My SEO Blog

Will Futurelearn Become The Just Eat of Education?

posted 8 Apr 2017, 05:13 by C Byrne   [ updated 8 Apr 2017, 05:16 ]

Some have theorised that fast food ordering app Just Eat's 'end game' is to sell and deliver their own food (and potentially no longer having 3rd parties on the site), like some argue that taxi app Uber's end game is the self-driving taxi (getting rid of their casual worker drivers). It's arguable that Just Eat's major competitor Deliveroo has already begun the process of disintermediation (aka 'cutting out the middleman') in food delivery by creating their own kitchen infrastructure.

Something similar may also be happening in the world of online education. (FL) offers free online courses created by their partners including the likes of the University of Reading. The University of Reading's paper leaflet promoting it's courses lists the FL site, not Surely a missed opportunity for the site currently ranking 14th on for 'free online courses'!

Institutions like University of Reading all link to the FL site, and FL's offer of free online courses from these institutions has earnt them many many (from over 12k domains according to links from many of the world's most popular sites (like,, – also arguably some of the most trusted sites in Google's eyes too), boosting the visibility of the FL site on Google etc. At time of writing FL is ranking 6th on for the phrase 'university of reading'...

What if (theoretically) FL went bust and sold the domain? What if (theoretically) FL were to delete all partner content from the site and then create new content with paid content from themselves & new partners?

A sensible strategy in the medium / long term for FL partners in my view should be disintermediation (stopping the use of intermediaries like FL between producers like University of Reading' and consumers like the free onlinecourse students) along the lines of Open Courseware from MIT. With intermediaries you may always be vulnerable to their actions!

My Competitors Never Cease To Amaze

posted 5 Apr 2017, 02:19 by C Byrne   [ updated 5 Apr 2017, 02:27 ]

Along with the day to day stuff they do my competitors never cease to amaze. By the way, this is no claim to ever having been 'white than white'! I think with 10 years of inbound link building experience inbound link building often quickly becomes 'grey hat'.

  1. An agency in Brighton using stock images to create a fictional staff member
  2. A Google Map listing for an agency in Leeds were ¾ of the reviews were from their own staff (I confirmed this via Linkedin) :)
  3. A SEO 'company' in Reading (appears to be just a 'one man band' sole trader) who gave himself a testimonial on his own website!

3/4 of the Google Map reviews for this SEO agency are from their own staff

posted 4 Apr 2017, 06:50 by C Byrne   [ updated 5 Apr 2017, 03:00 ]

Nuff said! They are an agency based in Leeds, West Yorkshire. I confirmed 3 of the 4 reviewers were staff members via Linkedin!

I've anonymised the screenshot below...

seo agency leeds reviews

Some Old SEO & PPC Case Studies

posted 8 Mar 2017, 10:16 by C Byrne   [ updated 8 Mar 2017, 10:23 ]

These were correct as of October 2010 and I have updated them to reflect that the time of writing is now long past!

I am not claiming to be 'whiter than white', but I helped achieve the SEO rankings below without buying links, blog spam etc.

In May 2009 Beadle and Crome Interiors were not in the top 100 results on for the key phrases 'hulsta' and 'luxury furniture'. At time of writing they were in the top 10 on for both of these phrases. The work involved inbound link building and site structure / content optimisation with a limited time budget of 1 day per month which includes Pay Per Click advertising management.

The site was at time of writing (27.9.10) in the top 10 'natural' results of for the following luxury furniture brand names:
  1. Hulsta
  2. Ligne Roset
  3. Ekornes
  4. Skovb
  5. Cattelan Italia
  6. Galotti Radic
  7. Varier
Apart from 'Galotti Radice', the site was not ranking in the top 50 for any of the above brands (apart from Galotti Radice) when work commenced in May 2009.

I assisted Wise Tiger with some Pay Per Click advertising consultancy for their client Think Apartments. The result of this work contributed to this London based short-let apartments company achieving £1M in online bookings in just 10 months: see (part of Yamaha Music UK)

In my last salaried role I helped obtain a top 10 position for multiple key phrases including 'sheet music' (out of around 40 million listings) on for the London music shop Chappell of Bond Street. This is without buying or swapping links. This was a competitive area as there are many out of copyright and pirate sheet music sites. This was by inbound link building focusing on links from Wikis on valuable University ( / .edu) domains due to the Student Discount available on the site, site content / structure optimisation and content syndication. When we started this work the site was new and not listed in the top 100 results for this key phrase. This took a period of around 2 years from site launch with 7 hours work a month.

This position was maintained for around 2 years, but the  position for this phrase at time of writing was in the top 20 on This was an example of 'brute force' link building.

In my last salaried role I helped obtain a Top 10 position on (out of around 400,000,000 competing indexed web pages) for the key phrase "international health insurance" for Interglobal PMI. The work involved inbound link building and site content optimisation with a very limited time budget. The baseline search engine position for this phrase was in the top 20.

In my last salaried role I helped obtain a 1st position (out of around 3,000,000 competing indexed web pages) for the key phrase "wholesale gifts" for Elgate Products on This was achieved with a relatively limited time budget by inbound link building, site content / structure optimisation and content syndication. I am not in possession of a baseline search engine position for this ranking.

When the site launched in late 2005 they were paying a significant 3 figure monthly sum to be a featured listing on but now Elgate was listed above them for these phrases on at time of writing.

In my last salaried role I worked on Heals pay per click advertising and site optimisation, in 2007 helping them achieve one of the highest proportions of traffic from the Mosaic Group “Symbols of Success” (the wealthiest demographic according to the Mosaic classifications) for 4 weeks ending 1/12/07 according to Hitwise – see ‘Hitwise Lifestyle Snapshot Report’ on

SEO agency using stock images to look bigger?

posted 8 Mar 2017, 08:41 by C Byrne   [ updated 5 Apr 2017, 03:41 ]

This SEO agency in Brighton, Sussex appears to be using stock images to make out they have more than 2 staff! 

This photo (for 'Charlie Th@kur' - I've anonymised the name for this non-entity - my research suggests this a made-up name for a made-up person) appears on their 'About Us' page alongside one of their 3 staff profiles...

You can't hide from

SEO agency in Brighton staff image

How To Go Freelance As A SEO / PPC Consultant

posted 27 Feb 2017, 10:17 by C Byrne   [ updated 28 Feb 2017, 01:48 ]

I've been freelance since 2008 as a SEO / PPC consultant so can share my experiences & lessons learnt. I recommend that all the tasks in the list below should be completed before you go freelance:

  1. Get a website (with built in blog) with case studies & testimonials and Linkedin profile. Build links to your site. To go freelance successfully, you might need some big names to say you've worked on in the absence of lots of business contacts

  2. Study salary surveys – you need to be paid for your experience and you don't want to be “too cheap”. You can undercut agencies...

  3. Start business networking “in the real world” – this can be for your current company. Be aware this is often just sales people trying to sell to other sales people. A learning community might be better e.g. Digital Surrey - look on Eventbrite or Meetup for events near you. You might even get some time off in lieu :) . This is especially useful if you're not in a client facing role.

  4. Get some business cards – Vista Print are relatively cheap and cheerful...

When you go freelance

  1. Take a deposit on your work (at least the first piece of work for a client). 25% or more. Remember there will be bank charges when international clients pay you from abroad.

  2. Can you poach your old companies clients? It's dog eat dog out here.

  3. Be aware of what 'allowable business expenses' are .

  4. Add case studies and (video) testimonials to your site.

  5. You are going to have to spend a certain amount of time doing non-chargeable work e.g. studying (this is important – reading Twitter etc), administration thus with the best will in the world if you work a 5 chargeable day week that will put you into having to work evening & weekends. A 4 chargeable day work week works in my view.

  6. Linkedin should be a focus of social media activity. Get involved in groups.

  7. Start blogging on your site (remember Tweets compiled can be a blog post and vice versa). Seek guest blogging opportunities.

  8. Always incorporate into your charges scoping and feeding back on work, travelling to meetings etc (all the things that take your time up in relation to a project beyond the actual “doing the work”). Sometimes on the first piece of work this will be hard to judge.

  9. Think about the things that can give you a Unique Selling Point.

  10. Think about the things that can give you a competitive advantage. There will be certain information you will be happy to share online and some you won't. Or will there (as you know it can all earn you links to your site)?

  11. Create your Google Map listing and get some reviews

  12. Get on Skype or similar to enable 'free' calls

  13. Try and find partner companies / freelancers to work with

  14. Be aware of late payment legislation 

  15. Get some (free) business advice

  16. Finding a workspace away from home may be necessary sometimes. The library can do (not for phonecalls). A permanent workspace can be an uneccessary cost if you are working in-house or away at meetings / networking for a significant part of the working week.

  17. Like all businesses, freelancers should keep their expenses as low as possible. Are you likely to get much work from a £1000 2 day conference? In all likelihood, the answer is no. You might learn a lot but that will be it. Do you need a business address that is not your home address?

  18. Always carry your business cards

  19. Respond to new business enquiries straight away if possible

  20. There are lots of free training events and conferences about e.g. Brighton SEO, Measurecamp etc.

  21. Share cost of software tools (e.g. Semrush) with a client or partner if possible. Always try before you buy.

  22. Think about how you want to charge (by the hour / project). Charging by the hour may be more transparent. Not publishing a price list allows you more flexibility

  23. Manage clients expectations e.g. with detailed quotes, recommendations with priority marked and caveats, KPIs to be measured etc

  24. Scheduled meetings to allow off peak travel where possible (get a railcard if need be). If you can combine business travel with other activities it's a better use of your time.

  25. If starting PPC work always export campaigns before making amends so you can re-upload them if need be.

Google Buying Links To Their Own Website

posted 22 Feb 2017, 08:45 by C Byrne   [ updated 23 Feb 2017, 02:55 ]

A while back I saw that Google (or their agents) was buying links to promote its Local Guides program (a.k.a. free labour for their search engine). There is more than 1 paid non-'nofollowed' link from http:// (I've deliberately not hyperlinked) which does not comply with Google's own guidance on paid links.

blackhat google links

Again like their web scraping, it's don't do as we do, do as we say...

Arts, culture & heritage charities may be entitled to a grant of $10,000 p/m in Google AdWords ads

posted 31 Jan 2017, 04:16 by C Byrne   [ updated 31 Jan 2017, 04:17 ]

Arts, culture & heritage organisations with charitable status may be entitled to a grant from Google of $10,000 a month to spend in Google AdWords pay per click ads: see

If you need a hand, I can set this up for you.

Frameworks For A 'Future Proof' SEO Strategy

posted 24 Jan 2017, 06:31 by C Byrne   [ updated 6 Feb 2017, 03:15 ]

  Over the past 10 years many big brands (e.g. Expedia) with experienced staff at the helm (often working alongside leading SEO agencies) have experienced ranking drops and / or penalties from search engines like Google over non-compliance with their guidelines.

   Many SEO agencies' own website  rankings have also had ranking drops and / or penalties (e.g. freshegg .com).  'Black hat' techniques such as paid links are still in use and can still work well to this day (over 4 years after the introduction of Google's first effort to address this). Black hat link building nowadays can include hacking sites to get links...

    In this article I will outline some frameworks and best practices for a 'future proof' Search Engine Optimisation strategy:  i.e. one that should not get a site penalised at some point in the future by search engines. 

    This is not to say that all techniques compliant with these frameworks will be effective forever. I have done many disavowals and reconsideration requests for clients (only one of them I had worked for before and I'm 100% certain my link building wasn't what caused their ranking drop). I won't claim to be 'whiter than white' but I have been working in the SEO industry for over 10 years building links to clients' sites and have only ever been asked to remove 1 inbound link I built previously to a client's site in over 10 years in the SEO industry (and have never been asked to disavow to Google any links I built).  This is mainly because I never have underestimated Google!

    Imagine the scenario of the lone SEO pitting her wits vs the thousands of people with a PHD working for a search engine like Google globally. The lone SEO consultant  / company is not cleverer than Google as a whole (technologies & staff combined)! 

     From my 10 years experience in this field, a website's User Experience is core for Google i.e. quality information is usable information. When I first read the Google SEO beginners guide around 8 years ago I was struck by the importance placed on alt text (as this is important to the blind to help them understand the content of an image). Search engine spiders don't have eyes either! This explains why factors like the "long click", site speed and usability are all parts of the Google algorithm. This is also probably why Google appears to be ambivalent about ad blocking technologies as they can enhance users' experiences of browsing the web.

Search engine guidelines

    Still to this day I hear (even from senior people who should know better in the IT & web design industry) that SEO is witchcraft or some type of dark art. SEO in 2016 is no longer a mystery. The Google Webmaster Guidelines may be considered the 'laws of the land' in search in countries like the United Kingdom where it has a dominant market share. Do you want to be an outlaw and get banished from the major search engine in your locality?

   Google recommends best practices for various aspects of web design such as responsive design, touch design and site speed / 'instant' mobile websites. Developing sites along these lines may be considered a best practice. Bear in mind Google's advice may change over time!

 Most search engines have webmaster guidelines and searching for the common aspects can be useful. Do not forget to look at the guidelines of the most popular search engines in your non-target areas (e.g. Yandex in Russia).

   However, not all of search engines' communication is through their Webmaster Guidelines and formal channels. For example, Google's written guidance on what makes a high / low quality web page may be considered to be vague and brief. is a collection of feedback from various Google communications (including Webmaster Hangout question and answer sessions online) that tells us (more) clearly what they consider to be evidence of High Quality vs Low Quality web page factors. I have created a Twitter list of's Google Quality experts:

   Google relatively recently first published (and since updated) it's internal search quality rating guidelines (for human search quality evaluators).  Google’s search quality team uses human raters (dubbed “search quality evaluators”) who rate sites for quality. Their work may be considered part of a feedback loop relating to the Panda algorithm update (see 'Predicting the future updates to the Google algorithm based on past updates' section below), often to assess proposed amendments to the algorithm. To note the changes in emphasis in the guidance over time can shine a light on Google's inner workings and changes in the algorithm.

Doorway pages remain a massive problem in my view on Google. Who knows, one day the Webspam team might start reading the Wall Street Journal, FT etc and they might start to get a grip in various ways...

New technologies

     Machine Learning (aka Rankbrain) is a major factor in search rankings on Google and may be a similar system to PageRankHowever we’ve been told by Google that there is no Rankbrain 'score' and you do not optimise for it. However this may enhance Google's understanding of the differences between navigational / informational / transactional search queries in relation to 'partial match' type-domain names and link spam which appears to be a problem to this day.

    Search behaviour is no longer a desktop only world.

  1. The size of browsers / keyboards on smartphones may lead to different search behaviours
  2. The rise of voice search (in the case of search engines) is just a different way to search the same database, and with Google Now the 'query' format is different (often a question).  
  3. It is useful to be aware of the browser 'add on' technologies that may affect the rendering of your site.  For example, you should test your site with the popular adblockers on various devices & operating systems. It might be affecting the rendering of your 'non-ad' content.

Legal guidelines

   It's always worth keeping up to date on relevant legislation relating to the web globally / in your locality e.g. 

  1. Ensure your domains comply with ICANN regulations - the rules of the organisation responsible for coordinating the several databases related to the namespaces of the Net.
  2. (Even if you don't have ads on your site) digital advertising policy and regulation. Google's global guidelines on paid / sponsored links (aka 'link schemes') is similar to UK law on advertorials.
  3. the UK ecommerce regulations.
  4. Making your site compliant with accessibility legislation e.g. the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK can help with SEO and increase "the long click" by facilitating engagement with the site.
  5. Cookie law - nearly every Google Adsense publisher must comply with EU cookie consent legislation, not only those based in the EU

Predicting the future updates to the Google algorithm based on past updates   

      This (alongside never underestimating Google) is probably the main thing you need to do to make your SEO strategies future-proof. When Google announced the update known as Panda in February 2011 to “provide better rankings for high-quality ... with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis … ”,  it made me change the way I was working in a minor but significant way. I predicted (vaguely) the next major Google update!

   Before I went freelance I worked at an e-commerce agency called Voodoo with Gordon Tebbutt and I learnt a lot from him. One technique I learnt was article distribution as a link building tool which consisted of:

1. writing an article with a link (usually with sculpted 'money' anchor text) to a client's site in the article's credits
2. submitting it to article directories like Isnare, where content was syndicated to other sites

    This was (at the time of the 
Panda update) still an effective tool to build inbound links which was at that time contributing to good (top 10) rankings for clients for very competitive key phrases (e.g. “sheet music” on Google UK) . This technique would have been classified as "white hat" (compliant with current search engines guidelines). I knew that due to the amount of content that the sites with syndicated articles had that was duplicated elsewhere on the net, they could be 'easily' classified as 'low quality' by search engines. Thus, a potential consequence of Panda was that the link building value (including Google PageRank) of any links from these types of sites could likely go down (to zero or possibly negative). Most of the sites weren't well ranked on Google thus wouldn't pass any valuable traffic (especially as the articles were generally of low quality). I hardly ever used press releases for link building purposes but assumed that sites with a large percentage of press release content  would be affected by this for the very same reason. This is an example of how Google's view of a practice changed over time (from white to black hat).

    Thus I stopped this practice straight away - over a year ahead of the update known as Penguin from Google and 2 years before it was 'outlawed' in their Webmaster Guidelines. It was obvious to me that Penguin (or something similar) might be a direct consequence of Panda and follow quickly behind. Surely enough, just over 1 year later the Penguin update (in April 2012) was created to decrease search engine rankings of websites that violated Google’s Webmaster Guidelines by working to increase artificially the ranking of a website by manipulating the number & quality of links pointing to the it - these tactics are known as “link schemes”). It took a very long time for Google to start to get to grips with low quality / paid / sponsored links (only as recently as 2012) and various link schemes still go on to this day...

   In 2013, Google stated that links in Press Releases should use 'nofollow' like paid / sponsored links.

In 2013 (2 years after I stopped article distribution and 1 year after Penguin) the following practices were designated as link schemes by Google:

1. “Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links”
2. "Links with optimised anchor text in ... press releases distributed on other sites”

    In 2014, Google's Matt Cutts made a video on their view of article distribution as a link building technique. It was important to draw as many possible logical conclusions as early as possible from the announcement of Panda to protect my business! I was also able to advise businesses I was working on that any value of press releases for SEO purposes was likely to diminish.

Predicting the future changes to the Penguin aspect of the algorithm is something we will all have to do as since late 2016 Google are "not going to comment on future refreshes". Matt Cutt's replacement remains anonymous - possibly Google will again be less communicative on all Webspam related matters in future...

Future changes to the Penguin aspect of the Google algorithm might include: 

  1. targeting suspicious links with 'money anchor text' being generated by hackers on compromised CMS systems (notably Wordpress)
  2. Penalising people who falsely claim to be Google Partners (using the logo etc). This is very easy to detect!
  3. targeting sites ranking 'out of the blue' for P0rn, Pill, Casino & 'Cheap Luxury Goods'-type phrases (when this was never before a topic they covered or ranked for).
  4. Penguin using machine learning within the algorithm as (to the best of my understanding) Panda, reconsideration request and link disavowal data are all usable as part of 'quality' feedback loops and it is argued that human curated data feedback loops are critical for machine learning platforms.
  5. More 'detective'-type investigation of 'black hat' SEO by Google, profiling companies mentioned in reconsideration requests etc. This may include providing information to legal authorities on illegal activities e.g. sites buying hacked links (to the best of my understanding this hasn't happened hitherto). 
  6. Interlinking of penalties / ranking drops to business profiles on Google Map (as to the best of my understanding these have remained separate post-Penguin)
  7. Google making barriers to entry in Adwords for businesses historically engaged in egregrious Webspam 

Future proof link building

    In theory all link building for SEO purposes is against Google guidelines: “Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.” If you don't build links, arguably you don't do SEO!

   Since the Penguin update one popular 'black hat SEO' (techniques and tactics don't comply with search engines guidelines) link building technique has been Private Blog Networks (aka PBN). A PBN (also known as a link farm), is a group of blogs / websites created for link building purposes that are owned by the same entity but rendered invisible to 'all' backlink tools but visible to Googlebot and other search engine spiders). PBNs are only invisible to backlink tools if the tools are blocked from accessing / indexing the site (to avoid exposure of these links) via robots.txt or an .htaccess file (a hidden file on the server that can be used to control access to your website), and new 'unblocked' backlink tools  can crawl PBN sites and expose them to their competitors to report to Google etc. Google can analyse robots.txt of sites and see if they block the crawlers of popular backlink tools like Majestic, Ahrefs etc and this can potentially be a flag on their site. When we will see a search engine for robots.txt files?


To summarise, eventually Google can and surely will catch up with (all?) 'black hat' techniques (even if some still work well post-2012 and show no signs of going away). So to be in line with the current Webmaster guidelines of the major search engines in your locality & modest in one's expectation management with clients is useful! You should ensure that what may penalise your (client's) site doesn't also end up penalising your consultancy / agency business financially.

Using 'black hat' techniques because of the (short-sighted) business goals of maximum profit this financial period might result in your site being de-indexed by Google! If you want to 'churn and burn' that's fine but it can & will have multiple consequences. Yet people still do it to this day as Google detection of link spam still relies on user reports and appears to be mainly on a network by network basis.

Best practices and resources for future proof SEO include: 

  1. bear in mind that Google has been argued to be waging a propaganda war against the SEO industry. Don't drink all of the Kool Aid (including this article, etc) - the last third is usually backwash! 
  2. manual link building only (ideally in-house with management oversight) and all link building reported formally. Outsourcing (or even doing) off-page SEO (and / or PPC) when the Marketing Director is not extremely 'search engine savvy' is not recommended. Do not use sculpted 'money' anchor text. Search engine compliant link building lead by a digital-savvy PR consultant may provide the best return on investment and the most traffic. Link building for traffic is as important as link building for PageRank!
  3. regular SEO strategy reviews with written assurances (by SEO manager and / or agency) that ensure all (past and) present SEO tactics are compliant with current best 'future-proof' practices in the context of search engine guidelines.
  4. If you are going to be 'black hat' then you should protect yourself contractually against any backlash in the event of a search engine action against your (client's) site.
  5. Studying the rich & detailed Google ranking drop and / or penalty case studies on can be considered a good list of "what not to do" / "what used to work" in link building. Learn the history of black hat SEO, as techniques such as 'parasite hosting' can still be of use.
  6. To help you keep up to date on Google analyses their latest patents so you don't have to (for example the Panda patent was granted three years after it's launch). He may not however realise all the implications of them though!

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This article was originally commissioned by Supermetrics

This SEO company gave themselves a testimonial on their own website!

posted 15 Jan 2017, 04:13 by C Byrne   [ updated 4 Apr 2017, 07:35 ]

This testimonial has the same photo as on the owner / lead consultant's Twitter profile with the owner's name (Gary). They call themselves a "Reading based SEO company ... providing professional SEO services to businesses in the Berkshire area". Nuff said!

freelance seo consultant testimonial
Never knew he was a wheel specialist too! :)

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