Using Negative Thinking to Plan for the Worst in Online Marketing

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Since I am a total pessimist with slight OCD, I always envision the worst in any situation. For example, if I need to go and mail something (yikes) I imagine not being able to find a parking space at the post office, first of all. Then I imagine getting in the wrong line, not having the correct address, my credit card failing, or the postal worker just glaring at me. They’re scary, you know. Then I realize that wow, I’m really insane. They want me to mail my little letter (I think) and no one is out there actively trying to prevent me from mailing someone. Whew.

Oddly enough, this attitude truly helped me when I was a programmer. I could immediately identify all the areas where my code could fail, and I could put code into place to account for just about any bizarre scenario that you could come up with. When I did compliance testing, I could break code almost immediately because of this. I still delight in blowing things up and pointing out all the reasons something is bound to fail.

Lest you think I’m proud to be such a Negative Nancy, let me assure you that I’m just, um, a bit nuts really. I’ve just learned to use it to my advantage, and when you’re doing SEO, you really do need to think about all the ways you could mess it up completely.

Inventing problems and figuring out solutions really can help you brainstorm. Let’s say that you are thinking of trying a new tactic that you’re heard worked wonders for someone else’s site. Be really, really paranoid and negative and imagine the worst:

  1. The site loses all rankings and gets banned.
  2. The client fires you and employs the JC Penney style “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” strategy, totally screwing your reputation.
  3. No one wants to work with you and you are forced to get a job at Starbucks. (shudders)

Chances are (unless you’re doing something really bad/stupid), none of these will happen but I think it’s best to be prepared for the absolute worst thing, then figure out creative ways of avoiding such disaster. Let’s face it: if you don’t think you can get penalized or banned by Google, you’re naive. If you can afford to burn a site, then kudos to you, but the rest of us aren’t usually so lucky so we have to proceed with a bit more caution.

Use If Then Logic

Think of the “if then” statements that could apply to what you’re about to change. Listing out “if then” statements for both successes AND failures can help you more quickly respond and recover. If a new technique works brilliantly on a few pages, by all means, roll it out to more. If it does not and you lose rankings and/or traffic, have a plan in place for undoing the damage and moving on from there. With a link building campaign, many people are particularly itchy because of all the hullabaloo surrounding Google’s nonstop attempts to prevent crap links from helping sites. They think they have too many overly optimized anchors, or too few ones, or too many brand links, or some old spammy ones that they might want to clean up.

If things are going swimmingly and you decide to go after only brand links, then in a month you see rankings for your best keywords dropping, you’ll want a plan in place to handle that. It’s not that easy to go back to all those webmasters who gave you the brand links and ask for them to be changed. That might be a bad option anyway. Maybe you should ask them, maybe you should start pursuing more optimized anchors, maybe you need to buy ads to keep traffic rolling for these keywords, or maybe you can sit back and wait to see if things need more time to settle down. The point here is that you need a plan no matter what happens. Plans are quite personal depending on your site so I’m not about to give you one.

Keep A Control Group

Start out making a change that you can actually measure while keeping a control option. For example, if you decide that you want to use a new landing page for 5 keywords in Google Adwords, keep a group that uses the old landing page as well and see which one works better. This seems so obvious but speaking from experience, once we learn of something new that might really work well, we don’t always want to keep our old methods rolling. If you have always built links for one keyword to the home page and decide to build all the new links for that keyword to a better landing page, wait a bit and see how it goes before you change the targets for your other 500 keywords.

Back It All Up

If your worst-case scenario is that you lose all of your best rankings and that does indeed happen, make sure you can undo what you did as much as possible. This applies to online marketing of almost any sort. Pause your existing paid ads before doing completely new ones in case you need to go back to them. Back up your old code in case you need to slap it back in again.

With links, this is a bit trickier as the link building process is not always one that we can control, and it’s also incredibly time-consuming and tedious. Hopefully though, since this type of marketing is a bit more difficult in many ways, you won’t be making drastic changes that quickly anyway.

Keep Trying

The bad thing about always expecting things to go wrong is that when they do, we feel both satisfied and complacent. Thus, we may not be inclined to continue to try new things. Don’t let this happen What if the next thing you try skyrockets your site into the top 3 positions in Google, brings you loads of traffic, and gives you a ton of new conversions?

Naturally there are a few steps you can take to cut down on the likelihood of getting a penalty or a ban (or of just having crap rankings.) You can abide by Google’s guidelines of course, and if you do break the rules, you can do it in the least obvious fashion possible. As George Carlin once said “cop didn’t see it, I didn’t do it.” If you can’t afford a penalty for link buying, don’t buy links though, period. If you can afford it and decide to do it, then again, don’t go the JC Penney route. Those paid links would have been obvious to my mother.

You can avoid all the really, really bad SEO tactics like keyword stuffing and having keywordized-URLs that are 10000 characters long. A page named “blue-and-grey-and-green-striped-long-tall-kneesocks-with-moneys-eating-bananas-stitched-by-hand-by-elves.asp” is simply not necessary. Don’t try to hide things like links or hide your spammy content and don’t trick users in general. Above all else, just envision the worst and be prepared for it, should it happen.

Julie Joyce
Julie Joyce owns the link development agency Link Fish Media, is one of SEO Chicks, and contributes to Search Engine Land and Search Marketing Gurus.
Julie Joyce

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  • Anonymous

    Sorry, but there’s no “backing up” in the SEO process.

    If you mess something up, you can’t just hit “undo” and expect things to revert back to where they were before.

    • joshuatitsworth

      Julie isn’t saying you’ll get the rankings back, she is saying you can minimize the damage so your rankings don’t fall further. What you will have done is found out that the changes you made hurt your site, so undo what you changed and use the “backup” or old version of the site before you made the change and plan another course of action.

      • Anonymous

        Minimizing damage after you’ve lost all of your [best] rankings?

        To quote Julie, “If your worst-case scenario is that you lose all of your best rankings and that does indeed happen, make sure you can undo what you did as much as possible.”

        I don’t think it’s a bad idea to back things up. And I don’t think it’s bad to experiment (though it depends on the site/client). But if I lose all of my rankings, I wouldn’t expect to get them back for quite some time.

        If you lose your rankings shortly after some “radical experimentation”, you’ve really dropped the ball. So patching things up is going to take quite some time.

        And if you lose your rankings months after, how do you really know what caused them to drop?

        Getting clients to make changes to their site is a tough enough task in itself. Then, if you have to explain to them that what you just got them to agree to turned out to be a bad strategy. Well, guess what, you probably have ruined your reputation as their “expert” consultant.

        Experiment on your own sites. Or be very clear w/ your client’s organization in conveying the possible negative consequences in testing and questionable agressive strategies. I can pretty much guarantee that none of my clients want to potentially lose 70% of their overall site traffic.

        Maybe I’m just more of an OCD pessimist than Julie. 😉

        I learned my lesson in 1997 after being banned from Alta Vista for using Web Poisition Gold.

  • Zippy Cart

    True enough, but I think having saved copies of the old versions of pages, etc. can help patch things up if a new move turns out to be disastrous. The recommendations in this article do a good job of keeping us on our toes and focused on new directions, while also having a backup plan and a defensible position.

  • Moosa Hemani

    Having a morning coffee from starbucks is always a good choice but working there was a horrible sketch 🙂

    I really believe that you should have the documentation on what you have did so In case anything goes horribly wrong so you can fix it but unfortunately in my experience if the changes are on-page or related to Paid ads placement they can fix but 100% things can’t be fix (as it was before) again especially when it comes to links you manually posted on a website where you shouldn’t… I don’t think website owners are flexible enough to remove and add the links on request.

    I enjoyed how the post started… very awesome.

  • Julie Joyce

    The “as much as possible” is definitely not something I can quantify, and you’re right to say that sometimes what caused the problem was way in the past. I guess if that happens, all you can do is try and figure out what happened, and fix it. That’s easier said than done of course.

    I wrote this before the the Pandamonium happened actually, so I’d probably be a bit harsher in my negativity now ha!

    Thanks for all the comments!

  • zoli

    Hi there,
    I did really enjoy this reading. Since I worked in the quality management for years this approach is very close to me. Failure mode and effect analysis is the widely used technique that describes the method that help you to prepare and to prevent problems.

  • Jennilia

    Before doing any onpage changes do keep a copy of the previous work and then
    perform your changes.Documentation of your page is also important.

    • Dhiraj Cbm

      bat way save the page we r create a new page ?????????????