SEO Success Story
This SEO success “rise and fall” story was written by Tony Roocroft and takes us a look at the beginnings of Google Adsense, and what happened during the peak of SEO, SPAM and Adsense all put together…
Times Change … Old Fashioned SEO and The Future
SEO of course stands for Search Engine Optimization and frankly it is a bit meaningless since neither you nor I can optimise any search engine.
Nevertheless it has a meaning reasonably well understood by many and totally misunderstood by many many more. However for the sake of this paper SEO will have the traditional or “old fashioned” meaning as follows …
SEO is the “art and alchemy” of creating and optimising web pages so as to increase chances of a web page (not website) getting a high ranking on a major search engine such as Google . The “good old days” refer to 2003 and some 7 years before.
To put this into perspective in the good old days of Alta Vista search engine, circa 1999 and 2000, getting a page 1 ranking was easy using SEO. All that had to be done was to place the right keywords into the meta tags and probably html Title tag and then repeat the keyword about 4 or 5% (called keyword Density) of the time on a web page and you would be well rewarded with high rankings, many visitors and possibly many sales.
Certainly other organisations would pay handsomely to place their banner ads on your site … “because you were number 1 and they were nowhere to be found.” These were the days when SEO was an underground secret never to be mentioned. It was the Holy Grail of money making on the Internet.
Personally I stumbled on this scene quite late in 2001 and it wasn’t long before I was eating, drinking and breathing SEO … it was fascinating and it was challenging and it was fun and it was a way to make money quite easily. I became an expert in my own niche which at the time (and still is) was water gardening.
Although things started to get a bit harder to get a number 1 ranking it was not difficult.
I don’t remember who the first SEO’er was that I came across although in my mind Ken Evoy was the person who opened my eyes to the possibilities. Quickly however an industry sprang up … The Search Engine Optimization Industry”. SEO was born … SEM was still to come.
Google had now appeared on the scene (from about 1999) and by the year 2000 it was becoming widely known and admired). Alta Vista quickly lost its prime position to Google and this was a reason why getting a number 1 became more difficult. You see to satisfy Google you needed to get links as well as do better on the other on-page factors mentioned above.
For the wide awake SEO’ers this was a minor problem. This is when tools like Zeus were introduced because this program made it very easy to ask thousands of “unsuspecting” webmasters of other websites for a link back to a site. It’s also one of the main reasons by the way that Google “prefers” old sites. Not just because they are old but because they have good trusted link-backs from a time when it was easy to get them.
In 2002 I was spending quite a lot of time automating email requests using Zeus to ask for and get such links. I stopped some time in 2003 not because it was wrong but because I couldn’t be bothered. I thought it makes sense to create my own links. And I did and it came back to bite me.
In very simple terms if you managed to get a lot of links and you had keywords in the meta tags and also in the Title and a keyword density of about 4 or 5% then for most niches getting top spots in Google and the others was easy.
I can say in all truthfulness I never engaged in spam tricks such as keyword stuffing or hidden keywords although I did definitely overdo the linking between my own sites and possibly some excessive duplicate content.
Those people “in the know” would not only optimise their pages and sites in large number on all topics they would also sell “the secrets” or manage the whole set up for you. The same people would encourage people to believe the mystique and skill and black magic behind SEO in order to get the cherished number 1 spot on Google for themselves or paying clients.
However let’s be blunt … there was little skill, or black magic since almost everything depended upon doing about 4 things better than others in the same niche and this included asking for links (often reciprocated).
Get the Title tag right
Get the keywords meta tags right
Get the keyword density on a page right (and include in a few headings)
Get some links … the more the better.
However even at this early stage the “Black Hats” arose from the ashes or Belgium or wherever it started. I recall somebody called “Fantomaster” lead this shadowy world. Words like cloaking, hidden text, keyword stuffing, were being heard more and more. Some “secrets” were leaking out. These were the keys to the vault and so they were … for a time.
To cut a very long and profitable story short the search engines discovered that they were being manipulated. The page 1 results (SERPs) pages were crowded with junk. Google especially realised this was bad for business so went about the process (and continue to this day) of weeding out the “bad guys, the Black Hats from the good guys, “the White Hats”.
I’ll just talk about Google because they are the acknowledged leader and by quite a long way so forgive no mention of Yahoo, MSN, Ask or the others. Save to say they all suffered the same problems.
In June 2003 Google introduced their Adsense system.
For SEO’ers this was Manna from Heaven. Let me explain briefly … and I’ll use my own situation and I will simplify a little bit to shorten the whole story.
I had a website that I was using to sell books I’d written, My customers came from people who found my web pages using search. The topic was pond keeping. In season I used to sell about 3 books a day for $21 each and in season as many as 8 per day.
My only cost had been time to write the book and create the web pages that got onto page 1 of the SERPs … it’s no good being on page 4 or beyond. Nobody gets this far.
Of course I’d spent money learning from the experts from whom I bought one “secret” after another. In those early years I must have purchased at least 100+ “Killer Secrets” each “Guaranteed, got the cheques to prove it …” to make me a $1,000,000 in less than 3 weeks.
I’d waded through the daily 10 page missives from Corey Rudl (a real pioneer, now sadly dead … killed in a car racing accident) along with free newsletters from Tom, Dick and Harry also that promised the world and, by the way, sold something.
And I bought a lot … come and look at my cupboards.
I never did make a $ million in less than 3 weeks nor 1 year either but I did and do make lots of money all based upon what I learned to do as much as what NOT to do.
And something else … I never ever felt cheated. I never did ask for my money back, ever. Sure some of the stuff was junk but you can also learn what NOT to do from such junk.
Back to Adsense … In June 2003 I applied to Google for permission to add their Adsense code to my web pages. After a couple of days permission was granted and I added the code not knowing what was in store. It just seemed to be something worth trying because I’d already learned web success was about trying, failing, trying again until success was achieved.
On June 29th 2003 which was the day after I placed the code for the first time I logged into the Adsense reporting system and could not believe my eyes. Google owed me $46.94. I thought some mistake had taken place. But no … to this day I have made money from Google Adsense EVERY day, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day on holiday or not, and I live not in the USA but in South Africa. Now this was the Holy Grail, I’d found.
It was simple to me and many others in the SEO world … create many web pages, get those pages found, place Google Adsense and then bank money. And do this while watching the soccer on TV or whatever was the flavour of the month.
Frankly, and very sadly, to many it did not matter one iota whether the pages contained any useful content or not. The name of the game was get found first at all costs.
This was the beginning of the MFA websites and web strategies which in many areas have completely dominated the SERP’s on all major search engines for quite a long time.
Duplicate content became more and more common since SEO’ers knew that Google treated a search for “car” differently than one for “cars” … so a web page about “car” for example would be duplicated and the word “car” replaced by the word “cars” especially in the Title tag. This was a 2 minute job using “Find and Replace.”
Such simple techniques allowed massive websites to be built quickly and easily. These pages earned the title of Doorway pages since all they acted solely as an entrance point via a search term to a page that contained Adsense (or some other make money quickly scheme).
It reached the stage where software was actually creating web pages based upon chosen keywords. The stage was also reached where directories proliferated because using tools like Zeus (and others that were even “better”).
It was easy to skim the web (the technique was called “scraping”) and reproduce content in a directory kind of list. The sole purpose of this list was to create KEYWORD RICH pages that would rise to the top of the SERP’s. These pages would be MFA’s … Made for Adsense.
It had never been easier for so many to make so much money so easily in a time of need or not. When I talk about many I mean not a large percentage of the online population; rather say about 1000 maybe 2000 maybe 5000, I don’t know, of people worldwide who could be called SEO’ers. This relatively small number of people however were so capable of dominating chosen sectors that “real websites” never had a chance of ranking well. The top “Black Hat” performers were always in these fields below … if you want to find potential spammers then look in these areas.
- Health … Vitamins and Viagra
- Legal (eg Mesolthelima)
Now step back and look at this from Google’s perspective.
Google was a provider of free search. For it to be effective it had to capture, and rank millions and millions of new web pages every day. Just to store and process the information it needed more and more machines and more and more bandwidth. In other words it had to continue investing large sums of money in infrastructure to keep up.
If say 30% of the pages being indexed and ranked were junk or duplicates or basic doorway pages then Google’s resources were being wasted and the only cost was for Google. They needed 30% more space 30% more computers, 30% more staff etc etc etc.
In addition the junk was potentially a serious threat to Google’s dominance … if their searchers, en masse, perceived the results to be junk then those same loyal Google searchers would eventually abandon Google for a more relevant search engine. In turn this would mean Google would lose its rapidly improving and money making machine called Google Adwords. The success of Adwords was a direct function of the number of searchers that used the Google search engine.
Google had to do something and they did … much to the disadvantage of many SEO’ers.
Oh … for the Good Old Days.
The start of the end of these good old days happened in November 2004.
Google instead of doing its monthly and always eagerly awaited “Google Dance” created Hurricane Florida. And they did it just before Christmas selling season reached a peak. The update of its database was given the name Hurricane Florida because of the damage it caused to millions of websites. Or at least damage was the word used by the webmasters affected and it did destroy complete business models and frankly most of the models needed to be destroyed since they were creating major relevancy problems in top SERP’s on Google pages.
Of course some of the innocent got slaughtered as well. That’s another story.
The Florida update removed, in one fell swoop, a massive inventory of spam websites and there was an improvement in Google relevancy for a while … but the game was now on. It was Google versus Spammers or “Black Hat SEO’ers”.
There were further disruptions to “SEO business models” with the Jagger update in 2005 and others, less famous, too. Every time a major update happened there was a demonising of Google by many SEO’ers. They would lament on the Forums … “How can Google destroy our livelihood, it’s not fair …” It seemed lost on many that fairness in this regard was distinctly one sided.
It has been well known in the SEO world that links are vital to top Google rankings and especially so in competitive areas. Just take a look at a search for “Miserable Failure” on Google.
The next big attempt to influence SERPs was the wholesale buying and selling of links. And sure enough it worked until quite recently. From around March 2006 onwards the sites buying and selling links were penalised dramatically. Top ranking sites which had got there by buying links or using other linking schemes that were not considered appropriate by Google disappeared overnight.
Many of the top ranking sites were pure information sites after this … have you noticed many more .edu, .org websites on the top pages? Most of the commercial websites and MFA’s have gone or are still in the process of disappearing. And thankfully too.
This battle between Google and Black hatters will continue until it’s realised that trying to spam Google is not really worth the effort and that any gains will be short term. I’m fairly confident that the days of the traditional SEO approach to getting web pages ranked have come to an end. This does not mean to say that certain aspects of SEO will not remain important because they most certainly will.
What I am saying in no uncertain terms is … Beware of SEO individuals or organisations that promise you success through SEO. More than ever quiz the SEO’er on what and how and when and why such success is promised. And I class myself as an SEO’er albeit a “White Hatter”. I will never promise you anything because I can’t anymore. I have lost most of the mechanical type of control I ever had.
Personally it has been and remains a truly exciting ride. The difference now is I’ve truly progressed in the process of Internet Marketing and now I know, without any doubt, what is right and how to truly succeed on the Internet.
The Latest Scam Destroyed by Google
This scam in my opinion was the cleverest to date and it become more and more obvious over the last 6 months or so (ie from start of 2006) if you were a watcher of SERPs and PPC ads which is what SEO’ers do well.
This needs an understanding of how Google Adwords and Google Adsense works. This very simple expanation will make the point …
If I can buy a Google Ad for say 2 cents per click AND if I can persuade people who see the Ad to click to a page where I have placed relevant Google Adsense AND I can persuade enough of these page visitors to click a Google Adsense Ad AND if the value of such a click is say 2.5 cents then for every original Google Ad I bought I make 25% profit.
If I spend $1 million per month on this business model (and people did) and use automated software to monitor everything then at the end of the period I’ve made $250,000. The fact that I created no really useful information for the person who clicked the original ad become irrelevant when such easy money is to be made.
You must have seen these schemes without realising what you were really experiencing … they would be ads that read something like the following …
“Top 4 Insurance Sites” … and when you clicked you just saw 4 more Insurance ads (Google Adsense). Before the scam was unfolded in June 2006 the greedier had gone to ads that read like … “Top 8 Insurance Sites” … and when you clicked you just saw 8 more Google Insurance Adsense.
The scheme worked using what is commonly known as “Arbitrage” and was only possible because you could bid very low and get traffic from Google Adsense and Adwords if you understood the process well.
Google killed it on June 21st if I remember. They suddenly forced all the schemes remotely connected to arbitrage to pay minimum click value of $10 and more. Some of the innocent also got snared too.
This was just another example of SEO’ers messing up Google’s results. The SEO’ers didn’t see it this way of course. They saw it as interference from Google in a perfectly good business model.
If the word OPTIMIZATION is to be used as we all go forward it will be in the following context
- Optimize Targeted Traffic not just traffic
- Optimize the visitor experience
- Optimize CTR (click through rates on a most wanted response)
- Optimize Impressions (create many opportunities for getting found for relevant researched and changing needs)
- Optimize eCPM … earning per thousand page impressions
- Optimize CPC … cost per click or income per click
- Manage ROI … down to the keyword level
- And all this through visitor need satisfaction