Recently, I spoke with a sales prospect for our digital services. Her company had recently redesigned and relaunched the company website. She wanted to build on that milestone marketing event with refined messaging, SEO, PPC, remarketing, thought leadership, content marketing and other tactics to drive new business opportunities.
We had a great conversation and left with our marching orders: come up with a plan of attack for her digital strategy, nothing too expensive but something that would move the needle on lead generation.
Not a problem, I thought. Right in our wheelhouse. Easy sailing. And then we took a look at the company’s website. Ugh.
It wasn’t pretty. We had to share some bad news with her. Your web designer engaged in some unethical, spammy tactics. As a result, Google seems to hate your site, and it may take months to recover.
The vendor had promised a lot. Here’s what it says on their site (I’ve changed up the text to avoid calling them out in public):
Are you eager to get to the top of Google?
Is trying to market your business on the Internet taking too much of your time? Let us do it for you and save time and money.
Search engine algorithms can make it hard to get top rankings. There are many steps that need to be implemented and done exactly right to get first page rankings. Our expert marketing team and search engine optimization experts know how it’s done — we’ll make sure you are on the first page.
And the pricing was very reasonable — a monthly fee, coupled with some very modest customization costs up front.
Here’s the problem. Sometimes, you get what you pay for. Buy a cheap website and it almost always won’t deliver the ROI you hoped for. Even worse, as was the case in this instance, it can do some serious damage to your brand and your marketing program, preventing you from getting new business that might otherwise be yours for the taking.
The thing that struck us as strange about this particular website was that it had 168 pages indexed in Google and a very active blog, with lots of articles about technology. Yet, when we used our third-party tools to evaluate how much organic search traffic (i.e. traffic from Google, Yahoo and Bing) the site was getting, it was negligible. This didn’t foot with what we’d normally expect from a site of this size with this much content.
Sure enough, when we did some digging, we found that all of the blog content on the site, constituting the vast majority of the site content, was duplicate content. In fact, over 115 other websites had identical blog posts, word for word duplicates.
Only ten or so pages on the site were original content, written by the company. In other words, there was the ratio of duplicate content to real content was 15:1. Now, we all know that Google is not a fan of pages that are scraped from other sites and that they don’t like duplicate content. In this case, the content was not scraped; it was naively purchased. But Google algorithms mostly focus on “what,” not “why” or “how” — if it looks like a spammy site, it probably is a spammy site. So, it seems likely that a Google penalty was applied to this site, thus explaining why it was doing so poorly in the search engines.
It actually got worse. As we continued our diagnosis, we looked at the site’s backlinks. Google’s original algorithm ranked sites in large part based on what other sites linked to them. The algorithm is much more sophisticated now, but backlinks are still important. This has created a cottage industry of unethical SEO advisors who manufacture links artificially to help a site rank well.
Needless to say, Google frowns on people who attempt to game their system. Same for Bing and for Yahoo. When they detect that people are buying links or otherwise artificially manufacturing links exclusively for SEO purposes, they don’t take it lightly.
Well, when we looked at the backlinks for this particular website, they were almost all spammy manufactured backlinks — links from a bunch of sites created solely to link to the web developer’s client accounts, ostensibly to fulfill their goal of helping their clients “to get to the top of Google.”
Of course, manufacturing backlinks has the opposite effect. Google detects it, applies a penalty and sends a site to the bottom of the search results. A site that might ordinarily be on the first page can find itself on page 50 in the search results. Serious offenders can be banned from the search results altogether.
The prospective client we were speaking with didn’t have a clue that her vendor was using spammy unethical SEO tactics. To her, the site looked good. It was nice not to have to worry about writing blog posts. Everything seemed great.
The reality was quite different. Their house was built on a toxic landfill. If we had started an SEO program, thought leadership program or content marketing program for them, much of it would have been for naught. Google would always treat the site as damaged goods and none of the creative, useful new content would have gotten much search engine traffic, greatly limiting the ROI on the effort.
A methodical and rapid remediation of their site’s defects is now needed. Even when the defects are corrected, it may be three to six months before they are back in the good graces of Google and the other search engines. In the interim, our discovery of this problem shifts the tactical approach for the digital marketing strategy significantly.
The key takeaway here is that it easy for purchasers of website design and development services to get burned. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
If the price for website design (or website redesign) is cheap, odds are you won’t end up with a website that drives meaningful business results.
You get what you pay for, and oftentimes things that seem inexpensive at first blush have hidden costs.
This is particular true with website design. When you factor in the opportunity costs of missed new business opportunities that never materialize due to an inferior site, an inexpensive website redesign is ultimately going to cost much more than you realize.