5 SEO Horror Stories (and What You Can Learn From Them)

Jayson DeMers
5 min readApr 19, 2020
Photo by Merakist on Unsplash

Search engine optimization (SEO) has a reputation for being unpredictable, and it’s definitely true that bad things can happen in an SEO campaign. You’ll be making steady progress, building your organic search visibility, when suddenly, your rankings drop precipitously with no warning or explanation. These are SEO horror stories, and they’ve happened to many of us.

Fortunately, these “horror stories” tend to have a few things in common, and they’re largely preventable if you know their root causes. Let’s take a look at some prominent examples of SEO horror stories from major brands and solo entrepreneurs to illustrate this:

1. BMW Uses Doorway Pages

Up first, we have the major brand BMW using a sneaky trick to attract links unnaturally. For a time, BMW was using doorway pages, a kind of redirect designed specifically for search engines. They’re typically considered to be black-hat tactics, but back in 2006, the technique was more common, and search engines didn’t enforce their guidelines strictly. To be fair, the tactic did earn BMW some additional visibility — they held a number of prominent number-one rankings for generic keywords like “used car” for a while. But once Google found out, they quickly manually penalized the site, taking its domain authority all the way to zero.

The Lesson: The lesson here is that doorway pages, or any page created solely to inflate your rankings, is only going to burn you in the end. You might see a jump in your rankings temporarily, but eventually, Google will figure out what you’re up to, and you’ll be set back to square one — often with a manual or algorithmic penalty attached to your domain which can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to recover from.

2. Brad Gerlach Mistakenly Uses Black Hat Tactics

Brad Gerlach openly shares his experiences with black hat techniques on his blog. When he first started out, he used a link wheel to start building momentum in the form for his site. A Link wheel is a type of SEO linking scheme that involves a paid exchange of links for the purpose of manipulating search engine rankings. For a time, it boosted his rankings successfully, so he took the next step and started paying for more, similar links using Fiverr, a marketplace where users buy and sell services for $5.00. Eventually, he scaled up even further, and started using content-spinning software to produce tons of “new” content for his site. Content spinning was popular before the Google Panda and Penguin algorithms were released in 2011 and 2012. It involved replacing words, sentences, or paragraphs with synonymous words, sentences, or paragraphs in order to get technically “new” content (to avoid duplicate content penalties) while keeping the meaning of the content essentially the same. Eventually, these black hat techniques caught up to him, and his site plummeted in rankings.

The Lesson: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Link wheels, link pyramids, links from Fiverr, and content spinning are all cheap, spammy, manipulative tactics that used to work, but no longer do. Not only do they no longer work, they’ll burn you in the end.

3. Trolling Motors Loses 80 Percent of Its Traffic

Next, let’s take a look at Trolling Motors, a website created by Andrew Youderian. Youderian had been successful with an SEO campaign for a previous venture, so he enlisted the help of an SEO agency to help him build up Trolling Motors’s search visibility. Because he trusted his agency to practice white-hat SEO and monitor progress the way he would, he took a hands-off approach. All seemed to be going fine until 2012, when Google’s Penguin update hit and sent Trolling Motors’s rankings spiraling downward, ultimately costing it 80 percent of its traffic. The reason why? The SEO agency was using outdated practices like spammy, keyword-rich anchor text and unnatural, manipulative posts for links on off-site sources.

The Lesson: Trust, but verify. Choose your SEO agency carefully, and never assume that they’re following the right strategy. Ask questions and make sure you’re in compliance with Google’s standards for quality.

4. Toys R Us Crashes in Search Results Without 301 Redirects

Here, we have another major brand that suffered due to an unfortunate oversight (though whether BMW’s doorway pages count as deliberate manipulation is up for debate), and this one compromised a $5.1 million purchase. Hoping to build their online empire even further, Toys R Us purchased the “Toys.com” domain name back in 2010. Unfortunately, they didn’t think through the transition; they launched the new site without setting up 301 redirects for all the old URLs they had used to build their existing domain authority. As a result, Google re-indexed the site without its previous link equity, ultimately setting them back years in terms of progress, while significantly decreasing the value of their investment.

The Lesson: Toys R Us didn’t use any black-hat tactics here. Instead, it just made a massive mistake. Whenever you set up a new domain, make sure you transfer your old assets correctly.

5. Rap Genius Pays the Price for Link Schemes

Finally, we have another black hat practitioner — except Rap Genius allegedly didn’t know what they were doing. Rap Genius used an affiliate program, which encouraged bloggers to link to the site using specific, keyword-rich anchor text in their links, to increase their search rankings. This was brought to Google’s attention, and they quickly penalized the site. Rap Genius issued a public apology after the incident.

The Lesson: You have to earn your links naturally. Asking for them directly or building them unnaturally in any way is going to get you penalized.

As you can see, most ranking drops don’t come out of nowhere. They’re the end result of forgetting some crucial element of SEO, engaging in black-hat tactics, or just not link building properly. If you do your research in advance and learn best practices for optimization, or if you work with an SEO agency you can trust to do a quality job, you don’t generally have to worry about facing a horror story of your own. It pays to hedge your bets and think ahead.



Jayson DeMers

CEO of EmailAnalytics (emailanalytics.com), a productivity tool that visualizes team email activity, and measures email response time. Check out the free trial!