SEO Horror Stories in 2017: Five Unbelievable Truths from the Frontlines

By: Krista LaRiviere on September 5, 2017 Categories: Backlinking, SEO
Five Unbelievable Truths from the Frontlines

The title says it all, but keep reading to get a sense of the ridiculousness still being implemented by digital agencies in the SEO industry today.

This blog post was inspired by an appalling, potentially brand-damaging SEO situation, led by a digital agency, on behalf of a client which is a recognizable U.S. brand. This unfortunate situation made me think about other respected digital agencies and professionals, and wondered if they have similar horror stories. Turns out, we didn’t have to go too far to find more unfortunate brand damaging situations. Five of those stories are shared in this blog.

To further set the stage, we know our stuff. We have been in the SEO industry since the beginning of SEO time. We have clients around the world and have created a software platform for SEO data and reporting, content engagement analytics and influencer marketing. We have a team of SEO-ers and digital marketing gurus executing campaigns across paid, owned, and earned. We work on strategies across these pillars of digital and for budgets of varying sizes. We always do the right, best things for our clients and their long-term web discoverability. We can’t believe some of the crap tactics we are still seeing “experts” do in 2017, some of which were abandoned 8+ years ago.

This blog-inspiring situation (True Story #1 below) stirred up many emotions and questions here on team gShift:

  • Is it really 2017 and these bad tactics are still happening?
  • Is this a joke?
  • Why are the agency and the internal lead not comprehending Google’s and Bing’s suggestions?
  • Why would the agency spend the customer’s budget in ways that are brand damaging and not impactful to
  • discoverability (SERPs) at all?
  • I think I am going to vomit.

The following 5 Horror Stories are all true and have occurred in the past year, one as recently as last week.

I apologize in advance to all brands and their web presences for any misuse of your hard-earned budgets and ultimate lack of professionalism some digital leaders exhibit. #iamsosorry


True Story #1: Meta Keywords

by Krista LaRiviere, Cofounder & CEO, gShift
Krista Lariviere, gShift
Just the thought of the words “meta keywords” applied together sends shivers down my spine and my mind goes back in time to pre 2009. If you have been in the SEO industry for a decade plus, you will remember fancy techniques used to get Google to rank your page (not content at that point) higher. You will also remember Google’s current overall objective to provide the most relevant content to the person searching. This has made the lazy SEOers, with their quick-win techniques, go out of business. Today, a digital marketer has to actually “do marketing”. Or so we thought.

When it hit our radar, this Agency “doing SEO” for XYZ Company (the recognizable U.S. brand, with a significant web presence and a limited budget) wanted to add 30+ keywords (within the “meta keyword” field to be clear) to the majority of their web pages, we just about fell off our chairs. Are you kidding!? Entering meta keywords on a page is one of the first things any strong, ethical SEO or digital agency in 2017 will advise against and even remove if they are present.

Meta keyword stuffing stopped being a tactic used by SEO companies back in 2009, after Google’s announcement. Although recently, Google has admitted there is no actual penalty associated with this tactic, it is still not a tactic we would ever recommend. Why spend time and waste the client’s budget adding keywords to a site in the HTML code for them to be ignored by Google and have no positive impact on SERPs? In addition, it makes little sense to add meta keywords to a site when all it will do is expose your keyword strategy to competitors, as they can easily scrape your site for such keywords.

For fun, if you are using the Yoast SEO plug-in, click on the “Other” tab. Then under “Use meta keywords tag” check out the message, which reads: “I don’t know why you’d want to use meta keywords, but if you want to, enable this”. LOL!

Now, just to add insult to the client’s injury, they have a very specific revenue target projection they are trying to meet. The agency and the in-house lead are both aware of this and should be prioritizing every budget dollar on tasks to achieve this goal, not tasks that will have absolutely zero impact on SEO or revenue.

And it gets crazier. A lot of time and the client’s money are being spent on this effort. Just an approximation, but upwards of 40 hours worth of time! What a complete waste.

There are other horrific details to this situation, but I will stop there.

One of my favourite sayings about digital marketing, especially as it relates to SEO is, “Your web presence is one of your business’s most valuable assets, don’t let just anyone touch it.” You may regret it for years to come and tasks performed on your website(s) may even destroy your entire business. (We have seen this happen.)

True Story #2: Triple X Backlinks

by Nick Fitzgerald, President, AudSEO

Nick Fitzgerald, AudSEO
I see other SEO professionals do all sorts of stupid things. They don’t know what they don’t know, or they don’t care in some cases, so they can often do a lot of damage to people who pay them a lot of money to be the experts. Here’s a “horror story” for you.

In early 2016, I was approached by a small local company out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We will call them “Joe’s Roofing” for the sake of this article. Joe’s Roofing couldn’t even find themselves in the search engines anymore, and the agency (we’ll call them “Snake Oil Inc.”) they had hired to do their SEO was based out of their area. Once they finally wrestled an analytics report from Snake Oil Inc., it showed ZERO Google organic visitors in the last month. Now, if you aren’t familiar, ZERO Google organic visitors (visitors who found you through Google) in a month is basically not possible when you are trying to market a website in the search engines. There are only two reasons why they might not have any Google traffic. First, either their analytics is broken, or second, they had been banned (technically known as “de-indexed”) from Google.

It’s important to note in early 2016, Google’s robots were still calling the shots and penalizing people’s websites if they detected “unnatural link practices”, whenever they rolled out a new Penguin update. My best guess was either Google’s robots or Google’s web spam team had penalized them. To make a long story short, it wasn’t the web spam team. I had to figure out why Google’s robots were penalizing Joe’s Roofing and that’s when it got interesting.

Using a few different well-known tools in the industry, I could quickly see Snake Oil Inc. was using robots of their own, in order put links back to Joe’s Roofing (called backlinks) from other websites. Backlinks are a big part of SEO, but these kinds of tactics hadn’t worked in many years. In fact, those tactics could get you penalized.

Well, they had links from sketchy blogs and pornographic websites-a-plenty. Every single link was clearly built by cheap software. This Snake Oil Inc. was not a small outfit, so I couldn’t believe I was seeing this kind of stuff out of them. I thought to myself, “Maybe they did this a long time ago and it’s just caught up to them?” Not so much. Some of those links were from a month prior. Luckily, I knew how to detect these crummy links and “disavow” them via Google Search Console.

After disavowing about 2000 backlinks and waiting a short while, their traffic started pouring in again. Joe’s Roofing continued to grow ever since, but they had come close to closing the doors thanks to the jokers at Snake Oil Inc. Don’t be Joe’s Roofing. Hire a real SEO.

True Story #3: Duplicate Content Merry Go Round

by Marc Hill, Founder and CEO, Digital Giants

Marc Hill, Digital Giants
Recently we were working with a well known, large not for profit with centres around the world. The organization had a new website built on a proprietary platform by a very large website development agency and some of the centres chose to implement the new website template. After loading their content, one centre asked us to help them optimize their site.

What we discovered was more complicated than a London transit map. The web development agency had created a disastrous UX and visitor flow resulting in multiple landing pages for the same services, landing pages which should have been supporting pages, missing landing pages, and loads of repetition of the same information leading you in circles. Naturally, we knew this could be lead to potential penalties from Google and other search engines due to duplicate content. Some of the landing pages even lacked unique URLs because they were part of a larger page structure using dropdowns. The entire site was an absolute disaster and caused us multiple headaches and frustration.

Considering how much money was spent on the site and the length of time it took to build, this really should have been a dream site, not a nearly damaging sinkhole.

Helping to clean up this mess proved nothing is ever too small to over-complicate in the wrong hands.

True Story #4: Farmed-out Backlink Fiasco

by CT Moore, Founder and Principle of Socialed Inc.

CT Moore, Socialed Inc.
I was once mandated to conduct an SEO Audit of a major vacation rental website. In addition to the need for some onsite technical SEO changes and keyword research, one of the biggest recommendations which came out of the audit was the need for link building. I suggested the client’s dev team start working on the on-site technical SEO issues, while we started tackling the keyword research and link building strategy.

At this point, however, the client informed me they had already been conducting link building for several months (with another freelance link builder) and expressed concern the SEO Audit didn’t catch the *hundreds of links they had built in the previous months. Well, after a bit of digging, we were able to figure out their “freelance link builder” was simply using a link farm service based out of India, and was building hundreds of spammy links a month.

I convinced the client to cease their link building efforts and we spent the next 2 months having those spamming links pulled down and disavowing the ones we couldn’t.

All in all, we were able to clean up the the client’s backlink profile, but it ended up costing the client much more to clean it up than they initially spent on creating the spammy links. In any case, once we implemented the onsite SEO technical changes, we started white hat link building by producing quality content and doing blogger outreach, and increased organic traffic ~60% year-over-year. More importantly, though, the client learned both the value of producing good content, as well as the dangers of trusting so-called “SEO experts” who promise over-the-top results at bargain-basement prices.

True Story #5: Tanking Traffic

by Vicky Lawrence, Director of Services and Client Strategy, gShift

Vicky Lawrence, gShift
[x_image type=”circle” float=”left” src=”/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Vicky-Lawrence-150.jpg” alt=”Vicky Lawrence, gShift” title=”Vicky Lawrence, gShift” info=”none” info_place=”top” info_trigger=”hover”]Earlier this spring, we ran a consultation with a major law firm who had been seeing massive drops in their organic traffic for months. They were looking for a second opinion to help identify what the possible causes could be. We listened while they explained what had been done for SEO and their new site launch over the past year. They explained they had been working with an agency for many years who had recently taken over SEO work and handled the redesign and launch of the new site. I knew we would need to do a little digging before we could get to the bottom of it all. I offered to run an extensive site audit to help identify any red flags.

It didn’t take us long to see what some of the issues were.

The first culprit was terrible backlinks. Tons of backlinks had been created from overseas sites with little to no domain authority. In looking at some of these sites, we could see they were pure link farms with basically no content and/or expired domains which no longer were live. On top of that, we could see a HUGE spike in the number of backlinks created within a two month span, meaning they were certainly not gathered in any genuine or organic fashion. I explained to the client a few ways in which this could have happened and outlined the solution for how we could clean it up by disavowing the links in Google. When the client asked their other agency about the backlinks, they were met with complete denial and misdirected blame elsewhere, even going so far as to say maybe companies overseas had done it for free… because, you know, that happens all the time when someone has something to sell. The worst part? We were curious to see what the backlink profile for the other agency looked like, so we review them as well and discovered a ton of spammy backlinks pointing at their site. Talk about a smoking gun!

The next major red flag was noted in how the move from HTTP to HTTPS had been handled. While the agency used the proper method for any redirects, they did not bother to create a new XML sitemap for Google Search Console and got very defensive when we recommended it. This is standard practice anytime a major change is done to the domain structure of a website and should have been basic knowledge for a smooth transition to the new site.

At the end of the day, it is not only what the other agency did, but how they reacted to us and their client when questioned. The client’s site tanked due to their actions or in some cases, lack of action, and they took no responsibility whatsoever.


So business leaders beware! Not every digital agency is created equally, whether due to their internal leadership or talent working on your account. I sympathize with business leaders when having to select an agency or hire resources internally – there is a lot to know and many conflicting opinions about digital strategies and how to prioritize budgets.

The reality is, SEO best practices today are not difficult to find and most are documented on Google’s Webmaster Blog.

If you are an agency and want to contribute a horror story, we would love to hear from you.

If you are a brand and want to validate the SEO to your web presence and obtain a truthful answer, we would love to hear from you too.