When Bad SEO Kills Brand Visibility: The Story of Imaginary Campground


When Bad SEO Kills Brand Visibility: The Story of Imaginary Campground

With an exponential number of strategies and techniques to grow your brand online, business owners are often faced with a conundrum of choices in an unfamiliar digital marketing world.

This can lead to poor investments and misaligned strategies that fail to connect business goals to marketing activities. It can also lead to actions that unintentionally result in a slip in search engine rankings.

The story of this Imaginary Campground* is one that may resonate with your organization. It is a cautionary tale for those looking to invest in online marketing, and a window into better understanding the seedy underworld of black-hat search engine optimization. That’s digital marketing with the intent to game Google – a strategy that may yield short-term success, but can lead to devastating long-term effects.

Grab the s’mores and gather around the flicker of your computer, this is the story of Imaginary Campground.

Imaginary Campground’s History

Imaginary Campground has been a popular destination for over thirty years. It’s a small piece of old-school Americana preserved in the Midwest. The campground is disconnected from the frantic pace of electronic media, Twitter wars, and a 24-hour news cycle.

The scenic hiking trails, legendary swimming hole, and annual canoe race are each an extension of a brand experience that was naturally cultivated and spread word-of-mouth by tales of spectacular summer vacations from family and classmates.

“Cap”, short for Captain Bill, owned and managed the campground. There was a 110% chance Cap would swing by your campsite to greet a new group or catch up with returning campers. He remembered names with uncanny ability.

As the world wide web gained popularity in the late 90s and internet access became more common in the average home, Cap noticed that video games and chat rooms were stealing campground experiences from kids. Email and cell phones were stealing bonding experiences for parents.

How would Imaginary Campground connect and compete in this highly competitive market of family entertainment?

Pitching A Tent on The Internet

Cap’s launched the Imaginary Campground website in the spring of 1996. It was one page with a logo, three photos, and a flash animation of a campfire.

Cap knew his campground should be on the internet so families could find it, but he wasn’t exactly sure how. He was going with the Field of Dreams strategy.

If you build it, they will come.

For a few years, this strategy worked – but by 1999, something went wrong. New campers were nearly non-existent. A once reliable referral base failed to fill even half the campsites on the most popular holiday weekends.

Families who once arrived every Fourth of July with RV’s of baseball mitts and hot dogs ominously disappeared from the visitor log. Some had children who left for college, and others had teens who were ‘too cool for tents’.

The campground’s main competitor now had a very impressive website that made Imaginary Campground website look like an ancient relic. It was time for Cap to take drastic measures.

Advertising the Outdoors Online

Cap hired a professional web development company and invested $14,000 in a high-impact website design with all the bells and whistles. A professional photographer supplied breathtaking imagery of the campsite that truly captured the spirit of Imaginary Campground.

The web company interviewed staff members and worked with a professional copywriter to create unique and engaging content for the site. Over thirty hours of time by staff and Cap were invested in the development of the site.

While a very real website was being built for Imaginary Campground, in the background, Google’s reach was growing. Search was growing as a prominent way to reach customers for almost any business or industry. Terms like PageRank and domain authority were foreign to most business owners not engaged with the Internet, but that would soon change.

Cap still wasn’t confident this new website was the answer to his campfire prayers, and he didn’t even know what Google was – but what other choice did he have?

The Success Before the Storm

Over the next few years, sales grew steadily. New campers often mentioned the website and remarked that they “didn’t know this place was out here.” Most were suburbanites who were desperately trying to outrun their electronic devices for a weekend in the woods. They would never have found Imaginary without the Internet.

By October of 2001, Imaginary Campground was the first Google result for many top relevant searches, and business was booming. Domain seniority and the new website, paired with the rising popularity of search engines provided the business with a distinct edge. More than half of new business was originating from the web.

Unbeknownst to Cap, much of this recent success could be attributed to changes made in Google’s algorithm that provided more relevant results based on geographic location and end-user data.

The next two summers would break sales records.

Digital Disaster Strikes – Part I

In November 2003, Google released the Florida update. This was a monumental change in the way websites were ranked in search results and penalized sites for certain practices that did not put the user first, by Google’s definition.

While this lacked clarity for marketers, it resulted in desperate confusion for businesses that experienced a significant drop in visibility for no apparent reason.

Imaginary Campground dropped from the first organic result to the fifth result on the second page. What would that mean for revenue? The trend of growing sales plateaued and the number of first time campers dropped for the first time in three years.

Cap took action. After getting an email from an SEO company advertising their services, he spoke with a customer service agent that guaranteed they would have the Imaginary Campground website back in the number one spot in just nine months.

Nine months! Cap didn’t know exactly how SEO worked, but this seemed like a long time to wait for results. He reluctantly hired them. At only $49 per month, it was not a budget-busting investment if it turned out to be ineffective.

After nine months, they did get the site back to the first page but never reclaimed the top spot. The number one position once taken for granted seemed increasingly out of reach.

Another campsite opened not far from Imaginary, and their website had videos. This wasn’t good news for Cap.

“We Specialize In SEO For Imaginary Campgrounds”

Cap decided to double down on what appeared to be a successful investment in the past. After vetting two new companies to the best of his limited knowledge of SEO, he hired both and crossed his fingers.

Both companies offered the same menu of services and made the same promises. It was difficult to tell them apart, or if they were being truthful. It felt like a huge risk, but again, what the choice did Cap have?

At the time, SEO was a new concept to business owners who had spent decades perfecting their craft – and not keeping pace with internet marketing.

It did not take long to see the results. Within weeks Imaginary Campground secured the first spot in search results for many top keywords related to their industry, leading to an immediate improvement in traffic and phone calls. Things were looking up, and Cap realized how much he now relied on his web advertising to generate revenue.

It cost less than six months and $1,500 to recover from the two SEO company strategy. In 2004, Imaginary Campground sales were back on track – but the feeling of success didn’t last long.

Digital Disaster Strikes – Part II

In January of 2005, Google released another update. Part of this update penalized sites for using spammy links on low-quality websites to boost search engine rankings. It was a major move towards creating a fair playing field for all businesses, and not those who cheated the system to outrank other more relevant sites.

Imaginary Campground’s site fell from the number one spot to page 49 overnight. It turns out the three SEO companies he hired all used these links and black hat SEO tactics for short-term gain, only to abandon him when things went south.

It was unlikely there was any recourse. The companies were located overseas, and only one responded to his emails of dissatisfaction by offering a free three months of service. This didn’t seem like an appealing solution from one of the companies that put him in this predicament to begin with.

Back to square one; or negative forty-nine.

A Tough Hill to Climb

Cap spoke with local digital marketing companies about the problem. They all wanted big bucks to resurrect the existing web presence or create a new one. Several turned down the work entirely.

He hired one that attempted to repair domain reputation with Google to no avail. Another $750 out the cabin window.

With sales down, a large investment was not a possibility anytime soon. An unexpected repair to the dock and storm damage was already putting a strain on next year’s budget.

Out of options, and with a deep mistrust for internet marketing providers in general, Cap decided to go back to investing in the traditional advertising channels he was familiar with. His niece started a blog but he was never sure what good the blog was doing.

With over $17,000 invested in a website and online presence that had lost all integrity to the leading search engine on the planet, Imaginary Campground was calling it quits with online marketing.

The Happy Ending

Cap is alive and well, more than a decade after this digital marketing debacle. Imaginary Campground is still hosting families for an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

His niece’s blog has become a source of quality traffic to the site. It turns out there are thousands of visitors per month that enjoying reading her stories about spending time on the campsite.

The Imaginary Campground website was optimized for mobile devices in 2015 after a strong urging from everyone with a smartphone. This provided a boost in search results as Google found the site more user-friendly than those not optimized for mobile.

A YouTube channel and pay-per-click advertising have given the website a new online relevance. While sales numbers have never quite returned to previous highs, Cap has still found a way to attract new visitors and keep his campground relevant.

How to Avoid the Imaginary Campground Lesson

We live in an information age where the answer to almost any question is findable within milliseconds. Questions such as “What SEO companies have the best reviews?” and “What questions to ask before hiring an SEO company?” should be asked, the answers researched, and results analyzed.

You are ultimately responsible for the brand you build. It’s crucial to understand what any employees or third-party vendors may be doing in your name. Digital marketing is complex. But there are no shortcuts. The best thing you can do is publish valuable evergreen content and tell your brand’s story in a meaningful way.

If you hire someone to help with your marketing or SEO, you can vet them. Visit their website. Find out if there’s a contact number, and where they are located. Talk to them and figure out what strategies they might use. Do they understand your business goals or selling you an off-the-shelf solution

Specific promises on a time frame are often a sign of black-hat SEO. This type of SEO may appear to work wonders, but what they are doing is attempting to game Google for short-term benefit. Once Google catches on, the consequences can sink your business.

Instead, white-hat SEO is a strategic, sustainable approach that focuses on the human audience. It’s an investment in the long game of your business.

S’more Lessons Learned Around the SEO Campfire

Companies that have been successful for decades are now losing business to competitors who are more aggressive with their online marketing and web development.

Small mid-sized businesses that once enjoyed prime placement search results have found themselves buried on page three, or worse, forty-nine.

Make informed decisions about search engine optimization for your business. Contact Joint Media Marketing today to schedule a free SEO consultation.

* This is a work of fiction. It’s a campfire tale with a cautionary marketing twist. We simply want to call attention to the pitfalls that we see with risky digital marketing strategies. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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About the author

Jason McSweeney is a marketing specialist and brand identity designer chosen as one of '13 Rookies On The Rise' by Advantages Magazine in 2011. His writing has been recognized by national publications such as VIBE Magazine and the Advertising Specialist Institute, in addition to WCKG Radio, Counselor Magazine, and Weekdone. View his Work or connect with Jason on LinkedIn.