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Interview with Michael Cottam an Independent SEO Consultant

Steve Wetmore – This afternoon we are interviewing Michael Cottam. Michael is an independent SEO consultant based in Bend, Oregon. And his earned testimonials on his website homepage are nothing short of amazing.

Michael Cottam
Michael Cottam

Rand Fishkin founder of has this to say about Michael:

“Michael’s depth of experience and success in even highly competitive fields makes him a terrific choice as a consultant or partner. There is perhaps, no greater praise I can offer than this: I’ve tried to hire Michael personally at SEOmoz. He’s that good.”

Rand Fishkin

Steve Wetmore – So I’m going to make sure I’m paying attention . I’m really looking forward to hearing what you’ve got to say, Michael about the present state of SEO and the future.

Michael Cottam – Thanks Steve. I started SEO back in 2001 because I needed to know it for a company that I co founded called we were a honeymoon travel company and “Travel” I’m sure everybody knows is a really competitive space. And we needed to get traffic from people searching for Tahiti vacations, Hawaii, honeymoons, you know, Fiji packages, things like that. So I sort of went to school and learned SEO – that was the fairly early days of the internet and SEO. I grew that company through 2001 to 2008 sold it off to a travel wholesaler in 2008 and then really didn’t have much to do after that and folks that had known what I done to grow the business for The Big Day through SEO kept coming to me and bringing me projects to work on for their own businesses. And that kind of snowballed a little bit and I became a Moz Associate, which means to help out with Q and A and beta test products. I spoke at MozCon once and, whiteboard Fridays, awesome blog posts, articles, things like that, which really helped me connect was really kind of a fire hose of information and people in the SEO space and that’s really helped me grow. Today I’ve got clients in, I don’t know many countries, maybe something like that all over the world. Most of my businesses, it’s all from out of my home, do it over email, phone, Skype, you know, hangouts, things like that. And that’s kind of cool. It gives me a exposure to a massive variety of different kinds of businesses, different kinds of people, ideas, sizes of companies, things like that.

Steve Wetmore – Amazing. So are you busier than you want to be?

Michael Cottam – Well, I do turn away a lot of business. I turn away any client that competes on keywords with any past client, even if I haven’t worked with them for a couple years. And it’s nice because I’ve got enough deal flow coming through that I can do that sort of thing. My website ranks well for SEO consultant usually page one for most countries.

Steve Wetmore – We would love to hear your perspective on authority and or negative SEO, again, depending on how much time you’ve got.

Michael Cottam – Let’s start I’ll just cover the authority topic at a very high level. Okay. Back in August of 2018, Google released a pretty major earthshaking update called Medic. Medic was about companies, sites that are in the healthcare or financial services spaces, what they call Your Money, Your Life or YMYL. Google was concerned that people were getting content to rank and give out information about some fairly critical topics, healthcare and investing, for instance, because of various other SEO factors that didn’t have anything to do with whether these people know what they’re talking about. So their whole purpose with all the changes with the Medic update, is to be able to say, okay, for this kind of topic over here, maybe it’s on cancer research or drug side effects or how you should invest. Google wanted to be sure that the person who was the author and the company behind that website actually had some credentials in that space.

Michael Cottam – And so what happened in the past is the SEO and content creation community were cranking out content with people who didn’t know a particular topic, but they could research it. So there’s tons and tons of content out there. It either came from a general writer who just found stuff on Wikipedia and other sites and rewrote it all and consolidated it. Or even people who were writing misleading content for the purposes of favoring a product or service, they were trying to sell YMYL related stuff. Google is looking for mechanical ways today to figure out that this article on this little website, the website is maybe a medical clinic that specializes in dermatology. And the doctors that founded this clinic is the author of this particular article, not some content writer or somebody else in the staff. And the doctor is also on this dermatology board at this hospital, and is the person who writes a monthly column at this medical magazine, etc, etc, etc. That’s the kind of ties Google’s looking to try to identify, indications of other big entities on the web. This hospital, this medical magazine, things like that are that this guy’s the real deal, knows his stuff and knows his stuff about this space in particular. Because the connections, which is going to be links and other info that put together Google’s Knowledge Graph or entity graph of what is out there in the world as reflected on the web. The intent is to tie that all together, Google knows that this person over here is an authority, knows the space because of these connections. And conversely, this person over here who’s listed as guest blogger or admin, on this other article, has no creds so can’t really trust that article.

Michael Cottam – So that’s the idea happening there. Google has been a little bit vague about what you should do to build your expertise, authority and trust on this. But the general idea is that if you try to think a bit like Google, they’ve got to use mechanical means to figure out who the author is. So the answer here for webmasters is to use methods like Schema Markup that indicates who the author is on the page and ties that off. They’re linked to their profiles on LinkedIn, maybe a board of directors they serve on, you know, a columnist profile page of Huffington Post and that sort of thing. Okay, that’s the expert authority and trust thing in a nutshell.

Michael Cottam – Now let’s move on to talk about Negative SEO. Negative SEO has been talked about for a while, and back when Penguin 4.0 was launched. Penguin is a series of algorithms that Google has that were meant to essentially, punish sites that have been messing around with links in, inauthentic ways, you know, buying links, link farms, private blog networks, blogs, comments, spam, all that sort of stuff. With Penguin 4.0 Google came out and essentially said, you know, folks, we’ve got this handled, we know how to ignore those links. We’re not gonna even give penalties on stuff like that anymore. So you don’t really need to worry about it. That was kind of a white lie. Well, I do believe that Google has made vast advances in their ability to detect and ignore things like comment spam, to detect blog networks and just forget they ever saw any of those links, that sort of thing. The idea that there are no more algorithmic penalties is totally, totally false. Got a number of clients suffering from penalties either on a keyword specific basis or the entire site with toxic links or other things like that we see absolutely starting on a certain day, their traffic and their rankings drop across the board. Now, having said that, the most common damage that is typically done by negative SEO tactics, not a penalty. But rather it’s a reduction in whatever Google’s using to calculate their trust in that company’s websites and backup. And so, rather than move you from number four on page one to number 74, which is what happens typically with a penalty, you’ll move from number four, number five, number six, number eight, and number twelve, over a period of three months.

Michael Cottam – So let’s talk about what Negative SEO looks like, how somebody does it and what it was all means. Negative SEO basically, is one of your competitors. sites that is doing real marketing and real PR and outreach and link building and creating real content which is a lot of work and very expensive. And hey, for just a few hundred bucks or a couple thousand bucks, they could hire somebody to push their competitor down and bubble themselves up in the rankings for whatever the target terms are, rather than do the work to earn their position higher. So let’s say you’re ranking number seven for some term, that’s a big money term for you. You might do Negative SEO on four or five of the other businesses that are above you in the rankings. Hope gonna push them to page two. And now you’ll bubble up to number three and double your traffic, that sort of thing. So, you know, how does that happen? If Google with Penguin 4.0 ignores all these bad links? Well, the truth is, Penguin is probably ignoring a lot of those bad links. But if you do enough of them, and enough of them are nasty, you will see either a penalty, or you’ll see the trust factor or authority factor, whatever it is Google’s measuring, start to drop and you’ll bump down one spot at a time over a couple of months.

Steve Wetmore – So can I ask you a question in the middle of this? So when you’re on Google console, and you can click on a tab that reads a manual actions; Will Google tell you that there is a manual action against you or not for an algorithmic penalty?

Michael Cottam – Manual actions really haven’t changed if you’re doing really nasty stuff, really horrible links, violations of Terms of Service. There are still some manual penalties that happen out there. They are a lot rarer than they used to be. With the algorithmic penalties, you’re not going to see it. Google has never really shown algorithmic penalties that are keyword based. So the way you could get a keyword based algorithmic penalty, is let’s say you’re trying to sell Viagra, you go out and get 1000 links from 1000 different sites where the anchor text, the words that get linked to your site, are “buy Viagra”. Google will drop you off, out of page one down to maybe page ten or eliminate you entirely for that one term. Maybe you’re still ranking okay for Cialis and whatever else you’re selling, that sort of thing. So that would be a manual penalty. With the website, they’ll be the algorithmic keywords specific penalty. Google simply starts to lose trust in your site because the overall look of your link profile is a ton of really crappy stuff pointing at your site, like horrible weak sites. Then what happens is, it’s just like any other ranking factor, you just all of a sudden don’t rank quite as well. And so nothing gets reported in Search Console. So having said that, what is reported in Search Console and this is key, is the links that Google sees to your site.

Michael Cottam – So when we’re talking about negative SEO, if I want to build a bunch of links to a site, and cause that site to get penalized, not only do I need a bunch of already penalized sites or sites full of horrible content, that adds links to my enemies site from there, I need to hide those links from the average detection tool. SEO’s are always looking for problems with their incoming links, and there’s a bunch of tools out there that will monitor backlinks for you and tell you that you got some trouble. The problem with what the negative SEO folks are doing these days is they’re building these pages such that they’re only visible or the content is only visible to Googlebot. So try look for the links with Moz or AHRefs or Monitor Backlinks or whatever and you don’t see that giant Russian porn site link farm of 40,000 subdomains pointing at your site. Because when those crawlers visit those pages, those pages are cloaking for Googlebot. And if it’s not Googlebot visiting them, they’ll return a 500 error, or 400 not found or an empty page or something like that.

Michael Cottam – Search Console is going to report a good representative sample of the links Googlebot is seeing link to your site. So that’s one thing that the negative SEO folks can’t really get around is, if they’re going to get Google to punish you for some links. Google is going to show that website owner what those links are. Most of them not all in Google Search Console’s links to your site section.

Steve Wetmore – To make sure I understand you correctly, if I click on my link profile in Google console, and I notice that manny of my links, for example, are coming from sites that if I click on the site, is a Russian malware site and I get a malware or virus warning. I check out these sites and I decided to disavow them. I create a “disavow file .txt file, and send it to Google via the disavow tool. But the site’s continue to show up within Google Console, toxic links don’t get removed by Google right?

Michael Cottam – Google’s report doesn’t remove the disavow sites from the backlinks, they still show in the Report. Google is not counting disavowed anymore. But that report they let you download is not filtered out from the disavow file. You submit submit the disavow request but you continue seeing the bad links, but they’re just not counting them.

Michael Cottam –

Michael Cottam – You can even feed the links from Search Console into link analysis tools. So my favorite is one out of England called Kerboo LinkRisk from And you can feed those links into LinkRisk and because LinkRisk is not Googlebot When it tries to fetch those pages, they come back saying that are links dead and your site is okay. But you’re not okay, because it’s not dead to Googlebot, it was only dead to your crawler tool. So Google bots will fetch that same page and a month from now and go Yep, this online casino or pharma, or porn site, or whatever, or penalized malware site still links to you now, and so the negative SEO folks are going to continue building tens of thousands of links like this. So Google looks and thinks, “Wow, how come you’re in this neighborhood with thousands of sites we really hate?” and “We know, we’re really evil they all link to us.” So that’s how this all comes about. And at the moment Google bots isn’t smart enough to know the site is actually legit and to recognize that’s exactly what these negative SEO guys are doing.

Michael Cottam – I’m sure Google is working on this. From what I’ve seen, big legit sites have serious, serious drops when these toxic links started appearing. And when you finish disavowing them, you know, within a few weeks, a few months, they recover. So clearly, it’s still happening. One of the things is with negative SEO is they don’t have one trick, right? So though, it’s pretty clear to me that there’s one main player in the space. My guess is if you search “Negative SEO”, this player probably ranks number one or number two, and it probably has some pricing and there’s some place I think I know it is. But here’s the issue is he’s he’s got a giant private blog network of fake news sites. He’s got a Russian network of porn sites. He’s got a German and now a French network. Also .fr domain networks have numbered subdomains. The German sites all look like their wiring diagram pages, no matter what he’s targeting it all looks like wiring diagram pages. He’s got a bunch of malware sites that do a couple of redirects through local So you know, every week or month I look at some new profiles for new clients, I find a bunch of the old stuff I’ve seen before. And now he’s got a new technique. The .fr sites didn’t exist for him. But that domain didn’t exist a month ago. The Russian sites didn’t exist three or four months ago. He used to be all .ga and .cf . Now he’s doing his .ml and .tk. And so he’s trying new tricks all the time. And he’s trying the redirect through Now he’s running JavaScript in those pages to reverse out and edit out of your your browser history. The pages that have hit in between does are really malicious pages, and then 302 redirect forwards or JavaScript. There’s different tricks all the time. And so we know as Google finds ways to figure out Negative SEO patterns and fix them He’s finding a new way. The other thing is, it’s in Google’s greater interest to spot, the remove this bad site from search results. The real spammers, than is the negative SEO. The honest truth is, collateral damage to a legit site is not really Google’s problem. They’ll still find 10 nice sites about that topic with good content to show on page one. In fact you know company number 11 used to be at number 2 is now number 70. Because you’ve got hammered? Bummer. That’s not really going to get really bad press for Google. If their search results results are filled with sites that are all involved in affiliate sites that don’t actually sell anything and are playing games with backlink tricks and whatever to get themselves on page one. That’s bad press for Google by creating a bad user experience. If we’re selling Kenmore dishwashers, how come these three sites are on page one when they’re not real. You know? Affiliate sites? It’s a farce. There’s no reason to be there. Google is way more concerned about making sure bad backlinks don’t help sites than they are about making sure bad backlinks don’t hurt legit sites through negative SEO.

Michael Cottam – So let me talk about another interesting piece of this. And this is stopping negative SEO by continuing to review your backlinks, disavow the ones that are clearly garbage and move on. Lots of my clients say, “how do we find out who’s doing it?” And you might think, “why don’t you know, if this person is trying to push down their competitors bump up?” Why don’t we look at the top 10 sites for whatever the term is, and look at the backlinks of all 10 and 9 of them will have these horrible links. The problem is you can’t see those backlinks to those other nine sites that are the negative SEO because they’re closed to Googlebot. So we need tools you use as not the owner of those nine sites to try see the backlinks, but you see nothing. So you investigate, let’s say you could figure out who this person was that was doing negative SEO. This person, I guarantee you is not in the United States. So good luck pressuring them with any sort of legal action to turn over and reveal their clients. Number two, even if you if you could, they’re severely disincentive to reveal their clients. If their name is ever outed with some news story and the client that they were working for is identified and their client got punished; nobody’s going to hire Mr. negative SEO again, because I don’t want to get taken to court in the US because I use the same guy. He’s already been busted. Right? So there’s zero incentive for this person to ever roll over on their clients. You simply can’t get to them.

Steve Wetmore – About six months ago, authorities clamped down on those DDS farms, International police and charged people on the client list.

Michael Cottam – That takes a long time and money, right and it takes a lot of research. And you’ve got to take some legal actions on the ISP to force them to reveal who registered the domain. The negative SEO guy that’s doing most of the work out there is using DLD from lots of different countries. My guess is if I was them, I’d be using TLD’s from wherever I can find cheap domain registration and hosting services scattered amongst a bunch of 3rd world countries. So if I ever got squeezed in Gabon, or Central African Republic or whichever, no problem, just drop those sites and continue on with the other 10 or 20 sites. It’s redundancy for evil.

Steve Wetmore – Michael thanks for this valuable information. Can you talk about future trends for SEO?

Michael Cottam – The next big thing in future trends, that I’m focusing on for a lot of my clients, is establishing expertise and authority, making sure that the content created for your site is written by people who actually know something about it – true authorities on the topic. And not just some writer who did some research on Wikipedia and showing to Google through structures in the page and you know, and other things like that and LinkedIn profiles and that sort of stuff. That you know, Joe Smith here, you know, Jennifer Smith, whoever it is, that wrote article x actually know something about it has some creds in the space. And so that’s the big trend, people have got away with; milling content for a long time. You know, making cute, difficult infographics and getting those shared a ton and get links from that. That’s what Google’s looking for – the real juice. For example, when we’re going to talk about what the trends are in internet radio, we want to talk to the founder of this internet radio station, you know, right surface that ahead of somebody who’s looking to siphon off some traffic, you know, out of their basement blog.

Steve Wetmore – Please share with us the SEO tools you find most valuable.

Michael Cottam – Google Search Console provides a ton of useful info. It’s not perfect and it has some bugs, but there’s a ton of useful information there especially related to rankings, impressions and traffic. In terms of general site health stuff, figuring out what’s not working. For example, can Google see your site can crawl it? Do you know what’s broken? I’m a big fan of the Screaming Frog SEO spider out of the UK. In terms of keyword research, I think head and shoulders above everything else today is the Moz keyword tool. Not only does it do a great job of pulling out the exact match volumes, which a lot of tools struggle with, but they also do a great job of pulling out terms that appear to be related, that are appearing on other pages that rank well for the term that you put in to analyze. And that’s a real bonus for those of us who are trying to figure out very different, not necessarily synonymous, but very different topics and also get a lot of traffic which are somehow related. And then the last one that’s for backlink analysis, I’ve tried a lot of tools. I use a combination of Kerboo LinkRisk and Moz toolbar which identifies spam score and you can drill down into Moz pro to see exactly what’s going on.

Steve Wetmore – Wow Michael thank you for these truly unique insights on Authority and Negative SEO.

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