Halloween is creeping up on us again! Can you believe it’s been six years since I last dove into the spooky world of SEO horror stories?
Time flies, and while much has changed since 2017, certain elements in the SEO industry eerily remain the same: content quality, core site optimization, and backlink profile. So, it’s not such a wild roller coaster ride after all.
Now, the game-changer in this last year has undoubtedly been ChatGPT. This AI writing assistant turned the content world on its head – in the best way possible (I hope).
Whether you’re a native English speaker or not, if you’ve got a solid grasp of SEO or whatever niche subjects you’re good at, ChatGPT has become your new best friend, slashing your writing time in half (or more!).
I won’t dive deep into all its features – a quick search on X will lead you to a treasure trove of daily ‘xeets’ (are we still calling them tweets?) that you could spend hours sifting through.
Now, let’s update and add more SEO horror stories to what I had from 2017… ahem, Helpful Content Update, cough, cough).
The first dark story: the peril of over-relying on ChatGPT without double-checking its output.
A lawyer, prepping for what seemed like a straightforward personal injury case against an airline, decided to use ChatGPT to prepare a legal brief.
What could go wrong, right?
A whole caseload, as it turns out. The AI, seemingly drunk on its power and reveling in how much humans have become almost utterly dependent on it, concocted entirely fake cases and citations ( ‘hallucinations’ is the technical term), which the unsuspecting lawyer, Mr. Schwartz, presented in court.
This blunder potentially set the stage for a nightmare of legal sanctions, with a mortified Mr. Schwartz facing a stern judicial grilling.
At times during the hearing, Mr. Schwartz squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead with his left hand. He stammered, and his voice dropped. He repeatedly tried to explain why he did not conduct further research into the cases that ChatGPT had provided to him.
“God, I wish I did that, and I didn’t do it,” Mr. Schwartz said, adding that he felt embarrassed, humiliated and deeply remorseful.Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/08/nyregion/lawyer-chatgpt-sanctions.html
Another gem from 2023, shared by Dakota, my editor vigilante, who dropped this hilarious blunder into our Slack channel during a content review:
“Here’s a nugget from ChatGPT: ‘If a surgeon performs a vasectomy on the wrong breast in a cancer patient, the cancer may have time to spread.'”
This was swiftly followed by her quip, “If a doctor ever tried to perform a vasectomy on a breast, I think there’d be a serious lawsuit.”
In the era of advanced AI, there’s no substitute for human diligence. Always double-check your sources and information, especially when legal matters are involved.
Here’s another horrible story to make your skin crawl, especially if you value original content and intellectual property.
Let’s take a disastrous look at plagiarism and legal websites.
Our team was neck-deep in content updates for a client when we stumbled upon a legal site that didn’t just draw “inspiration” from our content; it mirrored our points in the exact order and then cheekily paraphrased the text under each point.
When our client reached out, the response was essentially the digital equivalent of a nonchalant shrug. “It’s not an exact copy,” they argued, despite the glaring evidence, including an entire call-to-action paragraph, headline, and all the bits that come with it.
And it gets spookier. They ran our original page through Copyscape and claimed we were the grave-robbers of content from other sites. According to them, because Copyscape found similar content on our client’s site, it shows we are doing the same thing they did.
It’s possible they need help understanding how Copyscape works.
We keep receipts. We know when our page was published, and we’ve seen what their page looked like when ours was already live. Let’s just say it’s about 6-7 years apart.
They did revise their content, but as any horror movie fan knows, the first scare is rarely the last. Sure enough, we found more plagiarized paragraphs buried in another page. Head-shaking doesn’t even begin to cover it.
And just when I thought I’d seen the pinnacle of “copy-paste” horror, another case surfaced. This time, it’s a full-fledged content heist, swiping entire pages from our client. They even pasted our internal links.
Seriously, if you have the nerve to plagiarize an entire page, have the decency to check your work and clean it up at least. So unprofessional 🙂
So, why all this content grave-robbing, especially among legal professionals, their site builders, or SEOs?
Methinks it’s a misunderstanding of website optimization and the lack of knowledge of local attorney SEO. They see a well-ranking page, and a light bulb goes off: “It ranks. Google likes it. If I have the same content, Google will like mine too.”
Or perhaps they fell for the, “I’ll design and SEO your law firm for cheap,” spiel.
Truthfully, I don’t know. I looked back at one of those attorneys’ pages that took our content. His page was GOOD. The content was on the thin side, but it was valuable. It offered his own take: a personalized, unique approach to addressing his audience’s problems. If he had maintained that momentum, he could have been a top player in rankings for his local area, IMHO.
Thankfully, at SEOA, we’re a living testament to the fact that good, organic SEO is not dead. My editor is exceptionally meticulous, almost supernaturally so, with content production and accuracy.
And here’s a throwback to the 2017 post. It’s still a fun read, even if some of the techniques mentioned have aged quite a bit!
Google “SEO horror stories,” and you’ll see so many out there. Google burning the BMW website back in 2006, for inflating rankings, is one of them.
I’ve been in this business for over 20 years. I’ve seen and read about all kinds of search engine optimization gone bad. And I’ve learned a lot from my own and other people’s mistakes.
To celebrate this Halloween, I’d like to blog about my personal SEO horror stories – from my own clients.
So here goes… my successful SEO clients who almost failed.
Case #1: Death by redirects
Terror scale: 12
Our longtime client had been enjoying top five national rankings for his money phrases for years. Earlier this year, all those top rankings tanked – from page 1 down to page 4 or 5. The ranking pages pretty much disappeared overnight.
So what changed?
Their backlinks were solid. There was nothing shady in the backlink profiles.
Content was good. Evergreen. We published technical papers and blog posts regularly.
Site architecture? Nothing had changed except for their migration to https, which we recommended to their webmaster.
Competition level? They are in a very competitive technology niche. Competitors were starting to outrank them in various areas.
At first, we thought the competitors were getting better at beating us.
But, the significant decline in rankings still bothered me. This was not a scenario where the client slowly dropped from page 1 down to page 2 over time.
I lost sleep over it. I kept thinking, What did we do wrong? And what am I not seeing?
So, I audited the site. And there it was, right in front of me: a chain of “Bizarro Redirects” (I’m borrowing from “Bizarro Jerry” episode in Seinfeld).
I knew I found out why the rankings had tanked.
The entire site returned different types of URL redirects. Pages were being redirected from http to https, then back to http and then https again.
This was beyond confusing to the human eye – let alone search engine spiders.
Here’s the exact redirect chain I found:
Never in my life had I ever seen this.
Long story short: I pointed out the bizarro redirects to their webmaster, and they remedied the problem. Rankings shot right back up to the top of page 2. We are now back in the top 5 for our money phrases.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we have stopped working, though. SEO is always a work in progress. Did I mention “SEO is not dead”?
Case #2: Death by link-building experiment
Terror scale: 10
Link building is a pain. I’ll admit it once and for all. And getting those high-quality and authoritative links – that’s the hardest part.
If you’re a junior SEO or DIY entrepreneur just getting your feet wet in this industry, I truly feel your pain.
At SEO Advantage, we never use paid links. We are as “white hat” as can be. But one day, I decided to test out one of these link-building packages because, of course, link-building is hard, and I was curious to see if there was an easier solution that worked.
I picked a link-building company online, subscribed to their newsletter and read their opinion on link-building. They were convincing. They talked about working with big publishers and with clean websites that don’t violate Google guidelines.
They claimed to have the highest standard, and on and on.
They even had a lot of great testimonials – happy customers boasting about what great rankings they have.
Needless to say, I was impressed. Sold.
Fast forward a few months of thinking it over and reading all sorts of testimonials advocating what a natural link-building package this was. I decided to take this puppy for a test drive.
I bought an introductory link-building package that placed my test site on the homepage of a number of publisher websites (less than 10 sites). All with varying PageRank degrees between 3 to 5. (Note: PageRank may or may not be partially dead, but that’s for another post.)
The company showed the publisher’s site authority value with their SEO scoring software. I should have scored it through Link Research Tools (our go-to toolbox), which might have given a more accurate picture of a backlink profile.
I was still impressed… until thirty days later, when I received the first report.
I looked at the list of sites, then asked for all my links to be removed, and immediately asked for a refund.
The link-building company placed my links in a group of sites built on one humongous network (or several large link networks). The problem with these massive networks is they’re built to be trashed in a heartbeat.
Quick to pump out… quicker to burn.
Also, the content was extremely poor quality. It read like someone had copied a chunk of text from an English textbook and paraphrased it only slightly to avoid copyright infringement.
Then there were the domain names. Oy vey!
Forget branding – I couldn’t even pronounce the names. They were either a bit tipsy when they created them, or they have an automated name-picking program that randomly generates a (laughably terrible) domain name.
Surprisingly, despite these obvious issues, the sites had high page scores – precisely what the company advertises.
The sheer volume of this network was so large that the number of sites linking to each other in all kinds of ways is the reason, I believe, for the artificially boosted page score.
When I traced their backlinks, some domains had links from .edu sites.
How about that?
However, upon further investigation, these .edu sites – at least the ones I reviewed – were not really academic sites. Some had already been burnt, meaning the links were broken.
Why did I even give a link-building service a try, you might be asking?
Spoiler alert: It’s not because I had faith in quick link-building.
Really, I wanted to see their sites. I was curious about all these high page authority sites that promise a home page link for less than $100. And I got exactly what I paid for.
Of course, these companies are merely supplying what many consumers demand: the illusion of little investment for a great result. There’s an entire industry out there for link-building. Google “link building service” and you’ll see millions of results.
These companies are merely supplying what many consumers demand: the illusion of little investment for a great result.
I do not doubt that some link-building companies yield legitimate, long-term results, but most services simply don’t measure up to genuinely good SEO services.
The fact is you can’t get good backlinks for a one-time fee of less than a couple hundred bucks or for “one low monthly fee.”
Sadly, many businesses don’t see it that way yet. I regularly analyze and monitor competitor backlinks for several of our legal industry clients. Our clients’ competitors often have their links placed on sites with content so spun that no human could understand it. One would think that content spinning software would be virtually obsolete by now.
I suppose these site owners get some comfort in being told they are earning new backlinks every month. And they probably get them for next to nothing.
Someone sold them the idea that the quantity of backlinks will drive up their site rankings. If you want quality, that’ll just cost you more. And they took the bait – hook, line and sinker.
Long story short: There’s no shortcut to quality link building. You can’t get a return without an initial investment.
The late Eric Ward once told us about a marketing company he consulted for that charges their clients in the upper $10,000 for link building and outreach alone. And that was years ago.
At SEO Advantage, we offer link-building service to clients with mature websites featuring a healthy collection of extensive high-quality content we can promote.
Want to know how long it takes to get a few high quality links? Up to 6 months. Seriously. This includes time spent researching linkable topics, writing unique content (and sometimes designing infographics), reaching out to real websites that might be interested in your piece, content promotion and much more.
It’s tremendously time-consuming. It’s relationship-building to the max.
Link building is hard. But it can be done effectively with the right approach and some time. SEO Advantage and other website optimization companies out there who are doing it successfully are living proof that it can work.
Case #3: Death by noindex
Terror scale: 10
Our local client had multiple page 1 rankings for his home page. But his home page URL suddenly disappeared after the page redesign. Poof. Disappeared without a trace.
I spent a few hours checking the entire site and spoke to a few of our people, brainstorming how something like this could happen.
I rechecked the HTML code on the home page, and there it was:
<META NAME=”ROBOTS” CONTENT=”NOINDEX,FOLLOW”>
Our designer had forgotten to remove “noindex” from the page after a redesign went live.
This is a case of missing the obvious, but you’d be surprised how often such mistakes happen in this industry. We thought it was something more sinister. Google indexes all internal pages, subdomains, etc., but not the home page. I should have seen it right away.
Long story short: You can never be too careful. You have to check and double-check your work when building and marketing websites.
The good news is that our client’s home page is showing back up along with rankings in our organic results.
Another case (2023): One of the sites I follow recently underwent a major design facelift, which they announced on Twitter and elsewhere. The entire live site was set to “noindex, nofollow”. Yup. It happens to everyone.
Case #4: Death by canonical
Terror scale: 6
Another short story: Our copy director sent brand new, souped-up copy for a new service landing page. We were confident this upgraded page would perform well.
And yet, after rolling it out, my boss couldn’t find the page indexed in Google. I thought it was the resurrection of “death by noindex,” but it wasn’t.
It turns out the new page was alive and well online, except its canonical URL pointed to another page.
Thankfully, we caught this one very early before any damage was done and the page is now performing well and back to normal.
SEO consists of various moving parts. In my humble opinion, no one can get it 100% right. Mistakes will always be made. And that’s A-OK – so long as you find them, fix them, learn from them and move on.
There’s always room to learn new things.
Just be careful. Most of the time, it’s the little things that kill.
I’ll leave you with a line from “Little Things” by Bush:
It’s the little things that kill / tearing at my brains again / the little things that kill / the little things that kill…
Have your own horror stories? Air them out.
Thanks for reading. That’s the end of my spine-chilling tales. As you switch off the lights, may your site traffic be steady, and don’t let that HCU bite 🙂
This season’s true horror isn’t in the SEO Halloween tales; it’s the reality of a recession, businesses faltering and failing, and markets unpredictably shifting.
But people continue to search. With over 80% of online queries conducted through Google, is your business visible in local searches?
If your SEO agency is all talk with little result, it’s time for a change. Choose a partner who not only understands the value of your dollar but also values your online presence and growth.
The only thing that should scare you this season is the Halloween decorations, not your business’s performance.
Let us know how we can help.
About Parichatra Reuning
Parichatra Reuning started in the SEO industry before Google was even a thing. Yes, she’s quite old.
At SEOA, Pat heads up a dedicated SEO team that’s like a close-knit family. They’ve been together for ages, working with clients across different fields.
What makes her proudest isn’t just the long years they’ve been around, but the rock-solid integrity they bring to their work, keeping (most) clients happy and coming back year after year.