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.
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.
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.
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.