My first mistake: When SEO goes very, very wrong

Before he was the CEO of an SEO company, Paul Carroll made a mistake. A big mistake. Here, he explains how he ruined his Google rankings by selecting the wrong agency, and what he learned from the experience.

They say that if you haven’t failed or made a bad decision in business, then you’re not trying hard enough.

I’ve taken this to mean you need to push yourself and take some risks, and that even a bad decision is better than no decision at all.

This piece isn’t long enough to list all my bad decisions, so I’ll focus on one in particular which actually shaped my business future and is responsible for what I do now (more on that later).

Back in 2009, I was the national sales and marketing manager for a large office water cooler company, with a team of 48 BDMs around Australia. The core of my role was to drive revenue growth for the business.

The biggest issue was the cost of acquisition, with having a team in the field “banging on doors” just too costly and not sustainable. I turned to online marketing as a solution to generate leads through our website and that’s when I first heard the term SEO.

I started researching and was seduced by a company’s promise of “guaranteed page one Google rankings” – this was the answer I was looking for, as I knew there was a large and growing volume of people searching online for what we provided, and we needed to be visible to them.

The first three to six months with this new SEO strategy was game changing for the business, as we did indeed achieve “page one rankings” for our keywords and the number of leads into the business increased dramatically.

I was a marketing genius and reaped the rewards, and I also introduced this company into my wife’s online business and she also benefitted from the results – happy days!

Well, at least until Google implemented a major algorithm update which saw our rankings disappear overnight. We were hit with a penalty from Google, which is like being put in the naughty corner, and you fall off the search results immediately.

Fair to say, I went from hero to zero overnight (including with my wife) and so began the process to understand what went wrong and how to recover.

Walking away was never an option. Fortunately, I had the support of management to get stuck in and learn from this painful mistake I made.

The business was hurting with a sharp decline in leads, so I set to fully understanding the SEO tactics that led to this, uncovering that the company I chose had gamed the system with dodgy link building activities that artificially increased our authority in Google’s eyes, which resulted in good rankings, at least until Google outsmarted this activity and could actually determine the value of the links built and started penalising websites for this unethical behaviour.

I was slightly reassured that I wasn’t the only victim of this strategy, as this practice was widespread in the SEO industry at that time.

This was cold comfort to my revenue growth KPI, which was looking grim to say the least. I was very cynical about the SEO industry following this and I was persuaded to talk with Richard Conway (founder Pure SEO – NZ) by a mutual friend. Boy, I’m glad I did.

I had lots of questions for Richard and I got lots of answers, something I wasn’t used to from my previous agency who kept me in the dark about how they went about SEO.

We engaged Richard’s team to begin the process of cleaning up our toxic links by disavowing them through Google, which is a slow process, as once you have broken the trust with Google it’s hard to get it back.

However, I had a taste of life on “page one” and wanted that back, but this time in an ethical manner that didn’t put our business at risk.

It was a good 12 months to claw our way back, and as a side note my wife’s business also had Richard’s team build back the results (phew).

Fast forward to 2015 and I had an opportunity to invest in Pure SEO and front the expansion into Australia, something I never thought would happen following my disastrous introduction to this industry.

My key lesson here is when a particular product/service is vital to the growth of your business, take a keen interest in understanding it fully, and ask lots of questions.

Be relentlessly curious and you’ll decrease the chances of being blindsided, which can have a dramatic impact on your business.

I will continue to make mistakes, just to remind me that I’m trying hard. The trick is to learn fast and recover – business wasn’t meant to be easy.

Paul Carroll has more than 25 years of experience in the industry, and is currently CEO at Pure SEO Australia.

If you have your own first mistake to share, please email josie@mumbrella.com.au.


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