How To Take Risks and Still Prevail in SEO

How To Take Risks and Still Prevail in SEO

Aggressive SEO tactics do not necessarily equal “black hat” if you are pursuing a diverse customer acquisition strategy, argues Elinor Cohen. 

Published 15th December 2014

I like to take a holistic approach regarding my health. I go see a traditional medicine doctor when I’m sick, but I lead a health-conscious lifestyle. I rarely eat junk food, I often cook at home, I only drink socially and I regularly get my body “maintained”. I get acupuncture every three weeks, I get massages, I practice Bikram yoga and I go to the gym. Why? Because I like to diversify my “health portfolio”. I do not believe that only going to the doctor when you are sick is a good enough solution for long-term, sustainable health and all-round feeling good. I believe you have to maintain your health and constantly get ‘checked up’ by different practitioners in order to stay healthy, feel energetic, stay focused and achieve your personal goals. This is the same exact approach I take with customer acquisition. To that end, there is no such thing as black hat vs. white hat in SEO. There is only sustainable revenue with mitigated risk (to be referred to SRMR going forward). Black hat – what is that? Webopedia (www.webopedia.com/TERM/B/Black_ Hat_SEO.html) says black hat seo is: In search engine optimization (SEO) terminology, black hat SEO refers to the use of aggressive SEO strategies, techniques and tactics that focus only on search engines and not a human audience, and usually does not obey search engines guidelines. What? Using aggressive SEO strategies is black hat? Hello, iGaming industry – can we afford to do anything BUT be aggressive? Organic search is one of our top customer acquisition channels, and the landscape is super competitive – why would we not be aggressive about it? And I believe that even if our focus WAS on a human audience (rather than the search engine), we could still be potentially penalised by Google – because they will have moved the threshold of exact match anchor ratios one day. What I’m saying is, we must do what we must do in order to be on top of the game in this super competitive industry. We have no choice. After all, we manage a website, which is our business. It generates revenue for us and it brings home the bread. We have to do what it takes to keep those revenue streams flowing. But what should be done in order to maintain a ‘healthy’ online business, and one that will survive all of Google’s updates? SRMR is a mindset, a type of thinking that I have taken on in order to help create sustainable revenue streams – I do not like conversations that revolve around penalties, black hat vs. white hat. I was sitting with a client about a month ago, and we were discussing the current state of his affiliate site. He’s been hit (hard) by a Google penalty. One hundred percent of his revenue was driven by organic search traffic, generating $50,000 in weekly sales – not bad! However, he did only that! Aggressive link building / buying from link farms / networks in India… and well… the day came that Google had a field day with his site. I felt very badly for him, as we discussed how we are going to get him out of a penalty, but this is obviously something that would take some time and that we cannot control 100%. The main questions that popped into my head were: What did you do with those weekly earnings? Did you build another website? Did you branch out into another marketing channel? Did you build a database of users? Did you try publishing high-end, engaging content? Did you often monitor your links, rankings and anchor text? I guess you know the answers to those questions. Only one thing was executed – customer acquisition, through one channel, through the wrong web-hood. In honour of my client, for whom I still feel a twinge in my heart, I have come up with SRMR guidelines that should be followed by anyone interested in employing ‘aggressive tactics’ and still enjoying longterm, sustainable growth.

1 – Agencies

If SEO is your main growth driver and you are outsourcing SEO to an agency, for sustainable revenue keep the following in mind:

  • Agencies need to be managed – minimize exposure by allocating at least one person who will manage their work. I have lost count of the number of new clients flooding into Media Skunk Works, asking us to help remove penalties after their SEO was managed by an SEO agency, with no daily quality control.
  • Big agencies will most likely outsource their link building to link networks / farms overseas. Yes, it’s true. A single agency cannot scale that much, especially if they have a lot of clients. There is no way they will increase head counts, because that will lower their margins. Minimize exposure by requiring full transparency of any link they develop for you, so that you can do your own due diligence.
  • Link footprint. Minimize exposure by demanding the right to audit the agency’s link building efforts by an expert third party - without notice.
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Figure 1: Google UL Link Footprints for top ranking sites - ‘online casino’ (my.reach.ai – beta version) 

2 – Links, data, software

In order to maintain the revenues your keyword positions generate, you should monitor your rankings often. Go as far as investing in software that can display your link footprint and rankings benchmarked against the rest of the industry. Partner with an agency that can help you determine the conditions that trigger Google’s booby traps.

  • Links – minimize exposure to your link profile as you would with your investment portfolio. Do not invest only in one type of outreach. One type of outreach will not be seen as ‘organic’ and you must replicate a scenario where your link footprint WILL look organic. We know that today, it is mostly aboutwhether a link profile is or could have been generated organically, and Google has tightened the threshold of acceptable norms in link patterns considerably over the past year. Split your link building campaigns into 1) lower quality sites 2) high-quality sites and 3) traffic-generating sites (i.e. sites that will publish high-end content, press releases, etc. are those that will also generate traffic for you).
  • Link acquisition guidelines – you should have a clearly defined list of guidelines, and if you cannot come up with it yourself, find an experienced consultant to help you and ask your industry friends for help as well.
  • Link anchor text – minimize exposure by making sure your link portfolio has a bit of everything. Today, you must use a strong mix of brand keywords with transaction phrases – ie. ‘Ladbrokes casino online – play casino games’.
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Figure 2: Poor example of anchor text distribution
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Figure 3: Google UK Link Footprints for top rankings sites - ‘casino’ (my.reach.ai – beta version)

I anticipate some kind of decrease in rankings / penalties for these sites for having too many exact matches as a proportion of total anchor texts.

  • Data – minimize your risk, by aggregating as much data as possible about your on- site and off-site issues – beyond Google Webmaster Tools. Make sure you have a database that integrates with Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools, which will easily integrate with affiliate reporting platforms. Make sure you have solid tracking, so granular you will be able to calculate revenue based on keywords. This way, you can figure out where to invest more or pull back.
  • Software – minimize the risk associated with penalties by investing in a software service that will show you the big picture of your keyword set on the backdrop of the search landscape. Such software can help predict or build a propensity model as to whether you are in danger of being penalized.
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Figure 4: ‘Unnatural’ anchor text distribution – too many exact / phrase matches

3 – Content

Mitigate the riskiness associated with link building by generating awesome content that is written by an expert. Find your USP and write about it! Hire an expert writer, who is passionate about the game and have him/her put their own spin on the ‘happenings’ of the industry. Publish top 10s, a list of things, tutorials and fun infographics. Become a publisher and you will be able to generate natural links to your site, helping you rank for the long tail and pushing up the short tail as well (these types of links fall in the ‘other category’).

4 – Multi channel marketing

Minimize your risk by investing in other marketing channels – paid search, other search engines, Facebook, email marketing, re-marketing and media buying. Do not rely solely on organic search, because sometimes, our success there is beyond our control.

5 – Generate your own database

Lower the risk of sending all of the traffic to operators by generating a customer base with whom you can communicate and to whom you can up-sell or cross-sell. You will also be able to find your audience with the custom audiences feature on Facebook, and communicate with them there as well. Finally, I want to share some images of the current search landscape in our industry, in order to illustrate SRMR. The following images are used to portray how monitoring your website’s rankings and link portfolios often will help prevent losing it all in one update (the names of sites have been hidden in order to protect the innocent):

Case 1 – Hello volatility! What would happen if, back in September, the head of SEO stopped to assess the drop in rankings – stopped completely, stopped all link building activity and planned for a future where a penalty may occur? I can tell you the head of SEO for this particular brand is no longer employed ☹ But what if the head of SEO had invested in software that showed him how his brand stacked up against other brands in search for one of his most lucrative keywords? Where would this brand be today?

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Case 1
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Case 1B

Case 2 - It’s a shame – this brand used to rank in the Top 5 for the keyword ‘blackjack’ – just by looking at the chart, we can see how this sad story ends.

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Case 2

Case 3 – let’s try to predict the future. The downward trend below is indicative of a future loss in rankings.

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Case 3
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Case 3B

After analyzing how competitors look with this keyword in SERP’s today, it looks like someone is going to be in trouble:

Final advice

With any action we take, it does not make sense to engage in anything extreme. Today, SEO is risky business, but there are ways to generate high-quality organic traffic for the long term, while avoiding risk. This cannot be done with content alone, or link building alone, but with a strong mix of all on-site and off-site elements. You should consider as many avenues as possible, including other marketing channels. If you have tight management, dedicated resources and plan ahead, you will be less likely to feel the wrath of a Google penalty. Acquire a software service, hire an experienced agency that will give you full transparency and manage a lot of the work in-house. It will require a budget, resources, hard work and lot of thought about risk mitigation – but that is the only way to go for sustainable growth.

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