Bob Sakayama: The Risks Of Search Dependence

by Marcus Wilson, DLinePress


CEO Of TNG/Earthling

His New York City based company, TNG/Earthling specializes in the arcane world of enterprise search performance. Although it may be accurate to refer to him as an SEO consultant, it's important to note that SEOs are among his clients - Bob Sakayama operates in a world upstream of SEO agencies. In addition to achieving productive ranks and traffic, he also advises clients making investment decisions on the risks to a target business created by the way they have implemented or promoted their website.


The Potential For A Severe Google Penalty

As a Google penalty expert he assisted in the recovery of hundreds of sites and shared the tactics he used on, which is required reading for anyone practicing SEO. He's also quoted in Forbes on the topic. The lessons learned from these potentially existential rank and traffic losses contribute to the understanding of what drives rank. A lot of specific data on what not to do is hugely valuable because it's a window into what you should do.

A business relying on Google ranks or search ads needs situational awareness regarding the potential vulnerabilities of the site's search strategy. Bob observes that virtually all the penalties he's remedied have been triggered by a failed attempt to push the ranks. Many sites lose ranks as a result of a large number of simple errors and oversight lapses. Because there are so many ways to be non-compliant, there are many degrees of consequences in the form of penalties or rank suppression. It's very common for a site to have suppressed ranks due to a minor offense, and never know.  On the other extreme, Bob has observed $50+ million businesses, lose all ranks, traffic, sales, forced to lay off workers, then finally disappear as the business dissolves under the death embrace of a Google penalty. In some instances, recovery actually could have been possible, yet not within the time frame demanded by creditors. But an added complication is that Google is constantly changing the rules, often in contradictory ways. Optimization tactics that Google once endorsed are now frowned upon - eg. those reciprocal links that Google's Matt Cutts encouraged.

While a rank penalty is devastating, the fact is, it's pretty easy to stay in Google's good graces - just abide by their much touted guidelines. Most business owners know that this does not lead to productive ranks in a competitive market. It is not a secret that Google has always used inbound links as a ranking signal. Although their status is changing, links are a super important ranking factor. But Google will penalize you if you buy them. They insist that natural links will come to your content if it is informative, fact-sourced, and detailed. But even if you create outstanding content no one can link to it if they don't know about it, so you find ways to incentivize them to link to you. But Google will harm you if they discover you gave away products or anything of value in exchange for them. Get the picture?


The Risk From SEOs

No online business can exist if it's not findable. This is where SEOs step in with their "page one on Google" pitch, knowing the desperate state of a website without traffic. That desperation leads to many SEOs and agencies getting hired, and in this process risk enters the picture. Bob claims that 99% of the penalties he's worked on were caused by actions of an SEO agency or professional working to boost ranks and inadvertently triggering a penalty. One reason for this is that all of the tactics that are now considered high risk actually succeeded at some point in the past. A lot of SEOs experienced that success, and have stuck with deprecated tactics that do more harm than good.

One of those tactics is to build large numbers of links on valuable anchors. But Google is aware of this and has a number of defensive maneuvers designed to address it. One trigger is frequency. Too many links going up quickly can trigger an automated suppression. Likewise too many links using a valuable anchor. Bob suspects Google is using AI to determine the probability that the link is natural and harming or ignoring those with a low probability. But the fact that these kinds of links can trigger a negative reaction has created the environment that supports a dark, unethical practice. Do a search for "negative seo services" and observe the sales pitches for the dark side.


Risk Of 3rd Party Attacks

Google claims that is it not possible for a third party to trigger a penalty. Bob has proven that claim to be inaccurate using evidence from a client whose site was penalized after being bombarded with hundreds of crappy links from porn, pharma, and gambling sites. Fortunately this occurred when it was still possible to file a reconsideration request, which he filed on behalf of the client requesting release from a penalty due to a 3rd party attack. He included the entire list, all obviously malicious links that no one would ever point to their site. Google's response to this evidence was shocking. "Those toxic links were still considered our responsibility, so the penalty continued. The client was clearly an innocent victim of Google's penalty, unable to contest it. We posted the story very publicly and shortly afterward the penalty was lifted." But for many months, the business lost both sales and visibility. It's easy to see how loss of search visibility is an existential matter.

Bob continues, "While there is some downtime risks associate with service providers, these have been minimized for the most part. But we constantly bump up against software processes that govern connections among servers when things don't work often caused by efforts to prevent fraud. Every online business has experienced this, had to implement more robust security procedures in order to conduct transactions, authenticate ids, store information, etc. We constantly experience the consequences of overly sensitive fraud detection. Very recently, one of our online merchants was suddenly taken offline without notice - no website, email, sales. This has happened many times when there's a large network outage, the host is down, when one account on a shared environment is under ddos attack, etc. But this outage was different and pointed to a more obscure risk, where fraud detection flags scripts that are harmless, and shuts down everything as a result. The site uses Constant Contact for email marketing and daily updates the mailing list, and they gave us a script we could use the assist in the update. But Godaddy did not like that script. Now GD is the registrar, NOT the host, so this very unusual. The host is much more likely to act, because any malfeasance happens on their server, but the Constant Contact script was obviously ok with them." The cause of this disaster reveals 2 important risks:

-1- One supplier's technology may trigger a fraud response with serious consequences on another's technology.

-2- The domain registrar apparently has some reason to assert itself to prevent fraud by shutting down a domain on the suspicion of it.


Risk Of Creating Notoriety

Because of the internet and social media, individuals can do much harm to a business through bad reviews, comments and ranking. An angry customer actively posting negative opinions is a nightmare for a consumer oriented merchant. "One of our clients posted a road sign at their facility that read "All Lives Matter" during the protests that followed George Floyd's murder. Appearing to be anti Black Lives Matter, they were buried in obscenely negative Yelp and Google reviews and their 3.9 rating went to 2.1." On a hot button issue, you risk alienating half your customers if you need to publicize your opinion.


Risk Of A Nuked Domain

The partners had purchased a domain for $20,000 because the name was perfect - They could not get the site to rank - they were nowhere in Google. "We found that the domain had an overwhelmingly huge number of links obtained long before the purchase that was now suppressing the ranks. Google did not account for the change of ownership and allowed the penalty to be passed along to the new owners. They supposedly have a solution to a new owner, but don't count on it working, at least right away. We also experienced another case where a domain was harmed by the previous owner, and when we submitted the request for a penalty release upon ownership change, nothing happened, even with followup attempts." Because of these risks, Bob Sakayama advises clients not to purchase a domain, especially one where the name looks great, without vetting it for previous ownership. Look it up in to see what it was doing previously. Domains with popular names have probably changed hands many times already. Always have someone vet the domain's history and links to make sure it does not have risky skeletons in the closet.

So lots of ways to get in trouble online, even if you're just a bystander. So the best tactic is to know as much as possible about how things work, and where your vulnerabilities are. Run the latest versions of everything. Use CloudFlare to protect your site from ddos attacks. Periodically test your forms and order process, and review your metrics so you can catch a problem early. Bob will run link vets every 6 months on large sites that have come under attack in the past. Sometimes this feels unnecessary, but they always find things to fix or disavow. In a situation defined by risk, situational awareness is key.


October 1, 2021 : Marcus Wilson, DLinePress