Why SEO experts rarely share actual success stories

Most SEO experts are still afraid to publish their success stories, with a few notable exceptions.

Many simply cannot share their work, even if it is successful. How Can SEOs Stop Doing “Ghost Optimization”?

Before we delve into this question, let’s look at the reasons behind the continued mystery and still prevalent negativity among SEO experts.

SEO horror stories, anyone?

One of the most popular SEO hashtags in the industry in recent years has been #seohorrorstories.

Why are SEO professionals far more likely to share the horrific failures of the industry and their peers than their success stories?

Is this a general prevailing negativity of society as a whole? Or do we have an internal problem that is making the situation worse?

First, recent years have led to an endless downward spiral of public debate. Diplomacy has given way to trolling.

When even presidents are provoking people online to get attention, how are the rest of us supposed to remain civil in everyday conversation?

Social media like Facebook and Twitter also exploit fear and anger.

Such “bad news” goes straight to our lizard brain and provokes fear and anger without consulting the parts of the brain responsible for logical thinking.

It’s no wonder that the discourse, even in the relatively professional SEO industry, has degenerated into the realm of “OMG! Look at this nonsense! How stupid!”

I’m exaggerating a bit, but that’s the point of most shares where #seohorrorstories are involved.

These are more than cautionary tales. It’s also a way of mocking those who are gullible enough to be caught in the act of using outdated SEO tactics.

Perhaps the thought process is such that when someone is unable to shed light on their actual successes, they highlight the failures of others. Thus, just by comparing them, they indirectly show themselves in a better light.

Of course, this is just a guess. The motivation behind many horror stories can vary. In most cases, it won’t just be spite or malice.

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‘Look at this random graph, please – the growth is stellar!’

There are also compromised, anonymized “success stories” – where the alleged success cannot be fully vetted by peers.

Such stories seem to be a middle ground between failure and success stories. So what is the logic behind them?

You will find many social media posts about random graphs without URL links.

This is usually an analytical screenshot that is clumsily anonymized before publication. After all, the star growth they display lacks any credibility.

I usually know those who share success stories like this, so I know they won’t lie.

In most cases, they also add as much context as possible without giving away any important details, so you can’t track down the site they’re talking about.

What about industry outsiders and potential customers?

They have no idea who the people sharing the graphs are and how credible the information is.

What is the purpose of sharing graphs without context?

Note that #seohorrorstories are quite often anonymous. In this way, some limited peer review occurs within a very small scope. Better than nothing, right?

Are there any SEO hero stories? 

Some of you may have noticed. I’ve been looking for SEO hero (as in superhero) stories for two months now, and I’ve been pretty aggressive about it.

There have been far fewer success stories than bad news from the SEO industry. However, I was surprised that even the prospect of additional free advertising did not motivate many SEO companies, in-house SEOs or SEO consultants to reveal their success stories or share their case studies with me.

I started a similar #seohorrorstories-inspired hashtag called #seoherostories to encourage the sharing of such positive examples, but I seemed to be the only one using it.

Are SEO experts ashamed of their work or afraid to show it?

Given the poor reputation of the SEO industry over the past 25 years, it’s no wonder some people don’t want to come out as SEO experts.

Many SEOs still practice unethical practices, which may make them ashamed to show what they do.

Still, others may simply be afraid. I have researched the reasons for this fear and here they are evident.

Manual Google penalties

This is an age-old fear of SEO professionals that dates back to the early days. There used to be times when showing yourself off as a practitioner of SEO dark skills—and mentioning the actual site you work on—was akin to suicide for your project.

Even before Google introduced the somewhat unusual term “manual action”, penalties were known to hit suddenly and after too much publicity for the work of SEO experts.

This fear is no longer reasonable. And like most fears, it is quite irrational.

SEOs are not criminals and hiding is not necessary in most cases.

‘Secret sauce’ copycats

Another, albeit more likely, scenario is that your competition may steal your “secret sauce” and copy your SEO techniques.

While this is possible, it is important to be aware of who your competition is online. Most SEOs would still say something like “businesses selling the same thing in the same area.”

The reality of Google’s SERPs, or “real estate SERPs,” is that you’re primarily competing against web giants:

Would a competitor or colleague who has a similar business to yours really hurt you that much if they looked at your website’s SEO?

Also, anyone can find your secret sauce with a tool like Semrush and learn about on-page and off-page SEO with ease. So why are you hiding your success from the general public?

Client-stealing competitors

Another fear about competition is that other SEOs can see who you’re working with and contact them and “steal your clients.”

People do it. Several clients have informed me of such attempts over the years.

But I don’t think I lost any customers this way. Why? Is it just because I’m such an expert?

Probably not. I was also a beginner then.

This is such an insidious practice that businessmen are not keen on making offers this way. If they are, you might be lucky to get rid of them.

Toxic clients often hurt you more than they help you financially. I had to learn this lesson the hard way over the years of trying to please everyone.

I believe that the above common “reasons” for not sharing SEO work are often irrational fears and traditions – just excuses.

One reasonable explanation for why someone wouldn’t want to share their actual website address or their “star growth” chart is that it’s still a work in progress.

Many other parts of the project were far from ready for viewing, so it was not a good idea to share them too soon. I’ve only heard this justification once, even though I’ve asked many times.

NDA: The dreaded acronym

A common explanation for not publishing actual results or disclosing website addresses and client names is a typical non-disclosure agreement (NDA). You could also call it “remittance,” since most SEO experts have to keep quiet about their work.

Some popular search marketers, including John Doherty and Brendan Hufford, have pointed this out on LinkedIn.

For those in the creative industries, it would be virtually impossible to not be able to share your work or have to do so anonymously.

Imagine the following scenario if designers, architects and programmers were involved.

So why do we have to sign so many NDAs that prohibit us from showing our actual work or even sometimes telling our friends and families about it?

What about high security? Are we secret agents?

Clients who ask SEOs not to talk about their projects may be for one of the following reasons:

The common logic, of course, is about “trade secrets”. But as mentioned above, many tools allow you to analyze these supposed secrets.

The bright side: 3 inspiring case studies that welcome peer review

After talking so much about the problems (lack) of success stories in the SEO industry, let’s focus on some actual case studies that have inspired me this year.

Hopefully, these stories of SEO heroes will inspire you enough to follow in their footsteps.

Example 1: Missguided 

Dogs and owners often become very similar, even in appearance. I am one and I can tell you that it often happens “accidentally”.

But there is an artistic photo series that takes it to the extreme where dog owners and their pets dress up and groom themselves in the same style.

UK-based SEO agency Rise at Seven created this idea for a highly successful campaign:

As CEO Carrie Rose reports in her case study, the results were more than impressive:

“865% year-over-year increase in traffic to this part of the site, 134,757 page views to be exact.”

He explains in great detail how it worked and what exactly happened to make it so successful, so be sure to read the full case study.

Example 2: LiberEat

Olga Andrienko, known for her leading role at Semrush, presented the LiberEat success story made possible by Mich McClure and the team behind Hoojy.

“1000% organic traffic growth in 3 months”.

While this may sound too good to be true, especially given the approximate numbers, she goes to great lengths to highlight what happened, why and how in her extensive Twitter thread.

If that’s still not enough, check out the full case study with tons of screenshots, keyword examples, and numbers at Semrush.

Example 3: Unbeatable Blinds

The folks at Boom Online have a lot of case studies, but their Invincible Blinds campaign made me feel good. Perhaps the artistic quality of the images shared as part of the campaign is to blame.

Although they didn’t reveal the numbers, the links they attracted speak for themselves:

“The content has been covered by many high-profile publications such as Design Taxi, Bored Panda, Line Today & The York Press, among others.”

With so much attention from popular blogs and local press, I’m sure traffic and other metrics will follow suit.

How to get clients who are proud to work with you

As a writer, I do not offer ghostwriting services.

Ghostwriters tend to go invisible. Someone else gets credit for their work.

No one knows what they’ve done, so they can’t prove their expertise.

When it comes to writing, it’s pretty simple.

Prospective clients usually tell you in advance that they are looking for a ghostwriter. You can simply ignore such offers unless your financial situation prohibits it.

It is much more difficult with SEO services. No one will tell you that they are looking for a “ghost optimizer”.

Often, after much discussion and not until you sign the contract, you get a cryptic NDA full of legal clauses meant to mask its true scope.

In other cases, you get an NDA or they don’t talk to you at all. In any case, you risk losing a lot of time and money and not getting a customer.

Some NDAs are designed to protect trade secrets. However, most of them usually grant the client extensive powers to prohibit you from disclosing most anything.

It’s no wonder that people who work in SEO and adjacent industries (think marketing or advertising) generally just shut up so as not to violate their agreements.

You never know what’s going too far, so you play it safe by keeping quiet.

So what can you do to identify clients who are undermining your status as an industry expert?

You can prepare in advance, be clear during preliminary discussions and insist when you start working. Below are four specific tips.

Work on your own projects first

Always work on your projects first, or at least leave them in the background.

When you have independent sources of income and ways to gain status outside of working with clients, you can feel free to choose to collaborate with others.

Working for third parties out of necessity is never a good place to be.

Whenever possible, work for others because you like the challenge and variety, not because you need the money. Ideally, clients seek you out because they like your personal projects.

Build your authority in the industry and beyond

Visibility is not limited to working with clients. Many practitioners attend conferences, trade shows or meetings to show off and teach others what they know.

Some people hoard knowledge and keep it to themselves so that no one can “steal their ideas”. This is a short-sighted approach.

Ideas can be discovered by more than one person at any given time. But whoever publishes it first or makes it more widely known is usually credited with “invention”.

It is crucial to become an authority in your industry and beyond the narrow field in which you specialize.

Once I got into SEO, I continued to branch out into broader but more popular areas like web development, marketing, and blogging.

In my opinion, SEO is often viewed as just “technical SEO” and as a small subset of actual search engine optimization. The number of people who are interested in what you are talking about is very small.

By sharing your knowledge with those unfamiliar with your work, you make it possible for them to understand what you do.

Introverts can share and teach online. You don’t have to come in person, shake hands and pat yourself on the back.

You can also connect with like-minded individuals online. LinkedIn is your best bet here.

Charge more for ‘ghost optimization’

A simple but powerful way to show off is to charge more money for something heavier or more valuable.

Usually, ghostwriters are underpaid young writers who don’t have a name yet, so they are forced to write in the shadow of bigger names. But once you make a name for yourself, you have to be proud enough to charge accordingly.

Almost no one will think you are valuable until you undercharge or are too shy.

The few in the know will be happy to take advantage of your expertise for low fees and in most cases keep quiet about your true worth.

Similarly, you should make it clear that you are charging more for ghost services from the start.

Since “ghost optimization” is much more complex and riskier than mere writing, it is even more important that you charge your true value.

There are far fewer high-quality SEO experts out there, so don’t be afraid to get what you deserve.

Flatly refuse to do the dirty work 

After working with a client for a while, some people drop their mask or become bolder.

Others may be frustrated with slow SEO progress and require you to do what the competition is doing.

Riskier tactics can get their domain banned or penalized, but in the short term the results can look impressive.

Now you have to maintain your integrity. how

Resolutely refuse to get your hands dirty and use questionable SEO tools.

The client feels safe with the NDA, so they think they can get away with it. But SEO doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Just because you don’t tell anyone you have to send spam doesn’t mean it’s invisible.

As mentioned above, publicly available tools give you an X-ray view of any website’s SEO.

Google also has human quality raters and increasingly sophisticated algorithms to find the bad apples.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily those of Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Tadeusz Szewczyk, also known as Tad Chef, has been a professional blogger and SEO since 2004. Although he lives in Berlin, Germany, he has been reporting on blogs, social media and finding a global audience since 2006. In 2007, he started his own blog – SEO 2.0 – and has since published on many other marketing blogs. He has also written for many clients’ social media accounts in recent years. You can connect with Tad on LinkedIn and Twitter, or visit his website and read his social SEO blog.

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