That time I got fired from our website and the lessons learned

We’ve had a lot of clients come and go over the years. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing ’em.” But we’ve been lucky because none of our clients have ever fired us over incompetence or the like. It’s always been because the client has passed on, the client got a new job or decided to go do something drastically different, or some scenario where the site just wasn’t needed anymore. Except one, and that time I got fired.

A few years ago we were approached by a nice gentleman in Beech Grove, on the southeast side of Indianapolis, to design a new website. The guy had a troubled relationship with website developers. He had a nice domain from a couple years prior, it lapsed and he didn’t pay the renewal bill, and it was lost forever to the domain squatters that buy up lapsed domains in hopes you’ll want it back and pay a big price for it. Sure enough, he wanted it back. We attempted to contact the current domain owners, who absolutely weren’t doing anything with it (it was just a blank page with a couple of ads), and we offered $750 for it after an appraisal came back from a third party. The squatters balked and shot back a counter-offer of about $1,500, or twice the domain’s independently appraised value. Keep in mind domains typically cost about $12-$15. We informed our client and we promptly left it at that. That domain was lost forever. It did, however, tell me we’re right in always registering our clients domains for them. Even when our clients fail to pay us for their domain renewal, we’ll still re-register it for another year just as a precaution. We’d rather see that domain do nothing with us as the account holder than a squatter, and in three cases this has come back to help our clients. They’ve been caught up, they missed the billing emails, they were moving or whatever life was making them do at the time and stuff happens. We charged the $12 for reimbursement and they were up and running again.

But I digress, back to our firing.

Once we were tasked with re-designing the site he currently had, which was basically a template from a GoDaddy site builder that wasn’t doing him much good, we put together the best solution for his budget (which was less than a thousand dollars), and we set him up with a pretty good site. It had all his content on it and we made recommendations for how to further improve the site: add e-commerce for some things (like jewelry cleaner, pendants, watch batteries, etc.) and be aggressive on shipping costs to compete with Amazon and others. He was a small business on Main Street, USA, there was some value in that.

After a few months the client wasn’t satisfied with his ranking in Google. What he really wanted to do was out-rank the likes of the Shane Co., Reis Nichols, Moyer, and all the other national retailers you’ve heard of. Naturally, I wanted to get him there, but for a one-man operation in Beech Grove it was a tall order. I encouraged him to think about e-commerce, some new content, and did the best with the budget we were working with. Which is to say, not much — from both the budget and from my ability to provide what he was after.

Soon thereafter he hired “an SEO guy” to take over content on the site. I handed over some FTP information, the site files, and took my name off the site because I could see what was going to happen.

They loaded the site down with keywords making it practically unreadable (see the earlier story about an attorney in the same SEO situation), they beefed up the filenames to have all kinds of keywords. The about page had a link that must have been 7 or 8 words long, not counting the base of the domain. They beefed up the alt tags on images, the meta tags, the meta descriptions, the anchor text, title tags, and more. It was all very aggressive and the goal switched from, “Having a nice website for a handful of visitors” to “Having a nice website for search engines and maybe something for humans”.

My client was paying this person $200 a month for this service. As a frugal midwesterner, I detest monthly payments of any kind. I’d rather spend $1,000 once and be done vs. $50 a month for a year or ever. Naturally, we don’t often quote clients on services that are monthly recurring fees. I see the business potential in it for us, but I wouldn’t want to pay it, so I’m not going to ask our clients to pay it, either.

After a couple weeks the site skyrocketed across the search listings and had a Google page rank score  grow from 0 or 1 to 6 or 7. It ranked highly on local searches, it ranked highly in hyper-local searches, it ranked highly in broad searches, and it ranked highly in Maps listings. Seeing the value in that, my client fired me (albeit nicely and said he just needed to go in this direction for his business) and then went full-on with this SEO person.

In the coming weeks they rolled out a totally new site that was designed for keywords and search engines from the start and not much else. A lot of the same images and content I had done were used, but that’s okay.

Now, 3 or 4 years later, I see the site has a page rank score of 1. It’s domain authority is hovering in the low 20s (our of 100), and there’s some of the same content there as always. Doing searches for the site turns up nothing in the broad search phrases used before. They still rank highly for specific searches where there isn’t much competition, and specific searches show a slew of low-value junk websites linking back to his site that, to this day, are like zombie sites poisoning his rankings.

It’s likely Google punished the site and my former client because the SEO methods used were designed to game the system. It worked for a few weeks but really deterred the business in the long term. There still isn’t much compelling reason to visit the site beyond seeing a few products and a photo, and the main reason for the site’s existence — to get customers interested enough to call or come to the store – is hurt because of those decisions years ago.

There’s search engine optimization and there’s search engine optimization. It’s a fine line that requires someone who knows which way the wind is shifting and what you can and can’t do, what you should and shouldn’t do, and how you should do it. It also requires someone to say “No” sometimes, and I probably failed the client by not doing as good a job as possible explaining the risks he was taking with his online presence. Subsequently it’s probably hurt his business, but he was doing okay then and I’m sure he’s doing okay now from people just passing by the storefront. If he were an online-only retailer, this would be a much more different situation.

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Justin Harter

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