A True SEO Tale

I hired a web developer over a decade ago to produce a website I designed for one of my startup clients. Maybe nine months later, I called her to bid on another project. She told he she was no longer doing web development, but devoting all her time, energy, and even some money, into starting her own startup.

Envy probably leeched from every pour in my body as I listened to her describe the idea she’d launched only ten months early, and was already clearing over $10,000 a month.

Her idea was simple, but unique for its time, 2007, when internet commerce wasn’t as popular as it is today. She combined her knowledge of traditional print and digital reproduction, and created a digital printing service. Visitors to her site got to choose from a wide variety of stunning announcement and invitation templates. Weddings to birthdays, to death announcement, these beautiful templates were displayed on her web pages in an array of thumbnail pictures. Click on any one, and the UI allowed you to fill in names, dates, locations, and personal information on the template you chose. They were digitally printed on thick paper to your desired amount, and mailed to the buyer within 48 hours, anywhere in the U.S.

It was a great service that was clearly needed, because she told me in the first few months of the roll-out of her website, and publishing a consistent stream of SMM posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn announcing her launch, she was getting 20 – 30 orders a day. Even better, her website link was #1 on Google returns with search queries like “invitations” or “announcements.” In fact, she was considering purchasing a digital printing press to eliminate the cost of contracting a printer.

Four months later, she called me looking for work. Her business was struggling, since she’d been “thrown off of Google,” a few months earlier, just weeks after she’d told me of her success. They’d “blocked” her site from appearing in their search returns, she’d said. Since then, her phone stopped ringing, and people stopped visiting her site, and her sales dried up to just a trickle of what they were.

What? I’d never heard of being “thrown off of Google.” They are the premiere search engine. It is the function of their service to return web page links of legitimate businesses related to our search queries. Wasn’t internet censorship illegal in the U.S.?

Google didn’t just bury the list position of her website links. They removed all of her website links from their platform. Her company was not among Google’s search returns when someone searched for anything similar to what she was offering, including search keywords like “invitations” or “announcements.”


A few weeks after I initially spoke with her about her successful new startup, she hired an SEO marketing firm. They claimed their firm would use exclusive SEO techniques to increase her reach far beyond her meager SMM on Facebook and Twitter. This SEO firm promised my web developer that, for a mere $10,000, they could take her from a small business to a global company. And she believed them, and hired them.

One month later, Google sent her an email saying they were removing her from their search results for violating their user agreement. Her crimes: ‘Over-stuffing, over-optimizing,’ and link-backs to her website were appearing on sites that Google considered ‘bad neighborhoods.’ The email went on to explain that if she wanted to object to the charges, she could do so by emailing them. However, Google would only restore her web links to their search returns if she fixed her SEO violations.

My web developer then invested another $10,000 in another marketing firm. This new firm promised to remove all her web links from the ‘bad neighborhoods’ that the first firm stuck her URLs on, but it was simply not possible to find and remove them all. She sent literally hundreds of emails to Google’s legal department, and got no response. Two and a half years after Google removed her links from their search returns, they sent her an email they were returning her to their search results. Unfortunately, she had already lost her business.

My web developer screwed up by hiring a self-proclaimed SEO Marketing firm she knew nothing about, who claimed they knew all about a newly evolving marketing technique we’re still trying to figure out.

What did that SEO firm do wrong that got my web developer in trouble with Google?

• Overstuffed―they used the same terms in their SMM posts repeatedly.
Example: Are you looking for stunning invitations and announcements quickly, for less? If you’re looking for stunning invitations and announcements quickly, for less, look no further. Create your beautiful invitations or announcements with our templates quickly on our website. Order your professional invitations or announcements for less, today.

DON’T DO IT. Google doesn’t like it, but even more to the point, it’s boring, bad marketing.

• Over-optimize—they used too many anchored links (back to her website) on keywords in the post’s text. Example: Create your stunning invitations and announcements quickly, easily, and for less, today. Personalize, and invite your besties to your next big bash. And/or…the evil SEO firm used misleading keywords or key phrases that had nothing to do with what she was selling to increase the SEO ranking using trending (though unrelated) keywords. Example: Create the stunning body you’ve always wanted, and get invited to the best Hollywood parties. When you look thin, you feel beautiful.

DON’T DO IT. Google doesn’t like it, but more to the point, it’s stupid marketing. This type of post may get someone’s attention, but they are likely not interested in the invitation and announcement templates my web developer was selling.

Effective marketing means communicating what we have to offer to our target audience. Over-stuffing and over-optimizing are often considered one and the same, just expressed in a variety of different ways by those trying to game search return results.

• Bad neighborhoods—according to Google, are pornography sites, or racist sites, such as the KKK, or ‘hate’ websites expressing extremist views. The evil SEO firm my developer hired put her website URL in the ‘comment’ box, or ‘discussion forum’ on these types of sites.

When your company URL appears on another website, this is known as a LINK-BACK. Google considers most legitimate companies ‘good neighborhoods.’ However, for a link-back to increase your SEO, the ‘good neighborhood’ must have some relationship to what you are selling. A bakery might have a link to my developers invitation site on their site, since they sell wedding and birthday cakes, and these occasions often require invitations. It is unlikely that a site selling chainsaws has the same target audience as those interested in invitations and announcements. Therefore, putting her invitation template site URL on the chainsaw site would not increase her SEO, and possibly flag Google’s violation detection algorithms Penguin and Panda, for an infraction.

The Function of Search Engines

Marketing pros know the power of SEO―reaching #1 in Google returns in your business, and similar categories. They are always trying to game the system to get to that #1 ranking.

Google’s job, and that of any search engine, is to return the most relevant links to your queries. But evil marketers make performing Google’s job function particularly difficult by over-optimizing, and putting link-backs on ‘bad neighborhood’ sites, or sites with no relationship to what is being sold. It may help the ranking of their company, but Google returns irrelevant, and often improper links to our queries. (Pornography is notorious for using SEO tricks.)

DON’T PLAY SEO GAMES! Even if you get away with it, effective marketing sells features and benefits of your offering and/or company, to fulfill a desire of a specific group of people.

A True Email Tale

This morning I came into my office and there was an email from my husband. It was title, “The terminator is coming…” No joke. That was the exact SUBJECT LINE of his email.

I don’t care that another Terminator movie is coming out. I liked only the first and second Terminator movies, and thought the rest (and Arnold Schwarzenegger) were crap.

I didn’t open his email. I trashed it. I didn’t see the link he had inside it, but even if I did, I wouldn’t have paid attention it with his email subject line.

As I reviewed my emails, I watched the news, as I do every morning. The segment was on Boston Dynamics, a well-known robotics firm. They were showing off the agility their Atlas robot, doing a back flip! I was so blown away, it looked so real, like a person, I sent the video clip to my husband and kids. My subject line: “Totally cool robot moves!”

My husband sent me back an email, “I sent this video to you this morning.”

Hmm…he did? I didn’t see it.

“It was in the email about the terminator coming,” he wrote. “I guess I gave my email a bad title.”

No shit.

WORDS MATTER! Marketing/Copywriting must choose the RIGHT WORDS for the right audience to get response.


I teach marketing like no teacher they’ve had before, according to my students at Stanford and Cal Berkeley. MBAs, and novice marketers, most have the same rejoinder after my first class lecture.

They are responding to my personal definition of marketing, as all the other definitions I’ve heard through my education, and 20+ years of professional experience have been, well… vague at best.

“MARKETING is manipulating people to do as you direct them to do,” I teach. I even have a slide on it, so students not only hear me say it, but get the visual reference as well.

This slide comes only a few slide (out of 300+) into the course, and I always get push-back with it.

“Isn’t “manipulating” a bad thing,” is the rejoinder from, at least, several students in any given class.

It’s true, I could have chosen “motivate,” instead of “manipulate,” but that would be a lie.

I was fired from my first job out of college a year into working as an Art Director for Windsor Publications, at the time, a global publishing firm, because I was taught bullshit in college. “Design an album cover,” was a typical assignment in one of my classes. But there were no parameters given on how to produce it, no knowledge of marketing infused to design an album cover that was actually producible, and would help sell the music inside. We created “art.” So, my first job out of college, I designed ‘art.’

“You are an artist,” my sweet boss, Alex, said the day he fired me. “Your cover designs, and what you’re doing inside have leveled-up Windsor’s delivery, to be sure, but you are costing us a fortune in lithography (this was before the Mac). Regardless of how beautiful the books are under your direction, the ROI just isn’t there.” He was very apologetic, though he shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t like the first time he’d told me to come up with simpler design solutions instead keeping the lab working almost exclusively for me.

Shortly after I was fired, I got a job art directing five international divisions of a popular jewelry manufacturer. The computer was just coming into play, and lithography was going away, but I understood from my first job experience that Alex was right. Advertising and marketing were all about making money, not ‘art.’

I got a teaching gig at FIDM in L.A. a year later. I swore I’d never teach the way I was taught in college. I’d teach the way the real world of marketing, copywriting, graphic design worked, because I was working in it. I wasn’t going to ever become some college professor sitting behind a desk spouting theory. I was going to teach practice, and I did, and have, since I began teaching.

In the real world, the non-politically correct world, the one we actually live in daily, not the one we hope we do, or wish we did, we are bombarded by advertising from virtually waking to sleeping. We try and shut it out with ‘Ad (Banner) Blindness,’ but it doesn’t work sometimes with all the moving pics and videos. Worse, with BDD (behavior driven development) tracking our behavior from purchases to web surfing habits, marketers are getting better and better at targeting us with things we’ll likely find, at least, interesting.

One of the courses I teach at the above mentioned universities is Copywriting. Words matter. I didn’t chose “manipulating” blithely. Raise your hand if you like, enjoy (have positive feelings associated with the word “motivate”), having to sit through a 23 second video commercial for something you could care less about before seeing the YouTube video you wanted. Even, assuming, it is something you care about, after a while you stop caring because you just want to see your damn video instead of having your life taken up by commercials that are forcing you to wait to get what you came for, like a line at the store.

“Motivate,” is positive. “Manipulate” has a negative connotation, it’s true. But it’s closer to accurate. And I’ve sworn to teach the truth as I know it.

This IN NO WAY means “manipulation,” is bad. According to Google, manipulate means to handle or control (a tool, mechanism, etc.), typically in a skillful manner.

OK. Let’s go with that. In fact, if you strip away the social consensus, it’s a verb, a very specific action, not theory. What makes ‘manipulation’ a moral issue depends on who you are trying to manipulate, and for what purpose.

I manipulate my kids daily to do what I think is best for them. Get As, to get into good colleges, to compete in the global, automated job market you’ll enter, I’ve preached since they’ve entered middle school. I try and talk them into dealing with their real feelings instead of hiding in bravado. Eating right. Sleeping 8 hours a night. Get off their fu**ing cellphones. If I were ad campaigns, our home would be stuffed tight with 17 years of memes, tweets, blog posts, brochures, flyers, post-its, one-sheets, videos, and emails to my kids trying to get them—manipulating to them—to do as I say, or as I’m directing them to do, from speaking to potty training to applying for colleges.

We all market our messaging, and our brand virtually daily. Dress to impress at work, or on a date? You choose a BMW or Prius? Have kids? What have you raised them to believe, that you do? How have you raised them to behave?

In marketing terms, “manipulate” simply refers to getting people to do what they wouldn’t normally do on their own, by using a motivator, an incentive to respond as directed. As babies, of course, and then kids, my children naturally responded to my marketing efforts, often simply for the reward, the motivator, of pleasing me. Now, as teens, not so much. So I have to up my marketing efforts, change it up with their new demographic, to make any impact. I’m working on that as I type this…; }.

Marketing is an iterative process!