Going Over the EDGE: Epic Fails
Celebrating our 500th episode called for something special, so host Erin Sparks, EDGE Studio Creative Director Jacob Mann, and the always indomitable Head of SEO Branding at Wix Mordy Oberstein take you on a trip to… “…a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call…” the EDGE of the Web!
As many of you know, error 500 is something you may run across when surfing the web. It basically means that for whatever reason, the web server cannot fulfill a request. It’s a generic error message that pops up whenever something unexpected goes wrong and the web server can’t give any specific details as to what happened or why. We thought it would be fun to speak with a number of guests who have been on the show before to find out what epic fails they’ve experienced over the years. This episode is sponsored by Ahrefs, your go-to source for highly effective online SEO tools and free educational materials for marketing professionals. Without further ado, let’s go over the EDGE!
It’s only natural how most people aren’t eager to share their failures, but in the wonderful world of SEO, it’s critical to share what has been learned from past mistakes to help others know what they can do to avoid common pitfalls. Here are 15 epic fails we can all learn from:
Epic Fail #1: Forgetting to Mind Your Technical SEO
Benjamin Shapiro, Founder and CEO of I Hear Everything and the host of the MarTech and Voices of Search podcasts, recounts an epic fail around technical SEO that really hurt because it affected the planned exit from his first startup. He was running StrumSchool.com, an online site with tons of content for guitar students and guitar teachers. After building up the traffic to the site to then upsell visitors to purchase subscriptions to more content, they finally got a buyer lined up to purchase it. But then the very week they were negotiating their exit and sale of the site, they were hit with a manual action from Google. The site went 30k–35k unique visitors per day to only around 3k and the whole deal went up in smoke. Make no mistake, technical SEO matters! They were doing something with their previews to block people from seeing the content while still keeping it exposed and Google did not like that, and neither did the exit partners.
Epic Fail #2: Selling Yourself Short
Marie Haynes, owner of SEO consultancy Marie Haynes Consulting, remembers how back when she was a solo SEO consultant, she quoted a job and quickly realized she had severely underquoted. What she quoted as a $2,000 link audit job was in fact an extensive $7,000 job that was going to take forever to complete. Being a newbie and not wanting to lose the client, she could have decided to just suck it up and do the job for what she quoted without bringing attention to it. Instead, she went back to the client and told them she’d misquoted the job and offered to meet them halfway on the difference. The client was more than happy to pay the full $7,000 she should have quoted. The lesson here is simple: Everyone makes mistakes and it’s best to just own up to them because people are generally understanding.
Epic Fail #3: Checking the URLs of Canonical Tags
Jonny Ross, founder of Fleek Marketing, has a story about canonical tags. They were trying to implement something clever across a gigantic ecommerce website that included creating multiple versions (as in 40 or 50 versions) of every page with complex canonical tags. But somehow they did something wrong in the code such that every canonical tag across 30,000 pages of the site was the homepage, which was like telling Google there was really only one page to the whole site, and it was the homepage. They got it fixed, but it was a very painful process with the client.
Epic Fail #4: Experimenting Requires Great Care
Garrett Sussman, Demand Generation Manager at iPullRank, has one that still makes him cringe every time he thinks of it. This is back when he was doing content marketing for a SaaS company in the local SEO space (online reviews and such). You had to be really up on all the features of Google My Business, one of which was a custom vanity link to ask for new reviews. I wanted to use the specialty name of my SaaS brand, but Google wasn’t allowing. As an experiment, I created a vanity URL using the brand name of a competitor just to see if it would work, and it did. But then I couldn’t revert or get rid of it. Within a matter of hours everyone in the local SEO space was talking about the jerks at my company stealing a vanity URL based on a competitor’s name. It took two weeks to correct the mistake. Luckily, the competitor was very gracious about it. I even ended up doing some work for them.
Epic Fail #5: Derailing the Best Laid Plans
Dixon Jones, CEO of InLinks, recalls that back when he was running an agency, they were responding to an RFP (request for proposal) and put a ton of effort into landing what would be their biggest client yet. It included link-building strategies, content strategies, technical SEO, and lots of other bits and pieces. The beat out another agency they respected, landed the client, and were very proud of the win. Then the Penguin algorithm hit and largely wiped out everything we had in our proposal because they were hit quite hard with penalties from the work of the previous agency. You couldn’t blame the previous agency, though, because everything they had done fit with the pre-Penguin conditions. But the client’s organic traffic dropped to essentially zero. Instead of our grandiose plans, our work with the client was all about Penguin recovery. The moral of the story is that you can spend all the time in the world planning what you’ll do next, but if you spend too long planning, Google’s algorithm is going to change and might undo all your plans.
Epic Fail #6: Making a Classic SEO Mistake
Olga Zarzeczna, CEO of SEO consultancy SEOSLY, recalls from her early days as an in-house SEO developing a new product site how she was put in charge of making sure everything was SEO-friendly on the project, but she made a classic SEO blunder. When the site launched, she quickly submitted it to Google for indexing, which back then took longer than it does today. Two weeks went by with nothing, but still they waited for another two or three weeks. By then Olga was nervous and when she started poking around, she discovered the site had a “no index” tag! Hence the reason it wasn’t being indexed. Today this mistake is much easier to avoid if you use the Chrome extensions for SEO, one of which shows if the page you’re on is a no-index page.
Epic Fail #7: Testing Google Analytics Filters Before Release
Andrew Optimisey, Founder of Optimisey, remembers a time when he was working on a hugely complex site, multi-language (like 30 different language versions), multi-geographies, and all these teams in other countries wanted their analytics set up in different ways because of course they only wanted to see traffic to their specific site version affecting their specific business. Andrew worked so hard to create all the different filters and views needed to make this happen. he got this process down to a science as he repeated it over and over, but when he got to the main global site, he set one filter the wrong way round, so instead of including traffic from Brazil he had excluded it. So, for a couple days until he realized what was wrong and fixed it, all traffic from one of the company’s major geographies was completely excluded. Oops!
Epic Fail #8: There are no Takebacks on the Internet
Barry Schwartz, SEO journalist and President and Owner of RustyBrick, wishes he’d never written one story. He stumbled across this high school girl who had a bad breakup with her boyfriend and the way she got revenge on him was by creating a bunch of negative image memes that she managed to get Google to index through Google Image Search. To Barry, it was an innovative SEO case study that probably wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone outside the SEO community. But it got picked up by a bunch of sizes like TMZ, gossip blogs, and manyother news sites. The family of the boyfriend was devastated. Barry did what he could to help, but it was out there despite his efforts to block it as much as possible.
Epic Fail #9: An Honest Mistake Can Still Wreck Everything
Jon Henshaw, SEO Director at Paramount, remembers how a website he’d built in college was doing very well with AdSense, to the tune of thousands per month on a simple content site geared toward parents and families. When he was in the process of moving from Denver to Nashville, about halfway through the trip, he happened to check AdSense and nothing was happening. No money was rolling in. Then he checked his analytics, and sure enough the site wasn’t getting any traffic either. What happened was he had a number of domains not in use that he had set to redirect to the main domain, but the redirects broke and then it looked to Google like he was attempting to hose the same site on multiple domains, which was a big no-no back then. Google deindexed the site and all but eliminated his income from it. Google did get it fixed because they could see it wasn’t intentional, but the site never regained its former glory. Today this sort of thing is a total non-issue because Google can figure it out easily.
Epic Fail #10: Having a Contract Matters
Sherry Bonelli of Early Bird Digital Marketing recalls when a big media client of her agency had Early Bird writing content for one of the media company’s clients as sort of a white label setup. What Early Bird didn’t have was a contract with the company, which would have required wading through a ton of red tape and getting lawyers involved in all that. They decided to just do the work on good faith, and the media company was paying for the work each month, no problems or issues for 18 months, and the money was good at around $15,000/month. But then Early Bird was informed one day the media company was getting out of the content marketing business and no longer needed their services—with all of two weeks’ notice. If they’d had a real contract, there’s no way it would have happened so abruptly.
Epic Fail #11: Going Viral Can Have Its Downsides
Tim Schmoyer, YouTube Strategist extraordinaire at Video Creators, thought back to 2008 (a time when videos could actually go viral on YouTube organically) when he had a video he knew was a winner. He put it up on YouTube and within a few days it was getting thousands of views and shares, which meant it could really go big. Unfortunately, there was a child in the video whose parents hadn’t give full permission for their kid to be in front of the world, and even more so when comments started rolling in about their child that were less than kind. The parents were livid. Tim chose to take the video down by deleting it. But apparently some people who had already downloaded could just re-upload it to YouTube and publish it themselves. One person did this and the video went way bigger way faster than when Tim had published it! Suddenly it was being seen on all kinds of gossip sites, even cable television programs were airing. It was mega huge, and it was also a mega-huge mistake twice-over. First mistake, not getting permission from parents for their child being in the video. Second, once Tim deleted the video from YouTube, he could no longer prove it was his creative property for copyright purposes, which meant he couldn’t even file take-down requests when someone else would re-publish it as if it were their content. If Tim had retained full control of the video (which would have been as simple as just making it private instead of deleting), he could have paid for that kid’s entire college education, which would have gone a long way toward repairing the relationship with that family.
Epic Fail #12: Aligning Client Expectations with SEO Reality
Pedro Dias, Head of SEO and Organic Growth at Autovia, when he first set up his business and began consulting, the big mistake he made was not managing the expectations of clients. They thought he was going to magically solve all their problems. As most everyone knows now, SEO isn’t a magic bullet, and if you don’t align client expectations with what can be delivered, clients will be sorely disappointed, which can cause a lot of headaches and frustrations.
Epic Fail #13: Building Knowledge Panels through Google’s Knowledge Graph
Jason Barnard, The Brand SERP Guy at Kalicube Pro, was building a Wikipedia article about himself to the use it for building a knowledge panel about himself and his presence in the Google knowledge graph. He was also doing this for a cartoon he created (Boowa and Kwala) as well as his 1990s rock band, the Barking Dogs. He did a lot of experimentation and found great success by tweaking and changing the related Wikipedia articles, until the admins at Wikipedia decided he was making too many changes to too many things and they deleted all three pages from Wikipedia! It was a bona fide disaster. On top of that, he had tried to move what Google considers the “entity home” for the knowledge graph from jasonbarnard.com to jasonbarnard.com/about. Big mistake! Google does not like it when you try to move an entity home it relies on for the knowledge graph. As a result, his entire knowledge panel and knowledge presence just completely disappeared. As a result of all of this, though, Jason learned a ton about how to build knowledge panels from scratch and to do so with entity homes you can keep under your own control rather than relying upon something you have less control over (Wikipedia).
Epic Fail #14: No Content Left Behind
Eli Schwartz, author of Product-Led SEO, when he was the SEO Manager of Survey Monkey a decade ago, the company was switching from one help center knowledge base to another, which meant they were moving a ton of content to a new location, and they wanted Eli to handle the SEO side of the move in terms of redirects and so forth. He explained the basics to the team about setting up the 301 redirects and making sure Google got an updated site map. Other than that, this seemed like a low-priority project to him relative to all his other responsibilities of driving traffic to revenue-generating content and so on. As a result, the SEO project was not done in time and it ended up costing the company millions of dollars. Why? Because before what people would do when having a problem with the software was Google their issue and find a solution, but this wasn’t working now because the 301 redirects weren’t all in place, so when users Googled their issue they would end up with a 404 error, and at the bottom of the page was a little contact form, and they used that to get help with their problem. What was supposed to be a quiet time around the holidays ended up requiring staffing up on tons of extra hourly staff help to answer the tsunami of email requests for help that came in because the SEO piece of the help center knowledge base migration.
Epic Fail #15: Playing Nice with Aspects that Aren’t Strictly SEO
Mordy Oberstein, Head of SEO Branding at Wix, has made countless SEO mistakes over the years, but the one he shared was when he was working on a set of recommendations for a photography website client. He assembled all his recommendations, and the client thought they were great, but they wanted him to focus on all these other things related more to their branding. In the end things didn’t work out because Mordy held on too tightly to what he wanted to do rather reaching a compromise where he’d get started on his list while also doing a bunch of the things the client wanted and later return to his list of what he wanted to do. While this instance ended up being a failure, it taught Mordy that you can’t be myopic about your SEO agenda. In fact, you should view a client’s larger branding efforts as another piece of the SEO puzzle and find ways to play nice with it. Short version: Don’t be a stubborn SOB.
More great content will be coming your way here on EDGE of the Web as we begin exploring the philosophies of search, the philosophies of customer interactions, special-topic deep dives, and a whole series of episodes with top influencers. Stay tuned!
Connect with Erin Sparks, Host of EDGE of the Web and CEO of Site Strategics
Twitter: @ErinSparks (https://twitter.com/erinsparks)