The Way of the White Hat SEO Ninja

Why I don't want to let the AdSense scammers dupe innocent webmasters: Google AdSense saved me from poverty due to my mental illness.

Michael D. Crawford

Michael David Crawford
GoingWare Inc.
crawford@goingware.com

May 3, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Michael David Crawford.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

I wrote a new article yesterday, that you will likely think is some kind of scam, but it's not, not at all, if you will trust me to actually go take a look. The link is a GoogleBomb instead of the title, for reasons I will explain:

It's actually called "Earn High by Playing it Clean". Many of my articles start out as mailing list, website or usenet posts, this one in response to someone at Webmasterworld who asked if it was possible to earn real money by operating a legimate website. That is, one that is well-designed, popup-free and with real content. I worked hard to help him and others understand that it is, and that it's actually the best way.

This diary's title came from CheeseburgerBrown's description of my article when he posted it to del.icio.us. I kinda like that.

I've since received two emails from Webmasterworld members, one with some helpful web design tips: my logo should be a link to my homepage. He said he wanted to help me spread my message, and thought he could help by giving me advice on my website navigation.

The other called it "A Beautiful Contribution".

The reason I'm trying to Googlebomb my article is that many of the pages that show up in a search for adsense tips or adsense tricks are actually scams: they exist to attract desperate webmasters, who then click on the AdSense in the articles!

Supporting my claim is that most of the really useful pages are message board threads where webmasters have swapped ideas. Helpful certainly, but shouldn't more people have made an effort to write actual helpful articles?

Have a look especially at the AdWords Select ads that show up in the searches, saying stuff like:

$43,000 per month revenue
Get Secrets & Tools Yourself
Specialized Training Available
www.RevenueInsider.com

Now, do you think if the guy who runs RevenueInsider really knew how to earn forty-three grand a month, he'd be selling his secrets on Google?

There are no ads in my piece. And hear me now: there never will be. That would be wrong.

You may give me crap for being a link whore, but I'm an honest one, I've never done anything dishonest to promote my website, not even once. While I may have annoyed you by linking my own articles, I've always done so when it would be on-topic, for example to answer someone's question, or else I've linked them from my diaries, text ads and sigs.

It's really never been my link whoring that's got me where I am today, with my resume and homepage being the top two hits for software consultant. It's been having a website with content that's worth someone's while to come back to: all my articles. I counted today, and there's eighteen of them, with the longest, Pointers, References and Values being sixteen HTML pages.

It's from being helpful on the net, answering questions on mailing lists, newsgroups and websites. Sometimes people are so grateful they give me a link, or even refer me some business.

All that is what CheeseburgerBrown meant by "White Hat" SEO. You're understandably irritated with me because there's so much Black Hat SEO activity, such as referrer, weblog and wiki spam. Some search I did yesterday (that I don't recall) turned up page after page of services that offer machine generated articles for your website, so you can have thousands of pages of keyword-rich yet meaningless content to capture some search engine referrals with.

Then there was that guy who sold Wordpress' high pagerank to AdSense scammers by linking thousands of machine generated articles from his homepage, with the links being hidden by CSS, in direct violation of Google's guidelines. He claims he needed the money to support his open source project, but his "clients" were able to draw traffic that should have gone to legitimate websites, whose webmasters probably had hungry mouths to feed.

Now, tell me the truth: I admit I'm a pest, but I'm not that bad, now am I? Nothing I do to market myself has ever been a secret - far from it!

My articles are all written individually and by hand. So are CheeseburgerBrown's. Some of them took me a month to write. Many of them took a week.

As CheeseburgerBrown said, I called him up when he disappeared for a few days after posting here begging for work because I thought he'd lost his net connection. (He hadn't - he was too busy with all his new work!)

During our conversation, he described Webmasterworld as "full of clueless and desperate webmasters". And that's absolutely true folks: many of them have invested everything they had to give into their websites, only to find that after months have passed, they still get no search engine referrals, and earn only a few dollars a month in ad revenue.

But I was very happy to see more experienced webmasters working hard to give clues to the clueless. Very happy indeed: that's the way things should be, we should use our candles to light those of others so that there will be more light for all.

That's what I tried to do with my post at Webmasterworld, and by posting it as an article on my site: share the light in a world where so many are working feverishly to spread the darkness.

I say in my piece that I decided to try AdSense because health problems kept me from being able to work enough to get by. I didn't want to talk about it on my business site, but my "health problem" was that the paranoia which is a symptom of my schizoaffective disorder flared up and I lost a big contract when I fired off a rather irrationally angry email to my client.

I said in Living with Schizoaffective Disorder:

"I can work effectively even when I'm wigging, even when I'm hallucinating, even when I'm severely depressed." And by wigging, I meant that I could develop software while severely paranoid. I've spent a lot of productive hours at the office, laboring at my computer, while trying to avoid thinking of the fact that a Nazi armoured division was holding maneuvers in the parking lot.

Well, that was true in 1988, when I decided that software engineering was the career for me, and it was true for many years, but it's not anymore. I'm not sure why; maybe it's because I've worked so hard for so long, and have gone through such hard times as the dot-com crash, which I found out about when my client told me he wasn't going to be able to pay my twenty-three thousand dollar invoice because all his investors disappeared, whereupon I was out of work for a month, that maybe computer programming has penetrated my psyche in a way that's not good for me.

I've written many diaries since I moved to Canada about my struggle to work, even just to play the piano.

For most of last year, I was barely able to get by, it's only been since December that I've been healthy enough to work productively.

But you know what I can do when I'm wigging? I can write. And that gives me hope, hope that I will still find a way to survive, even to prosper, and continue to put Bonita through art school.

Now here's what I mean, that I can write even when I'm wigging: when I wrote Links to Tens of Thousands of Legal Music Downloads, I was half out of my tree. I'd been struggling to write this embedded FireWire link layer driver that had to work on this electrically flaky prototype board, and found that I could not work more than an hour at a time until I became so anxious that I wanted to climb out of my own skin.

The only thing that gave me any peace - the only thing - was writing that article. Once I got to where I couldn't stand the coding anymore, I'd work on the article for a couple hours, and eventually relax enough that I could get back to work.

I had gone so long without making any milestones that we were dead busted broke. The bank sent us a foreclosure warning: I had until the end of the month to make good on a couple missed mortgage payments and the late fees that had accumulated from several months of late payments. We didn't have enough food to eat.

For that reason, Bonita didn't want me wasting time writing, because she knew I became obsessed whenever I got a bug up my ass to write a new article, and my work went straight into the bit bucket. It's happened that way quite a few times.

I was in a bind. On the one hand, we were starving, soon to be homeless, and Bonita was desperate that I should focus on my work. On the other hand, I was going out of my mind, and felt that the only thing that could save me was to write that damn article.

What did I do? The only thing I could do:

I hid it from Bonita.

I was careful not to write when she was in my office, or even within earshot of my keyboard, as she knows very well, the different sounds a keyboard makes when writing or coding. Too well.

I kept Code Composer Studio's workspace maximized, and got pretty good at bringing it forward if she walked in unexpectedly. It's easier to hide my writing that way than suddenly closing its window.

I was able to finish the driver, get paid for it, and pay my mortgage with a couple days to spare. But we knew we wouldn't be able to keep ahead, and Bonita was terrified of what might happen if we went bust in a country with no social safety net, and no relatives nearby. We decided to sell our house and move back to Canada, to Truro, Nova Scotia, where she lived at the time we met in '97. We have a lot of friends here.

Imagine our shock and delight when our real estate agent told us what our house would be worth: low interest rates had caused our house to appreciate by tens of thousands of dollars since we bought it in December of 2000 (still not quite comprehending that the dot-com crash would be as bad as it turned out to be).

With the money from our house, and the exchange rate, and the lower cost of housing, we soon realized that we would have enough money that we could buy a house here in Truro with no mortgage at all. We could pay cash.

It was to be our salvation. Never again could a bank threaten to take our home from us. On top of that, we wouldn't have to make mortgage payments, so I wouldn't need to earn as much to get by.

Bonita made a trip to Truro to get things ready for our arrival, such as renting a post office box. I stayed behind to I could work on repairs that our real estate agent said we must make if we wanted to get a good price on the house.

But when Bonita returned, bringing a friend for a visit, she found me sleeping on the couch in an awful state, having been up all night, night after night. When she ask why, I said I had been working on an article. She didn't ask about it. I didn't tell her I'd been working on it for over a month.

Bonita and her friend worked on the repairs until I recovered. When I was doing better, I was able to do quite a lot of the work.

But there was a lot to do, not just the repairs, but the packing. We own a lot of stuff, and we owned even more before we moved. We rented a twenty-six foot diesel U-Haul truck, but we were certain all our stuff wasn't going to fit in it. I'm sorry to say it's mostly my stuff: I hate to throw anything away, the older any of my possession get, the more precious they become to me. Bonita has to hide my old socks when they get holes in them, because she knows I won't let her get rid of them.

We decided we'd get rid of what we could, and rent a storage locker for what I didn't want to get rid of, but could afford to leave behind until my immigration was approved and I could return to fetch it. (My landed immigrant card should arrive any day now.)

But which stuff? We had to sort through everything. We had a massive shredding party, going through my four-drawer file cabinet and several file boxes, getting rid of old utility bills, bank statements and checks. I still had boxes that I had not unpacked since we moved from Santa Cruz in the Spring of 2000. I had to unpack them all, sort through them, get rid of what I could and repack the rest.

In the end, we rented two U-Haul trucks, the other a fourteen footer that I used to haul my stuff to the storage locker in Brunswick, the only place we could find one that was heated during the winter. Somewhere I have a picture of both trucks parked by my house, I'll dig it up and post it sometime.

In the end, we were able to get the truck packed and leave by the time the house closed. But it came at the cost of sleeping only three or four hours a night for about ten days. Then we had to drive our car and the big truck to Truro, which turned out to take two days instead of the usual eight hours because the truck couldn't go up hills very fast. We slept one night in the car in an Irving Big Stop parking lot.

For the last couple hours before we got to Truro, I came very close to wrecking the truck by nearly falling asleep at the wheel. I was getting what I like to call the "long blinks". I was also having trouble focussing and holding my eyes steady.

But we made it. It was good, real good, to hit the bed in the motel. We rented a small apartment there for a month, until we could buy whatever new house we would choose. Bonita had picked out several to see on her trip.

That's when things started to turn bad.

I couldn't work!

I had a new contract, something actually that should have been pretty easy, that I could do right there in the motel apartment, where I set up a table for my computers. But somehow I found myself unable to ever actually get started.

Instead, I kept checking the online banking, because we'd overdrawn our account back in Maine by using the debit card during our travel, something that shouldn't have happened, but I hadn't kept track. Suddenly we had a pile of money in our Canadian account, and I set up this elaborate spreadsheet to track which checks had posted, so I could quickly detect bookkeeping errors, and I would check the online banking and update my spreadsheet ten or twenty times a day.

The time I didn't spend with my checking account, I spent checking my email, or hanging out on K5. I kept telling Bonita that everything was OK, that I was just about to get to work, but everything wasn't OK, and I wasn't going to get to work, and Bonita knew it. She knew it all too well.

We actually did get a real estate agents and saw some houses we might buy, but the ones we could afford weren't in very good shape, or were in the flood plain. To be able to buy our house, I'd need to make a little money from my consulting. Not much, but some. We knew we'd never get a mortgage.

That's when I told Bonita, about how I'd written the music downloading article. It came up because I showed her Ciprian Mihet's Romanian translation of it. I was very proud that he'd gone to such a huge amount of effort to translate something I'd written.

And I told her how I'd hidden it from her, back when things were so desperate, and she was so frightened that we might lose our home.

It was the closest I have ever come to losing her, and for this I am deeply sorry. Had I just been able to focus on my work and not spend most of my time writing, I would have saved her weeks of terror and despair.

But you know why she said she didn't leave? It was because I told her that I had been going crazy working on that driver, and that writing my article was the one thing that keeped me sane. She knew very well what it meant for me to be losing my mind, but somehow to be able to grasp onto some thin thread that keeps me from slipping completely over the edge.

(Playing the piano is another thing that helps. I composed Recursion during a very dark time when I was a student at UC Santa Cruz.)

The paranoia started back in, kind of slow and gradual at first. It's usually like that: it sneaks up on me, I don't really notice it, I think my worries are well-founded at first, and at first so does everyone else, and then suddenly I find myself thinking it's a good thing I fled the country because some right-wing gun nut might have tried to assassinate me because of the things I write.

I was particularly affected by that incident where the US shot a cruise missile at a car that had some terrorist riding in it. One of the other passengers was a US citizen, given a summary execution without any kind of a fair trial. If the US didn't worry about violating Yemen's sovereignty by shooting a missile into the country (or wherever it was), I didn't think they'd worry about violating Canada's to assassinate me for what I believe in.

I began to worry about having moved to a province so close to the US border, and wondered whether there was anywhere in the world where I might feel safe.

(I'm sure the United States isn't a very comfortable place for any paranoid people these days.)

I started to see police everywhere. Sometimes real police, but what police! A squad car I didn't know was there turned on its siren while we were both parked at a stoplight. I nearly died of fright.

And then one day we were driving down Arthur street, and Bonita and I, not realizing my paranoia, were joking about how there seemed to be cops just everywhere, when along comes a parade of a couple hundred uniformed policewoman, because they were holding a policewomen's convention here in Truro. They were preceded by a motorcycle cop and a squad car, lights flashing, followed by the blue uniformed city police marching in rank and file, followed by a bunch of Royal Canadian Mounted Police in their red dress uniforms.

Those were just the real police. There were also what I call the "thought police". Those are far worse - whenever I see one, I think he is coming to kill me, not arrest me. I was seeing them whenever there was any kind of flash of light, like sunlight reflecting off of glass. I'd perceive squad car lights.

Well this diary is getting way too long, so I should get to the point, and there is a point. There was a long waiting list to see a psychiatrist, and when I begged the mental health clinic to get me in somehow, they told me to go to the emergency room.

Good thing I did too: three or four more days, and the men in white coats with butterfly nets would have had to come fetch me for the psych ward. Instead, the nice Russian lady psychiatrist they paged for me just had to increase my dose of Risperdal from three milligrams a day to five. I had actually tried that one day, but it didn't help. She told me that it would take ten days to take effect.

I eagerly waited for the ten days to pass, feeling better each day, so I could get back to work.

Felt better I did, yes, I stopped hallucinating, and the paranoia vanished. I told somebody once back in 1994, when I was first prescribed Risperdal, that it's like a breath of fresh air blowing through your mind. It's like the difference between night and day.

In the end, I decided I needed a long rest to get well. I called up my client, James Wiebe of WiebeTech and told him I wasn't going to be able to do his work because I had just been in the emergency room for my schizoaffective disorder, and I needed some time off.

He was pretty surprised. But James is a very kind and decent man. (Of course - he's Canadian!) He wished me a swift recovery. A few months later, he called to ask if I was better, and gave me a new contract, that I was able to complete successfully.

So you see, although I don't tell my clients unless I have to, I don't generally worry that much that they might find out that I'm mentally ill. The only effort I make to hide it anymore is that I don't say anything about it anywhere on my business website. I have a different domain for my personal site.

Bonita told me, as we spent Christmas with her parents in Newfoundland, that I had become the man she married again, someone I had not been in a very long time. I replied that I felt that way too, that I was very glad of it, and that I was deeply sorry for all the pain she had suffered because of my illness. We realized that I had been sick in a less obvious, more subtle way for quite a long time, really since the dot-com crash, when I had to increase my Risperdal from two milligrams to three.

After Christmas, I started regular appointments with my new psychiatrist (the emergency room psychiatrist got me priority). But there was a problem:

I still couldn't work.

It's hard to explain, but I just somehow never was able to get started. Even when I did, I couldn't persist very long. The smallest bugs stopped me cold.

My psychiatrist referred me to something called the Compass program, in which I would consult an occupational therapist. Most of the people get OT in the Compass program to get help with the basics tasks of living. For example, they have people who will help you go grocery shopping, so you get what you need without spending too much money. My OT would help me get back to work.

I won't go into that except to say it was a dreadfully slow, long, drawn out process. As I said, it took me a year to get back up to full speed. Also, I don't think my OT had ever met let alone treated a computer programmer before. We had our session at my house one day, so I could show him what I do. He sat with me as I fixed a bug in an embedded filesystem driver.

All the bicycling last summer helped. Sort of: it helped a lot with my mood and my sleep, but somehow didn't help me regain focus on my work.

The money from the house ran out right about the time I did start earning some paychecks. We probably could have made it last several months longer than it did, but we weren't being very careful, and, unlike the time I was obsessed with the online banking, I wasn't keeping track. Bonita got the bad news when she tried to use her ATM card at the grocery store and it was declined.

The money from our house, the money that was to be our security, was gone. Every last fucking penny of it: sixty thousand Canadian dollars, blown away in the wind because I went out of my mind. It still makes me sick to think about it, and Bonita too. She was a hero, getting us moved out of Maine, because she knew that to sell our house and to make it safely to Canada meant that we would never fear for money ever again.

The only thing we have left to show for it is that Bonita bought me this really nice acoustic guitar for Christmas. It's an Epiphone, she bought it from Mingo's Music Sales here in Truro. She actually gave it to me early because she knew she couldn't hide it in the car on the drive to Newfoundland. I spent most of Chrismas in her old bedroom plunking my way through the lesson book she also gave me.

I also started piano lessons in January of last year, because I had the idea they would help restore my sanity. It's been slow, frustrating and difficult, but I've come a long way, and I think that playing the piano regularly really has helped.

So now I come to the the point of this whole long-winded diary: Google AdSense. You remember Google AdSense don't you? The Way of the White Hat SEO Ninja and and all? That's what this diary is all about, and not mental illness at all.

I decided to try Google AdSense because I decided I just wasn't going to be able to make it anymore as a software consultant.

When I got paranoid during the summer, my OT tried to convince me to quit working and go on disability. I refused, telling him the immigration department wouldn't permit it - Bonita would have to pay back any benefits I received. But the real reason was that I feared if I went on disability, I would never get off it, that I would never get back to work. My psychiatrist told me when I mentioned it to him that it was a valid fear: many of the mentally ill are never able to get off disability and get back to work. It's a deadly trap.

But I had to do something, so I tried AdSense. Traffic to my music downloading article had grown to over a hundred thousand hits a month; by now it's been served to way over a million people. It's been the number one hit for legal music downloads almost continuously since August of 2003, and by then had been in the top ten for free music downloads and music downloads for several months.

The rest of my articles have been steadily getting from five hundred to three thousand hits a month for years, and most of them rank highly for the relevant keywords as well.

So I thought AdSense would be worth a try. I didn't expect that I'd earn much, but every little bit helps.

It only took an hour or so to add Google's javascript snippets to each of my articles, and then I spent the evening reloading my ad performance report every few minutes to see how my ads looked like they might do.

And then, as I say in "Earn High by Playing it Clean", I was able to tell within a few hours that my check for my first month's AdSense publishing was going to be over three thousand dollars.

And, as I said in "Earn High by Playing it Clean", when I realized how much my check was going to be, and how my traffic had been steadily growing for over a year, well, I just broke down and cried.

Bonita, though, wasn't so enthusiastic. You see, my music downloading article has been kind of a sore point with her. I think she thought it was some kind of trick. She certainly didn't expect it to last.

When I told Bonita's friend, the one who had visited in Maine, to find me trashed on the couch, and who had to help Bonita get started on the repairs, she was visibly distressed. She wouldn't say what was wrong, but she told Bonita that her very first though was "Oh My God, Mike is going to try to write another article like that", and then I'd just wind up in the nuthouse again. And it turns out that was why Bonita was upset about it too.

Bonita's position softened quite a bit when our first check arrived. We waited anxiously for a long time, for September to go by and then for the check to be sent. It turns out there is nearly a month delay before you get your check.

The problem is, even that much money is only half of what we need to get by, as Bonita is going to school and we have to pay her tuition. We have to rent a big house, not just because we have a lot of stuff, but because I need an office and Bonita needs a studio.

I've been doing OK since then, despite losing a contract a couple months ago. Between what money I am able to earn and our AdSense check, we're doing OK now. Next month, we might even get ahead a little.

I know now that what I need to do is to build traffic to all off my articles, and to write new ones regularly. Between my work and my website redesign, I'm now able to write a short article about once a week, and have a couple much longer ones in the works.

I don't expect that I'm likely ever going to be able to make three grand a month off a single article, but what if I had fifty articles on my website? Fifty well-written, thoroughly researched, Insightful, Informative and maybe even Funny articles? Surely some of them will earn enough together that I can quit programming, and instead earn my keep by writing content for my website.

I'm not at all comfortable with the fact that all but about ten bucks a month of my ad revenue comes from a single page. Not since Public Service Announcements - unpaid ads - showed up in Darth Vader's blog yesterday. CheeseburgerBrown was very distressed. I know I would be.

One thing I am already able to see, is that Bonita's new design for my site has boosted traffic throughout it considerably.

So you see what a difference AdSense has made to me. I've been inspired to read the dozens of posts by people who said they quit their job for AdSense.

I wrote "Earn High by Playing it Clean" because I could see what a difference AdSense could make in the lives of so many other people. I wanted to help them understand how I was able to do it, and to help them understand that they didn't need to hire the Black-Hat SEOs to get there.

I think many people do who really don't have to, either because they think there isn't any other way, or that that's just how it's done. I'm sure many just don't understand the SEOs, they just know they paid their fee and their traffic went up. I'm sure the SEOs keep their "methods" secret from most of their clients.

And now I come to the end of my essay. I've been awake nearly twenty-four hours now and that's just not good for my head. It just wouldn't do to crack up right now, as Bonita is away in Spain with a bunch of NSCAD students.

But first I want to tell you about a decision I made tonight. I realized as I was out walking the dogs partway through writing this, that I have been a hypocrite, in speaking of how we must use our candles to light those of others.

You'll see in my article that the copyright notice says "All Rights Reserved". Although I never intended to place ads in it, I thought it would be a good way to drive traffic to my site. But keeping the article proprietary, even if it is free for anyone to read, just wouldn't be true to the Dirty GNU Hippy that I am.

When I get up in the morning, I'm going to put a Creative Commons license on it and submit it here at K5.

I'm going to use the Attribution-NoDerivs license because the article says some pretty personal things about my opinions and experience. Sure it's not DFSG-free but I agree strongly with Richard Stallman on this point: one has good reason to forbid changing an essay that argues one's deeply held opinions.

You know what's really ironic? You know what I said about all those machine-generated articles? I've found hundreds of them, all linking to my music downloading article. They show up as referring pages in my server logs. The title of each page are some keywords like "Free Music Downloads", there are a bunch of links to pages like my article, and some AdSense ads.

That's got to be a really dismal way to make a living, and I'll tell you why: the people who link to my article form their search engine spam don't realize that it's fully within their rights to copy my entire article to their own websites, because it is also placed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerives license.

I guess the SEOs and AdSense scammers just never bothered to read all the way to the very end.

Go ahead! Copy it! Several other people have. Just don't take my logo with it, that's my trademark.

Once I realized what AdSense was going to mean for Bonita and I, I spent some time thinking deeply about whether I ought to keep the Creative Commons license. In the end, I decided to keep it because that would be the right thing to do.

Maybe now, after all this, all of you who have ever gotten email from me will understand the sig that I've used now for the last twenty years:

Tilting at Windmills for a Better Tomorrow.

Don Quixote was insane you see, but that never stopped him from doing what he felt was right, and I'm determined that it will never stop me.

I'm going to go to bed now. I'll reply to your comments in the morning. I'm expecting to get my AdSense check tomorrow, certainly a cause for celebration!

Thank you for your attention.

-- Mike

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