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Learn How To Be A Blogger With “Guts” From This (Failed) SEO Challenge

Are you a blogger with “guts”?

Starting a blog can be difficult; earning an audience can be even more challenging.

But when you set out to challenge a popular figure or a concept, you will see things start to change.

You may become the next good or bad face in your niche, a culture leading blogger in your niche world, or even just the one who went counter-current and helped see beyond the popular ways.

Here is how it worked for me and what I learned from my failed SEO challenge.

(P.S. Not a real failure, you will read why)

April 2014: How I Challenged Matt Cutts to Penalize My “Sponsored Circle” Project

WHSR readers may know my views on Google and its approach to the webmaster community from the post I published last year as a reaction to the penalty on MyBlogGuest.

I don't “hate” Google, but I will admit I don't appreciate the power it exerts on webmasters and SEOs and I don't personally approve of the way they enforce guidelines to the webmaster community – At all.

So, I decided to put my views in the game and have some fun: I threw a challenge at Matt Cutts on Twitter:


One thing you should know is that I posted my challenge in reply to Matt's statement of pride for the Google Japan webspam team for their action on seven link networks of a span of few months.

It just felt right to use that opportunity to voice out my idea, because I'm a firm believer that link building is a good Marketing practice, no matter what Google thinks about it. While link building itself has deviated sometimes to just get PageRank “juice” instead of helping the user, putting a ban on the entire practice — and networks built around it — always seemed exaggerated to me.

That is where my then-blossoming advertising community was meant to make an impact. Though small, every piece of the maze matched.

How my advertising community homepage looked

Goals of My SEO Challenge and How I Failed Them (Not)

When I decided to challenge Google to penalize my newborn advertising community, I had more than one goal in mind.

I wanted to:

I picked an SEO challenge because it was meaningful to my case: in a blogging world where everybody continually stresses over the avoidance of Google penalties of any kind, I went out to seek one.

With a “bring it on” attitude, yes.

Whether the website would get a penalty or not, I thought, the message was already out there that here is a webmaster who is not afraid and who places her values elsewhere but Google.

I knew I wasn't alone, but only a few of us dared to speak out (Tad Chef of SEO 2.0 is a good example of an outspoken blogger).

I also had Ann Smarty following and cheering for my project:

I was keeping an eye on the challenge from day one. I think Matt disappeared from the scene shortly after the challenge was launched (I may be wrong). I am not sure if Matt ever responded or reacted in any way. I think it was a cool idea and I was curious to see where it was going!

So here is how I tried to reach my goals:

First, I Tried to Get Sponsored Circle A Manual Penalty

As I wrote in the chronicle of my challenge at n0tSEO.com, I tried a bunch of gray and black hat tricks to trigger a manual penalty:

  • I stuffed keywords in the footer
  • Added hidden links to penalized websites I own
  • I used spammy anchor text
  • I created a spoof subdomain on another domain I own with nonsense text generated via Gibberish Generator and added spammy links out to Sponsored Circle
  • I joined a link directory that required link exchange to work

I only kept myself miles away from techniques that would hinder user experience, because it was only Google that I wanted to scare, not people.

But, as challenge-follower Philip Turner told me when I asked him for feedback, it seems that “Google only adds manual review penalties to sites that they genuinely believe are trying to game the system, OR that break very specific rules eg. Invisible Text.”

Other methods I used to trigger a manual penalty were a little more sly, like when I reported my own website for spam twice, in October 2014 and February 2015:

google challenge

I Also Tried With An Algorithmic Penalty

Because I use black/gray hat tactics, I hoped the Google algorithm would pick up on my tricks and demote Sponsored Circle if the Google webspam team wouldn't come to manually penalize my website.

It Didn't Work…

And it's probably because of what David Leonhardt from THGM Content Marketing, also a follower of my challenge, says:

“I've learned that elephants rarely pay attention to mice lying beside them.  If you were BMW or Citibank, or if you were driving serious traffic (and therefore a real threat to the integrity of Google's algorithm), you would probably be on a first name basis with a variety of penalties.”

Ann Smarty added a comment, too:

“I didn't think Google would penalize it. I guess if the site actually started operating and making some progress helping people build links, Google would be more interested in tracking the users down. I am sure they had it on “keep an eye on” list but penalizing it before it launches wouldn't accomplish anything. They need press, scary stories and examples to make their point straight!”

Trying to get Sponsored Circle penalized was definitely hard work, much more than to remove an existing penalty at this point.

… BUT I Still Didn't Really Fail

Think of it:

  • I got Google to at least take a suspicious look at my website
  • I showed the webmaster community how cool it is not to be afraid of Google
  • I built referral traffic through interactions with the webmaster community
  • I entertained and de-stressed the community with a fun and meaningful challenge
Sponsored Circle traffic stats for May-June 2015

David Leonhardt says about my (failed) SEO challenge:

[It] certainly places you in the most fun percentile of bloggers.  How many mice take time out to tickle the elephant sleeping next to them?  (Canadians will recognize the image.)  I guess Matt Cutts never did get back to you?  Too bad, since he is known to occasionally have some fun, too.

Oh, I think Matt Cutts had a good laugh about my challenge himself, but no, he never got back to me. We had some silly, friendly exchanges via Twitter, though (he's a nice person, no matter what I think of his ‘teachings').

And I still reached my goals, after all.

What Can You Learn from My Experience?

1. Being a blogger with “guts” means to challenge the status quo

When something works and it is popular (like Google), it may seem crazy to go against it.

As a blogger who doesn't belong to the big names amongst influencers, I was well aware of my status quo: like Philip Turner and David Leonhardt said, I'm a mouse, a tiny figure in comparison to Matt Cutts or anybody on the Google's webspam team.

However, like life is always evolving, it's good to challenge the status quo and bring some fresh air to your niche— or even just to your immediate community, the one you built around your blog and your network of fellow bloggers and professionals.

I feel it's wise to remember that everybody started as a “mouse” – even the big names in the industry. They are people like us, only with much more fame and expertise.

Like everyone, they earned a name the moment they used their “guts” to bring a change in their fields.

Every blogger can help bring a change, no matter how small. Even you.

2. It means making a difference for yourself and others

Indeed, nothing can change until you give it a try.

Your “guts” may not earn you the next Nobel prize or turn you into the go-to person in the marketing industry, but they could make you the one who brings new perspectives and ideas to your immediate network, your followers and your readership.

David Leonhardt told me that my challenge was definitely fun and he agrees that I was successful in one of my goals: “de-stressing” the blogging and webmaster world from the well-known, paralyzing fear of Google.

This is one change that meant a lot for my challenge – it made a difference, albeit a small one.

But as it turns out, this small difference means much more to my overall project than getting Sponsored Circle a Google penalty – to help dispel fellow bloggers' fears and to bring them a smile is much more important than the pride to see my website penalized.

If I have to be remembered for this challenge, then it's this aspect I want to be remembered for.

3. It means creating connections and building a community

Or to expand your current one(s).

It's what happened to me the moment I decided to interview Ann Smarty and Sana Knightly for my ebook for Sponsored Circle advertisers and then I chose to bring the project to MyBlogU to find more experts to interview – my platform suddenly became bigger and I had more people interested in my project as well as in my challenge.

A challenge will bring you to interact more with people in your niche, it will get you talking and planning together, it will lead to new friendships and business relationships.

If you only had a handful of readers on your blog, you will find that your popularity will grow exponentially with a challenge.

4. It means that even failure can hide success

You may fail a big goal, but it's unlikely that you won't reach at least a few smaller goals. You may not win your challenge, but you will have made an impact nonetheless.

I failed my big goal to get Google to penalize my advertising community, but I reached several smaller goals, from sending a positive message to the community to building traffic without search engines.

Also take personal growth and the educational value of your efforts (for yourself and for others) – first hand experience teaches much more than philosophy.

Don't Be Afraid to Challenge People in Your Niche

They are human being like you and me – only with more expertise, fame, experience and maybe luck.

They are still human beings, though, not deities. They might appreciate and enjoy the challenge, especially if it comes with the “fun factor” and doesn't assume with arrogance.

And at the end of the day, I think Matt Cutts himself had a good laugh about my SEO challenge, as its scope was more psychological than related to the field of SEO. The answer he gave me on Twitter somehow tells me he had taken the challenge with humor, too.

So don't be afraid to challenge people in your niche. Just do it kindly and make your goals clear from day one.

How To Be A Blogger “With Guts” – A Quick Guide

Some actionable tips— in five steps!

1. Monitor issues in your niche

Keep an eye on the most important news outlets, forums and blogs in your niche. Watch news for both known and less known issues.

Any issue in your niche can be good ground for a challenge if you have definite views about it.

I chose Google penalties for link networks (issue) and my stance against any attempt to limit forms of marketing on the basis of a company's bias (views) because I have dealt with them often over the years, both for myself and my clients, so it was a well known ground I had specific, well-defined views about.

2. Pick an issue to build your challenge upon

What do you think about a certain issue? What are your feelings about it? What can you say that others haven't said yet (or only a minority has spoken about or against)? Is there an unspoken need you may address?

Put your views into play!

I chose to challenge Google to penalize my advertising community because I saw an increasing, paralyzing fear of Google penalties about advertising, link building and guest blogging, so I wanted to help dispel that fear by seeking what everybody was trying to avoid.

3. Contact people you challenge and involve the community

Ideally, the people you choose to challenge would help with the challenge, but even if they don't, make sure they are at least responsive about it.

A word of caution from David Leonhardt and Ann Smarty about challenging big names in the industry:

If your business really depends on the website, don't do anything risky with it.  But setting up a site as a playground to test things out and have a little fun along the way can be a rewarding hobby. — David

The sad truth is, it's a fight with no chance to win. I wouldn't spend my time and energy fighting big businesses in the industry: I don't think it's worth it. – Ann

However, if winning the challenge is not your priority but it is simply the message you want to send out, challenge away.

Your community can contribute to your challenge, not just cheer it on. For example, the community I built around Sponsored Circle participated in bi-weekly/monthly Twitter chats I setup for the website. They actively contributed to the project.

4. Create content around your challenge and leverage social media

Guest posts, press releases, content marketing, social media chats and hangouts, other platforms – there is a ton of content you can create about your challenge to involve more people outside of your community and spread the word.

Most importantly, this content and its promotion is a good way to survey the Web about your ideas and to watch others' reactions.

Feedback is especially useful to push your challenge forward or rethink some of your approach to it. Interaction always betters projects.

5. Thank the names you challenged and the community

Saying “thanks” is not just a way to be kind and appreciative of others' collaboration – it is also a way to leave a positive impression on those you challenged and who helped you through your efforts (your community).

Being thankful helps to strengthen relationships and build new ones.

Most especially, being thankful makes you the human being and blogger you want to be.

The Fate of My Advertising Community Project and Google

The project started with good intentions and a team of three people, but as health issues and work commitments got in the way of things, the community never really launched and I had problems with getting beta users to leave feedback.

In the end, I decided to delete the community's domain name and incorporate Sponsored Circle with n0tSEO.com. I don't like to waste hard work, so I would rather merge projects instead of letting them go (besides, the two websites were always related).

As For Google, like Philip Turner says, “Google is not stupid enough to rise to minor annoyances. They have bigger targets to destroy. When they TRIED to destroy MyBlogGuest it was because the site was BIG and was being abused by many users who were blogging for optimised links.”

So Google and its spokespeople are definitely not a good pick for a challenge, but it was meaningful and fun.

Also, it was an opportunity to grow as a blogger and a webmaster and to understand my niche better.

As Ann Smarty puts it:

I prefer pretending Google doesn't exist: I am not playing by their rules and I am not proactively trying to rank in Google. I think that approach is much more productive because you learn to live on your own terms. My advice to any blogger or website owner is to start doing the same.

Which is what I do, too, challenge aside.

Next target for a challenge will be either a minor figure or concept in the niche, but to be a blogger “with guts” made such a difference in my life that I can't just stop here. There is much more I can voice out and more “fun” I can provide to the community.

What about you? Do you have the “guts” to challenge a concept or a figure in your niche?

Photo of author

Article by Luana Spinetti

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