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16.08.2019

Lucy Branch ACR: "How Marilyn’s Boobs Nearly Crushed My Conservation Business"

How I Learned To Value My Platform - The Hard Way

As a small child, I can remember toddling through the back door from our garden and the dog shooting out, tail between legs. Bellows of angry voices met my ears sending a wave of apprehension over me. Somehow, I knew that I was the cause of this drama, but at that moment, I was clueless as to what I had done.  

It turned out I'd drawn on a silky pale, Persian carpet with my mum’s new red lipstick and then tried to rub it out, unsuccessfully.

About forty years later, I was at the end of a phone call with a client who dropped into the conversation that he'd had to get our number from a colleague as he couldn't find us online. I typed our company name, Antique Bronze, into Google. In the split second before the results came back, I had an almost identical moment of apprehension, closely followed by utter certainty that I was at the eye of what was about to be another perfect storm.  I began scrolling down page after page, more and more frantically, as I realized we had vanished, been deleted, our online shop-window had been smashed.

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We are a small, family-run, business specialising in the conservation of sculptural and architectural features. Though I admit to limited knowledge on the subject, the kinds of things I imagined Google would ban a website for were - involvement in organised crime, porn, or illegal gambling. Though I must admit to occasionally parking on a double yellow line while I nip into Pret-A-Manger, I couldn’t see how we could be in this league. 

I’d been saddled with the responsibility for our website based on my underwhelming qualification of being the youngest Director in the company and therefore, ‘surely, I understood all this IT stuff,’ which I really didn't. I’d entered the business in the mid-1990s when promoting yourself with glossy, printed company brochures was at its height and I only understood a website in terms of an extension of this form of marketing.  I spend my days as an on-site conservator and to me, website stuff seemed a bit peripheral compared to the meatier parts of the job. So, I did what managers are always told to do in business books, I delegated.

After a bit of searching around, I sub-contracted the running of our website to a professional company, who dealt with Search Engine Optimization, which just means gaining visibility on search engines like Google. They seemed to have all the right credentials allowing me to get on with conservation life. All went well for a time, they seemed to be doing their job as we were ranking well on Google and it didn’t even occur to me that it might be a good idea to familiarise myself with the under the hood stuff of a website.

In a panic, I called the company care-taking our site. Apparently, they knew nothing about our missing-in-action website. They repeated the same thing to me day after day for around a fortnight - they had no idea, maybe we needed to put new material online - freshen up the site, maybe throw money at the problem - new designs, a copywriter, spend, spend, spend would make it come back. Now, thanks to my father’s acumen, our business model doesn’t rely solely on new work. As a business that we hope to hand onto a future generation, we have the long view in mind. We take pains to cultivate good relationships and value repeat business. This meant that although this invisibility superpower we seemed to have acquired wasn’t good, it didn’t destroy us overnight. Our old stable of clients would keep us going for a while, at least.

After a fortnight of biting my nails, I decided to ditch this useless company and seek a second opinion. I wanted to know first and foremost - Where had our website gone? Was there an online dustbin somewhere? I began to think of doomsday scenarios - someone had it in for us, they’d hacked us and taken us down… (too much conspiracy theory drama on tv).  I found a new company - fresh, helpful, Google approved, certificated, they said all the right things. They could sort out all our issues in a trice and have us back online within a week, £2500.00, please.

I swallowed hard and transferred the money. How on earth could I not? - I mean, I didn’t know what was going on. I was just a humble conservator. I still used hand tools in my work! £2500.00 poorer followed by six weeks and nothing, nada. Although they sent me screenshots of the work they were doing - they’d set us up with a Google plus presence (I didn’t ask for that) they’d improved our metadata, they said, and kept demanding more keywords from us. This, they promised, would make the site rise from the ashes. Now we were at least twelve weeks into the saga and I was feeling distinctly unsettled by the whole thing. They kept talking in terms of Search Optimisation being a dark art, and they referred to Google as The Zon.  I started to get shouty, then they started to ask for more money - unless you spend a further £800/month - a site will never have a good enough rank to be visible. £800 a month!! Are you kidding! We are a small business!

That’s when I decided to take matters into my own hands and do the thing I always do to sort out any conservation, parenting, health, or life problem - I read. I bought a book from Amazon, "How To Get To the Top of Google, The Plain English Guide". It cost £6.99. Within hours, I was logging in to my website for the first time (shameful I know to admit that) and beginning to poke around as per the book’s advice. In less than a half-hour, I was on Google Analytics and discovered a notification. We had been slapped with something called a Google Penalty. There were several warning notifications about this and neither of the companies we dealt with had mentioned it.

A Google penalty tells you that you are doing something illegal online and that you need to rectify it - quickly. If you don’t you will be taken down from Google. More reading and more digging showed me that we had something called backlinks. In fact, we had thousands of backlinks. Now they should be a good thing: backlinks are when someone else links to your site from their webpage. You would have no knowledge of this whatsoever, unless you attend to your analytics dashboard regularly - Eh hrm. In theory, if you write good material and it relates to someone else’s material - a valid connection is valued by Google - it tickles the algorithm making your site seem popular which advances your rank. Conservation websites like ours might backlink to someone like Icon, or if we were restoring a monument - a published article about that historic figure. However, the backlinks I was viewing were from sites like Marilyn’s Boobs dot com, BigBoys dot com, and many other non-conservation related sites.

The sheer quantity of these sites, all similarly named, meant that it was unlikely this had happened by chance.  A little reading revealed that it was probable that the original company we’d used to rank our website, had paid someone else for these backlinks. It was an easy, if unscrupulous, way of inflating our SEO rank in the past. Of course, when tackled about this, the company completely denied it and I had no valid evidence.

 

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How Do You Tackle Marilyn’s Boobs?

I decided, against my better judgment, to have a go at throwing more money at it. I went to another independent company, recommended by our accountant, and asked them to sever the links. My trusty book had told me about the process. They quoted £13 000 + VAT to clean us up. £13 000!! I laughed and then almost drowned in a pool of my own tears.

The process involved providing evidence to Google that you had made every effort to sever the backlinks in good faith. This meant you had to locate the webmaster’s email on every one of these rogue sites and email them on three separate occasions, which had to be documented - and give them due time to respond. Then you were able to go, cap in hand to Google, and request that they sever the links for you. This doesn’t sound that complicated, but when I say - there were more than 8000 backlinks - I’m not exaggerating.

I soul searched, I even considered the £13000, but then I just rolled up my sleeves and decided to set to work. Recruiting my elderly mum, who just about had a grasp on text messages, and my cousin to assist. We spent our evenings and weekends in a huddle, collating email addresses, emailing hosts, logging the emails - doing screenshots of those emails, and waiting for replies. Some did come, some didn’t. You have to follow up three times in total. The only childish joy in the process was some of the more ridiculous names - snoopy’s poop.nz. And more …

Eight gruelling months after the start of this saga, Google sent us an email (yes, now they had MY email address rather than the SEO company’s) and they told us that we had done due diligence and any backlinks that had not responded, they would sever. Within day’s we were back! Never have I felt more relief or exhaustion at the marathon we’d run! You may shake your head and wonder why we didn’t just hire an enterprising young person to sit and do all this for us. In hindsight, I can only respond by saying, I think the fear ate my brain. I kept worrying they might not do all the steps, they might not do it correctly, we may never get out of this hole unless I micro-managed it. I do see the tail-chasing mentality in this kind of thinking, but I’m sorry to say, I was that dog.  

 

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The Calm After the Storm

Blood pressure back to normal, I’m able to look back over this stressful process and see some valuable lessons and realise how it’s shaped my CPD in a positive way

Appreciation

Above all else, saving our website made me value it. Perhaps the long resuscitation period made me think more about its relevance beyond being a glorified company brochure.  What could it be? What could it do? How could I cultivate it? Once it clicked in my head that it was as much a conservation tool as any other in my kit, I couldn’t believe I’d ever been overlooked it. As conservators, we seek opportunities to acquire knowledge and disseminate it, through informal or formal means, and promote conservation to lay and expert audiences. Your website is, by far, the easiest way of doing this and it has the lowest bar to entry. There are no gatekeepers with your own website deciding that the topic is irrelevant or uninteresting to them. The wonderful thing about the internet is that it is a place where niche can be king. If it’s relevant to you, there will be a tribe out there waiting for you.

It is not voodoo

I cannot emphasize this enough. If you can learn complex conservation treatments on objects, you can definitely learn how to use a website dashboard, and Google analytics. You may have resistance to this but I promise, this is growth mindset 101. Pushing past the initial resistance isn’t easy, it may feel alien, in fact, but start in a place many of us do feel comfortable - a little bit of reading.

It can save you LOTS of money! 

if you become comfortable with a few basics, you can dodge reoccurring monthly fees. Small checks and updates only take a few minutes and ongoing costs for super simple tasks like these are a real drain on a business. Companies that perform maintenance tasks are making their money out of your fear - they aren’t doing difficult stuff. Become a little bolder, as I have, and save thousands and thousands by learning about Search Engine Optimisation and how to influence your ranking on Google. I tweaked keywords, added quality links, and thought about readability. Within a few weeks, our site was rising up to page 1 on Google. If you are thinking, well, I’ve got too much paid work to get done - I’m betting you that the rate those SEO Voodoo guys are charging your business is higher than a conservator’s hourly rate by a large margin.

Roads Lead onto Roads.…

The confidence I’ve gained by overcoming my tech-fears has opened doors to me. I realised I could probably manage other tech-related challenges. I’ve always been interested in CPD learning for busy conservators. I struggle to find time for formal learning when training days can end up being in the middle of super-busy work periods. Often, I’ve paid for courses and ended up not being able to attend. With my newfound confidence, I began to read about how to create and deliver online courses and this became one of my main CPD goals. I began to delve into how to record and edit audio and video and manage an online course delivery platform, and how to think about direct sales from my website. This year, I have launched my first online course. This would have been unthinkable before my website nightmare experience. Now, I feel that if I can meet the mighty Google and be found worthy, then I can surely take on more tech titans.

Mindset Matters

I no longer think of our website as an online brochure. Instead, I like the concept of it being our platform - the equivalent of Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. What’s happening this month on our platform? Makes me think and plan the months ahead. After all, an empty platform would be very dull indeed. I’m excited to create new content, new blog posts, or add more images to our gallery. Often, I have more excitement than time, but that’s another thing. Thinking in these terms makes this type of work less a task and more about engaging with an audience and that’s motivating. 

 

How can you ensure that you don’t get crushed by Marilyn’s Boobs? (and all the other embarrassing things I did wrong)

  • Know your website logins (I’d lost mine!)
  • Know your Google Analytics logins (I’d allowed the original company to set mine up and they’d never sent them to me. I never followed up.)
  • Ensure that the email address you frequently use is the one you check. If you are using an auxiliary company, ensure that your primary email address is the correspondence address. (I had allowed them to use their email and so any notifications from Google went to them and not me! Meaning I was entirely in the dark about our penalty.)
  • Check Google analytics - you’ll find it by bringing up Google and looking to the right-hand corner of the page (it’s with all the Google Apps are found together)
  • Click Search Console
  • CRITICALLY: The Dashboard should display any notifications from Google
  • Click on your site name
  • On the Dashboard menu, click Search Traffic
  • Click, Links to your site
  • Click, New Report
  • View, Top Linking Sites
  • If you see a website name that looks odd (or in my case a few thousand that look odd!) - click on each website to investigate.
  • If you feel there are some strange sites linking to you, you can export the list of links - that option is at the top right-hand side of the page.

Author Bio: Lucy Branch MA (RCA/V&A) ACR, Director of www.antiquebronze.co.uk

Images: Header and top banner © Lucy Branch

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Do you have your own story to tell? Let me know at cinesta@icon.org.uk!

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The views expressed in these comments are the views of the individual and do not reflect the views of The Institute of Conservation. Any comments containing inappropriate language or copyright material will be removed.

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