(recorded January 20, 2021) - 1 hour, 29 minutes
STORY TIME: It was June 20, 2014 and our company bank account dropped to negative $10,000 because of a massive chargeback by a single client for all the SEO work we had performed for him over the prior 9 months. We had no warning of the chargeback. He had contacted his credit card company and they reversed all the charges. This was the day before my wedding and I almost had to cancel my honeymoon.
This is the story of an SEO process gone wrong and how Google's process at the time prevented visible results of our work, and we were accused of not doing anything at all…
In the last episode we mentioned that it can take a long time for Google to notice changes that you make to the SEO of your website.
As a recap of something we've already explained, and what you've probably heard said by many, Google "spiders" the web to look for information. The concept of a spider is simply related to the internet being a woven web of links from one website to another. Before search engines existed, the only way to discover new websites was by looking at a "Links Page" that people used to put on their sites.
These Links Pages were literally just page with a long list of someone's favorite websites that they discovered and wanted to share. One of Google's first SEO signals was to count how many time your website appeared on those link pages. They called this link counting process PageRank.
Google came into existence on September 4, 1998. As its popularity grew SEO agencies were always reverse engineering how the search ranking algorithm worked. In 2000 Google gave us a toolbar extension for Internet Explorer that showed us what the PageRank was for a website. Access to this PageRank information got SEO agencies very excited because now they could figure out how to scam Google's ranking and build countless link building schemes.
Many agencies created collections of thousands of directory websites that were nothing more than alphabetical listings of website URLs and links to those sites. These directories became known as "link farms." Many agencies were selling yearly subscriptions to have your site listed in these farms. For a nominal $45 fee you could have 1,000 links from a farm to your site.
This scheme got out of control to the point that the website owners would pay a few hundred dollars every year for these links and would not bother with any other SEO efforts, after all, Google has always said that links to your website are one of the most important measurements for ranking. Meanwhile, everyone who was trying to improve their SEO legitimately was buried deep in search results.
All this because Google published PageRank numbers and everyone focused on ways to scam PageRank.
Well, in December 2012, Google stopped publishing the PageRank numbers. Then, four months later on April 24, 2013, Google shocked the SEO world by unleashing their massive Penguin Update on search results.
This was a hard coded update that penalized every website that appeared in links farms or any website that looked like a link farm. Those Links Pages I explained at the beginning of this story were still popular in 2014, and some people had also started to sell links on those links pages to have their own little farm.
All the link farms were removed from search results, and all the sites using them were removed. Even if you only had 1 link from one of those Links Pages it was likely that you got zapped.
For more than 10 years all the companies paying for those links schemes had made a lot of money by being top ranked. Suddenly they had no traffic and the suggested solution was to change your domain name as a way to zero out all the links you had ever received.
Naturally website owners got angry and many claimed innocence. Even though there was a cost to get listed in a link farm, many said that they never paid for link schemes so they didn't know how they ended up in those link farms. I will say that many SEO agencies were hired to create links for their clients and the clients didn't know what they were paying for.
From the website owner's point of view, I do understand that it is difficult to admit that you did something wrong. Yet the data shown in Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools would clearly show that they were penalized. By the way, Google Webmaster Tools is now called Google Search Console. To this day, many jewelers still do not monitor their Google Analytics or Search Console accounts.
In that first 24 hours website owners were scrambling to call their SEO agencies and to cancel the subscription to their link farms. Many of those sleazy companies that charged $45 for 1,000 links saw a new way to make money. Since their own business model was suddenly null and void they realized that they could now extort more money out of their subscribers. They were not about to remove all those links for free, and instead of charging $45 to deactivate a set of links, some were charging as much as $5 per link to remove them. So a $45 fee to activate suddenly turned into a $5,000 fee to deactivate 1,000 links.
Naturally the SEO community was in an uproar, so two days after unleashing Penguin, so April 26, 2014, Google created a "Disavow Tool" so website owners could list each individual link farm page and tell Google that they disavow knowledge of why these links exists.
This was such a mess that took years for some website owners to come to terms with it and have it corrected. People hired SEO agencies again to find links and disavow them. But even after disavowing links Google would not immediately apply that to your ranking. The disavow process would be saved in a queue until the next time Google updated the hard coded Penguin filter.
So Penguin was first unleashed on April 24, 2012
The people who disavowed links in that first month were able to take advantage of the Penguin update one month later on May 26, 2012.
It was then a 5 month wait until October 2012 that Google applied updated the Penguin filter again to account for the multi-millions of disavowed links by millions of website.
It was another 7 month wait until May 2013 that Google updated Penguin again. Then another 5 months until the next update in October 2013.
I'm being specific about the timing by Google to illustrate the point that even if you put forth a lot of long hours of SEO work, sometimes you just won't see the results for months.
In the Fall of 2013 there were still a lot of jewelry websites penalized and not taken action. In some cases the jewelers didn't know they were penalized because they didn't pay attention to Google Analytics or Webmaster Tools. Some jewelers didn't pay attention to their website at all. Then there were some jewelers who knew about the penalty but could not afford the extortion money to have the links removed or hire to hire an SEO agency to work through the disavow process.
The disavow process wasn't easy. At the time Google Webmaster Tools was showing us a list of all the links that were pointing to your site, but they were not telling us which ones were toxic. We had to figure that out on our own. Some were obvious, but then there were many, like those Links Pages, that looked innocent.
You had to research every one of those thousands of links and manually create a disavow list. Of course you could disavow all the links pointing to your website, but that would also mean you are zapping the good links that you still needed for ranking. Zapping all your links would be exactly the same as changing your domain name.
Paying for a short-cut SEO scheme was easy to afford, paying for the cleanup of this Black Hat SEO could easily cost everything in your savings account. Jewelers who refused to pay the extortion money to have the links removed, or could not afford to pay an agency, were suffering because they lost all their site traffic and therefore all their online sales to new customers.
In September 2013, a jewelry manufacturer hired us to fix the SEO of his website. He sold direct online and to retailers. He had been paying for link building schemes for years and he had nearly 100,000 toxic links pointing to his website. Instead of trying to fix his website, we realized that he had very few non-toxic links and suggested that he start over with a brand new domain name that was similar to the one that was penalized. He insisted to keep his domain name because it exactly matched his company name. For us to work through all that link research turned into a full time job and we had to hire another employee to do the work over several months.
The cost of labor for that process was far greater than the cost of a new website. It's difficult to tell someone that they killed their website because they got suckered into a shiny-get-rich-quick SEO scheme. It's more difficult for someone to admit that they got scammed.
So we moved forward with the process and uploaded a new list of disavowed links every week or so until we completed the job sometime in early 2014.
We expected that Google would update the hard coded Penguin filter in May 2014, but they didn't. This didn't reflect well on our service because this manufacturer paid us a lot of money for the months of manual labor but he didn't see any results from all the money he spent.
He also didn't understand SEO or online marketing at all. His approach was to pay people to take care of his online marketing and he had no interest in knowing what he was paying for. He just wanted to see results. When his previous SEO agency promised the moon of Google ranking, he paid for it without any knowledge of what they were doing.
As I said, he hired us in September 2013 to fix his website. We could have rebuilt his site in a few months and transferred all the pages and entire catalog and had a new site built by January 2014.
Come June 2014, even though we had evidence of our good SEO work performed and a list of more than 100,000 disavowed links, the results of our work had not been felt yet because Google had not updated the hard coded information in the Penguin filter.
On June 20, 2014 this client charged back all the credit card payments he made to us. This completely shocked us because we didn't get any early notification from our merchant company. Our bank account went negative $10,000 that day.
That day was one of the worst in my business career because it was the day before my wedding. We nearly had to cancel our honeymoon. Trying to fight the chargeback was extremely painful because of the policies of our merchant account company and because it legitimately looks like we had not done any work because Google hadn't updated Penguin.
Google eventually updated the Penguin filter in October 2014. That's when our months of work finally paid off and the client was able to regain their search ranking. But it didn't matter; we had lost the time, money, and someone who was a good client for a while, all because of how Google managed their ranking penalties at the time.
Google updated Penguin one more time in December 2014, then in September 2016 Penguin was incorporated into the standard ranking algorithm with a new directive. Instead of hard coding the penalties of websites, now Penguin is designed to ignore black hat link building schemes. This represents their change from penalizing bad behavior to only rewarding good behavior.
This story taught us a few important lessons:
1. Don't offer any service that is tied to something any other company would have to do in order for our work to show results. I.e. no SEO work that is tied to Google penalties or working with outside agencies when the results of our work hinges on someone else completing a secondary job.
2. Never accept a client who is unwilling to learn about online marketing.
3. Never accept a client who is unwilling to learn at least a little bit about what SEO means, what it requires, and why it's important.
4. We took on a stronger attitude to speak out against SEO and online marketing schemes that promise fast results. 1994 is the year I started building websites and working with online marketing. Over time I've developed skepticism for every SEO and online marketing gimmick. It's very hard to watch others get sucked into low cost online services which are nothing more than gimmicks that don't stand up to scrutiny. Every gimmick is eventually zapped by Google or they otherwise yield no results, which makes the buyer believe that this online marketing stuff doesn't work.
5. The cost to repair a zapped website is always higher than changing a domain name and starting over with the SEO.
6. Websites rarely recover once they've been zapped.
7. Lastly, we would be open minded about new online marketing and SEO ideas, yet strongly disassociate with any company that promises quick results based on vague marketing frameworks not based in known reality.
DIVERSITY IN THE JEWELRY INDUSTRY
Since our last recording, two completely different organizations have published reports with overlapping interesting data that we'd like to talk about.
The first report comes from eMarketer.com and their 10 Key Digital Trends for 2021
The second report is from Jewelers of America and their Diversity in the Fine Jewelry Industry
We'd like to give credit to Michelle Graff for her analysis of the JA study that she wrote for National Jeweler on January 14, 2021
Let's dive into both reports.
Jewelers of America and National Jeweler conducted a survey of individuals employed in the U.S. Fine Jewelry Industry in order to identify the landscape of diversity within the industry, as well as learn about inclusion policies and experiences related to racial discrimination.
The survey was conducted from September 23 to October 14, 2020 with 814 respondents, the majority of which, 473, were employers.
The JA survey shows us something that we've known for a long time: the majority of jewelers identify as white men who are 55 and over. We'd like to point out that the Baby boomer generation is 56-74.
Matt: I am a big believer that the philosophies that we're exposed to as children and young adults influence the underlying reasons for everything we do and say through our entire lives. It's extremely difficult to change how you think and react if it contradicts what you learned in your formidable years. It takes a significant life changing event to alter, what is essentially, the biology of how your brain grew.
The philosopher Socrates (469-399 BCE) said something similar in that "imitations, if they are practiced continually from youth onwards, become established as habits and nature, in body and sounds and in thoughts." These established parts of our personality can influence our adult lives even if they no longer align with changes in current culture.
In the famous dialog, the Republic, written by philosopher Plato (428-348 BCE), he explains his belief that our emotional responses popular entertainment—Which I will now say includes social media—tend to shape and even deform the human soul and control how we respond to events in real life. Our passions can't tell the difference between the two.
If ancient philosopher aren't your cup of tea then I can reference the Cultivation Theory first advanced by George Gerber in the 1960 which suggests that people who are exposed regularly to media—and again I'll include social media into this now—over a long period of time will perceive the world's social realities as presented by the media, in turn this affects their attitudes and behaviors.
With these philosophies in mind I want to point out that the Baby boomer generation was significantly influenced by the events of their young life, cinematic depictions of how to reacts, gender roles they were exposed to, and their ideas of how to people should be treated.
2020 was fraught with undeniable sociological influences due to COVID-19, financial troubles, and large movement against racial inequality that took shape as the Black Lives Matter movement.
The survey from Jewelers of America was a way to take a pulse of the jewelry industry in response to Black Lives Matter. As I look at the results I can't help but look at the age and race of the respondents and weigh them against philosophies of Socrates, Plato, and the Cultivation Theory and I see a disconnect between jewelry store owners and their target market of Millennials (ages 24-39) and Gen X (40-55).
The reason this is an important topic is because our personal core values will influence how we run our business and how we portray ourselves to our customers through our marketing.
The JA study shows that 51.8% of jewelers do not have any written policy in place to prevent discrimination. I remember my teenage years when my older relatives always conducted business with a handshake and asked someone to take their word as an oath. I feel that jewelers have continued this tradition of a handshake throughout their business and with their HR policies. The problem with this is that policies are usually written with calm thoughts in hopes to solve more emotional situations. Without written policies it's very easy to have an incorrect emotional response to situations of discrimination.
We urge our listeners to work towards writing out your company policies for preventing discrimination. This will force you to articulate your feelings. From a marketing point of view, you should review these policies not just for how you run your jewelry shop, but also for the portrayal of your store in your marketing images.
One of the JA questions asked if jewelers would openly support Black Lives Matter, to which 52.1% said they are not planning to take a position in the future.
Let's cross reference this question to the topic of "Brandstanding" presented in the eMarketer report where they explain "Many brands remain skittish about taking a stand on controversial sociopolitical issues." They further say that "While it was previously taboo to weigh in on polarizing topics, many brands are at a tipping point. Not only are consumers increasingly loyal to brands that support causes they care about, they're less likely to buy from those that don't."
"In June 2020, Mindshare found that 68% of US adults believed brands should speak out against racial inequality and injustice, while Visa found that 75% of millennials would support businesses and causes in response to social justice protests."
Let's sharpen this point a bit more to explain this. The 52.1% of jewelers who say they are not planning to take a position are wrong. The practice of staying silent is not what your target audience wants. You simply can't keep your head in the sand and continue onward as if nothing has changed.
In the show notes we'll include one of the emarketer charts showing a breakout of 75% of Millennials and 54% of Gen X who would support businesses show public support for social justice change.
eMarketer explains that your marketing should follow these guidelines:
• Be authentic. Don’t jump on the bandwagon to support a cause because competitors are doing it, or because it might look good in the moment. Whether it’s climate change, immigration, equality, or another purpose-driven stand, it should organically flow from a brand’s mission and align with core values.
• Back up words with actions. Consumers want brands to speak out but are quick to spot lip service and inauthenticity. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 56% of consumers in eight countries including the US believed brands used societal issues as a marketing ploy—and 60% of respondents to Mindshare’s June 2020 survey thought brands who spoke out were being opportunistic. Brands that back up their words with concrete actions are more likely to win support.
The JA survey asked how the respondents would rate the jewelry industry's support for Black consumers. 20.9% said excellent and 27.4% said good.
From our point of view, if this were true we should be seeing more mainstream ads including people of color, but we're not seeing it. It would be very easy for jewelers to show their authentic support for this social justice topic by including these types of ads in their marketing on a regular basis.
eMarketer showed that 33% of US adults are more likely to support businesses that addressed issues in their ads, and only 14% of US adults said they would be less likely.