A tale of Cowboys, Penguins and other ghouls

Mar 18, 2013 by

This entry was written by , one of the OxonDigital members. The author's views below are entirely their own and may not reflect the views of OxonDigital.
A tale of Cowboys, Penguins and other ghouls

For much of the last week I’ve been immersed in the murky dark backstreets of the internet.

A place where outwardly professional SEO-businesses hawk dodgy link-building practices. Where decent companies get taken in and have their livelihoods threatened. And where the rule of law is meted out by The Penguin and his henchmen.

It was the first major outing I’ve made into this truly dodgy neighbourhood. So instead of writing an uplifting post for you on how to use Google Analytics for the benefit of your clients, which was what I was planning to do, I’m going to tell you where I’ve been this week.

Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

A ‘non-SEO’ SEO

So I was introduced to a business as a ‘non-SEO’ SEO. The client was intrigued by this and I wasn’t quite sure how to explain it to them, in terms that would be meaningful. I had a hunch what the context of the meeting might be, so I told them that our approach to link-building wasn’t focused on buying links from spammy irrelevant sites. That struck a chord.

But when I began talking about ‘link-earning’ they began to glaze over, and when I said that our approach was really about making sites easier to find, easier to use and easier to measure, I knew I’d gone too far.

A business that was doing well from paid links

I began asking the client about their business.

They explained how in their sector, survival and success is about getting a continual stream of new enquiries, and how a third of these typically came in via their website. Their SEO providers had being doing ‘stuff’ in the background for a while. This had improved their rankings, brought in the enquiries, and everyone was happy.

Except the client had a slight nagging feeling that all was not quite right. Links being ‘acquired’ from sites that were wholly irrelevant to their business, quite often based in India, and seemed unlikely to deliver any real traffic.

Google slap

In March 2012 the number of enquiries dropped dramatically. It seemed like their rankings had gone down so the client took action. They decided to tidy up the site and give it creative makeover – actually not a bad idea because the old one was looking a bit tired.

The client also decided it was time to bring in another SEO provider, who would approach it differently.

They found an SEO consultancy which, rather than basing their link-building on wholly irrelevant sites, placed them onto, wait for it…. parked domains, instead. The agency managed to convince the client this was a sufficiently different approach and they decided to go for it.

This was at the start of 2013. Call me naïve but I was gobsmacked that ‘SEO’ businesses can still making their daily bread from this kind of stuff.

When I met the client in late February, the new SEO agency had been in place for less than a month and the client, quite reasonably, wanted to give them time to show results. But they were interested in what we might have to say as well, since they were struggling to get a handle on what all the different parties were telling them.

And then what happened?

Well the client gave us access to their Google Analytics so we could map natural search traffic against Google algorithm updates using this great tool.

screenshot from www.panguintool.com

The yellow line marked ‘Other’ in March 2012 is a Link Network de-Indexation update.

Quickly running the domain through OpenSiteExplorer showed a link from dmoz.org, a link from dir.yahoo.com, and then… real garbage. And plenty of it. Over 2000 links from more than 800 domains.

We discussed two options with the client:

  1. purchasing a new domain, launching the new site onto it and starting again, or
  2. launching the new design onto the old domain and persevering. This would mean a long tough expensive job of removing links and then building up the site’s profile again using other less risky techniques.

Not surprisingly the client wanted to keep their existing domain. And on the face of it it’s a good one. Keyword relevant to the niche and sensibly formed.

They also got in touch with the old SEO agency re removing some of the dodgy links. The agency have written credible-sounding emails by way of reply. Including such statements as “this is a well known tactic by other SEO agencies trying to get their competitors out of a contract.”

I can see how it’s very difficult for someone in the client’s position to figure out what to do next and who’s ‘telling the truth’.

And the future?

The client is hoping their rankings will recover. After all, they’ve got a great new design going live, plenty of good new content (and it is good, by the way, they’ve put effort and thought into it) and a new SEO agency.

In all likelihood the new-look site may drive better conversions but as regards rankings? I don’t know. I’d have thought the ongoing building of paid-links from spammy websites will outweigh any positive effect the new design and content may have had.

What can be done that’ll help? 

Well if they really are committed to the domain, I think it’ll be a long, expensive process of:

  • reaching out to owners of the spammy domains and asking them to take down the links
  • educating the client in the realities of SEO in a post-Penguin / post-Panda world
  • helping the client to promote the site with the rich array of digital marketing techniques available. Putting together a proper measurable strategy and then a thoughtful, targeted blend of content marketing, user experience, PR, social media, on-page SEO and all the rest.

Whether they can stomach, or fund, such a long journey remains to be seen.

Anything positive come out of this?

Well, sort of. It was an interesting if depressing little journey for me. It took me to a part of the internet I’d not normally go to and I got to meet some of the unsavoury characters who live there. Oh and I found out about a great report in Google Webmaster Tools  which I hadn’t come across before:

It reports all the external links to a site that Google knows about, together with the date that Google first discovered them. Useful when there’s blame being passed around and you’re trying to figure out who did what, and when.

Have you dug a client out of a Google penalty? I’d love to hear about it.

I'm MD of Cicada, an Oxford-based digital marketing business. Our clients include major charities and trade associations, fast-growing ecommerce stores and businesses of all sizes. My career began in manufacturing management, figuring out how complex systems work and then making them work better. I'm increasingly interested in the intersection of SEO and usability. Oh and I like cooking too. Follow me on Google Plus or Twitter.


  1. Great article Ned, thanks for sharing.

    Agree with you it is worrying an agency is recommending building links on parked domains – that was old-school when I started in SEO four years ago! Interesting that the client wanted to ask you advice as well as their new agency. You can see how easy it is for business owners to feel overwhelmed by all the conflicting advice…

  2. Good to hear from you Charlie and thanks for your comments. The experience has certainly made me think a bit more about two things:

    1. The value of being a member of professional associations like IAB and SEMPO and whether that helps prospective clients to filter out the cowboys (I’m not a member of either yet!)

    2. It’s interesting how people in OxonDigital-type communities make such an effort to keep bang up to date with latest developments in digital, but so many prospective client businesses are at a very umm, undeveloped stage in their thinking.

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