I recently did a case study on one very prominent example of churn and burn techniques used in the gambling industry. While using aggressive approaches is nothing new for more competitive industries, it is interesting to see what the actual risks are, how they can be managed and where to best avoid them altogether.
There are two approaches to creating an online presence and essentially, making money online – become a brand, be instantly recognisable, be clearly associated with what you do… or do not become a brand and just make money by ranking for whatever you do. But isn’t Google all about favouring brands these days, you ask me. Well, yes and no. Let’s see how this works.
The case in point is an affiliate site that is not even indexed but has a number of sites redirecting traffic to it. Essentially, it is a long term strategy, regardless of what you may hear people say about it. The site owner does not care about the site that brings the actual money ranking – it gets traffic from elsewhere, not Google directly.
As long as there are other sites ranking that redirect the traffic, the model is safe and functional. The person behind this setup keeps rolling out new batches of sites every time the previous batch gets torched, as long as they can rank fast enough the setup works like a clock. He is an affiliate, he can afford it.
However, would I want to do this if I were running an SEO campaign for a brand? Of course not. When we’re dealing with a brand, the goals are different, and so should be the approaches to achieving them. The goal of a brand is not to simply make money through online presence but be visible. If people search for BMW they expect to see the BMW site.
If people search for Interflora they expect to see the Interflora site, and rightly so. You cannot reasonably expect a 100-year-old company to not rank for its own name, or even for their core business related keywords, as that’s what have been doing for 100 years, and even with generic queries like “flowers”, people would still expect them to be there. Heck, people even expect to see Viagra.com ranking when they search for “buy viagra”, which might not always be the case by the way, but that’s a different story because you cannot really buy viagra on Viagra.com.
Now, a lot of the time there is an argument that brands can get away with a lot more than an average site. Yes and no. Because of what I said above about people expecting a brand site to be ranking for certain queries, Google cannot penalise such sites for long, that’s true. For any other site in Interflora’s situation, the penalty would have lasted God knows how long – for Interflora two weeks is all it took.
On the other hand, as a brand you tend to attract much more attention and what could have passed unnoticed for any other site will probably not pass unnoticed for a brand. Competitors, curious SEOs, haters, just general freaks with enough time on their hands – they are all out there watching your every step.
So I do not support brand bashing – think of all the time and effort it takes to build a true brand and one little step can break it all.
Why does this matter?
Take our affiliate’s case, on the other hand. Not many people know this setup had been going for at least half a year before the public attention was drawn to it. Why has it suddenly become attention worthy? Just because of one little mistake, namely having a batch of domains differing only by one number in their names all ranking on the first page for one of the top keywords in the gambling industry. Had it not been so obvious, this would have continued fairly unnoticed.
Whether or not this got his second level sites banned faster / manually reviewed is up to anyone to guess, I would suspect Google was forced to manually remove them faster than they would normally stay ranking. Was this self-outing of sorts and what impact will it have on the tactics used to quickly rank individual second level sites?
Due to the inner logics of Google I have explained in the actual case study, there is not much they can do to prevent this trick from working at this point. The case may result in more human reviewers’ attention to these techniques – we might even see a new release of Google’s manual reviewers’ guidelines. However in terms of risk management, it’s not only about the chosen strategy – but how careful you are and how visible you happen to be / choose to be with that strategy.