Curious about anonymized screenshots showing supposed SEO wins? Let's uncover why there seem to be more horror stories than successes in SEO.
Most SEO experts are still afraid to publish their success stories, with a few notable exceptions.
Many are simply unable to share their work even when it’s successful. How can SEOs stop practicing “ghost optimization”?
Before we dive into this question, let’s look at the reasons for the ongoing secrecy and still prevailing negativity among SEO practitioners.
SEO horror stories, anyone?
One of the most popular SEO hashtags within the industry over recent years has been #seohorrorstories.
Why are SEO experts much more likely to share the horrible failures of the industry and their colleagues than their own success stories?
Is this the overall prevailing negativity of society as a whole? Or do we have an internal problem aggravating the situation?
I think it’s probably both.
First off, the recent years have led to a never-ending, downward spiral of public debate. Diplomacy has made way for trolling.
When even presidents provoke people online to get attention, how is everybody else meant to stay civil in day-to-day conversations?
Also, social media like Facebook and Twitter have been capitalizing on fear and anger.
Such “bad news” goes straight to our lizard brain and elicits fearful and angry reactions without consulting the parts of the brain responsible for logical thinking.
No wonder that even within the relatively professional SEO industry, the discourse has degenerated into the realm of “OMG! Look at that nonsense! How stupid!”
I’m exaggerating a bit, but that’s the essence of most shares where #seohorrorstories are involved.
These are more than cautionary tales. It’s also a way of ridiculing those reckless enough to get caught red-handed while employing outdated SEO tactics.
Perhaps the thought process is that when one can’t shed light on their actual successes, then highlight others’ failures. This way, they indirectly stand in a better light by sheer comparison.
Of course, this is merely guesswork. The motivation behind the many horror stories may vary. It won’t simply gloat or malice, in most cases.
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‘Look at this random graph, please – the growth is stellar!’
There is also a compromise, anonymized “success” stories – where the alleged success can’t be fully reviewed by peers.
Such stories seem to be the middle ground between failure and success stories. So what is the logic behind them, then?
You will find lots of social media posts shared of random graphs without any URL connected to them.
It’s usually an analytics screenshot clumsily anonymized before publication. Ultimately, the stellar growth they exhibit lacks any credibility.
I’m usually acquainted with those who share such success stories, so I know they won’t lie.
In most cases, they also add as much context as possible without giving away any meaningful detail so that you cannot track down the website they’re talking about.
What about industry outsiders and potential clients?
They have no idea who the people sharing the graphs are and how trustworthy the information is.
What is the purpose of sharing graphs without any context?
Again, I can only guess.
- Some SEO experts try to convey their expertise that way.
- Others share their success out of sheer joy at having made it.
- Some may want additional opinions on what happened when things went wrong.
Take note that #seohorrorstories are quite often anonymous. That way, some limited peer review does happen within a very small perimeter. It’s better than nothing, right?
Are there any SEO hero stories?
Some of you may have noticed. I have been looking for SEO hero (as in superhero) stories for two months and have been quite aggressive about it.
There were far fewer success stories than bad news from the SEO industry. Yet, I was astounded that even the prospect of getting additional free publicity did not motivate many SEO companies, in-house SEOs or SEO consultants to divulge their success stories or share their case studies with me.
I started a similar hashtag inspired by #seohorrorstories called #seoherostories to encourage sharing such positive examples, but it seemed like I was the only one using it.
Are SEO experts ashamed of their work or afraid to show it?
Given the poor reputation of the SEO industry in the last 25 years, it’s no wonder some people are not keen on outing themselves as SEO practitioners.
Numerous SEOs still engage in unethical practices, which might be why they are ashamed to show what they do.
Still, others may simply be afraid. I probed about the reasons behind this fear, and here are the obvious ones.
Manual Google penalties
This is an age-old fear of SEO practitioners stemming back from the early days. Sometimes, outing yourself as a practitioner of the dark arts of SEO – and mentioning the actual website you’re working on – was akin to suicide for your project.
Even before the somewhat weird term “manual action” was introduced by Google, penalties have been known to hit out of the blue and after too much publicity for SEO practitioners’ work.
This fear is no longer reasonable. And like most fears, it’s rather irrational.
SEOs are not criminals, and hiding is not necessary in most cases.
‘Secret sauce’ copycats
Another albeit more likely scenario is that the competition may steal your “secret sauce” and copy your SEO techniques.
While this is possible, it’s important to realize who your competition on the web is. Most SEOs would still say something like “businesses who sell the same thing in the same area.”
The reality of Google SERPs or the “SERP real estate” is that you mainly compete against the web giants:
- Google itself pushes its own services and ads above actual organic results.
- Huge websites like Amazon or Wikipedia are always on top by sheer popularity.
Would a competitor or colleague who happens to have a similar business as you really hurt you that much by looking at your site’s SEO?
Also, anybody can look up your secret sauce by using a tool like Semrush and find out about on- and off-page SEO with ease. So, why hide your success from the general public?
The other fear relating to the competition is that other SEOs may see who you work with and, thus, contact them and “steal your clients.”
People do this. I have had several clients notifying me of such attempts over the years.
I don’t think I lost any clients that way, though. Why? Is it just because I’m such an expert?
Probably not. I was a beginner at the time as well.
It’s such a sneaky practice that business people are not fond of offers made that way. If they are, you may be lucky to get rid of them.
Toxic clients often hurt you more than they help financially. I had to learn that lesson the hard way over the years, trying to satisfy everybody.
I believe the above common “reasons” for not sharing SEO work are often irrational fears and traditions – merely excuses.
One reasonable explanation for why someone would not want to share the actual website address or their “stellar growth” chart is that the work is still in progress.
Many other parts of the project were far from ready for prime time, and it was not a good idea to share them prematurely. I’ve only heard that justification once, though, even when I asked many times.
NDA: The dreaded acronym
A common explanation for not publishing actual results or disclosing website addresses and client names is the typical non-disclosure agreement (NDA). It may as well be called a “gag order,” as most SEO experts have to shut up completely about their work.
Some popular search marketers, including John Doherty and Brendan Hufford, emphasized this point on LinkedIn.
For those in creative industries, being unable to share their work or having to do so anonymously would be virtually impossible.
Imagine the following scenario if designers, architects and programmers were involved.
- “Look at this house based somewhere in the northern hemisphere. Brown brick has been used for the structure, and the large window frames facing south are made of a local wood I can’t disclose here. To protect the owner’s privacy and hide the location, I had to blur some of the images.”
So why do we have to sign so many NDAs forbidding us to show our actual work or even sometimes tell our friends and families about it?
What’s with the high level of confidentiality? Are we secret agents?
Clients who demand that SEOs do not talk about their projects may be due to any of the following reasons:
- They are unethical and will ask you to perform SEO outside Google guidelines or even beyond what the law allows.
- They want to claim success for themselves and their sales department.
- They are simply ashamed to buy SEO services as these are still considered to be some kind of voodoo by some.
The common logic is, of course, about “trade secrets.” But as noted above, many tools allow you to analyze those supposed secrets.
The bright side: 3 inspiring case studies that welcome peer review
After talking so much about the issues surrounding (the lack of) success stories in the SEO industry, let’s focus on a few actual case studies that inspired me this year.
Hopefully, these SEO hero stories encourage you enough to follow in their footsteps.
Example 1: Missguided
Dogs and owners often become very similar to each other, even by their looks. I am one and can tell you that it often happens “accidentally.”
But there’s an artistic photo series taking it to the extreme, where dog owners and their pets dress up and get their hair done in the same style.
UK-based SEO agency Rise at Seven made this the idea behind a very successful campaign:
As CEO Carrie Rose reports in her case study, the results have been more than impressive:
“865% increase YoY traffic to this area of the site, 134,757 page views to be exact.”
She goes into great detail to explain how it worked and what exactly happened to make it such a success, so make sure to read the entire case study.
Example 2: LiberEat
Olga Andrienko, well-known for her leadership role at Semrush, showcased the success story of LiberEat, made possible by Mich McClure and the team behind Hoojy.
“1000% organic traffic growth in 3 months”.
While this might sound too good to be true, especially given the approximate numbers, she goes to great lengths to highlight what happened, why and how in her extensive Twitter thread.
If that’s still not enough, check out the full-fledged case study with lots of screenshots, keyword examples and figures over at Semrush.
Example 3: Unbeatable Blinds
The folks over at Boom Online have many case studies, but their campaign for Unbeatable Blinds made me feel good. It might be the artistic quality of the images they have shared as part of the campaign.
While they did not divulge the numbers, the links they attracted speak for themselves:
“The content was covered by a number of high-profile publications such as Design Taxi, Bored Panda, Line Today & The York Press among others.”
Given such attention from popular blogs and local press alike, I’m confident that the traffic and other metrics will follow suit.
How to get clients who are proud to work with you
As a writer, I do not offer ghostwriting services.
Ghostwriters tend to become invisible. Someone else gets the credit for their work.
Nobody knows what they have done, so they can’t prove their expertise.
It’s pretty straightforward when it comes to writing.
Potential clients usually tell you upfront that they are looking for a ghostwriter. You can just ignore such offers unless your financial situation forbids you to.
With SEO services, it’s much trickier. Nobody will tell you they are looking for a “ghost optimizer.”
Often, after plenty of discussions and only when you are short of signing a contract will you get a cryptic NDA full of legalese meant to hide its true scope.
In other cases, you get the NDA, or they don’t talk to you at all. Either way, you risk losing a lot of time and money and not getting the client.
Some NDAs are meant to protect trade secrets. Yet, most of them usually grant sweeping powers to the client to ban you from disclosing much of anything.
No wonder people working in SEO and adjacent industries (think marketing or advertising) are simply shutting up in general in order not to breach their agreements.
You never really know what goes too far, so you play it safe by keeping quiet.
So what can you do to identify clients who undermine your status as an industry expert?
You can prepare upfront, be clear during the preliminary talks and stand firm once you start working. Below are four specific tips.
Work on your own projects first
Always work on your projects first or at least keep them going in the background.
Once you have independent revenue sources and ways of gaining status outside client work, you can rest assured when choosing to engage with others.
Having to work for third parties out of necessity is never a good place to be at.
Whenever possible, work for others because you love the challenge and variety, not because you need the money. Ideally, clients seek you out because they are fond of your personal projects.
Build your authority in the industry and beyond
Visibility is not limited to client work. Many practitioners attend conferences, trade fairs or meetups to show up and teach others what they know.
Some hoard knowledge and keep it to themselves so that nobody can “steal their ideas.” This is a short-sighted approach.
Ideas can be discovered by more than one person at any given time. But the one who publishes it first or does so more widely is usually credited with the “invention.”
It’s crucial to become an authority within your industry, and beyond the narrow field you specialize in.
When I started out in SEO, I made sure to keep branching out into broader yet more popular areas like web development, marketing and blogging.
SEO is often viewed as merely “technical SEO” and a small subset of actual search engine optimization, in my opinion. The number of people interested in what you are talking about is very small.
By sharing your knowledge, you are enabling those unfamiliar with your work to understand what you do.
Introverts can share and teach on the web. You don’t have to show up in person, shake hands and pat backs.
You can also network online with like-minded individuals. LinkedIn is your best bet here.
Charge more for ‘ghost optimization’
A simple yet powerful way to make a point is to charge more money for something harder or more valuable.
Usually, ghostwriters are underpaid young writers who have no name yet so that they are forced to write in the shadows of the bigger names. But once you’ve built a name for yourself, you have to be proud enough to charge accordingly.
Almost nobody will think you are valuable as long as you undercharge or are too timid.
The few who know will be glad to exploit your expertise for low fees and shut up about your true worth in most cases.
Similarly, you have to make it clear that you charge more for ghost services from the start.
With “ghost optimization” being much more complex and riskier than mere writing, it’s even more important to charge your true value.
There are far fewer high-quality SEO practitioners out there, so don’t be afraid to get what you deserve.
Flatly refuse to do the dirty work
Once you have worked with a client for a while, some drop their masks or become more daring.
Others might get frustrated with the slow pace of SEO progress and demand you do what the competition does.
Riskier tactics may get their domain banned or penalized, but in the short term, the results may look impressive.
Now you have to keep your integrity. How?
Flatly refuse to make your hands dirty and to use questionable means of SEO.
The client feels safe due to the NDA, so they think they can get away with it. But SEO does not happen in a vacuum.
Just because you don’t tell anybody that you have to spam doesn’t mean it’s invisible.
As noted above, publicly available tools give you an X-ray vision of any website’s SEO.
Google also has human quality raters and increasingly sophisticated algorithms to find the bad apples.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
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