Before I became an inbound marketer, I once made $50,000 a month spamming Google. I worked a maximum of 10 hours a week. And I am telling you from the bottom of my heart: Never, never ever follow in my footsteps.
This blog post will tell you exactly why.
My Mindset in 2009
I never wanted to spam the Internet. Google made me do it.
This is what I told myself back then. If spamming is so wrong, I wondered, how come it always works so well? Most black hat SEOs think this way. They rationalize spamming Google's index in so many ways:
- We're helping Google improve their algorithm!
- Content is king?!? LOL! Links are the only content you need. Google's lying to people. They deserve to get spammed.
- If we don't do spam, our competitors will--and then they'll beat us. We have to spam.
- We're helping our customers--the little guy--win the battle against a big, bad, evil empire that wants to enslave them to paying PPC costs!
Black Hat SEOs: Masters of Ethical Rationalization
But there I was, responsible for Google adding 45,000,000 new words of spam to its index every day. I had built a spam machine, and the thing was brilliant enough to give my clients huge SEO ranking boosts. (This was before KontentMachine and all the other spam-producing software out there now.)
Some examples of my “work”:
Some Samples of My Automated Article Creation "Work" c. 2009
Spamming Was Very Profitable Back in 2012
Sales of our SEO SaaS subscriptions peaked at around $150,000 a month in subscriptions. Profit margins were about 70-80%. All profits were shared 50/50 between my partner and I. We had two sales threads: one on WarriorForum, and another on WickedFire.
Here's what a few hours of sales looked like back then:
An Average Couple of Hours of Income at My Company During the High Times
These would all magically appear after I returned from a swim, playing with my son at the park, or from playing pickup basketball with the local islanders.
PayPal had no idea how I was suddenly making so much money. They were so confused about my business model that they froze $25,000 in my account. They expected massive refund and chargeback requests.
But our refund/chargeback rate was less than 1%. Because our SEO service worked.
Most of our users were ranking high for big affiliate keywords. I even got my electrician buddy’s website in New Jersey to rank in first place for the keyword "electrician" just for fun. I could literally rank first page for any keyword I wanted to with about five minutes of effort.
And my life became very easy as a result. I had two apartments on an island in China with 180-degree panorama views of Sanya Bay -- one for myself, and one for my son's mom.
I barely worked.
Our entire business was outsourced to seven VAs in the Philippines and one transgender customer support rep in Nevada who was saving up her salary to complete her hormone therapy.
My schedule looked like this:
- 7:00am: Wake up, do some stretching and play with my two-year-old son while my chef prepared breakfast.
- 8:00am: Eat breakfast and watch an NBA game (the Clippers, if they had a game) while eating breakfast. The nanny watched my son.
- 9:30am: Check in with my partner and employees, Facebook, and chat with my two journalist friends in Beijing.
- 11:00am: BS on Skype with some SEO spammer buddies for a bit.
- 12:30pm: Ride my scooter to the gym.
- 1:00pm: Run 10km, lift weights.
- 3:00pm: Go for a swim in the ocean or the neighborhood pool
- 3:30pm: Play with my son and his friends.
- 5:00pm: Play basketball at the court with maintenance workers and tourists staying in my neighborhood.
- 7:00pm: Shower, then dinner, prepared by my chef.
- 8:00pm: Put my son to bed.
- 9:00pm: Check in on Skype, BS online, read books.
- 11:00pm: Sleep.
Lonely SEO Spammer Millionaires
The above schedule is what a spammer’s four-hour workweek looks like. And it's the life of a lot of black hats that are still balling today. It's a comfortable but often dull and somewhat empty life.
The most exciting (and nerve-wracking) times are when the loophole you're exploiting gets closed, and your life flips upside down while you scramble to adjust.
During the boring times, my other spammer buddies and I would BS on Skype about our lives. One guy made $100k a week for a time selling garcinia cambogia pills after Dr. Oz fraudulently proclaimed them to be a magic weight loss supplement.
One woman focused on morally shady but technically legal niches like bath salts, salvia, and access to guides on how to cheat on your spouse. Yet another guy (also in China, like me) was working with prison wardens who forced their inmates to mine World of Warcraft gold for sale online.
All three bought links from me. They spent their earnings like spoiled little kids.
They bought luxury cars and $5,000 bottles of champagne to spray their spammer buddies at conventions. They ate ADHD medication like candy, trying to stay awake and focused to work as long as possible. They traded NLP secrets to work on their powers of female seduction. When that didn't pan out there was always the old staples of prostitutes and cocaine. Many practiced intensive bodybuilding, and took steroids, HGH, and weird supplements like deer antler sprays to hack their muscle growth.
With all that money and privilege at stake, the brotherhood of spammers is merciless and ultra secretive. If you fail to attribute a useful tip to the person you found it out from, expect to be shunned. Expose an SEO loophole that made your buddy money, and you’re excommunicated. Betray the "family," and you’ll get kicked out of the Skype group forever. It’s like The Sopranos, except instead of wise guys, your family is made up of awkward tech nerds who have cashed in and want to live out all their fantasies.
Google Made Us Do It
I hadn't originally wanted to go down this path. Ironically, I had applied to work for Google's webspam team in 2010. I knew all the tricks and hacks in the book, and I thought they could benefit from my help.
When they didn't reply to my application, I promised myself I would make them pay.
And I had them paying for a few years ...
Until one day, Matt Cutts (head of Google's webspam team) sent out this historic tweet:
The Tweet That Shook the SEO World
ALN (Authority Link Network) was the platform we used to boost ranking for all of our users' websites. Our service was actually called "ALN service," a fact that helped increase awareness of the network and ironically hastened its demise.
There was a time when our service was one of the hottest things going on WarriorForum. We had found SEO spammer nirvana, and everyone wanted a piece.
Dozens of guys using our service quit their day jobs to open up SEO businesses that relied almost exclusively on our service. Our biggest client, an SEO company that offered reputation management services for celebrities in Mexico, was paying us $25,000 a month and probably charging its clients up to 50 to 100 times more than that. I only realized how hard they were balling when they showed up on the Inc. 500 list in 2012.
But now there was this tweet from Matt Cutts, warning to take the network we relied on out of commission. When our clients asked about the tweet, I pretended I wasn't the least bit concerned about it. Publicly, I scoffed. How could they find a network of 25,000 blogs? If they took it out, we'd just build a new one.
No big deal ...
Privately, I was very concerned. I knew it was easy for Google to find every site in the network. Because all they had to do was buy a few links to one website, wait for those links to show up, then have every website receiving links from that blog manually reviewed. That review would uncover other spam blogs linking to those sites, which would then uncover more cheaters, and so forth.
In fact, from one spam site you can, and Google did, locate and destroy the entire ALN network. To us, it felt like we were the freedom fighters of Zion in the Matrix. The Google guys were like the agents, sending out Sentinels to take us out. Google, of course, saw it the other way around. We were hacking their algorithm and mucking up their search results for fun and profit.
How Google+ SEO is Like the Matrix
Publicly, I proclaimed that we were the good guys and Google was the evil empire. But in my heart I knew we were the bad guys.
Google provides clean search results for free, which truly benefits society. What does spamming the Internet provide for society? It helps two people: the spammer and his customer. Everyone else suffers.
And I knew it was shady. Part of me always dreamed of running a more legitimate business model. But it was just like Michael Corleone from The Godfather II telling his wife Kaye that his business would be 100% straight in five years: There was just too much incentive to keep on spamming.
The Psychology of Spamming for Money: Spammers Always Think They'll Go "Legit" Someday Soon
I was a hardened, unapologetic spammer. To the real marketing world, I was an outcast. And that became all too clear when I went to Distilled's LinkLove event in London in April 2012.
Seeing the Writing on the Wall: The Death of Link-Building
My Dutch partner and I had found out about LinkLove from one of our favorite customers. Our customer was scheduled to speak there, so we bought all-inclusive tickets to the event and made plans to meet up there.
Right after we got our tickets, our customer dropped out of the speaker role without explanation. (This was right around the time ALN was getting de-indexed, so maybe he was doing damage control with his clients whose rankings were dropping like flies.)
My partner and I went anyway, feeling like confident marketing experts with our massive PayPal bankroll. Those few days in London, however, opened my eyes to how the fledgling world of inbound marketing saw black hats.
We had dinner with all the VIPs the night before the event. Moz's Rand Fishkin and Mike King were there. Many other heavy hitters in online marketing were also there.
They were all talking about inbound marketing, quality content, engagement, and a bunch of stuff I didn't understand or considered "BS."
None of them seemed very interested in what we were doing.
“F#$%! Link Building”
Their beef with us was even clearer when Rand took the stage to kick off LinkLove 2012. My ego had already taken a hit after the lukewarm response at the dinner, but I never expected the onslaught that Rand would unleash.
He took the stage with a big smile, introduced himself and then proceeded with this presentation called “F#$%! Link Building”.
My heart sank.
I went from slightly butt-hurt to outright angry and defiant. He was insulting our entire industry. I imagine that this is the feeling Michael Corleone felt when Senator Geary called him out in the meeting about the casino rights he wanted.
How Moz's Rand Fishkin Sees Link-Builders
I swore I wouldn't let Google make us stop hustlin'. But Rand was right. Within two months, our entire network of 5,000+ blogs -- for which we paid more than $80,000 -- was de-indexed, dead, simply kaput. Our $100k/mo. business was ruined.
However, I remained arrogant and defiant. I still believed that making money online would be easy. I thought I could just make some minor adjustments to our strategy and keep on banging out new successful products.
I funneled more than $100,000 into various new link schemes, each one more "white hat"-seeming than the next.
Nothing worked for long. Google’s de-indexing, plus Panda and Penguin, were just too much of a challenge for us. I would put in three months of work, get four months of sales, and either almost break even or have a huge deficit.
I felt discouraged and depressed. I tried to buy myself some fancy clothes and toys to feel better about myself. I immersed myself in a shallow relationship with a model who would end up being Miss Universe China 2014. I took weekly hiking trips with my friends in the hills of Beijing on psychedelic mushrooms.
I was an empty shell of a human being, lost with no sense of purpose or what to do with my future. With anxiety levels at an all-time high, I could only sleep 2-3 hours a night. Most people I met at that time felt uneasy around me.
And I wasn't the only one having trouble adapting to the post-de-indexing world. The Google-hating spammers reached their official low-point when SEOnitro (another public blog network) tried to start a class action lawsuit against Google for intentionally doing harm to many “competing businesses."
Seriously guys? That's like spray painting your business's phone number on someone else's building, then trying to sue them when they paint over it.
Giving Up, Embracing Inbound, and Getting a Job
After 18 months of banging my head against a wall, I started thinking about that LinkLove conference again. What if I started over? What could I have built with that $100,000 I had wasted chasing loopholes in Google's algorithm? How much awesome content could I have gotten? How many email subscribers could I have gained?
Maybe there was something to that inbound marketing thing Rand and Mike had talked about so passionately after all.
Maybe it was the way for me to really go legit.
So, I moved back to Beijing and put out the word to my friends. I was ready for a marketing job. I got a few offers, but none struck me like the one from Ptengine. They were a small startup making what I would later call "the Swiss army knife of conversion optimization tools."
They had been successful in Japan, but now they wanted to enter the English-speaking market. They wanted to double their number of users over the next two months to show the VC firm looking to invest in them that they were able to achieve rapid growth.
They wanted me to help them with the powers of SEO. I told Ptengine that SEO wouldn't work. Google's new rankings sandbox wouldn’t allow it to work. I wanted to go with the safe route.
They were confused.
"What about PBNs?" they asked. "We're working with a very well known SEO blogger in the U.K. who has tens of thousands of email subscribers. He’s building PBNs for us". I looked at the properties this SEO “god” had built. (Actually, it turned out he just outsourced the SEO work to a company in London.)
It was like opening a time capsule from 2012. Expired domains, duplicate content scraped from Archive.org, he didn’t even block backlink checking spiders. His reasoning: “blocking spiders would look like a footprint to Google."
I felt a pang of sympathy for Ptengine. They had already dumped $4,000 into this operation. The whole thing was shocking to me. Even the SEO gurus who talked about inbound marketing were still trying to get by with loopholes.
My Stubborn Support for Inbound Marketing
I was undeterred by the SEO guru. I went on with my newfound ideals instead.
By using a variety of outreach methods, including permission emails, sponsored posts, social media, and a very successful deal on StackSocial, we hit the VC's goals. They bought in with very aggressive growth goals for 2015.
And I intend to keep going this route. We just started working with Joanna Wiebe at SnapCopy.co (whom Shanelle Mullin of Onboardly said might be "the best SaaS copywriter in North America") and Talia Wolf at Conversioner.com to optimize our entire funnel.
We're also getting plenty of adopters and influencers to get us case studies that we will promote to targeted segments that need Ptengine. In fact, all content will take all targeted audiences to various inbound funnels that are only meant to give them value.
Hear all that talk about content?
In short, after five years of considering white hats and inbound marketers to be snobs, I'm finally drinking the Kool-Aid.
You win, Google. Content is king.
This post originally appeared on inbound.org, and is reprinted here with permission.
Originally published May 27, 2015 12:00:00 PM, updated July 28 2017