Confessions of an SEO Crack Dealer

Confessions of a SEO Crack Dealer

I started out with zero intentions of writing this kind of post but once I started I couldn’t stop. What follows is my personal journey through the world of SEO. A journey that began in the seedy underbelly of our industry, and which has completely changed my outlook on marketing and how I derive pleasure from work.

My goal is to spark a discussion about the direction and perception of the SEO industry.

Dabbling in the Dark Side

Ghergich & Co. focuses on visual assets and long-form, high quality content, but this was not always my SEO game plan. I feel like I have grown with the SEO industry and am able to look back on the journey more honestly, starting with my days on the “dark side.”

The black-hat side of SEO was exciting when I first started out because you could basically bend Google to your will. It was easy to do, and you could see very quick results. Because I was new in the industry (and young in general), I had nothing to lose – no reputation, no real clients, no solid plans. I was just testing and trying to figure out how I could manipulate Google.

Honestly, I got into SEO for the wrong reasons. I was enamored and excited by how I could force something as powerful as Google to behave the way I wanted to. Part of the black-hat allure is that it strokes your ego. You can outsmart a room full of engineers with simple tactics.

With a little bit of effort, I could essentially rank anyone for anything, even if they didn’t deserve it. I’ve ranked highly coveted keywords, like “mesothelioma” “black jack” and “payday loans” in the top 3 for multiple clients by literally buying my way to the top with paid links. It wasn’t a long-term strategy but it worked for years.

Looking back, the ease with which you could manipulate Google bred a lot of laziness and frustration in our industry. If you can easily rank on Google for extremely lucrative keywords, what was your incentive to work hard? It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance, and Google rankings were ripe for the taking.

The “good guys” – those who wanted to do the right thing – got screwed. If you were in a competitive industry, like Pharmacy, and all your competitors were being rewarded for shady tactics, you either had to join in or drown. It led to a lot of good people throwing in the towel.

Was this the right thing to do? No, of course not. But I blame Google. People were only taking advantage of a system that Google created. Let me be clear – Google is a business, not a religion. When you manipulate their algorithm, you’re not sinning; you’re taking a risk. I don’t feel sorry for Google for being taken advantage of. They controlled their own algorithm, and they created this problem. If there are no consequences, people are going to run wild – and they did. 

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The Big Easy

My mindset during this time was very shortsighted. I was young and naïve and had little use for a long-term view in general, much less in marketing. Like most people of my generation, I suffered from a need for instant gratification, and black-hat techniques provided this. A year or two seemed like forever.

In 2005, I was able to make the jump from being a consultant to owning half of a start-up, which grew very rapidly. We were able to build it into a multi-million dollar company with an extremely small staff and high profit margin. To top it off, there was very little actual work: our main product was selling paid link rentals, which required little overhead after the initial setup. We were in high demand. People would be surprised to hear the top industry names I’ve personally sold links to in the past.  Big names came to us because we had a private link inventory and we were very picky about who we took on as clients. We also tried to build unique links for each client. All the other link brokers were putting everyone together, creating a very noticeable footprint and in some cases literally showing their inventory online. We were sneakier and, in a way, safer.

I’ve never seen people more addicted to a product than they were to buying links. Even when I was out of links to sell, people were throwing money at me to try harder. I felt like a crack dealer. Even though I was giving my clients what they wanted, I felt like I was doing a disservice to them and to myself.

Underneath it all, though, it was a hollow experience. Google was so easy to manipulate that I wasn’t even being all that clever. Once the initial David v. Goliath novelty wore off, black hat techniques became boring.

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Growing Up SEO

It also created a weird situation where no one had heard of me because I couldn’t be known. I couldn’t go to conferences or share my experiences because it was so hush-hush. I couldn’t build actual relationships because my clients demanded anonymity, and building relationships is what marketing should be all about.

I knew that I wanted to go out on my own and do something meaningful. It was difficult, though, because I was choosing to make less and work more. It came down to choosing meaning over money, and it was something I struggled with for a while. Finally I decided that it was more worthwhile to do what I really felt passionate about, even if it meant a pay cut and longer hours.

Since then, SEO has become fun again. I can meet people, be honest with myself and others, and be proud of what I’m doing.

I need a creative outlet and I am fortunate because that’s exactly what you need to succeed in SEO today. I can finally put my fine arts degree to practical use. People are inundated with content, so only the most creative and exceptional stuff is going to garner their attention, to get you the links and likes that you want. It all boils down to being creative. It’s a challenge.

It’s much more satisfying to earn your way to the top than to exploit or force your way in. It’s incredibly rewarding to put your ideas into a piece of content and see it go viral organically. With black-hat, you could never talk about your successes because it was all so cloak-and-dagger. It’s more interesting to produce something of value that starts discussions and, more importantly, relationships.

I like that SEO is now a much more level playing field. In the past, you could have the better site and better product and lose to someone who was just better at manipulating Google. Now, that site with nothing to offer literally has nothing to offer. Startups can compete with the biggest players on the planet as long as they have good ideas. Creativity is the new currency.

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The Voice of an Industry

This post feels dark and gloomy in the nerdiest way, but I do truly feel optimistic about the SEO industry.

While they haven’t completely eliminated the problem, I feel like Google has done us all a favor by getting their act together and making it increasingly difficult to game the system. It feels better to be rewarded for doing the right thing. At Ghergich & Co., I can sleep at night knowing that I’ve earned my money in a way that I can respect.

That being said, there is still a lot of work to be done within our own community.

We need to clean up some of the messes we’ve made for ourselves. I feel like this has been part of my own personal mission over the past few years because I was once a part of the problem.

We need to be much more inclusive. SEO should not be a field where only an elite few have a voice. Sometimes it feels like we are involved in an intellectual pissing contest rather than helping one another. We need to make new people feel welcome. We need to bring in new opinions. We need dissenting voices. Rather than jumping on different voices, we have to help one another. We need a bigger tent.

We must embrace other fields – PR, Social Media, etc. They need to feel like SEO isn’t the angry person in the room, and that we all can work together. There’s a lot of animosity built up between different marketing groups and we need to work as an industry to tear those walls down and re-build the relationships.

At the end of the day, I want to be able to stand behind my work and this industry and be proud of what I’m doing. I hate saying “I’m an SEO, but…”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on your personal SEO journey and where you think our industry needs to go. We need dialogue. Join in.

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A.J. Ghergich

I help companies attract links and social engagement through Content Marketing. Follow me on twitter http://twitter.com/seo for Content Marketing tips and the latest on the SEO industry.

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128 Responses to “Confessions of a SEO Crack Dealer”

  1. Janel Janel said ...

    Thanks for the insight AJ! I enjoyed reading your story – I totally agree that SEO’s need to be much more inclusive and welcoming.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Thanks Janel glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Joel K Joel K said ...

    Hey AJ -

    I think the most interesting thing is that any SEO who has been in the industry for more than a few years has some kind of seedy past or has at very least done some grey things. It worked, it was part of the job, it was part of testing. I don’t trust any SEO who tells me they haven’t done some of this stuff for that reason – you’re either lying, or you weren’t all that active/involved.

    That said, I think SEO is a toxic, dying acronym. I don’t think the reputation will ever be salvaged, I don’t think people will ever think of SEO and then think “oh yeah, these guys should be handling my marketing!” – and that’s why you see companies like Moz and SEER making an exodus from it.

    Anyways, good post.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      “I don’t trust any SEO who tells me they haven’t done some of this stuff for that reason – you’re either lying, or you weren’t all that active/involved.” I probably think this way without ever actually articulating it. There are of course exceptions but in general I think this is spot on.

      “SEO is a toxic, dying acronym” I can see this viewpoint…I really can. However, I love SEO and want to change that perception. The discussion we are having today in these comments is about a short sided tactic many of us used back in the day.

      I feel like SEO has really evolved. I feel like my personal journey mirrors a lot of the changes in the industry. SEO used to be manipulative (by some) and now is complementary to almost all over forms of marking online.

      I want SEO to be the place where PR, Social & Content intersect. (I stole that line from my wife) but it is what I truly hope happens in the SEO industry.

    2. Rand Fishkin Rand Fishkin said ...

      Hey Joel – Moz isn’t making an exodus from SEO, we’re just trying to help with a broader set of marketing tasks. I think the term “SEO” will always be with us. The question to me is will it continue to be a job title and an industry all its own? Or will it become a tactic – one among many – that those who focus on earned/inbound marketing put in their toolbelt alongside others.

      1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

        Thanks for stopping by Rand. Do think SEO can be redefined or that it is even necessary to do so?

        I agree with viewing SEO as a compliment to other industries. I have learned so much from the PR industry and it has made me a better SEO.

        1. Rand Fishkin Rand Fishkin said ...

          I think SEO is always being redefined. It had a much broader meaning in 2005 than in 2000 and in 2010 than in 2005. As new channels, new opportunities, new kinds of SERPs, and new influences (direct & indirect) on rankings/search traffic appear, SEO’s definition continually expands to encompass these.

          The challenge is that SEO specifically is about search engines. Thus, I don’t expect we’ll see a time when the acronym could encompass social media marketing or branding or PR (except in the ways those directly connect with search rankings). I think that’s why as Google gets more broad in what they consider, SEOs are calling themselves other things so they can have the ability to influence all the channels that have indirect effects on SEO.

          1. And that’s why I see SEOs putting SEO at the center of everything digital, as it was the “Discipline” to rule them all or that incorporate all the others, and not the just one that synergically works with all the others for same objective: the success of a business idea.
            And that’s why I see so-called Inbound Marketers, who actually aren’t nothing else but SEOs who also do (bad) other completely distinct things (i.e.: Content Marketing, Social Media), even if connected.

      2. Joel K Joel K said ...

        Rand – you took the “SEO” out of your name. That’s all I meant – not that you were distancing yourself from those who practice it.

        But for your own business, would you not agree that the “SEO” was a bit… limiting? That the connotations associated with it had something to do with the change?

        Or am I way out to lunch on that one? Honest question.

        1. Rand Fishkin Rand Fishkin said ...

          The connotations were one part, but a relatively small one. Pronounceability of our brand, ability to attract software engineers, ability to expand into markets beyond just tools to help with search engine rankings (FollowerWonk, Fresh Web Explorer, etc.), and more were all contributors to the move.

          1. Joel K Joel K said ...

            Gotcha. That’s what I meant by limiting; you wanted to embrace other avenues. If public perception of SEO is that it’s solely associated with rankings and traffic (and I’d argue it is), then it doesn’t make much sense to keep “SEO” in the name of a business whose reach goes beyond those things.

            Too limiting.

            And to me, that points to the bigger problem of “SEO” the acronym (not the practice) – the perception of SEO by the general public is SO limited in scope that they’re confused when you talk content, social, and general marketing.

            The expansion of markets – that’s the key point for me. I feel I’m maybe not articulating so well here.

  3. Larry Kim Larry Kim said ...

    “Was this the right thing to do? No, of course not. But I blame Google.”

    this is brutal. the point of a confession is not to cast blame on others. What about yourself or the greed of your clients? Just blame google? really? Do you have any remorse for having undoubtedly destroyed the businesses you’ve worked with in the past? Apparently not.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Thanks Larry I was waiting for this comment :)

      I always explained to my clients what they were doing was a risk. They were well aware and chose to take that risk. Many were doing so with domains they were happy to throw away if they ever got popped (few did). Some of the keywords we were ranking for at the time cost nearly $100 a click in adwords…Millions of $$ were made by those clients.

      Again I do not view manipulating Google as immoral so yes I blame them for making an algorithm that was easy to manipulate. I am not sure who’s fault their algo being weak would be?

      I realize this is a very passionate issue and I respect your opinion.

      1. Larry Kim Larry Kim said ...

        my read of this post: It starts with you describing how brilliant a SEO
        spammer you are, and how you crushed businesses that played by the
        rules. Next, you justify your spamming activities and blame others for
        your actions, despite you knowing better. You then describe what appears
        to be some kind of psycho-social issues you were struggling with and
        say that is the reason why you stopped being a spammer (as if Panda and
        Penguin and the fact that spam kills now had nothing to do with it).
        Finally you conclude with some “pot/kettle” logic saying that “the
        industry” needs to clean up their act. this whole article reads like linkbait and ego labeled as a confession to me.

        1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

          I am sorry that I am coming off so egotistical to you. This article was meant to just share my personal journey and why I stopped taking shortcuts with marketing.

          The decision I made really made my life happier and rewarding.

  4. Marc Nashaat Marc Nashaat said ...

    The section of Industry Voice was inspired by the inbound thread I’m assuming? This was a great post and highly reflects my attitude but as SEO’s I do think it’s still important that we experiment with black hat.

    NEVER on our client’s sites, and never as a way to drive revenue but as a means to understand what tactics tend to move the needle. To be clear, I’ll always advocate for great content, relationship building and real marketing, but I also think as SEO’s it’s important that we understand the environment in which we operate.

    What this ultimately leads to is us still doing great marketing, but also being aware of how different aspects of those marketing initiatives affect our performance in search engines.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Without really thinking about it this probably was influenced by the recent inbound thread. I have written this post in my head a lot over the past few years but never actually went through with it.

  5. Clayburn Griffin Clayburn Griffin said ...

    I’ve never had a problem with SEOs who do black hat. It’s completely valid if it works. Google isn’t God nor the government. It can’t set morality or laws. Personally, it’s not my cup of tea. I’ve never liked cheat codes because then why even bother playing the game?

    Fortunately, my work in SEO has been more on the marketing side, which has its own immoral areas. I’ve been able to push for honesty and using SEO as a proper means of technical expression for a website rather than a hack to steal traffic from more worthy sites. I think that’s what draws me to content. It feels good to make good things.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      “It feels good to make things” Yes THIS! I also agree on the black hat comment. It is not for me right now but I also do not throw stones at those who are willing to take that risk.

  6. Cliff Stanwick Cliff Stanwick said ...

    AJ,

    I appreciate the “mea culpa.”

    I think the reality is Google hasn’t clamped down as hard everywhere but definitely in the more competitive industries/businesses/keywords. The inconsistencies are the problem and leads to the more questionable practices where it “works.” Google has mystified itself as a religion with rules that can be followed but not understood. SEO should be as simple as content on your website relevant to your products and services and promoted to followers which would be interested in seeing it. We all know that SEO can change in an instant, just ask Expedia.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      “The inconsistencies are the problem” yeah like when I saw Rand got a notice from Google about violating their terms on G+…. I was like what the heck if this is happening to Rand https://twitter.com/randfish what about the small guys who have no real recourse. It creates a lot of frustration.

  7. Alan Morte Alan Morte said ...

    Aj, loved the post as it puts meaning to the truth will set you free.

    When I was young, 14-17, the instant gratification of black hat was fun. However, I grew bored with the internet and search in general because of it.

    Then in 2011, when I was 20, I got back into the world of search with Three Ventures. This time I wanted it to be different. I wanted to follow the morals and values in which my parents had taught me; do it right the first time.

    So I did, and in March of 2012, I got a nice present from Google, black and white mammals. Which is where I came up with “How to not die a black and white mammal filled SEO death”, from the MozCon wrap-up post that I wrote for you.

    In a way it allowed me to be proud of my work, to not be ashamed to say “I’m an SEO” with out the ‘but’.

    This work, and the work of everyone at Three Ventures, has allowed me to build the relationships that you speak of, to be proud of my work, and to ultimately be able to stand up and deliver the credit to the people in our organization.

    You said, “Even when I was out of links to sell, people were throwing money at me to try harder”.

    It’s funny to bring up a subject like this because when I focused on staying true to my morals and values with my work, this was always the devil on my shoulder.

    People would always solicit us to build these fly-by-night businesses online for decent money. Yet, I found the discipline to turn down these leads even more satisfying.

    This has lead to providing for a better cliental at Three Ventures, and the ability to be proud and discuss our work.

    Yet, I do have to say one disclaimer, Black Hat is a risk, and sometimes it pays off for those who choose to use it as a strategy.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful reply Alan. I think your path sounds very similar to mine. One thing I do want to make clear. I do not really see this as a moral issue. As I said, Google is not a religion. They scrape your content for profit…they are about as “business” as you can get. I am 100% ok with this!

      I choose not to do black hat because it is not fulfilling for me and I want to work with clients who have long term goals. When I se our work on sites like Upworthy it is just so much more rewarding for me personally. As Clayburn says “It feels good to make stuff”.

  8. AJ Kohn AJ Kohn said ...

    So you go 90 in a 50 mile per hour zone where cops never hang out and you’d blame the cops or … the road and not yourself for speeding or if you wound up getting caught when they finally put out photo enforcement?

    You take the risk. Fine. But I’m with Larry Kim you take the blame as well. Own it.

    I was never that far into the black, in part because I’ve always felt that long-term marketing was a far better strategy. I am a marketer. I have the degree. I did it as a profession and … still do.

    Don’t get me wrong, for a while (2005-2007) I might buy/rent links for a site until I had enough natural links and could phase out the paid portion. I thought of it as a kick-start.

    And while I certainly knew and talked with folks about the dark black stuff so I knew the lay of the land it just never matched my own idea on what SEO was about. Still doesn’t: http://www.blindfiveyearold.com/what-is-seo

    I do say I’m an SEO and I’ll make sure my clients know exactly what that means.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Really appreciate the comment AJ. I am a big fan for your blog! I would disagree with the speeding analogy though…Google is not the Government…although they do a great job of working with Government to spy on us ;)

      As I mentioned to Larry. Anyone who was buying links from my company at the time new the risks and chose to take them. Many people also used it as a jump start as to push something.

      For instance lets say you had a KW ranking 12th and it was hugely important and a big time convertor for PPC. Sometimes buying one good paid links with KW rich anchor text was enough to jump from 12th to top 5.

      Many people used paid links this was back in the day.

      I am happy to hear you still sticking by “SEO”. Your voice is one our industry needs.

      1. AJ Kohn AJ Kohn said ...

        Appreciate that AJ and, you know, we AJs have to stick together.

        So let me try to persuade you that you need to own it. If you’re married and you go out to a club or a bar and wind up going home with another woman and cheating, that’s not against the law. There’s no government!

        But to say that ‘it was the environment’ – that it was just the alcohol and the dancing and she was SO pretty – well, no … at the end of the day you make a choice. it’s your choice to do it or not despite what’s going on.

        It is not the environment that defines you or who is watching or listening. I just think it’s important to take that personal responsibility. Because you made your living form Google.

        Oh, and Google doesn’t work with the Government in that way. They were and remain incredibly (I mean seriously and fully) pissed at the NSA.

        1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

          I guess I just don’t equate buying a KW rich link to a moral decision like cheating on your wife. (We are talking about the past this is obviously a bad idea now)

          What I think I feel ashamed of or guilty of is having such a short sided approach to marketing at the time. Yes I made a ton of money off a loophole in Google’s system…but what I really was doing was stunting my growth as a marketer.

          1. AJ Kohn AJ Kohn said ...

            I don’t care about the morality. Just ownership.

            And that is an excellent insight AJ. You short-change yourself with those approaches. It’s why I tell people that the first year (or years) of blogging in obscurity are a GOOD thing. It makes you get better. It did for me.

        2. James Svoboda James Svoboda said ...

          I’ve been doing SEO since 1999, and yes, I bought links back in the day. Never once did it cross my mind to blame Google. It was all on me. And when a site penalty came around, I didn’t blame Google. That was all on me as well.

          So I think that your married analogy sums things up pretty well AJ. In the
          end, it’s up to us as spouses, partners, seos, and marketers, to make
          the best decisions and consider those that these decision will affect in
          the short term and long term.

          Also, don’t buy links Kids! It against the Google law and will rot your SEO.

          1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

            I Just want to be clear that I FULLY support Google’s right to ban anyone for violating there terms. When I say I blame them…I blame them for creating an algorithm so full of holes.

            What followed was ALWAY going to happen because their algorithm was rewarding this behavior. I am excited that they have taken steps to fix the problem.

            I want to be rewarded for having the best content. The better Google gets at rating quality content..the better it will be for those that produce it.

    2. Rand Fishkin Rand Fishkin said ...

      I can see AJ (Ghergich’s) point of view, and yours as well AJ (Kohn). For years, Google’s inability (or choice) not to catch and punish webspam in the way they claimed they would/did hurt the industry a lot. Those of us who warned against it were made to look foolish again and again, and those who went the black hat route (and did it well, like AJ) were consistently rewarded.

      I don’t like the cheating analogy (because that hurts people) or the speeding analogy (because it’s violating the law). I think the analogy I’d choose is akin to the culture that gets created in a professional workplace. When management lets culture and values slide, employees see that those who take shortcuts and kiss ass and don’t play by the values get rewarded. That leads to an environment where more and more people in the company go that path, and come to see the values as just a plaque on the wall. I’m sure you’ve worked with companies like that, and experienced the pain that people internally feel. Some try to get out entirely, some stay because it’s what they know and they need a job. I think SEO in the era of Google rewarding spam was very similar.

      So, while you can blame individual employees for not following the values of the company (or individual SEOs for not following Google’s written rules), the reality is that blame also lies (and in my opinion, primarily lies) with management/Google.

      1. AJ Kohn AJ Kohn said ...

        I guess I just feel like it’s a choice. My choice.

        There was an apartment I lived in for a while, and when I moved in it turned out that the cable was free. Why? Well, the tenant before me had greased the skids of the installer and split it off from the other unit in the building.

        Now, cable companies are awful and I was a college student without a ton of money so … I let it go and got to watch those glorious channels for free. I rationalized that the cable companies were gouging people (and they were) and they should really have better ways to track this kind of thing (I think they do now. So screw them, it’s there fault I have to do this. But that’s not true really.

        I’m not proud that I did it and no amount of rationalization makes it right. So toss your favorite trite phrase in there. Two wrongs don’t make a right or it’s what you do when no one’s looking. I did it. I had my reasons. They made sense at the time. But that’s on ME.

        I could trot out analogies all day long. I’m good like that :) But I sense that there will always be a caveat someone will find in it. So I won’t do that. And that’s totally fine. I understand I’m not going to persuade everyone. In fact, I better not! Everyone thinking the same thing is incredibly boring.

        Me? I’m comfortable with moral ambiguity. No one is all good or all bad. You do stuff sometimes and think, jeez, I was a real jerk. Then other times you can be a saint. It happens. Sometimes it’s context. I don’t do well with bad drivers. Seriously, the filth that comes out of my mouth and what I’d like to do to some of them (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whZXO1D2YFM)

        I shouldn’t get so worked up, but I do. But I own that and all of those experiences. Because in the end it’s not the moronic drivers that are the problem but my reaction to them. Nothing changes if I just blame bad drivers for my own road rage. I’m the one that has to change.

        Well, damn, that’s another analogy isn’t it.

  9. Ethan Siegel Ethan Siegel said ...

    Thanks for sending this my way, AJ. It was a good read and clearly a very personal story.

    It looks like SEO is no longer solely about gaming the system (although there’s a bit of that), but more about helping people find the best content related to what they’re looking for. If you can build an internet where “most popular” and “best” become synonyms, I think that’s something that benefits us all. I’ve shared this with the people I know who are heavily invested in SEO, and I hope they like it, too!

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Thanks Ethan. Yeah the only way to EARN attention is with great content. It takes longer to create and even longer to see the benefit but it is sustainable. If you can can consistently create high-end content you will be rewarded.

      I will add to this that outreach is usually the missing ingredient. Making great content is one thing..but if nobody sees it…whats the point.

  10. Vinny La Barbera Vinny La Barbera said ...

    Thanks for sharing your insights and experience, AJ.

    I’ve read through some of the other comments and have to agree with both sides: the post comes off a little too much like link bait, but at the same time, it’s a candid piece that covers many different issues – most of which I can certainly respect and appreciate (e.g. the need for some improvements in the SEO community).

    So, instead of jumping on some of your words that can come off a little contradictory, as AJ and Larry have stated, I thought it would be good to pose a question / scenario to you (as a past black hat SEO)…

    If you saw a black hat SEO beating / hurting the business for one of your top clients by stealing organic presence away from them, would you out them?

    I’m interested to hear your response as I think the different stances on this may be why we have had, and probably will continue to have, such a significant divide in communication between the different types of SEOs. Maybe there will just always be “good” and “bad” and a “larger tent” will not guarantee improved communication?

    Good post and discussion starter either way. Thanks for allowing us to interject.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Thanks Vinny. I wrote this post mostly for my self a few weeks ago. I thought seriously about not posting on my blog but my employees encouraged me to do so. I knew there would be blow back and I am ok with that.

      I think many in our industry have had a similar experiences in the past. I rarely meet anyone with SEO experience who at one time did not do something that is now considered gray or black hat.

      “If you saw a black hat SEO beating / hurting the business for one of your top clients by stealing organic presence away from them, would you out them?”

      NOPE! When I am working with a client I analyze their competition mainly to see what type of content they are creating and what the engagement levels are. Usually there will only be a small number of players who produce even “passable” content on a consistent basis.

      I honestly have no time or inclination for outing a competitor for having KW rich links etc. Google will catch it and my time spent bitching about that could be better served just kicking their ass with quality content and outreach.

      1. Vinny La Barbera Vinny La Barbera said ...

        Thanks for the response.

        And I’m glad you went ahead with posting this article. It compelled me to comment. Our industry needs more articles that encourage and warrant discussion.

  11. Brian Dean Brian Dean said ...

    Good stuff, AJ.

    My first foray into was similar to yours: “let’s all manipulate the algo because it works.”

    As I see it, the issue is twofold: first, that stuff doesn’t work anymore. That’s the real reason I got out of it.

    But as you pointed out, it also paints an awful picture of anyone who associates with SEO.

    But I don’t think the perception is quite as bad as most people think. People are sophisticated enough about SEO today enough to know that there’s a HUGE difference between buying forum profiles links from Fiverr and hiring an agency like yours to do link asset development and promotion.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Thanks you Brian. You captured my thoughts much more eloquently than I did in my own article.

  12. Rod Rod said ...

    Seen Google develop into a hungry monster since innocent beta ver came about. The small business owner is being squeezed out and larger companies with 50 – 200 employees and large budgets take over. This is not a fair algo, many lost their living, loves overnight. I once wanted to help others succeed, now I just hate Google and it’s not getting any easier. Don’t tell me you are all white hat cause I know it’s not true. Did you really want to write this article or did you do it to get attention.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      I agree with you that is is tough out there for a small business. We get calls from small business owners who want to create content but lack the budget to do so and lack the understanding to promote that content even if they did create it.

      What I usually tell those owners is to start with 1 piece of great content. Don’t get overwhelmed! Just do one great piece and nail the outreach and I think their outlook will start to change. They will see they can compete. Just because a big company with 200 employees can produce a TON of content..does not mean that content is worth a damn. You can still win I promise.

  13. David Cheng David Cheng said ...

    Great post AJ. I think it takes a lot of guts to talk about how you got started out. I’m sure there are a lot of haters out there who may point to Jay-Z’s literal crack-slinging days and ignore the circumstances that enabled his success there and more importantly, the changes in his environment and thought-process that has brought him to his modern-day incarnation.

    In the end, Google created a platform that was very lucrative for good and bad agents alike and as a business, they were not incentivized to police (too much) the bad agents because agents (good/bad) generated revenue. There’s a bit of fault tolerance that enables Twitter and Facebook’s businesses today as well, for a relevant comp. How many of us have bots trolling our social media accounts?

    I applaud your take on this post and I think it’s a great segue into why modern-day SEO works better (because it’s more efficient).

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Thanks David. Me and Jay-Z go way back ;)

      I really like your comment about efficiency. Sometimes shortcuts are not the most efficient route.

  14. victorpan victorpan said ...

    My brother has 1,000′s of domains under his name related to PDLs. I totally hear you about the insanity of those query spaces. He and his partner were having a problem with getting repeat visitors and duplicate leads. Yeah, where else would you quantify a repeat visitor as a bad signal?

    I couldn’t do it. For those queries, Google is a game to those SEOs. But on the other end of the query are people with real problems. Really serious money problems. That’s when I had my realization.

    I’m not one to judge you or my brother, because I am by no means holier than you. I’m just glad you’re no longer in that query space that sells your soul to the devil. Oh yeah, nothing to be ashamed about what you did in the past as long as you make amends.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Thanks Victor always look forward to your insights on twitter. I don’t see it as a moral issue but I HONESTLY respect those who do.

      I see it as more shortchanging yourself. You are not growing as a marketer if all you do is take the easy way out. So that is really why I changed.

  15. Andrew Youderian Andrew Youderian said ...

    Great post, AJ! And I agree, I like where SEO is headed going forward as well. More and more, I’m focusing less on technical SEO in favor of building relationships, good content and credibility – which is really how it should be. And I think Google is rewarding accordingly for that.

    I actually took a different path, started out with a very white-hat approach to SEO and afterward tried to game the system by outsourcing a lot of my SEO work to a less-than-scrupulous agency. So learned the hard way that that wasn’t sustainable.

    But I think all SEOs and marketers struggle with this at some point. If you haven’t wrestled with it yet, you will. ;-)

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Thanks Andrew, I think that is exactly the point. We all have taken different paths. We should support one anther as a community and foster growth.

      Just a side note if you are into Ecommerce Andrew’s private forum and podcasts are an amazing resource!

  16. Kevin Fishner Kevin Fishner said ...

    Hey AJ!

    Great read – appreciate the honesty. Interesting to see that, as people age, happiness and pride become more important than money. Or maybe the money came early and then you can focus on happiness.

    Your conclusion about fostering inclusion in SEO and working with other marketing fields — is that foreshadowing? What’s coming next??

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      I certainly hope that is what happens. I feel like I can’t do my job as an SEO without a very good understanding of PR & Outreach. I can’t get the exposure my content needs without knowing how to do paid & organic social promotion etc. etc.

      I just see all of these things as connected.

  17. Rebecca Lehmann Rebecca Lehmann said ...

    You and everyone else in this thread talk as though blackhat linkbuilding is a thing of the past, but it’s something I am fighting every day in my vertical. I’m not talking about anything subtle, but straight up obvious, awful, and practically flaunting it blackhat crap that creates a terrible user experience both within the SERPs and on the sites the blackhatters are getting ranked. It may not be in vogue any more, and it’s probably passe to admit that it’s still working, but it’s still working extremely well and causing much hand wringing on my end.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Yep you are 100% right. Just look at the travel or finance industry to see this. You can create content on trusted sites like Youtube..spam with links and be ranking in no time. Same goes with expired domains and about 15 other tactics that shouldn’t work…but still do.

      The issue is many of these tactics only work for a short time. This is why you usually see them on throw away domains & profiles. It is frustrating because once they are swatted…more just pop up to take their place.

      I really believe Google has to get away from an over reliance on Links in their algorithm. They must incorporate social and trust signals for the PEOPLE creating the content. Linking to content is ONE form of engagement but Google seems to be ignoring other forms of engagement to their detriment.

      1. Rebecca Lehmann Rebecca Lehmann said ...

        Agreed. In the short term, I’d be happy if Google would just stop indexing shortened links. There is no reason on earth that a bit.ly or tr.im link should ever rank #1 for anything.

      2. ianhowells ianhowells said ...

        I’d really echo your “blame Google” line, here.

        Quit relying on DA (the concept, not the literal Moz number)so much that bulk spam ranks any youtube video.

        Reset authority when a domain expires and comes back with new registration info. Freaking DomainTools.com can show me when this happened, but Google can’t figure it out?

        As long as this stuff works, *not* having it as a piece of your approach leaves you with an incomplete strategy.

  18. ianhowells ianhowells said ...

    Morality is a question of happiness and suffering. In a near zero-sum system like Google, any time you gain visibility, someone else has lost it and their business has suffered. Any win in a zero-sum system can be argued as being immoral, regardless of how one accomplished it. Can we get off our high horses, please?

  19. Sean Jackson Sean Jackson said ...

    Why is it that all the “reformed SEO types” now call themselves content marketers? Could it be that the term SEO has been tarnished? Or is it that the breadth of tactics used in SEO extended beyond simple on-site optimization and link building? In my opinion, it is probably both.

    I think both as an industry and as professionals, we must evolve past using the term SEO for no other reason that the term is no longer applicable.

    For example, if you are building a community online via a forum, would you call yourself a Bulletin Board System (BBS) operator? Of course not. And yet, when I started online in the early 90s, a BBS operator was a badge of respect. Now it is an acronym mostly known by people over 40!

    This week on the Copyblogger site I wrote about this specific point – generating a tremendous amount of positive comments and criticism. Needless to say, my desire to rebrand the term SEO hit a nerve, much like your post.

    What I found fascinating is that the biggest advocates for keeping the term SEO were from the same people who had “evolved” into content marketers? Apparently they felt comfortable keeping the term even though they themselves would not use it to describe their services.

    One day soon, the idea of SEO will fall to the wayside, much like BBS. Yes, the tactics, ideas and concepts learned from the SEO days will still matter, but we will find new definitions (and acronyms) that are more applicable and descriptive to the services performed.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      This is one of the best comments I have read today. I need to go find and read your post! I agree with you and I think I just hate to see SEO go the way of the dodo.

      Maybe I am trying to shove a square peg in a round hole. When I talk to clients I tell them I do SEO..and then go on to explain how that my marketing is heavily involved with PR, Social, Content Creation etc.

      I have to explain to them that when I say SEO…I am really saying something else which is probably not a good thing ;)

      In the end I just do what I know will work…get their “seo house in order” then create compelling content and effectively promote it across multiple channels. Rinse & Repeat.

      Is that inbound? Is that Content Marketing? Is that SEO? I guess I don’t know anymore.

      1. Sean Jackson Sean Jackson said ...

        You can take a look at the post I wrote at http://www.copyblogger.com/ocdc/

        and as always, I appreciate your feedback and thank you for posting your story. This is an important topic and the timing is right to have this discussion.

  20. Jeffsauer Jeffsauer said ...

    Joining the comments here because I only really glanced over the post when you sent it this morning. I have a tendency to scan things and look for headings/bullet points/images/boldface like a trained monkey.

    Now I see that the world has caught on and a comment maelstrom has ensued. I’m sure that’s what you were hoping for in sharing and even warned us when you announced the post on G+. After reading the article and comments I can’t help but agree with all of the comments made by Larry Kim.

    I guess overall I don’t get the point of the post and that’s why I didn’t comment in the first place. I appreciate that you are admitting all of the things you did in the past, but the call to action at the end for everyone in the SEO industry to clean up their act so that you can be proud of the term SEO just seems like a giant leap. Especially since your confessions are the very reason why the industry has such a bad name.

    It would have been nice to see some sort of inspired call to action for all of us to confess our sins and have Matt Cutts absolve us of any wrongdoing. Almost like a guns for toys program. That would make your confessions and call to “the voice of the industry” stronger. Hmm… you actually just made me think of a good linkbait tactic!

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      The point of the post was to show my journey as a marketer. Going from “quick win” tactics to a longer term approach and why I made that change. I honestly am not much of a writer so I can see how that may be getting lost.

      I totally get that there are some like @larry_kim:disqus who see this as a moral issue. I can respect that. I do not agree with it but that is fine & healthy. Which is why I said this…

      “Sometimes it feels like we are involved in an intellectual pissing contest rather than helping one another. We need to make new people feel welcome. We need to bring in new opinions. We need dissenting voices. Rather than jumping on different voices, we have to help one another. We need a bigger tent.”

      1. Jared Carrizales Jared Carrizales said ...

        Couldn’t agree more with that latter paragraph AJ, and I also feel it’s a moral issue. I understand the POV portrayed by Larry and AJ (Kohn), as well as David and Brian’s. However, for the ones calling for AJ G’s head on a plate, I think that’s like repeatedly chastising a reformed drug dealer (<—ironically enough I wrote sentence before realizing that I had just repeated the title).

        They did some bad things that many other people (friends, colleagues, clients) had to deal with, but for whatever reason have learned from, or been pushed in the right direction and started on the "right" path.

        If people realize wrongdoing isn't it overall more beneficial for all involved to acknowledge the crap that was done in the past and do what we can to move on and push more people in this positive direction as industry professionals?

  21. Garfield_Disliker Garfield_Disliker said ...

    AJ, I feel some serious kinship with you on this one. My degree was also in fine arts… I first really dove into SEO shortly after college and I landed at a large-ish search agency. Maybe it was my background, my goals at the time or whatever, but I never saw it as a long term thing.

    I wouldn’t really say I was doing black hat stuff, but it was certainly low grade and spammy. It was basically just a job to me, and I slogged through all the automated link spewing and article “marketing” because to be honest, I thought the spam was hilarious at the time. And the low end tactics were working way later in the game than everybody said they were.

    At some point I grew up with it, started to deeply enjoy analytics and the technical side, stopped looking at my job as a short-term, ironic bridge to something else… and felt like I had really grown to have a deep knowledge about SEO—certainly more than anyone at my agency at the time. And then all the low grade tactics grew thin and I had to get out (and I did).

    To this day, I’m still paying the price for it. I’m largely—almost entirely—anonymous and don’t feel comfortable showing my face at conferences or blogging, etc. Certainly couldn’t talk about how successfully I was “scaling” linkbuilding or any garbage like that.

    Anyway, it’s good to hear somebody at least admit to this crap. We all did it and now we all gotta put on our big boy pants and grow up.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Thanks for the comment. It does sound like we had very similar paths. I would encourage you to engage more. I want to hear more voices like yours in our industry!

  22. alanbleiweiss alanbleiweiss said ...

    AJ,

    You say your clients knew exactly what was being done and the risks involved. If that’s true (and I don’t know you personally so I have no reason to doubt you personally on that), then moral/ethical isn’t necessarily a primary consideration.

    What I’m curious about is were any of those clients not the actual business owner of the sites that benefited? And were any of those sites what could be considered as mainstream societal product/service businesses? Or were they maybe an agency, or an in-house SEO?

    I definitely know some business owners who knew full well how they were getting their ranking, yet I know many more who were not aware. To this day, the majority of the site owners who come to me for audits over the past few years had been unaware that they were getting rankings based on methods/tactics that ended up causing them to be burned.

    That’s where I go on rants about moral/ethical concepts in SEO. Just because a home owner doesn’t know a $5 lock pick set can get someone past their locked door does not make it acceptable for “crime of opportunity” types to then raid the house.

    It’s too easy to then stomp your feet and say “that’s different – there are laws for that”. The critical flaw in that justification tactic is there are only laws for that because too many people abused the flaws in the locks on the market.

    It’s a mind-set. Either you do things that abuse something in an imperfect world, or you don’t in any given situation. If enough abuse happens, it will eventually have a law created around it.
    That’s a fundamental concept of civilized society.

    I intimately understand these concepts because I’ve lived them. I’m a recovering addict. And before I got clean, I didn’t care about, think about, or stop to consider my actions as relates to civilized society. All I cared about was the quick hit opportunity for me. I left wreckage wherever I went.

    Some of the things I did were not against the law. Yet the harm I caused – to myself, to people I interacted with, was, nonetheless, reprehensible.

    Addicts, criminals, anyone who manipulates loopholes in societal structure, does so based on rationalization and justification while pointing fingers outward.

    At the end of the day, you say in this article that you can be honest with yourself and others. That you don’t have to live in the shadows. Dude. Think about that. WTH do you think the opposite of that is? it’s immoral and unethical behavior.

    Take it from someone who knows, on a deeper level than you hopefully will ever need to know. So if any of the site owners who ended up getting burned because of your tactics were not actually aware, or if any “civilized society” site owners suffered in rankings against your client sites, then maybe moral/ethical has at least some weight in this.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Coming out of the shadows is mainly a positive byproduct of the change I made. Not why I made it. I really love creating things. I love PR & Outreach. I love when an infographic we make goes viral and strikes a conversation.

      Those were the things that were lacking before. I left those tactics behind because they were not fulfilling for me personally and too short sighted…not because I thought they were immoral.

      But I certainly respect that you think that it was.

      1. alanbleiweiss alanbleiweiss said ...

        AJ

        The only reason I commented here was because, after reading the comments, you validated the notion that you respect other views, even when they differ from yours. That alone, along with your various responses here, tell me you’re someone I can respect, even if we disagree on the whole moral/ethical concept…

        1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

          I really appreciate that!

    2. Kristine Allcroft Kristine Allcroft said ...

      Well put! Having been one of those companies who didn’t know what they didn’t know, I appreciated this post!

  23. Ryan Oscar Ryan Oscar said ...

    I don’t think it is up to the discretion of SEO professionals to choose
    between white hat or black hat (or somewhere in between). A big part of
    this decision lies with the business owners/clients/employers.

    You
    see, it’s their money. And if they are willing to take the longer route, be
    patient, and wait for some months before they can start to see the
    results, good for them, and white hat is surely the answer, but when they are
    panicking in just their second or third months while investing on SEO,
    and changing companies or SEO professionals to find the one who can produce
    results in next to no time, they are creating demand that only the black
    hat SEO guys can fulfill. Can’t blame them, can’t blame Google, and cant
    really blame the guys who are trying to deliver what their clients are looking for
    … at the end of the day, it is the basic human traits like greed or
    impatience that is to blame. And even though i have always despised the guys who are always trying (and succeeding at) cheating the system, I can’t really agree with the analogies like cheating your wife, or dealing in crack, for someone who sells back links.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Agreed! I think it is taking our industry WAY too seriously to start saying brokering a text link ad is a moral decision. I no longer practice black hat, not because it doesn’t work but because it was not fulfilling and the relationships I was building were (in many cases) just as short sided as the tactics we employed.

      Now I like to work with clients who embrace long term goals and marketing strategies. I like building up a actual relationship and really understanding their product.

      1. Victor Tribunsky Victor Tribunsky said ...

        It was very interesting from the start but at the middle I understood that this confession would not give me something valuable as the web site owner.

    2. Kristine Allcroft Kristine Allcroft said ...

      Agreed. But what happens when a business hires an SEO company for a time and that SEO company does “black hat” without letting the business know that they’re doing it? Yes, everybody is desperate for business. Yes, there will always be less than honorable folks ready to do the bad things in order to make a buck. But, the really “black hat” SEO companies are those who do bad things with their customer’s websites, don’t tell them, and then the company gets a Google suspension because of the black hat SEO. I guess we could look at it this way: black hat SEO companies have created a new marketing niche for those who are willing to play the game honestly . . .

  24. Matt Antonino Matt Antonino said ...

    I am honestly shocked at how much flak this post has gotten on here and Inbound. I think the best it was said is this:

    “There is no ethical consideration involved in SEO. There is only what works, and what doesn’t.”

    Is it ethical to take your client’s money knowing that someone else will buy links and stay ahead of your client? Your content is going to win over some high PR backlinks? Not freaking likely. Not yet anyways.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      I honestly do not mind the dissent. I am not too fond of some of the personal attacks I have received but I guess that comes with the territory.

      It is just hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that brokering a text link ad between two willing and eager parties was immoral. Do I advocate this approach today…of course not but back in the day I certainly did and it certainly worked.

      1. Alex Alex said ...

        Well, let me help you wrap your head around the morals of this. You helped businesses with lots of money to cheat, enabling them to outrank people with better products / services and less money and thus helping the table get tilted further towards the already-powerful and hurting small business and honest people. You even stated plainly:

        The “good guys” – those who wanted to do the right thing – got screwed.

        You helped that to happen. You took their money while knowing full well that the entire process was dishonest and dishonorable. Still confused about the moral issue?

        1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

          I respect that you believe this is an issue of morality I just do not agree with you. Here is why…

          “You helped businesses with lots of money to cheat” (Cheating implies a
          moral issue and I do not believe that morality enters into the equation
          when buying a text link ad. )

          “enabling them to outrank people with better products / services” (How
          do you know this statement is true, how do you know my clients didn’t
          have the better product?)

          “hurting small business and honest people.” (How do you know their competitors were honest people?)

          The “good guys” – those who wanted to do the right thing – got screwed. (I used “good guy” in quotes for a reason)

          Now let me ask you a question. Tomorrow I am going to make a search
          engine. I am going to say it is a violation of my terms of service for
          you to run a contest or giveaway on your site because these have been
          abused for Links & Likes by so many.

          Now that you know my rule if you choose to run a contest or giveaway you
          are an immoral person right? Or does morality not enter into it now?

          I have the right to make the rule that you can’t run a contest and if I
          catch you doing it I have the right to ban you from my search engine.
          You have the right to abide by my rule or take the risk to ignore it.
          Again, morality never enters into the equation.

          1. Thea Few Thea Few said ...

            I feel the need to chime in. I was “afraid” to “buy” links or participate in similar black hat schemes. I thought about it but always stopped myself because I wanted to do the right thing and play by the rules. As a result we were one of those small business who got “left behind” or “screwed.” Funny thing is that we are still getting screwed as Google cleans up those that cheated. Our organic search traffic is down by more than half while others continue to pad their bank accounts. So if a business is hurt now because they bought links then they should have money from the years they benefited from the link to help cover the cost of the cleanup. From where I stand they are still ahead of the game and are still the winners over the ones who took the rules seriously. If you practiced black hat SEO to ask those from whom you bought the links to help clean up is a bit disingenuous.

  25. Syed Raza Syed Raza said ...

    Dude im new to SEO, should i be calling my mom to let her know im not a crack dealer?

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Lol well played sir!

  26. Kristine Allcroft Kristine Allcroft said ...

    Nice confession . . . it is Lent after all. And, I’m glad to see you “growing up” in the industry and enjoying your work again. But, I have to tell you that a couple years ago our company had hired one of “you-type-guys” and it ended badly with a 3 month suspension from Google. We had no idea what this company was doing until we got the suspension. Needless to say it was expensive tuition but it forced me to “own” the content marketing for our company.

    Do you have plans to make reparation as part of your confession? Who knows how many people you hurt along the way? How many of your previous customers got nailed by Penguin and Panda updates?

    It took a while and a lot of work, but our website now enjoying real content authority with our blogging and the rankings that go with it.

    Copyblogger posted something recently about SEO being dead. The new
    paradigm is what Sonia Simone calls OCDC or “Optimizing Content for
    Discovery & Conversion. You might want to check this out as a guide along your new path.

    I like that and I enjoy marketing this way. It’s clean and honest – and it’s what our company is about.

    I doubt if your public confession is going to help your business much. People know intuitively that “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.” If power was your addiction before, who’s to say it won’t become that for you again?

    But then again, integrity is not something most people value much anymore so it might not matter.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      “We had no idea what this company was doing until we got the suspension.” I am sorry this happened to you. I would tell anyone that if you don’t know what your SEO/Marketing company is doing for you…it is probably a recipe for disaster.

      “Do you have plans to make reparation as part of your confession?”

      My company was a text link brokerage. When you came to us it was to BUY text link ads. You knew exactly what you were getting. Every month we would send clients a literal excel sheet with the links we bought for them. I am not sure how to be more clear that people were getting the exact product they wanted at the time.

      I also love reading copyblogger. The produce some fantastic content!

      1. Kristine Allcroft Kristine Allcroft said ...

        In psychology, that tactic is called “blaming the victim.” When a business hires a company to provide SEO services for them, they do so because they don’t know what they don’t know. They’re running their business, and that’s not likely to include knowledge and vicissitudes of SEO, which is why they hire a company to provide that service.

        1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

          I agree with you that if you hire an SEO agency and they do tactics that could get you banned or go against search engine guidelines WITHOUT your knowledge that is highly unethical. That should be your choice to make not the agencies. They should make you aware of that and if they did not then shame on them. I think that goes for any industry really not just marketing.

          I think with my previous comment, some people are confusing the difference between an SEO agency & a Text Link Brokerage. The ONLY reason you go to a company that brokers text link ads is to well…buy a text link ad. You don’t just wake up one day and think I should buy a text link ad. You have to know about them to know they exist and when you are choosing to buy an ad you know the risks.

          Even still we explained the risk although I never ONCE spoke with someone buying a link from us who did not already understand this. It was a very niche product that catered to a very niche part of our industry. In most cases they were very savvy SEO’s themselves just looking for boost to their other tactics.

    2. ianhowells ianhowells said ...

      “We had no idea what this company was doing until we got the suspension.”

      That sounds like you, and your former agency, were both wildly irresponsible. Glad is working out much better, now.

      1. Kristine Allcroft Kristine Allcroft said ...

        See my response to AJ below. In psychology this is called “blaming the victim”

      2. Kristine Allcroft Kristine Allcroft said ...

        Unfortunately, for me I am an honest person. If someone tells me something I will tend to believe them. So if a dishonest SEO company lies to me and I believe them, that’s irresponsible? Really? I didn’t find out until too late. Then I learned . . . So, what you’re saying is, it’s okay to lie to people and hurt them and their business because they don’t know enough to be responsible? Yes, you are definitely “blaming the victim”

        1. ianhowells ianhowells said ...

          No – I blame you both.

          It is not ok to deceive your clients and open them to risk they haven’t agreed to, period.

          It is also not ok to hand over a significant piece of your online business to someone and have “no idea” what they’re doing. You’re a business owner – it is your responsibility to know what is happening with your business.

          What other word besides irresponsible would you use for someone who doesn’t know what is being done with their business?

          1. alanbleiweiss alanbleiweiss said ...

            I need to agree with Ian on this. As much as I want to place blame solely on one side of the fence. Even though I do not believe every site owner should be required to become an expert in SEO, I do believe they, at the very least, need to have enough understanding of the pitfalls that can come from methods that can expose them, and that contracts need to integrate safe-guards.

            That’s a fundamental concept of “due diligence” regardless of the service being provided.

  27. Kristine Allcroft Kristine Allcroft said ...

    well spoken rationalizing . . . what about how many folks got hurt because of the practice? at what point do people take responsibility? Not a high horse, but indicative of our culture that doesn’t value integrity . . .

    1. ianhowells ianhowells said ...

      Hurt because of which practice?

      If I target a keyword and spam my way to #1, the company who moves to #2 will likely see a (roughly) 50% drop in traffic from that term. Let’s assume I targeted the largest term in the niche, and it’s responsible for… 300 sales a month. So they drop 150 sales. Call it.. ~$100 AOV with a 35% margin. My ranking costs them 15k in gross revenue, and $5,250 in net revenue per month. That’s (in many cities) an entry level employee.

      If I target the same term with all white hat tactics, the same site still moves to position 2, and still loses the same number of sales, still lose $5,250 in net rev per month, and maybe consider letting go/hiring one less entry level employee.

      Net-net – the bottom line of the people I just displaced receives the same negative impact.

      Do you feel bad when you whitehat your way to #1 because it might mean the guy below you loses 180k a year in gross revenue while you gain it? Of course not – you celebrate the win.

      This still, to me, boils down to people being upset that someone “cheated” to get above them instead of “earning” it (which seems to mean “playing by the same set of rules I’ve chosen to play by”).

      1. Kristine Allcroft Kristine Allcroft said ...

        Yup! Anyone who has to “cheat” to win by definition is not living in integrity.

        1. ianhowells ianhowells said ...

          “Cheating” implies that there is already an established set of rules that everyone in the system has agreed to.

          Last I checked – we don’t have that.

          So – what constitutes “cheating” here?

          1. Kristine Allcroft Kristine Allcroft said ...

            your word, not mine . . . you introduced it in the reply above . . . interesting choice of words

            1. ianhowells ianhowells said ...

              I assume when people use it, they mean tactics outside the Google Guidelines. I used it in quotations above because it isn’t a sentiment I agree with. I was asking if you have a specific line for what is and isn’t cheating since that’s what decides (for you) if someone has integrity or not.

      2. ghergich ghergich said ...

        Somehow I missed this comment. I think this was a VERY well articulated response.

  28. Kristine Allcroft Kristine Allcroft said ...

    I learned the same lesson . . . it hurt, but I’m now developing a new career identity in addition to my previous ones . . .

  29. Kristine Allcroft Kristine Allcroft said ...

    we do not live in the age of the greatest integrity . . . and blaming others is our national past time . . .

  30. Kristine Allcroft Kristine Allcroft said ...

    love it!

  31. Jacob King Jacob King said ...

    Black hat ranking “payday loans” and “blackjack”? I think you’d still be counting the affiliate monies if that was the case, not having a moral debate about this SEO hoopla. Anywho, well played on this post, look at all these sheep bahhing at each other.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Hey Jacob, In hindsight that may have been the more profitable idea vs being a link broker. The big clients we had of course made us sign a ton of contracts to eliminate us doing that sort of thing. But yeah when various “mesothelioma” keywords were going for nearly $100 per click on adwords…law firms were willing to pay a TON for leads. Oh and “structured settlements” how could I forget you lol.

      I guess what is disappointing to me is that in our industry we choose to vilify each other so much. I made the personal decision not to do gray/black hat anymore but I still respect those who do. The black hat crowd is every bit as clever as the white hat side if not more so!

      We should all be able to say this is what I am doing and while it is different from your path I can respect you as a person. If we could do just that simple task…we could move on to more productive conversations. People might find we all have a lot to learn from each other.

      1. Jacob King Jacob King said ...

        I agree with that man, I don’t care what the hell other people do, I’m just trying to get money. Everyone wants to be confident in their approach, I know I do.

        I don’t have clients, never have so all that is foreign for me. The only ethical debate I have is with myself and if I sleep good at night. When I think about the manipulative tactics and spam I’m knee deep in daily, I’m fine with it, it’s fun as hell.

        That doesn’t mean I don’t love link baiting and dominating with something badass and just kicking back and watching it take flight. But for me that’s not always realistic, and whenever I try to do it artificially in a niche I’m not an expert in, I just waste money and resources when I should have just spam ranked it in the first place.

        So that’s where I’m at, if there is something I eat, sleep, and breath (SEO) I’ll go “white hat” with it and just crush with my knowledge. But anything else, spam all day baby, no middle ground.

  32. David Iwanow David Iwanow said ...

    Hmmm yeah I think transparency is the key in this whole thing as fairly clear cut as I recall you make a decision to take a risk in cutting corners and often at the clients request. There are plenty of examples of times when you just have to admit defeat on some terms if you are playing in a Google friendly sandbox….

    But talk to enough people and you will be told of plenty of examples of big brands/sites paying huge amounts of money still for private link networks and even hacked sites for links… a win at all costs strategy is still happening in many verticals. So if buying/renting links is black hat what do you call seo tactics using hacked websites for links?

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      “So if buying/renting links is black hat what do you call seo tactics using hacked websites for links?”

      For me personally I think using hacked sites for links is a step too far because that very probably involves illegal activity. I never engaged in that type of stuff so I really can’t comment on it.

      And yeah I did sell a lot of links to big brands & fortune 500 companies over the years. While many of those companies have completely changed their marketing approach since those days many just “buy links” in a different way.

      Is a giveaway buying links? Is sending swag bags to reports buying links? Where is the line drawn? All things I think people are struggling to define.

      1. David Iwanow David Iwanow said ...

        I tried to post the comment on Inbound.org post but it’s not allowing me for some weird reason…

      2. alanbleiweiss alanbleiweiss said ...

        “Is a giveaway buying links? Is sending swag bags to reports buying
        links? Where is the line drawn? All things I think people are struggling
        to define.”

        That’s one of the biggest issues we all face. Who defines where the line gets drawn? Since we don’t have clearly defined laws about most of this, it really is up to Google’s dominance to set their own rules.

        While those have dramatically changed over the years, I believe they’ve been consistent (for the most part) in becoming ever increasingly more emphatic that if you step back and use the perspective of “societal acceptability” as a threshold, you’ll consistently see that “traditionally acceptable” marketing methods is the central theme.

        Again though, that’s such an ambiguous, subjective concept, there is lots of grey area all around it.

        Then again, absent law, as more people continue to skirt around these concepts, laws do begin to form – have already been forming. Like fake reviews, and how the FTC established regulations around those. Since then, various State attorney generals have also now gone after fake reviews – fining both the agencies that create them and the site owners who pay those agencies.

        So is a giveaway buying links? If it’s set up “cleanly” (and not a “hey – give us a link from your site and you will get X prize” way) it’s not buying links – it’s doing “traditionally acceptable marketing”, that MAY generate links as a secondary benefit.

        We can go deep down the rabbit hole of course. Pay someone to write really good content on your site, and if its good enough, people link to it. So isn’t that also then a form of buying links?

        Further down the rabbit hole hire someone who understands what “acceptable” SEO is, have them work on your site, get involved in community activity, build relationships with others who will by nature want to write about the site – that too is then ultimately “buying links”. Just not directly.

        Except this is a capitalist societal environment, where “marketing” of any kind can, under some circumstance, be seen as artificial manipulation, if one wants to twist it far enough.

        That brings me back to what you asked – where do the lines get drawn? Who determines them, and if Google is the one left with that, is it “amoral” to work around their parameters?

  33. josephjrobison josephjrobison said ...

    Real question, not rhetorical – how do business owners respond to the phrase “content marketing”? Do you have to take a few minutes to explain what it is? My own individual observation is that although business owners or marketing managers at a company might not know exactly what SEO means, they know it gets them better rankings and more traffic. Do they know that by “content marketing” you’re doing the same thing, or do you have to explain a little more? Thanks!

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      I replied to you but it looks like it didn’t come through sorry about that.

      Larger companies know all about content marketing by now as it has been such a buzz word. But smaller companies do not really fully understand it typically. So the benefit is that you can help define it to them without preconceived notions.

      SEO means so many different things to different people that you have to make sure they understand what your brand of SEO is.

      This is something I have been struggling with. How do I define what we do under an easy to understand umbrella. Is is Inbound Marketing, SEO, Content Marketing? Nothing seems to totally make me happy.

      @gfiorelli1:disqus Sent me his article in a chat we were having on twitter. http://www.stateofdigital.com/inbound-marketing/ I really like the Visual Asset. I am still trying to decide the right word for the middle section through lol.

  34. ronellsmith ronellsmith said ...

    AJ, I totally feel you on the Content Markeing/Inbound Marketing/SEO terminology. I feel like there are several camps competing for the same business, and each wants to be different in some way.

    There seems to be a strong push from the SEO crowd to go with inbound marketing, and content folks seem content to keep “content” in the title. Me? I just don’t know.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Yeah I think it is something we are all struggling with. My gut is to just continue educating my clients that to do SEO I have to also create great content, conduct PR/Outreach, leverage Social Media and analyze with Analytics.

      For me I can totally see how SEO is still at the center of those activities.

  35. Profoundry Profoundry said ...

    Really interesting honest piece. Thanks A.J.

  36. michaelhartzell michaelhartzell said ...

    So what you are saying AJ is that you started out much the same way the Phil did in the movie “Ground Hog Day”. Egopreneur who was high on himself and very opportunistic but left you empty with no real fun. And as in the movie, you gained new skills and purpose. Instead of opportunistic and game systems, you chose to have impact. A good story. Maybe your movie is yet to come. :)

  37. Nicole Kohler Nicole Kohler said ...

    Thanks for sharing this, A.J. I’m glad SEO has become fun for you again!

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Thanks Nicole it really has! Make cool shit & promote the hell out of it. Rinse & Repeat :)

  38. Nick Nielson Nick Nielson said ...

    As someone who also started out (unknowingly) with black hat I think you’ve done a pretty good job summarizing how that space operated. I got into it towards the end of the party, creating links that to the naked eye appeared to be white hat, but were acquired using black hat tactics. I liken that time to the wild west, and Google was slowly bringing the law west to tame the frontier.

    I was laid off shortly before Panda/Penguin hit, and when I came back to the industry after a few months off it was very different. However, it seemed to benefit me as now links were gained, as you mentioned, via creative rather than technical means. It’s greatly reduced the competitive landscape so that you actually have to put in effort, and understand your niche, as opposed to running a scraper tool and blindly targeting top keywords. The only hard part these days is selling link building (or whatever we’re calling it these days) as a viable service to clients, who either are terrified of it in general or demand immediate results and numbers > quality. But when you have a client who knows their stuff it’s much better. I recently beat out an entire link building company by myself because they were only using generic guest posts, while I explored every option on the table. Like you said, it can still be a lot of fun :)

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      I think the key with link building going forward is to ditch the “link building to scale” model. Do things that do not scale and you will be safe. Put your time into getting on Mashable vs 20 crappy links that hold no value.

      Happy to connect and glad you liked the article.

  39. GossipMoms GossipMoms said ...

    Wow love this article what a journey

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      Thanks glad you enjoyed!

  40. Chris Romero Chris Romero said ...

    As an #SEO with a fine arts degree, I totally agree with using creativity in SEO / Content Marketing. I started in the world of black hat affiliate marketing and have come all the way to the other side where I am helping hospitals, broadcasting companies, nonprofits and others create jobs and grow their businesses.

    SEO is where webmaster meets art. Its a true melting pot where both the left and right side of your brain get to work on a project together. In my view, the future of SEO will be in interactive content and measuring events that take place on the site. So User Testing and conversion optimization that takes into account user activity from any device will dictate how Google ranks you… The usability of a site to its visitors will now affect rankings as much as back-linking. I also love schema markup and semantic Google….

    I know that SEO is becoming more and more legitimized everyday as well as digital marketing…SEO’s of tomorrow will be creating digital marketing plans and using companies that specialize in statistics and data analysis to get suggestions as to what type of budget they should be spending on SEO, Social and all forms of earned and paid media.

    To put it simply, those who take SEO seriously will be far more successful online than those that overlook it.

    1. AJ Ghergich AJ Ghergich said ...

      “SEO is where webmaster meets art. Its a true melting pot where both the left and right side of your brain get to work on a project together. ”

      I really like this statement!

  41. David C. Weber David C. Weber said ...

    Not to sound redundant, but I concur with you about Mr. Romero’s statement.

    “SEO is where webmaster meets art. Its a true melting pot where both the
    left and right side of your brain get to work on a project together. ”

    That was an awesome statement! I Like It. :-)

    Thanks fellows, I found this very uplifting. That may sound strange, but my father is dying and he has been lingering for days now with Incurable brain cancer. I have been pretty bummed as you can imagine.

    Thanks for something that took my mind away from all of this for a brief moment or two.

    David

  42. Nick Booth Nick Booth said ...

    Interesting article. your confession suggests you want to reform. But I want more details about the full horror of the SEO crowd.

    I never trust anyone who lumps all creative work (prose, films, plays, music, poetry) into one bland category – Content – but seems to have an endless set of terms to lovingly describe all the infinite variations of advertising and sales activity.

    It just shows how little they value the intellectual work, and how much emphasis they place on the often creepy, underhand manipulative activities we’ve come to associate with online sales and marketing.

    Just as Eskimos (supposedly) have hundreds of words for snow, we can tell where their stone hearts lie by the number of phrases the digital marketing nerds have for creation (one) and the number of phrases they have for manipulation (hundreds)

    There is still hope for you Mr Ghergich. But you’ve got to give us more. I want names, dates and details of each incident. Then hopefully these monsters can be rounded up and kept away from decent society.

    1. “I never trust anyone who lumps all creative work (prose, films, plays, music, poetry) into one bland category – Content – but seems to have an endless set of terms to lovingly describe all the infinite variations of advertising and sales activity.”

      Excellent description of the vacuous term, “content”

  43. Piperis F Piperis F said ...

    This is a great article – it’s always interesting to hear the stories of fellow SEOs, and you’re right in saying that it’s definitely turning into a more respectable and necessary industry as Google continues to develop it’s systems! Thanks for sharing.

  44. Ryan Biddulph Ryan Biddulph said ...

    Hi A.J.,

    Neat read. I’ve never dug SEO much outside of peppering in keywords and using h tags. Overall, really important to know the basics though if you’re hungry to target your traffic.

    Thanks!

  45. Bishal Biswas Bishal Biswas said ...

    Hi A.J. Ghergich,

    I do read several articles daily, but this is the one I was looking for. Yes, it’s obvious that Black Hat Tactics is something that crept many marketers and bloggers, and I was on of it’s target. At the beginning, I use several tactics (unethically) to rank a website higher, but later on I’d realized it is something I can not go much….

    However, it’s my first visit over here (Ghergic) and frankly speaking, it’s one of the most Influential Blog I’ve ever read. Thanks a lot for the great contribution.

    Have a great weekend ahead.
    - Bishal Biswas

  46. Spook SEO Spook SEO said ...

    A.J your thoughts are natural and these things are always same if you are entering in the SEO market you just need to have your focus on the ranking and the ranking factors and if you got the real value of the ranking factors you will easily know how you will go for which king of SEO that will really helpful for you in making good decisions and to improve the SERP of the site you are working with.

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