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Strategy & Planning Updated on: Jan 15, 2020

4 ways to hack your way to the top without cheating

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This post discusses the drawbacks of something that is very accepted among marketing professionals. Cheating. Using digital tools to make more noise, and applying trickery to outsmart the search algorithms that try to provide customers with relevant answers.


There are many things that are cheat-able. Like stuffing keywords, paying “independent” influencers for coverage, posting “independent reviews”, “I’ll follow you if you follow me” strategies and so on. But if they work, they don’t work for long. Google and other algorithms catch up fast in their quest to make results as relevant as possible. You get a small advantage by deploying a very smart scheme, but the penalty you get when Google catches it is often not worth it. Your website’s reputation can go down and it will be hard to rebuild. Most importantly, these tricks won’t make it easier for your customers to find or navigate your site, or to find what they’re looking for.

Let’s talk about what I think you should be not be doing, to make it easy for your customers.

In this post, I plan to address a few marketing topics that I come across all the time.

  • How to outsmart those who are trying to get attention in this noisy world
  • The drawbacks of paid advertising (and exceptions!)
  • How to promote your content in creative ways
  • How to get great search rankings

Let me start with an example to set up these tricky topics. Imagine you are an unknown writer working on your first book. You put your first words on paper. Who do you write for? For an agent, you might hire someday to sell your book? For the publisher whom you’re trying to impress? For the New York Times book reviewers? Most likely you are not thinking of these people as your primary target. You’re either writing for yourself or for an imaginary person who might enjoy your stories.

So why don’t most marketing professionals do the same? Why do we fall in the trap of writing headlines, content or updates to please search engines? Why does keyword research now often trump understanding the persona of your audience? Why do we start buying paid advertising or sometimes even clicks and followers, instead of focusing on writing a good book first?

Probably because many people think it works. But guess what...it doesn’t.

In the last 15 years of Google dominance, marketing professionals have been teaching each other many tricks. Some of these are great hacks to do effective marketing in the noisy digital world. But others are cheats that you should not brag about. These are loopholes or schemes that people use to make more noise or get more followers. Many people try to outsmart search or paid advertising algorithms by trying to get arbitrary sites to link to your content or to write about you.

Don’t pay for advertising until you have great Organic Search Authority

Many marketers use paid advertising (Google Ad words or other forms of Pay-Per-Click) to attract attention. Or they pay to get a boost on social networks to get more friends (would you have tried this in high school?).

friends-wantedThese tricks are not modern digital marketing. You are just using modern digital tools to make more noise. It's Madison Avenue on steroids. It allows your marketing team to slack instead of focusing on great content and relevance.  At the core, paid advertising is an intrusion. It’s a disruption. You're forcing people out of their day-to-day business and shoving your message in their faces.  Do you really want to be that obnoxious person? In one move, you can earn yourself haters who will tweet to the whole world about your company being a spammer.

When you start your marketing efforts, I recommend you don't use PPC. If you write great content, your audience will come. When you have established online authority, you can always accelerate some traffic with PPC investments, but then at least you’re promoting a great book. Because your link authority is higher and you rank better for the right keywords, the PPC economics will be much better.

There are two exceptions. These are the only scenarios that I have found good use of paid advertising, especially early in the life of a startup.

  • Paid social amplification of good content within Google’s “24 hours after publishing” window. I think it’s completely acceptable to make some noise when you have put a lot of effort into writing a great piece of content. If you did the work to understand your audience, it would be a waste if nobody ever heard of it. By all means, feel comfortable to buy some social amplification (promoted tweets, Facebook ads, etc.) to make your content visible. It’s critical to do this in the first 24 hours after you post your content since Google plays close attention to how new content performs (e.g., how many people are interested in it). Google will establish the foundation for your content’s search rankings based on this period. It will rank it high for a short period of time and see if people that click on it engage (and don’t bounce back to the search results). Google also tracks how much traffic gets referred to as your new masterpiece. The latter is especially impacted by organic backlinks (ask your friends, influencers, etc.) and paid advertising.
  • The second one is tricky. It’s so-called “remarketing”, or the technique to cookie people that have visited your website and “follow them” with PPC display advertising. It’s a grey area. Given that these visitors have already engaged with you before, you can argue that you’re not spamming them, but “staying in touch.” Your ad is probably more relevant to them than something else that would’ve been displayed in its place. On the other hand, it can come across as “stalking.” Even with a negative side effect, the benefit of doing this for startups is significant. The amount of people that will think that you’re much bigger than you actually are is still amazing, even after this technique has been around for a while.

Don't push. Guide. Or how IKEA learned its lesson.

10-15 years ago, when you went to an IKEA store, it was hard to deviate from their predetermined path. You were forced to see the entire warehouse, which took at least 1 hour of your valuable time. After people started to put guides online on how to get in and out faster (and numerous complaints), IKEA made it easier. Now there are big signs above shortcuts, which were at first meant for employees or for emergencies only. These signs allow you to save time and go directly to, say, children’s furniture or kitchen area.

ikea-shopper-pathThe same thing has to happen to help your customers find what they need on your website. 10 years ago it might have been acceptable to put only prompts you wanted people to click on. You can still do this if you think it fits your customer persona, but only if that is what they’re really looking for. Only if it really helps them achieve a predictable goal. 

 It’s usually better to provide choice. Apart from learning how customers navigate and make choices (typically knows as A/B testing), it’s usually the fastest way to offer them the information they’re looking for. Invite your visitors to engage with you.  Put your resources into providing instant gratification with things your customers can download that are valuable. Have an online chat service and be like the IKEA employees that are ready to help you with design and picking out your kitchen.

But don’t provide too much choice either. Don’t cram your homepage with all sorts of links, buttons, and pictures. Overwhelmed visitors will leave. Ideally, your visitors don’t even land on your homepage, but on the page that best matches what they were searching for. You should have separate landing pages that are super relevant for any type of search that will lead people to your website, or any type of link that you know people are coming from.

Don’t “borrow.” Create.


Many marketers reuse, "borrow" and echo ideas as opposed to understanding their customers and serving them better. 90% of all marketers simply try to drum louder. What does this produce? Noise, noise, and more noise. Why would anyone listen to you? People have to care about you first, to listen to you and to you only. Once you have their attention, don't be tempted to emulate your competitors. The fact that they're doing something doesn't mean that it’s what your audience wants you to do. There is a reason they came to you. They don’t want to see you repeating what your competitor is doing. Be unique. Be original. Write for people, the searchers, and not for crawling search engines.

Don’t pay for press coverage.

When you see pages in a magazine that has “advertisement” printed on them, how do you process them? Do you even read them? Many companies that are growing out of the startup phase and want to accelerate try to find ways to get big fast, especially when they just got some funding. They often pay influential bloggers, journalists or analysts (like Gartner) to write about you. The issue is that people whom you can pay to write about you are not the real influencers.

Instead, invite the press to your customer events. Wow them. Impress them with your happy customers and your great product. Wine & Dine them, if needed, but don’t pay them to write about you. Have real discussions, share your successes and talk about your problems. Be real, be humble.

Think about your customers and press and everyone who helps to promote your company as your tribe. Cultivate it. Grow it like a plant. Water it every day, and it will respond. It takes time, just like it takes time to nurture relationships. You will get more out of 1 article written by a journalist who became your friend as opposed to 10 ones that you’ve paid for. 

To sum this up, don’t cheat.

impact-timeYou can hack a little bit. Hacking is good. Hacking is about making efficient use of new tools and being smarter than other marketers by serving your customers better. Give them what they want as fast as possible. Cheating is a very different business. It’s also very short term.

Per the picture below you can get early success by making a splash with some advertising. When you first come out with your startup’s story, you’ll get at least one shot at telling your story to the press, analysts, etc. But a lot of early marketing that you can buy (throwing a press event, buying adds, commissioning paid for writers, etc.) will have diminishing returns over time. This marketing strategy (the upper curve) is needed to get out of the gate, but don’t count on it for the long term. To have sustained marketing success and get revenue growth with high marketing ROI without having to double your marketing budget each year, you need to invest in understanding your customers and writing helpful, educational, unique, and interesting content for them.

Your to-do list:

  • Listen to customer support calls. Get to know them. Check out this example “moonlighter” persona from MightyCall that they built for their initial marketing content.
  • Invest a lot of time and resources to generate original content, measure what performs well, what doesn't, focus on top-performing areas and grow them. With time you'll spend less and fewer resources on it, only tending to it here and there. Moz’s TAGFEE code is a great tool for this.
  • Check out this blog post from Hub Spot, arguably the best example of a company that is committed to inbound, organic marketing.
  • Before you publish your content, check for Plagiarism to see how original your content is. Here is a good tool for that: http://en.writecheck.com
  • Schedule customer events and invite press and influencers. Thank everyone after the event and ask for candid feedback on how to make their experiences better next time.

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