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My previous life as a programmer/entrepreneur - Part 3: First steps into the dirty underworld of search engine optimization

This is part 3 of a series of articles. If you missed the previous articles, you should start at the beginning.

Last time, I wrote about my first failed attempt to make money, and my second somewhat successful attempt to make money. Even though it may sound fancy because it's on the Internet, all of that stuff was very honest, traditional business. Either selling a product for money, or selling a service for money.

But as we've all learned in recent years, only suckers try to make money that way (see: Wall Street). The real money is a level removed from honest business.

The story now jumps ahead to 2005, shortly after my first year of college ended. I spent most of that first year doing things besides working on my programming business, as you can imagine. But then I received a somewhat intriguing and somewhat shady email, from a seemingly-now-defunct marketing firm called DPMG.

DPMG wanted to buy subdomains on my main website (aardvarkind.com at the time). Their original wording was:

These subdomains would contain sites we control and be on a variety of topics.

I took that to mean "we're going to spam and spam hard, and use your good name to do it". So naturally I was hesitant. I asked if maybe they'd be interested in a normal ad deal first, just some links to their websites... and they were! $50/month/link on my main website, $25/month/link on my secondary website (which I will write about next time...), for 10 links on each site. That's $750/month, in completely passive income! I agreed right away. They sent me the links to put up right away. I put them up right away. They paid me right away. This was legit.

Now you may be wondering, why did somebody want to pay that much money just for a few links on my crappy, marginally popular website? The answer, which also explains some of my future articles, is search engine optimization (SEO). What is SEO? Wikipedia says:

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in search engines via the "natural" or un-paid ("organic" or "algorithmic") search results. In general, the earlier (or higher on the page), and more frequently a site appears in the search results list, the more visitors it will receive from the search engine's users.

To give a practical example, imagine you want to buy car insurance. Probably the first thing you'd do is go to Google and type in "car insurance". Then, you'll probably click on a couple of the results near the top, and there's a pretty decent chance you'll actually buy car insurance from one of those websites.

Thus, you can imagine that having a site near the top of the Google results for "car insurance" would be incredibly lucrative. Anyone who then clicks the link to that site is an incredibly valuable customer, because they are actively looking to buy what you're selling.

But what does that have to do with links on my site? Well, the primary innovation of Google, which everyone else since copied, was to rank sites based on links. So if a bunch of popular sites link to another website, that linked website is probably pretty notable and should thus rank highly.

Google fucking loved my site. I had thousands of people downloading my software and installing it on their websites, and each installation included a little link back to my website at the bottom. So, as far as Google was concerned, I was high class. I was good people. I had that SEO magic. Google has since gotten smarter about such things, but for a good 3 year period, I was golden.

So, DPMG wanted my links because Google loved me and DPMG wanted to rank their spammy sites high in Google.

At this point, the cash is rolling in to the tune of several hundred dollars per month. That's not a ton of money in the grand scheme of things, but it is a lot of money for not doing any work. But, as always happens with money, I wanted more.

DPMG came back again with another offer for subdomains. They offered $50/month on my secondary website, and $100/month on my primary website... and for 10 subdomains on each website. So that's $1500/month in addition to the $750/month they were already paying me. Even if it meant tarnishing my image with spam... I couldn't turn that down. That's as much as most people make at real jobs, and I was going to get it for doing absolutely no work!

Everything was peachy for a few months. I even wrote an article on kuro5hin containing much of the content in this article, and that was back when getting published on k5 actually meant something.

So this worked for a few months, and then inevitably I got found out. Google banned all my websites. Suddenly, I was worthless. My ad deal expired without renewal, and I had to beg Google to index me again after I expunged the spam. They did, and I kept things clean... for a little while, at least. Instead of using text links to promote spam websites, I used them to promote my own side projects, as described in the next article.

Want to keep reading? Go to Part 4 of the series!

2 archived comments

  1. Took a look around the site and found this series. Interesting. I'll probably check for future installments.

    Comment by Crow — October 13, 2011 @ 2:46 am

  2. Really enjoying your stories.
    I pretty much learned a similar lesson with a game I made with Unity and I had Unity ads in it for monetization. I happened to have a bunch of different devices laying around my house so I installed my game on all of them and I would play my game like crazy for it to show ads. For a while I made some money and then Unity found me out and banned me for life 🙁
    Tough pill to swallow but valuable lesson to learn.

    Comment by Nelly — October 14, 2016 @ 2:34 pm