It Was a Dark and Scary SEO Night


scary_smallADOTAS – I am about to share with you a dark and scary SEO story just in time for Halloween. Unlike the stuff you see on reality TV, this is a true story that happened over three years ago involving an SEO client.

I started an SEO campaign for a client in the home construction market. After completing all the standard research and analysis (market, keyword, competitive, site assessment, etc.), I proceeded to develop our SEO strategy and initial 90-day SEO action plan. All was going well. Or so I thought…

The next step was to install the agency’s proprietary campaign-level tracking code and begin the initial page editing process. With our tracking code we measure attribution, calculate cost per lead, and other important campaign metrics not commonly available in many website measurement services like Google Analytics.

Unaccounted Web Pages

After logging into the site via FTP to start uploading our tracking code, I quickly noticed a large set of “unaccounted” web pages on the server.

I am sometimes guilty of this practice. When I am optimizing a client site I typically save a copy of an existing web page and rename it. I then “optimize” this temporary page and when finished, I swap the “original” page with my new “optimized” page.

The problem is when I see shiny objects, I get easily distracted and may forget to delete the temporary page and leave it on the server. In fact if you ever login to my server – you will see my pages are named pagename_WIP.html, pagename_OLD.html, pagename_BAK.html – where pagename is the original page and WIP, OLD and BAK refers to old, backup or work in progress pages. Ok, enough about me and my project management style.

Although it’s not unusual to leave “unaccounted” pages in the root directory, I downloaded about 10 pages to review the content.

Horripilation (aka Goose Bumps)

After downloading the content, I began opening the files and reading… All of a sudden, a cold shiver ran down my back and goose bumps flared up on my arms. I was scared — really scared.

The content I was reading was intended as doorway pages. A doorway page is a web page designed exclusively for the search engines, not for human visitors. From an SEO perspective, a doorway page generally targets one or two keywords to help support the authority argument for the site.

I then looked back at the server and began counting real pages vs. doorway pages. The site had 140 pages of which 60 were doorway pages. In short, over 40% of the web content followed a “black hat” SEO technique. Unfortunately the site relied heavily on the doorway pages to support the numerous first page and second page rankings. Worse yet, if the search engines found the doorway pages, likely 1 of 2 things would occur. Either:

  1. An immediate -40 ranking reduction, a process where the site is penalized and rankings are reduced by 40 spots.
  2. Outright banning of the site from the search engines.

When a Stranger Calls

I immediately felt like I was in the horror movie “When a Stranger Calls.” You probably know the scene. After receiving several “prank” phone calls, the lone babysitter phones the police asking them to trace the call. In doing so, the police state the call is originating from inside the house. Ok, I am dating myself but you get the point – all of a sudden you lose complete sense of security.

I closely examined each and every page in the site. Several hours later I found the home page and seven other pages had an old-school transparent 1×1 pixel gif that linked to the doorway pages. Having been down this road before, I realized this was not an easy fix. If we removed the transparent pixels or removed the doorway pages all at once, the site’s rankings would plummet — meaning an immediate loss of leads and thereby revenue for my client.

The only way to preserve the rankings, traffic, leads, and revenue was to slowly remove the doorway pages, and replace each page, page-by-page, with real content. However, to write 60 new pages of content, get it approved by the client, rebuild HTML pages, and upload them to the site was not going to happen overnight. In addition, we had to figure out how to re-architect the existing website to support adding new content.

It was now about 7:00 p.m. and having already put in 12 hours, I called it a day. The next day I came to work and started developing a new SEO action plan to replace our original plan. By midday, I called the client with the newly completed plan.

The Scary Client

David (yes, this is his real name) did not take the news well. While the firm’s SEO campaign achieved 1st and 2nd page rankings, the campaign reached a plateau about 6 months earlier (which is why David contacted us).

It is important to understand that David is what you call a Type A personality. He knows it too – but this is what has made his business a success. He is extremely driven and equally impatient. Knowing David’s personality has nothing to do with this story, except for the fact that it added to my personal stress level and made me even more scared when delivering the news.

As you can see, working for an agency is always glamorous and fun just like on Mad Men. Substitute two martini lunches with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich plus a Vitamin Water and this is an SEO’s day job.

Over the next four months, we performed the tedious process of substituting the doorway pages with the “real pages.” When we completed the transition, the rankings actually dropped for a couple weeks and we experienced yet another scare. I

t turned out we removed doorway pages before getting the new pages indexed. Until that time our process was to add the new page, get it indexed and then remove a doorway page. Unfortunately a couple new pages were not indexed and rankings dropped as we prematurely removed the doorway pages.

After a six-month period, we had accomplished two amazing things:

  1. We had preserved the original rankings.
  2. We moved up the rankings for a handful of keywords – both without a missing a beat in terms of leads or revenue for the client.

Doing this type of SEO work is scary on many levels. On one level you have to address the search engine guidelines. As an SEO – do you want to be associated with a penalized or banned site? On the other hand you have to address the real-life situations that are presented. In this case, doorway pages meant leads for my client. Finally you have to realize this work represents revenue to your agency.

By the way, three years later David is still a client and we recently started work on a new website. When negotiating a contract on the new website, I found he is still a Type A personality but he is no longer a scary SEO client.


  1. Some excellent points. Sometimes we can get so caught up in what the SE’s are doing that we lose sight of the big picture and what really matters which is traffic and traffic trends which ultimately will convert to customers!


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