Growth Hacking Interview Series #11: Marie Haynes
Marie is a leader in the field of Google Penalty recovery.
Her company focuses exclusively on penalty removal and recovery from drastic changes in Google’s algorithm.
We’ve asked her a number of questions and I think you’ll find the answers quite interesting!
Hi Marie, great to meet you! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you became to be involved with the SEO industry?
Thanks so much for inviting me to do this interview today! My story is an interesting one.
In early 2012 I left a lucrative and stimulating career as a veterinarian to get in to SEO.
Everyone around me thought that I was crazy to leave a steady career that I had worked so hard to achieve. I had been a vet for 13 years and really enjoyed my job.
But, in 2009 I had started to take an interest in SEO so that I could help my husband’s real estate site perform better in Google.
I became absolutely obsessed with learning how Google works. In early 2012 we were pregnant with our second child and I was put on bed rest.
I spent 16 hours a day hanging out in SEO forums.
One day I gave someone some incorrect advice and told them to apply for reconsideration when really they had an algorithmic problem and reconsideration wouldn’t accomplish anything.
A senior member of the forum called me out on my mistake. When this happened, I realized that there was so much that people in the SEO field did not know about Google penalties.
I made it my mission to understand absolutely everything there is to know about penalties and major algorithm changes like Panda and Penguin.
I created a site called My Traffic Dropped with a quiz that helps site owners to know why their Google traffic was dropping.
In the process I learned so much about these types of issues. Eventually people started to ask me for consulting.
At first I was hesitant because I was afraid to give out bad advice, but as I started to get more confident in my knowledge I started to do some consulting.
What started out as a hobby very rapidly grew into a large business. I employ several people now and we focus almost exclusively on helping site owners who have penalty problems.
We work with small businesses as well as a number of very well known brands.
A huge portion of our work lately is in offering a service to help people recover from Penguin.
If you had told me a few years ago that I would own my own marketing company I would have said you were nuts.
But now I absolutely love my “work”. I can’t believe that people pay me to talk about things that I am insanely passionate about.
How do you personally keep up to date with the latest in SEO? It’s an ever changing industry so SEO consultants by nature need to be on the ball – how do you achieve this?
My biggest resource is Twitter. I’m probably overly obsessed with it.
The other day I realized that I had gone 6 hours without checking Twitter and I thought, “Oh no! What if Penguin refreshed while I was away!!!”
The other resource that is huge to me is John Mueller on Youtube.
I have started transcribing each and every one of his Webmaster Central Hangouts.
Each one is about an hour long and is always packed with new information that helps us understand how Google thinks.
There have been a lot of algorithm changes from Google over the last year. I am sure that you’ve had many potential clients come to you with ranking issues due to past SEO practices they might have undertaken. Do you have any top-level advice for people who have seen their websites take a dramatic hit recently, or incurred a penalty?
When you’ve seen a traffic drop, the most important thing to do is to figure out WHY the traffic dropped.
I can’t tell you how many people come to me asking for link cleanup when really their problem is related to Panda, and Panda has nothing to do with links.
If you don’t know what the problem is then you are shooting in the dark trying to fix it.
What sets your SEO practice apart from the competition? Are there any unique aspects to your consultancy that gives you a competitive advantage?
I would say that 95% of what we do is related to Google Penalty recovery. I don’t think there are many agencies out there that focus almost exclusively on penalty work.
For any beginners to SEO, what advice would you give them? It could be anything from how to set the business up, to winning business, or just some plain motivational advice.
It’s so important to start off with a good website that is easy for Google to crawl and easy for users to navigate.
If the foundation is borked then you’re always going to be running in to problems.
One mistake that I often see new businesses make is that they want to republish articles that they have found on the web.
When my husband first got into real estate he did the same thing. He would take newspaper articles that he found online and publish them verbatim on his website.
What most small business owners don’t understand is that if you do this on a large scale it has the potential to make your site look like a low quality site in the eyes of the Panda algorithm.
The best advice I can give here is to make sure that everything that you put out there on your website for Google to index is unique and the best information of its kind on the web.
Don’t publish things just for the sake of having content. Only publish things that are FANTASTIC content.
During your career as an SEO consultant what has been your favourite or most interesting project that you’ve worked on?
I think the turning point for my business was when we were contacted by a large brand in the Payday Loans industry.
They wanted a quote to remove a manual penalty. I quoted them and told them it would take about 3 months to do the work. They asked me what it would take to get it done in under a month.
My response to them was that it was not possible unless I hired a whole team of people and trained them to do this work with me.
So, they agreed to pay me much more than my quote if I could make that happen. I brought in ten people and trained them on link auditing and we did several weeks of intensive work.
We got the penalty lifted in record time and the site returned to excellent rankings just in time for their busiest season.
How do you view content in SEO as a leverage in providing relevant search results and as a way of doing link-building in the advent of the recent changes in Googles Algorithm and penalization of Ann Smarty’s MyBlogGuest?
I think that many people don’t fully understand what happened with the “My Blog Guest” penalties. Ann’s site itself was penalized because of unnatural links pointing to the site.
Other sites that had worked with My Blog Guest were not automatically penalized but it looks like each of them got a manual review.
I know many sites that used MBG that were not penalized. But, if you used guest posting on a large scale in order to manipulate Google then a manual action was applied.
Similarly, if you had a blog that was giving out links solely for the purpose of manipulating Google then an outbound link penalty was given.
Does this mean that you should never link out, or never guest post? No! I mean, I’m doing this interview and you’re linking to me, so should I be worried?
No. My philosophy for link building is to say, “Is this a link that would still bring me value even if it was not followed?”
If I’m posting articles on sites that no one other than Googlebot is ever going to read, then something is wrong.
If the only type of link that my site is getting are ones from guest posts then something is wrong.
If I have a site that no one engages with and no one ever wants to link to, then in most cases, something is wrong.
Link building is not dead…but you have to be much more creative now and find ways to get people to WANT to link to you.
What do you think of Google’s approach to SEO? Are they being helpful by launching the disavow tool or do you think that this only gives more credence to negative SEO?
I love the disavow tool. When I first started removing penalties, there was no disavow tool and you had to work really hard to remove unnatural links.
As such, any bad links that you couldn’t get removed would still be affecting you algorithmically.
In the vast majority of cases, if you have a link based issue such as a manual penalty or problems with the Penguin algorithm, then you can’t escape without using the disavow tool.
I’m not going to go deep into the negative SEO argument but I can say that in the vast majority of cases Google is pretty good at discounting negative SEO links.
I’ve heard lots of people say that they can do negative SEO, but out of all of the sites that I have analyzed (and that’s a lot) I still have yet to see one that was penalized because of negative SEO.
John Mueller from Google says that if you have a competitor pointing bad links at you that in most cases you can just ignore them. But, he also says that it’s not a bad idea to disavow them just to be sure.
What is the fastest way to generate backlinks?
You have to do something authentically awesome. I had a client call me recently because he thought Penguin had refreshed because he was suddenly seeing a huge spike in organic traffic.
It turns out that he was actually getting viral press over a situation that happened with his business.
This client is a wholesale liquidator in the UK. He has given me permission to talk about the situation so I can actually share the story here.
His company recently received a huge misprinted lot of mugs where someone had accidentally put Barack Obama’s face on a mug instead of UK soccer player Chris Smalling.
After the press got word of this, this particular page on the Wholesale Clearance website received over 50 fantastic followed links from excellent sources like the BBC, Metro and The Independent.
Those are truly natural links that will really help his website.
We’re currently working with him to generate more links out of this press and take full advantage of the situation.
What is the best quick fix way in optimizing your website for SEO?
Hmmm…tough question to answer. I think that looking at your crawl errors in Webmaster Tools is a quick way for many sites to improve.
If you see that people are linking to 404 pages, perhaps because they’ve misspelled your url, you can either ask for them to link to the correct page or create a new page with the misspelling and redirect it to the appropriate page.
Some websites can reclaim a lot of lost links this way.
I’d also recommend having an on-site audit done. I see so many cases where a client is wondering why they can’t rank their home page for “best blue widgets” and the title of their home page is “Home”.
Sometimes there can be some really quick fixes that can be found on an on-site review.
You’ve got to do everything you can to tell Google what your page is about. But, on the other hand you have to be careful not to overdo it and keyword stuff.
How do you measure your SEO success for a particular campaign?
It’s really all about ROI. Ranking #1 for a big keyword may not be as good as ranking #1 for a number of long term keywords.
For example, for my husband’s real estate site ranking well for people searching for “[city] real estate agent” can bring us in a lot of tire kickers.
But, this particular page on the best neighbourhoods in our city, Ottawa actually brings us more really valid leads.
I see businesses allocating huge budgets to ranking well for terms that really aren’t going to bring them qualified leads.
And lastly can you suggest any book, video, person, website that keeps you inspired in doing SEO?
I love to read about people who have gone from unknowns to great successes in either the SEO world or even just in business.
I’ll often scour through old posts from SEO forums to read posts of people who were trying to figure out SEO years ago and now are super successful at it.
For example, check out this SEO Chat forum post by Rand Fishkin, owner of Moz.com in 2004.
He is trying to figure out what a good link is and ends up creating a directory so he can link out to people with exact anchor text. Haha!
And here he is trying to figure out how Google works. And now Rand is probably one of the most successful people out there in the SEO world.
As far as books go, I don’t read many books about how to do marketing but I can highly recommend “In the Plex” by Steven Levy. It’s a book about the history of Google.
I think every SEO should read it. It’s killing me that I can’t remember the name of the other two books that really impacted me.
One was a book about three graduates from Harvard business school and how they started successful businesses from the ground up.
The second was a book written by a young teenager where he interviews the heads of many well known companies and writes about their success.
I’ve just spent ages searching to try to remember the names of those books…apparently I need to learn how to search Google a little better.
There are several websites that I get great value from. I visit Barry Schwartz’s Search Engine Round Table every day.
Thanks so much for having me do this interview! You asked some great questions!