Remembrance of Spam Past
“I wish coke was still cola…and a joint was a bad place to be.”…Merle Haggard
I signaled to the bartender for a couple more pints of stout. Awesome stuff…the beer that eats like a meal. I waited for my friend to speak…clearly the alcohol was loosening his tongue…
“You know, this whole social media thing has totally changed the rules of the game. There are so many ways to get traffic now apart from the search engines…Digg, Sphinn, YouTube, Reddit…I can hardly keep track of them all. When I started in this business, it was just Google (and sometimes Yahoo) that mattered. On-page factors were so much stronger than they are now and all the links you needed to succeed could be gotten by spending time signing high Page Rank guestbooks”.
“Didn’t Google stop passing guestbook PR a long time ago?”
“Yeah, but their algorithm missed a few,” he laughed.
“So how did you make money online in that wild online environment? You’re not a programmer and your coding skills are slightly above hack level. As I recall you telling me, only a few SEM resources existed online back then from which you could learn.”
“I had to use ingenuity and creativity because I had nothing else. I assume you know what a doorway page is, correct?”
“Yes…they are kind of irrelevant now, aren’t they?”
“Yeah, but remember, algorithms were so much simpler back then. As a concept, the doorway page was brilliant…craft a page containing 250-400 words of content designed to rank well in the search engines for one important keyword phrase. I could create doorway pages with perfect keyword density in my sleep…I did so many of them, and if I were to link them off one of my sites, I invariably got top search engine rankings.”
“Manual creation of doorway pages would have been an awful slow, tedious process. I know you don’t program, so how did you scale this process to create the incredible amount of content that you did?”
“You see, I had known how to create doorway pages for some time before I discovered affiliate marketing…and affiliate marketing and doorway pages were a match made in heaven. My first affiliate program that I signed up for pushed cigarettes and the first month, I did about 20 of these doorway pages that made me about $100. That was the best money I ever made and I jumped into the affiliate marketing game with both feet. I was between jobs; I had lots of time on my hands; and I went to war.”
“But you still had the problem of scaling page creation?”
“Yes and here’s how I solved it. As I tell you this, keep mind at that time, Internet Explorer had 99% of the browser market.”
“Have you ever done a mail merge in Microsoft Word?”
“Sure, who hasn’t?”
“Your final document contains a large number of pages…the only differences between each page lie where the merge fields exist.”
“Think on this…you know the theory of doorway pages…what is the conceptual difference between a doorway page template and a mail merge template?”
I think I knew where he was going with this conversation. Typically in a mail merge document, the mail merge fields were at the top of the page for name, address, etc. But, the mail merge fields could be anywhere throughout the page, including within the body of the text.
“There really isn’t much a difference.”
“Correct again. So think of a typical doorway page. I might want to have my keyword string appear 4-6 times in the text, plus be present in an H1 tag & in a Title tag. Once I generated my “sales” text for the page, I then chose the most logical places to put my mail merge fields. The keywords in each list were generally nouns, or nouns modified by adjectives…so if you were smart with your page copy, you could actually create these mail-merged pages that read with a minimal amount of awkwardness. It did help that web surfers were much less sophisticated back them.”
“Where did you get your list of keywords?”
“Same resource that you use today…it was pretty darn good back then at generating hundreds of relevant keywords at the drop of a hat.”
I knew exactly what tool he was referring to.
“So you created a many-hundred page long Word document…how did you turn that into web pages?”
“You’ve seen the poor quality of code when you save a Microsoft Word document as a Web Page, correct?”
“The good thing about that crummy code is that it was consistent on each page. All I had to do was open that really long document in my HTML editor and do a series of mass “Copy and Replace” commands to get rid of the code bloat and strip the HTML to its most basic components. It also allowed me to add the Title tags and H1 tags to each page. I even figured out that I could make changes to the text by creative uses of xml tags…at the time, I had no idea what they meant but I did know that they made text disappear on the page.”
“How did you add affiliate links / banners?”
“Same way…I decided where they should be and creatively used “Copy/Replace” to get the code where I wanted it.”
“Did you use web templates?”
“Sometimes, but I didn’t think much about usability or conversion back then…all I cared about was getting top rankings and since I had a system that was making good money, my focus was on creating more and more content, not making the created content better. I figured out that if my text was good enough to scan read but not good enough to read closely, the web surfer would be more likely to click through the affiliate link. Also, I didn’t know about best “landing page” practices at the time, but my doorway pages had no navigation whatsoever and a surfer had a minimal number of possible choices once they landed on my pages…which increased the likelihood of getting them to click the affiliate link. Once they did that, my job was done…it was up to someone else to reel in the sale…I was out of the loop.
“But how did break up the one big mega-page into the hundreds of doorway pages?”
“I figured that if I searched hard enough, I could find a piece of software that would splice my pages. Sure enough, I did stumble upon some freeware would take a big ugly page and split each page at each instance of a header tag that I chose. I put H3 tags where I wanted the break, and the software did the rest. I then found a program that would read each subdirectory of my hard disk containing these newly created files, and created a list of file names, which I dumped into Excel and used as the basis for my site map. I uploaded all my pages, linked them to the home page, and I was done. Generally, it wouldn’t take 90 minutes from the time I signed up for an affiliate program to the time the pages made it online. And, so long as you viewed the pages through Internet Explorer, they looked good enough which meant only 1% of web surfers could see how F’ing stupid my pages looked.”
“So, how well did the system work?”
“Better in Yahoo than in Google. Google would always rank the index page well but the interior pages not so well (probably because I was trying to pass Page Rank to too many different pages). With Yahoo, it didn’t seem to matter how many pages I linked to the index page…all pages one off the root seemed to perform as well as the index page itself. I say “seem” because the only way I could measure success is through anecdotal observations of rankings + the amount of money I earned from each affiliate program.”
“How much did you earn?”
“I never made Shoe-level money, but I did make more money than the salary I would have gotten if I had stayed employed. Of course, the income flow was really erratic. You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule? My income flow was way more extreme where 10% of my efforts made 90% of the money.
Let me give you an example. There was one supplement that I totally found out by accident. Little did I know that when I created content to sell the product that it was not only the hottest thing on the planet but it had an exclusive online affiliate agreement with just one program, which meant that the competition to sell it was greatly reduced. Also about 20% of searchers misspelled the product the same way and I was the only person smart enough to target the misspelling in my pages. Typical payouts were $10-$40 per sale, with the bulk of sales paying me $20.
Sure enough, I immediately got into Google’s top 2 for the misspelling of the name and Yahoo’s top 2 for both the misspelling & the correct spelling and my crappy pages were regularly making me $100 – $200 per day, with some days as high as $400. I would outrank the company site with my affiliate page and they couldn’t do anything about it. That setup lasted for over 6 months…until the product lost its exclusivity.
I could tell you many other similar stories. Google would do these periodic updates (dances) and if you nailed a top ranking for your website, you could almost rest assured that you would keep that ranking until the next dance.”
“Why did you stop?”
“Over time, I could see my work getting less and less effective. I could either attempt to learn programming and go to war against the prevailing algorithms. Or, I could try to adapt to doing what they wanted to do and succeed by following their rules instead of breaking them. Plus, I found that my processes had become very tiresome and unfulfilling. I felt that I would have much more opportunity joining the mainstream of the search community instead of staying off on my own. Remember that I was doing all this work in a vacuum…I was not part of any network nor did I have any relationships in the industry.
You also have to realize that though my strategy worked great in the short term, it killed me in the long term. Had I spent even just part of my time building white hat authority sites in certain niches, I would have a reasonably secure income stream that could last way into the future. Instead, I ran through domains like General Sherman through Georgia and have almost nothing usable left in my portfolio from those years.”
“Heck, no. These experiences have taught me the ability to think and perceive that I use to advance my work on a daily basis. Even though I’ve pretty much lost my ability to spam my way to big $$$, I’m a much better SEO for my experiences. Had I learned SEO in a classroom or at an agency, I would not be nearly as effective in performing my current work.”
He finished his beer and went off towards the bathroom.
Some of those old-time SEO techniques were so quaint…it’s hard to believe that people used to do that stuff and harder to believe that any of it worked. Update Florida was the beginning of the end of that era and the event that pushed the industry towards a new maturity that is continuing to evolve today. I’m sure many people could not adapt to that new reality and had to find a different way to earn money. Meanwhile, lots of new folks jumped into the industry post-everflux that never experienced the earthquakes caused by a major algorithm shift. Perhaps it’s because I don’t play the way I used to, but things seem much safer today likely because so many more avenues exist to reach whatever goal you’re trying to reach.
SEO is like free jazz…sure, there are rules but the rules are just a jumping off point for the improvisation which is where the true art lies.
Todd Mintz is the Director of Internet Marketing & Information Systems for S.R. Clarke Inc., a Real Estate Development and Residential / Commercial Construction Executive Search / Recruiting Firm headquartered in Fairfax, VA with offices nationwide. He is also a Director & Founding Member of SEMpdx: Portland, Oregon’s Search Engine Marketing Association.