30 Dec 2019

My greatest SEO trick

SEO has a bad rep. Yet, it is an incredibly powerful tool that can drive web traffic like no other channel. It is also one of the few areas where a deep knowledge of the Open Web stacks is required to have a tremendous impact. You cannot do a great job at SEO if you don’t not understand semantic markup, HTTP status codes, or even rendering in the browser. Back in 2005, I resorted to a trick which boosted our SEO in unprecedented ways!

Over the year, I’ve worked on SEO in many different context, but for me, it all started with Jobetudiant. Jobetudiant is a job board for students in France. For the longest time, we had amazing rankings in Google and that was the secret to our success.

Even though it is still true today, back in 2003, backlinks had a tremendous importance in the SEO world. Google’s Page Rank algorithm sorts web pages based on the number (and quality) of links to each of them. Google will consider each of the link to be a “referral” for your page and they will assume that web pages with more referrals are more likely to be relevant.

The most successful strategy was to get a maximum number of links pointing to a webpage. Techniques like web rings, satellite sites or even link swapping became popular very quickly, despite all being explicitly “forbidden” by Google.

When Google introduced Adsense in 2003, Jobetudiant had been around for a couple of years already. At that time, it was still nearly impossible for a random website to monetize with anything but ads (luckily this changed!), and I quickly decided to “tag” jobetudiant with some Adsense banners. The way these work was pretty simple:

  1. Signup for Adsense
  2. Copy and paste a small snippet of JavaScript on the web page
  3. When the page is loaded, Google will crawl its content, identify the topic and show the most relevant ads

I quickly noticed that the snippet was pretty much identical for any website, except for one part: it included a unique identifier for each Adsense account. Nowadays they start with pub- followed by a long list of numbers. I quickly realized that this identifier could actually be set dynamically, so I decided to exchange ad-revenues for backlinks!

On the Jobetudiant web pages, I implemented a simple mechanism to detect the presence of an Adsense identifier in the URL. If there was one, I would replace our identifier with it. (We also set it in the cookies, so it was persisted across multiple pages). Other webmasters did not have to ask for a permission (or even inform us!), they could link to any page on Jobetudiant and just add the the pub query param with their own Adsense identifier. After this, each and every visitor they sent would generate ad-revenue for the website sending us traffic, rather than for us!

This, of course, is against Google terms of service for Adsense, and I would strongly recommend not doing that, but as we did for a a few months back in 2005, the number of backlinks we received exploded. We will never know how much ad-revenue this “cost” us, but it boosted our SEO in ways which we still have not been able to reproduce!

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