I get a lot of emails and questions about trying to SEO against big companies and established websites. A lot of people seem to get stuck in the mindset of “Oh, no MegaCorp(tm) has a $79 billion SEO budget per month, there’s no way we’ll ever beat them!?
The fact is, you can. You can eat them for breakfast, then wipe your month with their over-inflated legalize Terms & Conditions page(s). This can be especially satisfying if you decide to take down a company you’re not particularly fond of. While you’re sitting on your balcony at home having breakfast taking in some sun (or rain, if you’re a Brit), you can daydream about them running around their shiny boardroom pointing at the big graph on the wall that’s going down, generally shrieking at each other as their search empire crumbles at their feet.
Let’s get going, comrade.
Dedication to SEOs everywhere
I would like to dedicate this post to all SEOs who work on their own projects and have tackled big businesses trying to elbow them out of the game at every stage. While you may have the better sites, the better content and more passion than what you’re doing, you’re messages are oppressed by greedy companies who want to fill the Internet with their mediocre content, their brand and of course, their ads. I give no apologies to the companies we will disrupt, but sorry guys, that space belongs to us (and our ads).
General Principles of Guerrilla Warfare
To win a Google war, you must have a detailed understanding of your own strength and weaknesses, as well as your enemy’s. Everyone has their own areas of the web they excel in, whether it’s programming, design, content writing or networking, however, to be consistently successful, you will need to develop a wide range of these skills either yourself, or in your guerrilla band. Large enemy armies (err, I mean companies) share many common weaknesses. It is these weaknesses which you will learn to relate to your own skill sets and exploit until the enemy is utterly demoralized, scattered, beleaguered and exhausted.
If you attempt to face your enemy, overtly on the battlefield, you’ll lose. However, there are many advantages to being a small entity, you can operate unseen, you can move quickly and your personal interaction can sow the seeds of descent which will turn the enemy’s own populace against them.
Guerrilla Warfare Strategies
Weakness #1: A Large Army Requires Lots Of Supplies
Okay, so MegaCorp has dozens or even hundreds of staff and you’re on your own, or it’s only you and a couple of comrades working from your small base in the woods (or whatever you call home). This can actually be an advantage!
Large businesses only want to get involved in projects which are of course, profitable for them. However, for these businesses to make a profit, they have to pay for office buildings, web developers, designers, agencies, sales staff, editorial staff, marketing staff, the coffee machine and keep replacing the teaspoons that staff is nicking. This means you can have a better core offering than your enemy.
Have a look at their business model, how are they making money?
Are they filling pages with advertising? Are they selling advert space?
Perhaps they’re offering a service that other companies are paid to be included in?
When it comes to monetization you can; show fewer adverts, charge the same advertisers less to be advertised on your site, or offer the same service for cheaper or free!
So take the model where companies are being paid to be listed on your enemy’s website. As an individual, you could quite easily make a decent amount of money showing some contextual advertising, or selling some advert space. So collect all the names of your enemy’s allies and email them, offering the same benefits – but for free (or cheaper!).
For instance, “I noticed you are listed on website ABC and you are paying $250 a month for this service. I am running ABC website and I am prepared to offer free listings for your company for life if you will display this badge showing you are listed here.”
Most companies would much rather chuck you a link than pay a monthly subscription, so in this instance, you’ve gained exposure (from the link), a couple of steps forward in terms of SEO (you’ve got some quality links from relevant sites) and you’ve made your enemy look bad by offering the same service for free (or a lot less).
The key here is research. Use the fact you’re small and unknown to research, spy and gain information. Pose as a potential client or advertiser and contact your enemy, asking for rate-cards or prices, ask for visitors stats. Use all of this information to build up a picture of their revenue model. From this, you can calculate their revenue, and work on a counter-revenue model, which offers better value to visitors or participating entities.
Whatever money they’re making, you can afford to make less and still be far, far more profitable than them. Use this to your advantage to out-do their offer on all fronts and make your website more appealing.
Weakness #2: The Army Must Control The Populace
Russian Soldiers With a megaphone
Big companies have a big brand to protect. Dispute their dominant appearance most companies are absolutely terrified of damaging their brand and will do anything to avoid taking risks. This is war, and risks need to be taken! From talking to hundreds of companies about their websites, one of the most common fears is UGC (User Generated Content), they are terrified to let people speak their minds for fear they might speak against the current regime! The CEO sits quivering in his chair that someone might say “FU*K” on his website and he’ll have angry people writing letters and bashing on the doors of the ivory tower.
You can really press the advantage hard here. It seems common sense to most savvy web developers and entrepreneurs nowadays, but open your site to the masses. Let them submit content, comment on content, talking in forums, whatever way you can allow them to have some interaction and control over their website. That’s right, it’s not your website, it’s the peoples’ website – so let them have some control!
Some more forward-thinking enemy do allow YGC on their sites, but it is typically heavily moderated to give the impression of free speech when in reality, everyone is suspicious about the 5 out of 5-star user reviews on every product going. I recently saw a keynote, where two very similar forums launched at the same time, one moderated and one not. One year on, the forum that wasn’t moderated had six times the monthly traffic. People like some freedom when they’re giving you content.
Depending how you’re operating, you can take as many risks as you like, all the way to making black hat versions of your website (suicide sites). Make sure you separate these entities well away from your core troops (different servers and WHOIS) so they are not traceable, but any noise you can make will disrupt and demoralize the enemy. This tactic may not be appropriate in all circumstances, however, if you’re competing with an e-commerce site, why not make your genuine article site while working on a few blackhat suicide versions? So what if they get banned after a few months? You’ll have made some money and damaged the enemy.
Weakness #3: Large Armies Are Slow To Manoeuvre
Large companies regularly have this trait in common. It takes them absolutely fucking ages, to do the most simple of things. If the color of the text is going to be changed you’ll need a pre-meeting, a meeting, a post-meeting debrief, a spec produced, changed, put in a developer queue, tested, have a review meeting, blah blah.
The enemy is likely to be dependent on multiple sources when they need something changed. To have changes done quickly it will likely cost them an arm and leg, infrastructure changes are avoided like trench foot. Exploit this weakness to the fullest.
Take the time to evolve your website, if there are beneficial changes, make them. If there’s something in the news about your niche, respond to it. If there’s breaking news, get it out first. You can move quickly without encumbrance and seize the initiative while they’re still packing their bergens. Carpe Diem, Comrade.
Weakness #4: Lots Of Soldiers = Lots Of Cannon Fodder
While chasing profits and having to maintain a large workforce, many companies try to save money by hiring slightly cheaper staff, or “just as good as” guys. That’s right, they’re taking rookie soldiers and putting them on the front line.
As any good General knows, sending untrained troops into battle is no better than herding sheep onto the front line, you’re going to lose. Hard. It may be that the enemy has got a lot of adept people working for them, but there have been communication problems between the ideas guy and the end developer. I have yet to see a website that has been built by a non-web specialist company that is flawless.
Spend time looking around the enemy’s terrain, see what they have done well and do it yourself. Immediately benefit from their expensive end-user research, at no cost to yourself. Find what they’ve done badly and improve it on your site. It seems that coming second carries with it, its own set of advantages.
Large armies tend to be sloppy, assuming victory by sheer size. Take all of their small weaknesses, poor internal linking, non-SEO friendly URLs, no use of “nofollow” tags and stack them so you have a distinct advantage. The underdog leaves no bone unscavenged.
Weakness #5: Large Armies Leave Big Tracks
Footprints in Snow
A large army cannot move undetected and thus it is easy to track their movements. Once you have your website battle ready, why not check out the enemy’s backlink profile in Yahoo! Site Explorer? A lovely, juicy list of their entire link building activity. You’ll want to get on that procuring links from every source they received links from, so you’ll very quickly draw even. If they are actively link building, take note of the kind of sites they are targeting.
Pay special attention if there are any “suspicious” links in there. You know the type, site-wide links from ringtone websites, MySpace Layout websites or obvious link networks. If there are, it is your civic duty to report these war crimes under the Google Convention! You’ll find cash-rich companies tend to involve themselves in these tactics quite quickly as it seems the most cost-efficient way for them to operate, so if you catch em, get em in stocks, pronto.
Weakness #6: Large Armies Have Slower Communications
Army Radio Operator
It is likely that a lot of the time, the left hand won’t know what the right is doing. Staff working at large companies won’t be able to communicate their detailed daily operations to each other. Use this along with any skill shortages and your previously gathered intelligence on what sites they link up with.
Set some booby-traps for them to walk right into! Create a few quick websites with some mashed up content that fits the profile of sites they want linking to them. Get in contact and offer a link from your homepage to their website, if they link to an obscure article on your website.
Of course, on your homepage, you can use “X-Robots” in your header-delivery to nofollow any links on that page, which will be totally undetectable by nofollow plugins, or even by viewing the source code. The only way they’ll discover it is if they view the header information being sent by the site, which they won’t of course. Once you’ve done your link exchange, you’ve got 2 options:
1) Spring the booby trap! Why not 301 that page they’ve linked to, to a spammy blackhat website. Google will love that, along with their visitors!
2) Use their own resources against them! Or you could 301 that page to your own website, so the enemy is very kindly helping your efforts.
The great thing is that this will work dozens of times. Dealing with different people each time, the enemy won’t know what’s going on until it’s too late and they’ll soon start fearing other websites, not knowing who will help or harm them!
The Ongoing War
These are just a few of the many weaknesses that plague large company websites. I hope I have inspired you to take up arms against your would-be oppressors. When you divide and conquer, you’ll find that you can win a lot of battles against seemingly impervious web-giants and eventually bring them to their knees.