Things were pretty good for Vladimir Gendelman at the start
of 2012. He was the CEO of CompanyFolders.com, an online marketing material
printing service he had founded in 2003, and business was good. The company’s
website ranked first in its category in Google’s search results across the US,
and it received a ton of daily traffic. Revenues were at an all time high.
Nearly 88% of the traffic came from organic (non-paid) search, out of which 73%
was from Google.
Within a year, Gendelman’s company would plummet down
Google’s search rankings and eventually, disappear off the search results
entirely, bringing revenues to a standstill and taking his business to the
brink of bankruptcy.
What had Gendelman done to incur the wrath of Google’s
search algorithm? Pretty much what he had always done, which was to employ a search
engine optimization company that created thousands of links across the web that
pointed to his website. These days, the quality of where the link is placed
matters is given more weight, but back then, it was all about the quantity of
the inbound links. It was a highly cost effective practice and a surefire way
to get placed higher in the rankings.
However, Gendelman wasn’t aware that most of the links were
on websites “not created for the benefit of the visitor.” These are classified
as “unnatural links” by Google. They include spam, link farms, and sites filled
with keywords but otherwise meaningless content. In other words, the links
weren’t editorially placed. “The websites collect a huge amount of content to
give themselves a higher Page Rank,” says Gendelman. “They hire writers
overseas and get them to write meaningless text that just has to include all
the proper keywords.”
In April 2012, Google introduced an update to its algorithm called
Penguin, which started targeting sites that had a large number of inbound
unnatural links. Gendelman received a letter from Google informing him that he
was being penalized in the search rankings due to all the unnatural links
pointing to his site, and in order to remove the penalty, he would have to get
the links removed first.
Alarmingly, Gendelman and his team began to see the
company’s Google rankings drop a little every day, until it almost didn’t show
up in the results anymore. As the
rankings plummeted, so did traffic to the site, drying up the company’s
revenues. “You literally go crazy, you don’t know what to do,” says Gendelman.
“It was devastating.”
He was now faced with the task of getting nearly 60,000
links removed from over 5000 different web domains. His team had to manually
contact the webmaster for each site via email and ask them to physically remove
the links. “At the same time, our expenses were increasing, and we weren’t
making any money,” says Gendelman. “I thought we weren’t going to make it.”
In addition to thoughts of liquidating the company and
moving on, Gendelman also considered changing its name and starting a new
website from scratch. However, that would have meant all the hardwork put in by
him and his team in building up clientele would have been for nothing. He says
it wasn’t an option.
Finally, after several rounds of emailing webmasters,
Gendelman and his team had cleaned up most of the links. Using Google’s
“Disavow” tool, they were also able to list the links they had been unable to
delete on their own. Gendelman wrote a
“huge letter” to Google, explaining all their efforts, but there was still no
guarantee they were in the clear. “I received no reply from Google, for the
longest time you don’t even know if it’s working,” he says.
Realizing he had never employed any other marketing strategy
other than SEO, Gendelman took steps to introduce more organic marketing
efforts. He redesigned the website to create more engagement, adding a company
blog that posted regular articles on printing and design, as well as outreach
to other blogs and forums. The site also had better navigation and more
detailed product information. Slowly, it began to crawl back up the rankings
and increase conversion rates for site visitors. Gendelman also implemented
loyalty marketing, following up with customers over the phone and email and
preempting reorder times.
The recovery has been slow, but stable. Gendelman says he
believes the penalty has been lifted, and while the numbers aren’t quite what
they used to be, they are steadily growing. The entire ordeal has taught him to
never rely on one marketing tactic. And that sometimes, the best SEO strategy
is no SEO strategy. “If you don’t worry about SEO, and just do what is good for
the company, SEO will catch up on its own.”