Once upon a time, the rules of the internet were not so clearly drawn.
The magic of ranking highly on Google was a secret known to only a few – and back then, price comparison site Finder.com.au co-founders Fred Schebesta and Frank Restuccia were in on it.
“If I go back in time to 2006, it was the Wild West of Google,” Schebesta told Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief and New Investors – My Story host Sarah O’Carroll.
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The founders were using all sorts of methods to climb to the top of Google search. “In those days, what was grey hat is now black hat, and what was black hat … no one would ever touch anymore. So we were doing some of the grey stuff,” he said.
Crashing and burning
But on April 3, 2011, a date burned into the co-founders’ memories, the site lost 60 per cent of its traffic overnight.
Google decided it didn’t like the methods the founders were using to rise to the top of the ranks of search pages – and Finder found itself in Google ‘jail’.
It’s a moment Schebesta remembers with clarity: he was in Norfolk at the time, east of England, by the sea. At 3pm – an unusual hour for his phone to go off – his phone rang.
“I picked it up and then I went into the car and I was told the news. I was just saying, ‘okay’. I was quite calm about it,” he recalls. “I said, ‘okay, what are we going to do now? So let's put a plan in place. What are we actually going to do?’ We started forming a plan from that.”
Schebesta wasn’t totally surprised by the bad news – in fact, he’s used to it and is grateful for it. “I'm fairly used to big crazy things, heavy knocks coming,” he said. “So I saw it as just another thing to go and tackle.”
The hit to traffic took three long months to rebuild. But in internet time, where everything moves quickly, three months may as well be three years.
To get back into Google’s good graces, the founders enlisted people – even some from China – to remove thousands upon thousands of links and deleted swathes of content and replaced it with higher-quality content.
The ninja sword: A reminder
Amongst it all, valuable lessons were learnt, lessons now encapsulated in a ninja sword that hangs in front of the Finder office as a public reminder.
“It reminds us not only of the power of our tools but how it can cut you as well, and to be very careful with what we do.”
Now, all of Finder’s Google tactics are considered white hat. According to Schebesta, the platform takes a lot longer to do the same things competitors do, but Schebesta prefers to play it on the safe side now.
“We don't take the shortcuts, but I think those are the lessons you learn in there, the principles we put in place create a business.
“There's a big difference,” he said. “I knew tactics and things, and ways to spin up sites and get to the top of Google, and they would crush and fall. But the difference is moving from tactics to actually creating a company. That was the big move we made.”
The customer comes first
The big takeaway for the Finder leaders was a simple one: put your customers first.
“There’s one editorial key rule: don’t break the trust of the user,” said Schebesta. The second rule of Finder is to be “straight up” and “tell it as it is”. Finder won’t sell you anything in their content – it’s just information that helps you make your own choice.
“The facts are there and then we basically create tools and write guides on how to interpret that, and then they use it to make their own decision at the end of the day.”
Customer service plays a major part in Finder’s rebuilding. The site provides 24-hour customer support via live chat, a service they don’t charge customers for.
Schebesta also remembers an incident where a member of the Finder crew wrote a detailed three-paragraph response to a user who had enquired about how to make a lamb roast.
“The belief we've always had is go to the nth degree to go and serve and help that user solve the actual problem,” he said.
Go to your core
Aside from that, being ‘jailed’ by Google taught Schebesta to pull back and focus on what was truly important to the core business. They changed staff, scaled back the business, cut costs, and reviewed what they were doing well and what they weren’t.
“It's to go back to the core business that you're running,” he said, warning about the distraction of all the other ideas that may pop up along the way.
“What is the customer need you're solving? What is the business, the things or service you provide, and just make that little part better – and literally shut everything else down.
“And ours was just building websites and helping people get to the top of Google. That's all we did. There were all sorts of other things, but we weren't very good at that.”
Yin and Yang, Fred and Frank
According to Schebesta, there was one other necessary ingredient to Finder’s success: the right business partner.
Schebesta met long-term business partner Restuccia at school, and they went to university together. It wasn’t until after they graduated that they became close, eventually living together in a house with five bedrooms and 21 guests. Restuccia ran the place like an “Airbnb before there was Airbnb” just for some extra money to get by.
“I think Frank and I would just have that yin and yang,” he told Yahoo Finance.
“Frank looks a bit more conservative, but has a wild streak to him as well. And I think I look a little wild, but I actually have a very conservative part of me as well.”
And unfortunately, this kind of magic isn’t one that you can manually concoct: before Restuccia, other business partners had come in and out of the picture, and Schebesta isn’t sure he could recreate the same business partner dynamic he has with Restuccia with anyone else.
“I think it's actually kind of a miracle in and of itself, and I think it happens naturally, right?” said the co-founder, adding that this process would be guided by your feelings and intuition.
“I think the other thing you need to go through is some really, really hard times. I think the forming of a great relationship comes from the crucible of extreme pain and suffering.”