (or should not) put your online business at the mercy of one channel, more so one you don’t have complete control over. Otherwise, you’ll only have yourself to blame when that channel change their model.
So, what lessons have I picked from Penguin and Panda?
- It’s all summarized in the title; At the end of the day, targeted and sustainable traffic is all that matters (of course, plus how well you’ve optimized your website for conversions – to make good use of that traffic). Get that traffic by all means, including search. “Sustainable” here implies that it has to be ethical as well. There are some universally accepted standards of what is ethical, and what is not. Spamming people – in social media, email, or any other place - for example is unethical, and not a sustainable model for a reputable organization.
- Search traffic is great, but if it makes up more than 50% of your traffic, you should be scared. It is too vulnerable to algorithmic changes. Google’s intentions may still be noble, they probably want to return the best results possible. But they can still get it wrong – and I think they’ve gotten a lot of things wrong lately. You don’t want to close shop because of an algorithm gone wrong. Or, if indeed negative SEO works, an opponent may just google bowl your online empire to oblivion.
- When it comes to search, do not overly obsess about being 100% blackhat, or 100% whitehat, you’ll be limiting yourself. There’s a lot you can learn from both worlds. The true masters dabble in both colors to some extent, but they label it greyhat. Not all blackhat is unethical, and not all whitehat is stupid and ineffective. Google webmaster guidelines (and all other advise from the “experts”) are not God’s 10 commandments. They can be flouted without crossing the ethical line. The benefits of doing so sometimes outweigh the risk. Use your judgement.
- If you are in it for the long run, the old and boring advice could also be the best – whatever you do, the center of focus should be your customers/visitors’ experience. Forget about the search engines, and do what you would do in their absence. When it makes perfect sense to buy links from popular websites for example, do so.
I have been involved in the web development and internet marketing business for the past seven years or so. I therefore like to think of myself as an internet marketing expert, even though the truth is that I am continually learning in this ever changing field.
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