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What could lead a well-known Australian SEO agency to delete its entire website and publish a new one? Join Dan Petrovic of Dejan Marketing and learn how a brilliant bit of link building turned into disaster (and how they recovered).
Topics covered include:
- The brilliance of Google manual penalties and how they can turn an SEO’s world upside down
- The diminishing importance of link profiles and the importance of great content to drive quality links
Ben: Welcome to Gray Hat SEO month on The Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro and this month we’re talking to great SEOs to learn what separates a best practice from a bad practice in search. Joining us today is Dan Petrovic who is the director and owner of Dejan Marketing, a digital marketing agency that offers SEO, PPC and content marketing services that is best known for their technical and strategic SEO solutions for big brands and eCommerce websites. And today Dan and I are going to talk about some of the link-building strategies that are effective, but might get you in a little trouble.
But before we hear from Dan, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Search metrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise-scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary digital diagnostic, where a member of our digital strategies group, will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website, content, and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic.
Okay. On with the show, here is my conversation with Dan Petrovic, director and owner of Dejan. Dan, welcome to The Voices of Search podcast.
Dan: Thank you very much. Glad to be with you.
Ben: Pleasure to have you here. I think that you might be our first guest calling in from Australia, so good morning and I want to let you know that I’m going to avoid saying g’day mate, as hard as I possibly can.
Dan: Thank you for that.
Ben: But appreciate you waking up early and being our guest on the show. I know it’s early in the morning for you. It’s in the afternoon for me, and what a great time to talk about some Gray Hat SEO strategies as you’re sipping your coffee. To get started, tell us a little bit about your background, yourself and your agency.
Dan: So I have been in the SEO industry for probably 20 years. And I know it sounds like a long time, but, not quite, I would say about 15 years actively involved in the industry and ranging from the early manipulative beginnings towards building focused work, and then finally evolving into a full scale strategic and data-driven agency. We’ve had various shapes and forms as an agency. And eventually after having a very large configuration, we decided to become a boutique agency with fewer people and less stuff to manage with more focus on the quality of work rather than churning numbers. That’s where we’ve settled, having a very good, profitable, and well balanced business at the moment and happy to continue this way.
Ben: Congratulations on not only your long-term success, but also finding the right balance for you and your agency. Having worked in the SEO industry for close to two decades, I’m sure that a lot has changed in terms of Google’s policies and the way that they define what is an acceptable SEO practice, and what is not acceptable. So back in the days when you and I both started working in SEO, you could do something like put white text on a white background and maybe you got a slap on the hand. And that was a great SEO strategy. We’ve come a long ways since those days. Talk to me about how you’ve seen the SEO community and Google’s policies change and how has it affected your business over time?
Dan: Well, things always change, but one thing doesn’t change and that is that Google guards their algorithms and we always probe and try to test the limits. So it’s kind of like parenting. Both you and I are dads, we understand how kids sometimes test their limits with us. So if you can imagine the SEO community being a kid and Google being a parent, that’s the same type of relationship. We always try to stretch the boundary. And while, you know, in 2001 and 02 things that work, like exact match anchor text, you know, you just throw a single authoritative link and boom, you’re ranking for everything, first page.
Things have changed over time, and I see a lot of momentum in the industry and still clinging to older practices. So in fact, as far as great Gray Hat SEO practices, let’s label them that way for the sake of simplicity for the moment, they kind of linger on and people take unnecessary risks for the sake of the old days, and the memory of things working. So you take a risk but you don’t get any benefit out of it. And that’s probably one of the biggest mistakes that people in SEO make today. Just making unnecessary risks for things that don’t even benefit you.
Ben: You mentioned link-building strategies, or you brushed up against link-building strategy and that’s one of the things that I think has evolved the most as Google has grown. It used to be the primary measure of how much authority you had was what are the other sites? What were their domain authority? And if they were talking about you, you must be credible. And so there was a couple of different ways to go around building link strategies. You get links from a couple of really high profile companies, or you get a ton of links from, let’s call them some lower brow companies. Now Google’s moving away from the practice of just primarily focus on link-building. Talk to me about what you think is in bounds and what’s out of bounds in terms of link-building strategies today.
Dan: Well, one thing that kind of sticks, and like many other things that are easy enough to do and easy to quantify is that a client will come to an agency and they’ll say, “We need some SEO done,” and the conversation unfolds. And often what I see in our industry is that the client will struggle with finding actionable, solid, hard metrics to go by to judge the performance of the agency. So often they’ll say, “I know you’re not supposed to, but let’s just say how many links we’ll get per month.” And that’s an immediate red flag. So, for example, we currently have one client that kind of squeezed everything else out of the campaign and just left us to build links. And they gave us a quote of, say, an arbitrary amount of links that we have to build every month. So that’s an example of things that should be phased out, because you are meant to be earning your links organically through greatness of your content and being quotable citation-worthy.
It’s hard and it takes a long time, but if it happens, if you manage to create a piece of content, a linkable asset that earns its own links, then you’re set. You don’t depend on an SEO agency anymore. So in terms of the spectrum of quality of links, I don’t think links are on their way out. So it’s not kind of like a technique that’s being phased out because links are still how Google works, integral part of their ranking system. But many other things have stepped in to shrink the size of that slice of the pie that link-building had once. So, you know, in the past links were probably more than half of the contributing factors. But today we have an interesting concept of machine perception and what does Google’s algorithm think about the piece of content. The authoritativeness of the author that wrote the piece, or the website of … the correctness of the material is being written, and many other factors that squeeze links out.
So that’s why I mentioned, you know, sometimes people worry about the quantities of links, and the easy part of getting links is your usual guest posts. I would say, I guest posts are well and truly on their way out, but still a very easy technique and it’s very tempting to do because you can almost guarantee the numbers. The problem with guest posting as a technique is not so much that you’re asking bloggers to write on their blog and they accept, and you write something great and that’s that. If it’s in that mode, then it’s fine. What is the problem is that because there are all fake guest posting platforms, blogs that don’t exist for any other reason-
Ben: PBNs, private blog networks.
Dan: Even beyond that, there’s now networks that … they’re not just private blog networks to sell links of. They will just accept any types of content, no editorial, no quality check. You can just dump anything into it and you just give them a little bit of a fee to place that article. Some websites even accept articles for free just to get that content for their rankings and to get that search volume through clicks and ads. So we have to be careful about placing content and links on those more promiscuous types of blogs. And as far as the real ones go, I think it’s still a valid practice for as long as we don’t just focus on guest posting alone.
Ben: I think that there’s an interesting conversation around linking and private blog networks. In the last conversation I had earlier this month with Joe Sinwitz from Digital Heretix, he said that everybody buys links, and that it’s a practice that’s effective and not going away it’s just changing. And essentially, if you’re buying a link from a private blog network, it’s not a private blog network, so it’s not going to help you. What you need to do is find other strategies to go get links that are not necessarily just about the link exchange but are providing value from credible sources. And really that gets into what is influencer marketing more than it is just SEO. Right? How do you find people that are influencers and get them to talk about your brand?
You’ve managed a bunch of different link-building strategies from sort of the historical days when it was effective, to some of the strategies that you’re doing now. What are some of the things that you’ve seen work, and what are some of the things that you’ve seen cross the line and get you into trouble?
Dan: Well, from my most recent experience, so for example, for Dejan Marketing brand from 2014 onwards we did not touch link-building. I haven’t built a single link myself. So when you look at Gray Hat tactics, what is Gray Hat? I think to me Black Hat is something that’s harmful. Severely, severely manipulative or harmful to others, or exploitative in its nature. Gray Hat is something that’s more or less benign but manipulative. So in Google’s mind, there is no such thing as Gray Hat. You’re either within the guidelines or you’re outside them. It’s binary.
Ben: It’s Black Hat that hasn’t been caught yet.
Dan: So if you’re building links, you’re in Gray Hat. If you’re actually making … You don’t have to pay for them. If you’re making links, you’re manipulating their algorithms, you’re Gray Hat. That’s quite well defined within Google spectrum. You’re supposed to just create a great content, optimize your pages on a technical level, and have a great product and marketing campaign and links will come. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
Ben: You’re not supposed to solicit anybody else-
Ben: … to link to your page whatsoever.
Dan: Absolutely. So as you can imagine, Dejan grew over time as a brand, and in our early days we didn’t have the status we have today so we had to link-build. We did things like guest posts, and we did things like scholarships, which we thought was the best idea. Actually, I wasn’t involved with that one personally. We had somebody in one of our offices pioneering that technique back when it was fresh and cool.
Ben: Instead of scholarships?
Dan: Scholarships. Yeah, we would … it’s a real thing. We would offer a scholarship to students at various universities, usually around the amount of $2,000, for the advancement of marketing or something like that. And we would be listed in their scholarship page and get an EDU link. Seemed like a cool thing to do, right?
Dan: Wrong. And you’ll see why. And another thing that we did, a long time ago, 2014 and before, was sponsorships. So events that interest us, Drupal conferences, WordPress domain name, conferences, science. Because I’m a big science fan, for example, I’ve sponsored an attempt to fly to Mars, a campaign called Mars One. This was the real thing. I wasn’t just doing this for a links or SEO, I’m a fan of science and I tried to advance science, and fund science channels whichever way I can. And those type of links got us in trouble as well.
Ben: So when you say they got you in trouble, what do you mean?
Dan: Well, about 10 days ago, one of my colleagues at our Brisbane office says, “Hey, I can’t find our blog. I’m trying to figure out why we’re not ranking. What happened?”
So you know, 10 minute investigation, I go to search console, bam. Manual penalty. So Google has issued manual action to no other than Dejan Marketing websites. And I’m thinking, “I haven’t been link-building in five years. How can they attach a penalty?” And this manual action was so severe I couldn’t find myself.
Ben: You couldn’t find your own blog.
Dan: Couldn’t find the brand, couldn’t find any content. It was all pushed down to sixth page of Google’s results. And I’m thinking, “Oh my God, what have I done?” Because I’m pretty well known in the industry for my experiments. And I immediately thought, “Ah, it’s one of my experiments. And Google’s just had enough of me and poking and prodding and trying to get into the matrix.” And that was my first distraction. So it took me about three to four days to realize, just nothing.
And you know, but what I did, I made the whole thing public because I knew I did not manipulate. I made my entire link profile export from search console public. I made my disavow file public. I made my … the entire was being blogged about and I was sharing with the community. People grabbed popcorn and everyone jumped on to find out what it is. That was this morbid curiosity about the whole case.
Ben: Playing with fire.
Dan: Everyone was going, “Oh my God, am I the next? What’s happening?” Because people know that we’re not sort of … we don’t need links.
Ben: The problem is you couldn’t blog about it because nobody could find your blog.
Dan: Oh, what I did next was a little bit unorthodox, and people expected me to do something different. Because I’ve seen so many cases of people trying to take off a penalty for months, writing to Google, being rejected, writing to Google again, being rejected again while your website is not found. What I did, I just deleted my entire website and I set up a new one.
Ben: Okay, why? Why not just apologize and then …
Dan: Because I can. I’m the agency owner and I have total authority of everything that goes on. I wanted an experiment.
Ben: I’m not sure if this is a US thing only, but that’s what I would call a cowboy.
Dan: Yep, that’s right. So I set up a new domain that actually makes way more sense, and we were always planning to migrate to that. We just got busy with client work. DejanMarketing.com, and we just migrated all our content to that end. Zero links on that one. We deleted the old domain and we started emailing everyone saying we have a new domain, we’re not redirecting anything. No 301s, we’re migrating the entire link profile manually. By cherry-picking our best links to status Mars search engine round tables, search engine land, SEMrush, HubSpot, Buzz. Yeah, everyone who linked to us, and they did, on their own. We didn’t ask for those links and we didn’t pay for them, certainly. We had a phenomenal link profile. We still do.
So I said, “Okay, we’ll still try to shake off the penalty the proper ways.” You know, the usual procedure by going through a disavow file, removing bad links. And at that time I did not know what was the problem. So we migrated the domain and we started the link migration process, and we actually still have a little progress bar to show everyone where we’re at because the whole thing is public. And we actually disclosed all our links to our competitors, they can see them. The problem is, for them, the problem is that they can’t get them because we didn’t ask for those links. We earned them. So even if you see my link profile you can’t copy it. It’s the beauty of natural link profile, it’s bulletproof.
So what happened next is I realized it’s not some esoteric thing or link-building experiment that got me into trouble. With help of Kristov Semper from Link Research Tools, he ran an analysis and he saw SE sponsorships, SE scholarships, SE guest posts. And I’m thinking, “Really? That’s like really old stuff.” Google told us they ignore those links because they’re confident in their algorithms. But obviously something happened, somebody reported us for all this. I honestly did not remember we had those things. I had to go through the 13,000 links to find that stuff. And Kristov too actually helped me surface those items. I mean, that tool showed a whole lot of stuff, like random internet garbage, which I just ignored.
I only focused in my analysis on things that we did in the past, and my former staff members did in the past, that were our own work.
Dan: So this is the key. This is one of the most helpful things I can share with people today, is that when you’re doing a reconsideration request with Google focus on stuff that you did to manipulate. Don’t worry about random internet junk that links to you. That’s probably not the cause for the penalty.
Ben: How do you think Google knows the difference between your actions for link-building and-
Dan: I can tell the difference.
… random junk.
Dan: I can tell the difference. Any seasoned SEO can tell the difference. You can see when something is manipulative, but Google is not sure. I can tell, but I’m not sure. Google can tell, but they’re not sure. That’s the whole reason behind manual penalties.
Manual penalties exist because there’s something that you did that works, that they know you did but they don’t know how much. So they slap a penalty on you and they say, “Clean up everything.” And you have to clean up everything whether they’ve spotted it or not. It’s actually a perfect mechanism to get you to clean up your act entirely without disclosing what they know you did and what they don’t know you did. It’s quite a genius approach. So I submitted my reconsideration requests after I cleaned up the three categories I mentioned, guest posts with manipulative anchor texts, sponsorships, and scholarships. It was a long reconsideration requests email and I disclosed everything we did.
Ben: Let me ask you a question. You’ve mentioned that you did the scholarships and sponsorships. Why do you think that those are manipulative? If you are a sponsor of an event and the event links to you, why is that manipulative?
Dan: Sponsorship links are meant to be real no-follow.
Dan: That’s Google’s guidelines. As simple as that. Scholarships are a little bit different. Is the intent, did I really want to offer a scholarship, or did I do this for links? When I look into the real intent behind this, this guy that worked with one of our officers said, “Hey, I have a cool new link-building method. Let’s try this.” If I look at it objectively, like not as me but as an objective observer, we did it to manipulate. He did it to manipulate. And ultimately me as the director of the company, I am responsible for the action of my staff, so I carry this responsibility with me. So, I decided the scholarships, sponsorships, and guest posts with manipulative and are going into my reconsideration requests. so I flagged those three issues alone.
There were thousands of spammy links in my link profile, just random internet junk. Scrapers, and various other things. I was lucky that I correctly identified what Google had a problem with. I stated everything I did to attempt to remove those links, and those that I couldn’t remove and why I couldn’t remove them. For example, staff members not working there anymore. We deleted their inbox, can’t get the trail of email to contact whoever they contacted, we lost that. And very, very detailed reconsideration requests. 48 hours later, the penalty was lifted. To the point where people suspected that I have a back channel with Google and special relationship, which I don’t, because of the speed at which penalty was removed.
Ben: If you did, would you tell us?
Dan: I would.
Ben: Okay. I hate to interrupt this podcast, but the conversation with Dan was so interesting and so insightful, and actually went on much longer than we expected, so we’re going to land the plane on this episode today. We’re going to pick up where we left off tomorrow morning. So that wraps up this episode of The Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to the first part of my conversation with Dan Petrovic, the director and owner of Dejan Marketing. We’d love to continue the conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Dan, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter where his handle is Dejan-S-E-O, D-E-J-A-N-S-E-O. Or you could visit his company’s website, which is DejanMarketing.com. His personal profile is DejanMarketing.com/dan-petrovic. If you have general marketing questions or if you’d like to be a guest on the show, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you could send me a tweet at Ben J. Shap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team. And if you liked this podcast and want a regular stream of SEO and content-marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back tomorrow morning to finish our conversation with Dan Petrovic, the director and owner of Dejan Marketing. All right. That’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.