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7 Marketing Disasters That Turned Out to Be Precious Lessons

SEO and marketing pros have their own professional horror stories to tell. Here are a few, and the lessons they learned from the experience.

7 Marketing Disasters That Turned Out to Be Precious Lessons

Some people love horror stories and others don’t, but probably at some point, all of us have experienced a terrifying twist in life.

This inspired the SE Ranking team to reach out to SEO and marketing experts from all over the world and ask them to share some nightmare-of-a-case stories they had in their careers.

Our assumption was that since SEO is so fickle and marketing success depends on so many factors, our fellow colleagues will surely have some enticing stories to share.

Luckily, they didn’t mind dragging their skeletons out of the closet.

This article is all about mistakes that led to devastating consequences.

From lack of caution or vision to unexpected obstacles and bad luck – the reasons behind their marketing failures vary.

But fortunately, most of the stories had a happy ending.

And they all once again prove that the road to success is paved with failure.

They teach us that every mistake we make will ultimately steer us in the right direction as long as we learn the lesson and retain the necessary vigor to keep going.

Wikipedia Knowledge Graph Horror

Jason Barnard, The Brand SERP Guy,


A warning had been on the Wikipedia article for two years.

Then early July 2020, a new warning appeared.

Two weeks later, the Wikipedia article about me had been deleted by the administrators.

Within a week, my entity had disappeared from Google’s Knowledge Graph and the knowledge panel on my personal Brand SERP had gone.

A major nightmare for someone who calls himself The Brand SERP Guy.

Worse, a week later, the Wikipedia article about my folk-punk band from the ’90s was gone.

Two days later, the article about my TV series from the ’90s was gone, too.

Seems someone at Wikipedia had it in for me.

In fact, truth be told, it was my own fault.

In the interests of experimenting to see how much I could “feed” Google’s Knowledge Graph and control the knowledge panel on my personal Brand SERP, and those of my music group and TV series, I had (over) edited all three Wikipedia articles.

Which is against the rules.

So what happened?

Read on, because this horror story actually has a redemptive ending.

I rebuilt it all, took control of the entities, learned a lot about knowledge panels, and got some amazing insights into how the Knowledge Graph functions.

Entity: Jason Barnard

I panicked when the Wikipedia page was deleted and moved the structured data about me on my site from the home page to a dedicated About Page.

That turned out to be a mistake.

As described, the knowledge panel disappeared and the entry in the Knowledge Graph got deleted.

Once again, my own fault.

Entity: The Barking Dogs

This is the folk-punk group I mentioned earlier.

There had previously been a mix-up of information in the knowledge panel due to the ambiguity of the name, but last year I had sorted it out using:

  • markup on my site.
  • Wikipedia and Wikidata edits.
  • Some changes to music listings.
  • Some other tricks I learned along the way.

The deletion of the Wikipedia article brought back the mix-ups.

However, because of all the work I had done and the schema markup I had added, Google now saw my site as the main authority about the band.

That means I could now change things quite easily.

Including the description in the knowledge panel (updates take 10 minutes).

I had control.

Entity: Boowa & Kwala

This is the cartoon characters and TV series I mentioned earlier.

Following the deletion of the Wikipedia article about the TV series, the Knowledge Graph entity remained in place, and the information in the knowledge panel remained as-was, except the description, which disappeared.

Three weeks later that was back, but this time from my site (it has since switched to the official site).

Once again, my site and the schema markup I provide was Google’s fallback, the second-best source of information about the entity.

Once again, the deletion of the Wikipedia page gave me control.

Why Such a Disaster on My Own Name, But Not on Others?

Every entity needs a “home”.

Preferably on your site.

For all the three entities, my site was the “home” – the source of information Google uses as its point of reference in the absence of a Wikipedia article.

It appears that, when a substantial piece of information about an entity such as Wikipedia disappears, that is the fallback crutch Google uses to reassure itself that the Knowledge Graph is correct.

A Lesson to Learn

The schema markup on your site that describes you and related entities is vitally important to Google in its understanding of those entities and its confidence in its understanding of those entities.

The Redemptive Ending I Promised

The good news is that by leveraging the (rather groovy) entity-based markup provided by WordLift, in just 6 weeks I created a completely new entity in the Knowledge Graph and rebuilt the entire knowledge panel better than ever.

Google now uses my site as the reference for information about me (rather than Wikipedia).

And that means what appears in the knowledge panel is now (semi) controlled by me and no longer affected by anonymous Wikipedia editors who know nothing about me, and what information is important about me.


Legacy Code a.k.a., Zombie Code Story

Matthew Edgar, Technical SEO & Web Analytics Consultant, Speaker & Author

Nobody likes to see their organic traffic and rankings drop.

When a drop happens, though, you can usually figure out the cause.

  • An algorithm update.
  • A migration went wrong.
  • Somebody accidentally disallowed the entire site.
  • Etc.

But the scariest moment for me was when a client faced a traffic and rankings drop with no apparent cause.

Overnight, this client lost half their organic traffic.

The terms they had ranked highly for were simply gone.

There was no algorithm update, no changes to the website, no alterations to the content – there wasn’t even a surge in server errors (or any error) in any tool we looked at.

Competitors hadn’t changed anything either.

There was no growth in external backlinks.

Search Console wasn’t reporting a manual action.

The content was highly authoritative within this client’s industry and the company had (and still has) a strong brand reputation.

Mysteriously, overnight, this company’s organic traffic was simply gone.

Any traffic drop is scary enough but what made this a true nightmare scenario was that we couldn’t find any cause no matter where we looked.

For some unknown reason, Google decided to kick this site out of the index.

Without a cause, there wasn’t a clear place to begin recovering the traffic.

Do we start by fixing content?

Keep looking for a technical problem?

Maybe something happened with links?

Solving the Ranking Drop Mystery

Like any good mystery, the solution is only to be found via careful investigation.

So, we pushed through the nightmare and kept digging.

As we dug in, we started to find some hidden and underlying problems that had been lurking on this site for years.

The phrase “legacy code” has always worried me but this project made me realize that “legacy code” is one of the scarier parts of any website.

Given how scary “legacy code” can be, we maybe ought to rename it.

Maybe “zombie code” would be more fitting?

Thankfully, this story ended well.

After months of digging, we figured out that Google’s bots had stumbled across one of the nastier legacy areas of the site and deranked the website given what they had found there.

That one bad section of the site had caused Google to reevaluate the website in a negative light.

Talk about scary – one bad mistake can cause your entire website to fall out of Google’s index.

But once that section of the site was fixed, traffic began to recover and return to normal levels.

A Lesson to Learn

The moral of the story?

Fix every problem you can and keep your website as clean as can be.

Doing so is your best way to avoid this type of nightmare scenario.

Farzad Rashidi: Endless Contacts Sheets Nightmare

Co-founder, Respona

Off-page SEO is no bright and sunny walk in the park.

There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of things to keep track of while building links to your site.

If you don’t have the resources for a good CRM or a structured way of keeping track of your relationships, managing the people you’ve reached out to is an absolute nightmare.

At Visme, there was a period of time when this was our worst fear: constantly reaching out to the same person twice.

Whether it was looking for a link, asking to guest post, or even a sales pitch, sometimes a contact slipped through the cracks and got the same pitch again.

We had sheets upon sheets of people that we reached out to with different statuses of contact.

Imagine for a second, hundreds of rows in spreadsheets with every status color you can think of.

Just to see if you had reached out to someone before for an opportunity in the past.

Becoming a Mindless Zombie Who Contacts the Same Person Twice

At this point, you’re probably thinking to yourself “just ctrl-F and find the person you’re looking for.”

Yes…that’s what we did.

But when you do that for every contact you want to reach out for months and months, you really do turn into a mindless zombie.

That’s not even the scariest part, that’s only just the beginning.

Let’s say you’ve done your diligence and determined that someone is good for contact.

You send out that pitch and hope it hits the mark.

You wait…and wait…and wait, then you finally get a response.

It’s almost as if it happens in slow motion.

You open up the reply and your heart drops reading the message:

“Really man, you literally pitched this to me last week. Not interested and don’t contact us again”

That’s when the doubt starts setting in.

Did I forget to log him last time?

Did I look at the wrong sheet?

Did I use the wrong pitch?

Who knows what happened, but now all that’s left is a failed connection and an embarrassed marketer.

From here, you send that email of shame apologizing for the accidental spam hoping that the recipient doesn’t post it on LinkedIn as an example of what not to do as a digital marketer.

A Lesson to Learn

Thankfully, we have resolved this issue by incorporating Respona into our workflow, but what a testing time that was before then.

Don’t make the mistakes we made and get something that will help you track the people you contact day-in and day-out.

Save time and save your domain reputation.

That’s the best I can give to you.

Fatal Legal Pitfalls

Craig Campbell, SEO Trainer & Consultant, Craig Campbell SEO

So my horror story that is marketing related was when I was going to launch my first ecommerce store.

After around 14 years of experience in the industry, it was time to try and make my own money.

So I did my keyword research and saw that E-cigs were going to be a big thing, there was a ton of search volume and it was easy to get a drop shipper.

Like an idiot, I got a website that was built on WordPress with WooCommerce for the ecommerce functionality.

We loaded up all of the different products and went crazy investing in links and content alongside a whole bunch of personal time managing and doing all the other things like internal links, title tags, and a whole bunch of other SEO stuff.

So after around 4-5 months of considerable investment in content and time spent doing SEO, we started to rank well and the orders were piling in.

I sat with my team and wanted to put money into paid social and PPC to accelerate the growth and also get those user engagement signals and stuff too.

Horrifying Revelation

To my horror, I realized I hadn’t done the research: you can’t do paid social or PPC ads on E-cigs.

It’s just a legal issue and the governing bodies don’t want that type of product promoted via paid ads.

And in hindsight, I can understand why.

Taking payments was also a problem with PayPal being the only payment gateway prepared to allow us to take payments – again because of the type of product we were selling.

The dropshipper we found out was a guy working in his kitchen mixing up the e-liquids and started to run out of stock or got too busy to service our clients.

A Lesson to Learn

This was a catalog of errors and mistakes on my part, which made this a horrible project to work on.

In the end, I simply had to throw it all down the toilet pan – it was more trouble than it was worth.

The point here is, do your niche research and understand the business model, not just the search volume.

4. Two Stories About Sneaky Code & Dreadful Management Style

Igor Kolesnikov, Head of SEO, SE Ranking

At some point, every SEO specialist faces problems that surged because of what other people working with a website did.

Mistakes made by web developers, digital marketers, or project managers often impact website SEO, which is a pain.

However, over time you can develop resistance to such cases as long as you know which actions to take to remedy the situation.

I’ll share a couple of interesting stories from my personal experience of working with web developers and project managers on various projects.

A Long Time Ago in a Digital Project Far, Far Away…

One major ecommerce website decides to update product pages design for a particular product category.

SEO specialists were involved in the matter at the very beginning to create a technical task and at the very end when all the changes were pushed to the live site.

Everything went fine up until the release time.

Now, you’re probably thinking that it was the trivial case of noindex used in the meta robots tag.

Well, you are right.

But the case turned out to be more significant than it first seemed.

Surely, we’ve solved the initial problem.

But since the affected category featured about 20K products and this category brought most of the website traffic, the project has been suffering significant traffic losses for three months.

That Was Not the End of the Story

Everything seemed to be back on track, but then the noindex tag started to randomly appear and disappear across various product pages, and we couldn’t figure out the reason behind it.

The affected pages started falling out of the index, so our developers and QAs were trying hard to find the root of the problem, but they didn’t succeed.

Developers kept digging to solve this mysterious case, but as a result, it turned out that the SEO specialist was the true detective.

Apparently, the problem was caused by the script which was meant to check product data against the database and update it when necessary.

The new live website didn’t get this script updated, and so whenever this script did its job changing the product price or adding a comment, it pulled the data from the database and at the same time added tags from the dev site to the live website.

The mystery was solved with the help of a regular source code management tool that was set to send alerts whenever the website’s source code was modified.

A Lesson to Learn

Use source code management software and don’t blame some mysterious forces.

There’s always a clear logic behind the way technical stuff works.

Terribly Poor Management Can Kill Any Project

Another story had happened when I worked with a team that was launching a new project.

We had a plan to create an ecommerce website with a powerful blog in a highly competitive niche.

We hoped to get most of the website traffic from organic search by driving visitors to blog articles through informational search queries.

An SEO specialist (who was not a part of the team) did a great job developing a long-term strategy for launching the project.

He specified development stages, outlined a link building strategy and a content plan, analyzed the competition, and applied predictive analytics methods.

He also advised on which team members need to be hired to complete all the tasks.

Alternative Manager’s Vision and Its Consequences

However, the project manager decided to do things differently.

As a result, the strategy was drastically modified:

  • Link building efforts were removed from the plan for the first three months (OMG!).
  • The overall expected backlink profile was cut by 65% (Do we really need all those backlinks?).
  • Instead of hiring two back-end and one front-end developers along with a web designer, the decision was made to hire one full-stack developer (no comment here).
  • Instead of hiring five SEO specialists, the manager decided to only hire two (they had no experience of dealing with big ecommerce websites).
  • No editors or proofreaders were hired (SEO specialists had to do the work instead).
  • The number of articles to be published remained as initially planned (this surely also was the manager’s fault).

As you’d expect, the outcome was horrifying.

With regard to the reduced amount of human resources, we could hardly hope to achieve the expected results.

SEO specialists spent almost all their time on editorial duties so that they could keep up with the amount of content that was created.

Other tasks related to website semantics, competitor analysis, technical SEO, internal linking, and other SEO stuff were mostly piling up in the backlog.

While trying to kill two birds with one stone, SEO specialists couldn’t do any of their tasks well.

Of course, the decision not to build links to the website within the first month didn’t make any sense to SEO specialists especially when dealing with a project whose competitors boast thousands of referring domains.

Website development stopped at the point of editing the WordPress template and adding minimal extra features to it, mostly with the help of plugins.

As a result, because of the manager’s poor vision, the project didn’t reach even 1/1000 of its traffic potential.

A Lesson to Learn

If you believe that a project manager’s decisions are not adequate, don’t shy away and make sure to share your thoughts with the top management.

If they are not eager to listen, decide if you really want to be a part of such a project.

And don’t try to complete every possible task on your own.

Having more tasks than you can physically complete, you’ll always risk feeling frustrated and getting burnt out.

Negative experience is precious, but don’t let it kill your passion for what you do.

Deadly Price of Pursuing a Dream

Eduard Dziak, Owner,

Many marketers share the same dream of starting a marketing agency and offering digital marketing consultation services.

They soon know that they will have to either choose to follow their dream and take on all the risks or just leave it behind – I myself went for the second scenario.

I started out small with my friends, family, and local business owners who did not really understand the internet and how things work to generate positive results.

I have been successful with my small gigs and many times I charged my clients nothing to just gain the experiences and some testimonials.

But at some point I got bored, and I was ready to take on something bigger.

During a dinner with my parents-in-law, I said I was ready to take it a step further.

Conveniently my father-in-law was a business consultant with plenty of contacts and friends, and I convinced him to help me find my first major client.

Stage 1: Euphoria

Fair enough, a few days later, he came back saying his old friend and business partner, who owned farm plantations and manufacturing, needed help with PPC advertising.

I was super excited since I got a chance to work in the B2B space which was my area of interest.

After talking to the client, I found out that he already had a marketing team of four people who were advertising on Google and Facebook, but the results were poor with tiny ROI.

My job was to provide consultation and lead the marketing team to help them achieve their KPIs.

And this got me even more excited as I was confident I could improve their advertising as I did with small businesses before and I had a whole team to do the manual work for me.

This felt great.

Stage 2: Envisioning

Once I met with the marketing team and studied all the data, I was still thinking that the KPIs they wanted to achieve were really reasonable and I believed they could do even better than that.

So I raised the bar, but not too high as I still wanted to play things safe, yet still deliver more.

I spent two weeks analyzing their website, analytics, advertising, and marketing plan to come up with a comprehensive advertising strategy and get the most out of their budget.

As a result, I found a handful of things that had to be changed to improve their advertising ROI.

Upon getting approval from the marketing manager, I started to bring my strategy to life.

Stage 3: Anticipation

Another two weeks passed by, and we have finished redesigning their advertising and landing pages, so it was now time to patiently wait for all my PPC endeavors to show results.

In the first two weeks, they got zero leads, but I thought that was because it takes time for the system to learn new campaigns.

Then a whole month passed by and they got only one lead.

And then another month finished, they still had only three leads since the advertising campaign relaunch.

This was a massive dropdown from 15-20 leads a month to only one or two.

It was really a disaster.

The marketing manager was furious and the friend of my father-in-law was even more enraged.

Stage 4: Denial

I tried to remedy the case by reviewing their accounts and trying to figure out what went so wrong, but I couldn’t find anything.

I spent days and nights trying to solve this conundrum, but another few weeks went by, and their advertising was still providing terrible results.

My father-in-law received a call from his upset friend who said I screwed up with their advertising, and now my father-in-law was disappointed as well.

On top of that, they asked me to refund the money they paid for my services and since I no longer had the money, I had to borrow it from my father-in-law.

Stage 5: Acceptance

So there I was, a person who had lost a big opportunity and trust, broke and in-debt.

I almost lost hope I could be a marketing consultant, but luckily I didn’t throw in the towel and had plenty of successful cases since then.

Definitely, this wasn’t what I imagined when I planned to become a marketing consultant, but that’s life.

A Lesson to Learn

Are you afraid to follow your dream because of the mistakes you can make?

Most likely you will make some mistakes just like me, but don’t let the fear of failing stop you from doing what you love.

Mistakes happen and you’ll just have to embrace them and power through the difficulties, there’s just no way around it.

To Sum Up

Although epic marketing fails are painful to go through, they offer valuable lessons that will make you better at your job.

They help us grow as marketers.

If you haven’t lived through your own marketing horror story, rest assured at some point you will.

And someday soon, you may star in a sequel to this very post!


More Resources:

Image Credits

Featured & In-Post Images: SE Ranking
All screenshots provided by contributors, October 2020

Category Careers SEO
Svetlana Shchehel Head of Content at SE Ranking

Svetlana is Head of Content at SE Ranking, a cloud-based platform for SEO and online marketing professionals. Svetlana’s interests span ...

7 Marketing Disasters That Turned Out to Be Precious Lessons

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