Interview: Bob Sakayama
The founder and CEO of TNG/Earthling helms a highly specialized consultancy headquartered in the Big Apple focused on search - he makes websites rank high in Google. He's one of the most sought after search professionals because of his track record. And he's among the rare veterans who have been defining search engine optimization since before Google launched, and was one of the first professional seos. During the "great Google purge" when millions of sites were getting penalized for over-optimization, TNG/E was a market leader in remediating those penalties - see Google-Penalty.com. He is quoted in a Forbes piece on the topic. Contrary to Google's claims, he demonstrated that 3rd parties actually could trigger penalties, and that victims often had no ability to request a review. He originated many of the original seo terms of art: Search Compliance, Power Centers, Link Farm, Trademark Suppression, SEO Recourse, Search Enabled CMS, Nuked Domains. He created the first search enabled content management system, Protocol, which has been deployed on over 25,000 websites. Using SEO Recourse, he has recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars for victims of nonpayment, deceptive practices, and fraud. In 2020 he launched a service (imfy.us) to remove harmful results from Google searches. In 2021, Bob and his long time associate Rev Sale initiated a fascinating seo experiment in which they are attempting to rank for the keyword "nothing".
In early February 2021, amid the COVID pandemic in NYC, Kris Norris spoke with Bob Sakayama via phone. Below is a partial transcript of that interview:
KN : Rev Sale told me that you once intentionally penalized a number of your own websites.
BS : I did. That was in 2001, when I first learned that Google penalized you. One of my sites was completely removed from the search results. Fortunately, Google had not yet metastasized into the unaccountable monster it is now, so for a short time back then they were actually willing to engage with anyone - you could write to email@example.com and you would get a response right away. I was told I was in violation of their best practices guidelines, so I requested a copy.
KN : And you used that information to intentionally penalize your sites?
BS : Most of what the guidelines advised you not to do actually worked to improve ranks until, or rather if, you got caught. Things like hidden text or keyword stuffing. I triggered 8 distinctly different penalties to see how far I could push non-compliance before getting hit. And then repaired the damage to see how quickly the sites could be recovered. The staff members responding to my emails definitely knew what I was doing.
KN : So an experiment.
BS : That set of Google penalty experiments taught me that penalties were not death and that knowledge about the recovery was super valuable.
KN : Is this a black hat topic? Are you a black hat?
BS : Black hat implies trickery. Our work is based on knowledge and skills. We break no laws and hold high ethical standards. But we do manipulate the search results and we understand that Google has concerns regarding this, which is why they enforce their guidelines. But it's definitely possible to gain a competitive edge within those confines if you have better insight and tools.
KN : You're quoted as saying Google is evil.
BS : No question.
KN : In what way.
BS : There are so many examples I have directly experienced in my client work. Way back when Google bought Youtube the immediate change was the sudden dominance of Youtube over all the other video providers. Watch what happens if you open an Google Ads account and trust Google's recommendations on bid amounts. Google once claimed that in a democratic search money played no influence, but note the preference given to big brands and conglomerates over everyone else. If your site triggers an automated suppression or algorithmic penalty there is no reporting mechanism. This, in combination with the ability of 3rd parties to trigger penalties, can be an existential problem, exacerbated by Google's lack of accountability. If a Google search for your name brings up a DUI from from 10 years ago, or associates you with a crime because you share a last name with a criminal, you could request Google remove those personal records if we lived in the EU. But not here in the US. I have so many more...
KN : Why are you not active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn?
BS : Everything we do is confidential and I never talk about clients or the specific work we do for them. All my clients are from referrals - we do zero marketing which is an advantage since that is one way our work can get unwanted exposure. I stopped publicly posting to re1y.com long ago after realizing that giving away all my proprietary information probably was not too smart. I have an unused Facebook account which I set up because I was curious when it launched, but until I deleted my information it was the source of a lot of unwanted outreach. I really don't want anyone, competitors, Google, press, from knowing what I'm doing. It's not because it's black hat but because it works, and it works because we're the only ones doing it. We operate in a very competitive marketplace where visibility, once embraced to attract clients, becomes a liability if secrets are made vulnerable to discovery by adversaries.
KN : Are you paranoid?
BS : I have opaque tape covering the camera lens on my laptop.
KN : At one time you obviously did a lot of coding. Do you still code?
BS : I'm not working on any large projects like when Protocol was in development. But I occasionally code to fix bugs or to make or improve tools.
KN : What kind of tools?
BS : Managing data is a huge part of this enterprise and good tools make it possible. One tiny but important example, for one of our services, every morning I run a tool that checks every one of our thousands of sites across over 250 hosting accounts so we know where to point support. The suite of tools for that area of our business is comprehensive and is totally dependent on our proprietary software, some of which gets tweaked periodically.
KN : Is it true that you found a flaw in FindLaw's cms that prevented their clients' websites from performing in the search?
BS : The first version of our search enabled cms, Protocol, was available in 2009. This system alerted you if you tried to post redundancies that could impact ranks. By then we were probably the market leader in fixing Google penalties, so we were super focused on search compliance. We migrated a client's legal website from FindLaw into Protocol and the system alerted us that all their title and description meta tags were redundant. This created a massive non-compliance across every site using the FindLaw system. When we migrated to Protocol and fixed these issues, their sites came into Google at the top of the search. Less than a year later, the Deep Water Horizon disaster happened in the Gulf and because their maritime site was #1, this client was able to represent all the primary victims and garner national fame for a short moment in time.
KN : You probably got a lot of lawyer clients as a result...
BS : I was a partner in the joint venture that created DotCoLaw, which at one point had around 25,000 sites all running Protocol.
KN : I remember seeing the marketing blitz for that effort.
BS : It blew up pretty quickly and is no longer viable. But I enjoyed being part of it. Did a ton of code work on all aspects of that platform - you learn an incredible amount by attempting to launch projects on that kind of scale, even when they fail.
KN : And you worked for the FBI?
BS : No. I contacted the FBI on behalf of a client. Some brilliant hacker manipulated Google's search results, inserting his site replacing our client's #1 rank and stealing all the search traffic and conversions. This was during the holiday shopping season and the client was losing $750,000 a day in sales they would have otherwise booked. My client thought we should report this as a crime so that the culprits could be brought to justice, or at least stopped. So I called the FBI intending to report a crime. I was finally routed to someone working cyber crime who was very interested in the story but when I finished relaying it he asked, "What's the crime?"
KN : Not very helpful.
BS : These guys are the ultimate by the book dudes, so they need to be convinced that the reported behavior is legally defined as a crime. Until you know that last part you just assume that taking $750,000 away every day through a hack is a major crime. The problem was that the hack was not against my client's site. It was a hack of Google that harmed my client because of their dependence on search. So the perpetrators get away with stuff that should be criminal, but somehow isn't because law enforcement hasn't been able to define these kinds of unethical cyber deeds as crimes.
KN : They must be receiving more and more of these stories. Things have to change...
BS : The next day, a different guy called me from a different department at the FBI who wanted to know about search engine optimization and ability of bad players to influence the search results during large scale emergencies to insert disinformation into trusted and frequently used platforms like Google. They were concerned that the search could be weaponized and be used as part of a coordinated terrorist attack. One specific thing mentioned was a concern that bad players could guide citizens to websites that gave out information that was harmful just when people are seeking help. Very creepy stuff.
KN : So you're helping fight terrorist activity that deploys online.
BS : I did not get the sense that the FBI is going to save us from weaponized search manipulation. But I'm glad they're working on it. But I'm sometimes concerned that I could be a likely suspect because I have those skills
KN : So you think you're being watched? You really are paranoid?
BS : Definitely. Actions I take trigger bot visits.
KN : By whom? Who uses bots?
BS : I hear the skepticism in your voice, but bots play very important functions in improving capabilities. We use many bots daily.
KN : For surveillance?
BS : Bots are an integral part of our automation to gather information from other websites. We manage thousands of websites and the bots run daily to quickly tell us if any are down. They can also download metrics from our data subscription services. And when evaluating a site's performance we can run a check on their links via bots and get information on the anchors and other stats. Bots are vitally important to our work.
KN : I noticed that you have not once mentioned "seo" in this interview. Do you consider yourself an seo?
BS : When we were focused on Google penalties, we learned that 99% of the penalties were triggered by seos, so that word has a negative connotation that's akin to used car salesmen, for good reason. But search engine optimization is a big part of what we're known for, so I really can't avoid the term. You should know that TNG/E thrives upstream of traditional seo agencies - we have seo agencies as clients.
KN : And you have a Warren Buffet / Berkshire Hathaway story?
BS : Not really.
KN : I heard they bought a business after you optimized its ranks...
BS : No comment.
KN : Can you talk about the recent lawsuit you were forced to defend?
BS : It's a long story.
KN : But related to seo, right? Please tell, we'll edit if too wordy.
BS : OK. So a contractor my wife commissioned to renovate our offices walked away with a $65,000 advance. This guy had previously renovated our residence, so he was trusted. When he vanished, my wife was certain something terrible happened to him since he often spoke of a heart issue for which he needed monitoring. Concerned for his health, she finds a brother who is a lawyer and calls. She was told he has no contact with his brother, but when money is mentioned, he hangs up on her. Our son in law, also a lawyer, calls and is told the same lie - no contact. She asked one of the subcontractors who knew him to call and he was told a different lie. We subsequently learned from another victim of this contractor that the lawyer brother represented him in civil suit he brought. So the "no contact" claim was clearly a lie. I started posting the story to warn the public about a scam and optimized for the con man's last name, which was the same as his lawyer brother. I eventually had posts on about a hundred pretty powerful sites and it was way too successful - we had 90 out of the first 100 positions in the search for the lawyer's name.
KN : Seriously, all of page 1, 2, etc.?
BS : If you searched 100 deep, we had 90 of those results.
KN : So the lawyer brother sued you for defamation?
BS : We were careful not to defame, so it was a nuisance suit on a bogus trademark issue to pressure for removal. If it had gone to court, we would have won - much cheaper to settle.
KN : Defamation is hard to prove. But you settled for removal?
BS : Yes. But the lawyers that handled that case for us were so impressed with the effectiveness of the seo I was being sued for, that they hired me to optimize their site.
KN : A true seo story!
BS : But it did not pan out. I probably should not have taken this on. To begin with, their site was a disaster - incredibly mismanaged - Google even kicked it out of the coveted Search Partners Program for not living up to their standards. My suggestions for remedy were ignored by their webmaster. Then there was the sticker shock on the first invoice. But the worst thing is I was accused of running up a research bill for results that they claimed could have been handled by a $29/month tool. Just astounding if they really believe that.
KN : They're probably listening to street level seos talking trash about how expensive you are compared to them.
BS : That's possible, but I really think they are just ignorant about what it takes to do this right.
KN : And you're probably one of the most expensive services out there...
BS : Yeah right...
KN : Before we run out of time, can we talk about your "Nothing" project?
BS : We just started and have nothing to show for it yet.
KN : Can you just describe the project?
BS : This is a genuine seo project - we're trying to create a compelling document that is super relevant for "Nothing" searches. This search has about 2 billion documents according to Google, so ranking for "Nothing" is going to take some significant effort. And we really don't want this to be a joke. The content needs to address all the many ideas and interpretations behind both the notion of Nothing and the word "Nothing". This topic is one that philosophers have pondered since the ancients, and those arguments and theories are an integral part of mainstream philosophy course studies at major universities. So we find it very strange that Google searches for this topic do not satisfy the query. Currently, Google's page one largely consists of results pointing to websites promoting a band, and beyond the dictionary results and wikipedia, most of the results are frivolous posts where "Nothing" is in the title. We're trying to fix that.
KN : Crazy!
BS : We're diligently working on Nothing. Ultimately we strive to be #1 for Nothing.
KN : That reminds me of your Growler Radio episode Nothing For Christmas.
BS : I have a thing about Nothing.
KN : Were all the Growler Radio stories recorded at your studio?
BS : Yep. 4 episodes of The Growler Tapes and 27 episodes of Growler Radio. But the studio was primarily for composing and producing music.
KN : I saw a whole lot of music credits online.
BS : But just last year, the studio was dismantled and that space is being renovated and will be our office.
KN : At some point we have to talk about how you went from composer to search consultant.
BS : Might be a long story.
KN : I will bug you until you tell it. Thanks, Bob.