Like a lot of people, Doug Pierce, Cogney’s founder, got into SEO because he wanted to make another business successful, in this case, a lead gen business for KualaLumpurProperty.com, CopenhagenProperty.com and TaipeiProperty.com. Doug wasn’t interested in real estate per se. These were just the domain names he could afford to buy as a side hustle when he was a college student studying Information Systems in San Diego more than ten years ago. It was the Dark Ages of SEO, so Doug read every blog post he could get his hands on and pieced together optimization strategies through a combination of intelligent guesswork and trial-and-error. Back then, nifty tools which could instantly scrape crucial data like where all of your website’s links came from, didn’t exist. You literally had to track down each link by yourself and write it down -- or forget. But Doug wasn’t daunted. Every day, he watched his sites’ traffic and tried out new ideas. Eventually, the hard graft paid off: KualaLumpurProperty.com began ranking #1 for “Kuala Lumpur property”, “Kuala Lumpur real estate” and “Kuala Lumpur apartments”, and Doug started receiving emails from people who wanted to buy real estate in Malaysia. Not only did this side gig help Doug earn money through college but he found himself hooked on SEO.
Between KualaLumpurProperty.com and graduation, Doug spent a year in Singapore and did his final term at the University of Macau. The experience opened his mind to the possibilities of Asia but the tech industry was still too undeveloped to justify moving there after college. Instead, he took a job doing SEO for a digital agency based in New York City after graduation. One day, a reporter from the New York Times called the office seeking expert help on SEO. (Doug’s colleague had previously written to the New York Times to alert them that they were linking to a spammy site.) The reporter wanted to determine if American department store, JC Penney, was using blackhat tactics (i.e., tactics prohibited under Google’s guidelines) to artificially boost its search rank for various keywords. Doug ended up being the New York Times’ primary source of SEO expertise for this investigative expose. The article, both unprecedented and explosive, ran on the front of the Sunday Business section in February 2011 and was the first in a series of New York Times pieces, published from 2011 to 2017, in which Doug was the key expert exposing, on one hand, the underhanded tactics used by companies to gain an unfair, “illegal” advantage in Google search results and, on the other hand, the inadequacies and flaws in Google’s algorithm. In many cases, Doug’s research led Google to revisit its algorithms and revise its ranking criteria in order to prevent perverse, unfair outcomes.
That same year, 2011, Doug and his colleague, Byrne Hobart, left their jobs to create an entirely new kind of digital services agency. Called Digital Due Diligence, it was a direct follow-on from Doug’s cyber-sleuthing activities for the New York Times. Besides continuing to assist the New York Times to out companies engaged in prohibited SEO practices, the agency’s clients were investment banks and private equity funds who needed to assess digital risk for the purposes of shorting or investing in a company. In a nutshell, DDD specialized in determining if a digital business was built on real traffic -- or just a house of cards. Not everyone was a fan of DDD of course. Some commentators considered Doug and Byrne to be hitmen for hire -- digital style. But plenty of big names, including Whaleshark Media (behind RetailMeNot, the world’s biggest couponing site), Loopt (co-founded by Sam Altman, who went on to become president of Y Combinator) and BestVendor (a software recommendation platform backed by Peter Thiel), plus several bulge bracket investment banks, started calling them immediately to look at their deals.
DDD’s business was booming but, within a year, Byrne got recruited away to head up SEO for Yahool and Doug didn’t want to go it alone, so he packed his bags and went to explore China’s SEO scene at the encouragement of a friend who was running a small digital agency in Shenzhen, where he met his wife-to-be, a Hongkonger, over a serendipitous Thanksgiving party. Doug soon moved to Hong Kong to join her and started Cogney.
In 2013, he launched Cogney in Hong Kong and started working with major companies like Shanghai Tang, Global Sources, Recruit.net, Airbnb, Lumosity, China Mobile and Huawei. All told, Doug reckons that he has landed more than 40 companies on the first page of Google for their industry’s golden keyword (the most likely search query for a given industry’s products, e.g., “Hong Kong jobs”) and more than a hundred companies on the first page of Google for popular, if not golden, keywords (e.g., “Hong Kong classifieds”).
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