What If Google Doesn't Reward White Hat SEO?

I started a website in October 2018. To get a feel for how people might react to it, I posted it in the "Show" section of Y Combinator's Hacker News. It hit the front page! As a result, it appeared in hundreds of tweets and showed up on news aggregator sites across the web. Then, Jason Kottke (one of the first and most influential bloggers) posted my website on his homepage. Fast Company profiled the site. So did trendspotting publications like PSFK, Trend Hunter and LSN Global. The site appeared in Gartner’s L2 newsletter, a favorite read amongst CEOs and executive types. Some bigwigs in the tech industry (from places like Google Ventures) shared the site on social media. It was profiled in notable design publications like Core 77. Even the international editions of Esquire and Slate wrote about the site!

Google yawned. 

And Bing refused to index the site altogether. 

Give it time, I thought. The site is young. Nevertheless, I was troubled by how hobbled the site seemed out of the gate.

I contacted Bing Global Support and discovered that time had nothing to do with my situation: The site was blocked! I'm not sure why (and Microsoft won't reveal why they flag certain sites), but I successfully made the case to get the flag removed.

Google, on the other hand, never had any qualms about crawling and indexing the site. It just doesn't rank the site well. This is kind of embarassing because I've spent 15 years doing search engine optimization both personally and professionally. I don't claim to be an SEO expert, but I'm decent enough at it. Heck, I grew an employer's organic traffic by more than one billion (with a "b") visits over three years. Yet here I am:

  • The domain is clean;

  • The site is well architected;

  • The content is original;

  • The links are earned;

  • The design is mobile-friendly;

  • The servers are reliable; and

  • The traffic from Google is negligible.

I know, I know, the site is less than fourth months old. Still, I can't help but wonder. Maybe Google judges young affiliate websites harshly (i.e. those that make money by referring users to buy something). That's a good thing, but there are plenty of affiliate sites that launched like a rocket ship because of grey-and black-hat tactics like using paid links, private blog networks and gimmicks (like offering $1,000 scholarships). Many of these sites disappear, but some stay alive and a few even become "born again" sites that embrace legitimacy and abandon their old, shady ways. Derp.

This article isn't about sour grapes. I like to do things the proper way, regardless of what happens. (Risk is "when you make good decisions but end up with a bad outcome," says Morgan Housel.) But, I do wonder what will happen if Google isn't able to consistently reward good actors at the expense of bad ones. Maybe something good? I was going to build my website no matter how Google might treat it. I had the urge to build. And that's kind of how the Internet came into existence. 

Many of the web's early contributors weren't out to make a buck. They had a passion, wanted to share it and so they did. The web was powered by smart and passionate people for their own internal validation. I miss those days.

If one day Google allows the web to be overrun with junk sites, then let it burn. From those ashes, someone else will find a way to filter the noise and build something better. The web is dead, long live the web!

Postscript: Don't cry for me, Argentina. Despite the laughably small amount of search traffic that my website gets (around 10-20 visits per day), overall traffic is still marching upward. Some people really like the site and they write to tell me. It’s a reminder that focusing on the right audience, however small it is, can be rewarding (especially for a recovering "enterprise SEO" like myself).