Category Archive: Link Building

An Open Letter to Google’s Matt Cutts: On Penalties & the New Link Disavow Tool

Dear Matt,

Thank you for launching the new Link Disavow Tool. Hopefully it will allow a number of high quality sites and businesses that were hit by penalties like Penguin to recover. My concern however is that it will create more confusion than already exists, as impossible as that may be. I doubt you’ll be keen to remove this tool just after launching it, but either way I’d like to propose a much simpler alternative.

First, The Problem:

Many high quality sites and businesses have been hit by massive penalties since Panda. I’ll refrain from talking about Panda from here on out since it’s not primarily related to links, but it was around that time that you guys (Google) seemed to shift from smaller, more targeted penalties and algo adjustments to massive penalties and devaluations with a great deal of ‘collateral damage’. I realize there have always been changes, but I’ve been working online full time since 2005 and have never seen anything like what’s been going on since February 2011.

I’m sure you know the SEO game a lot better than I do. Since I started out on the web, you needed links in order to rank in competitive niches. In my primary business niche, if you didn’t get links, you didn’t rank. All of us bought links, because we needed to in order to rank. I know this. You know this. Aside from buying links to rank among our real competitors, we also needed them to rank above spammers with low quality affiliate and made-for-Adsense sites. We did have a choice, but as a real business there was only one good one at the time. Buy links and rank, or don’t buy links and be outranked by competitors and spammers. Surely you already know that.

I understand you want to get rid of low quality sites in your search results. I’m all for that. I want to see quality results as much as the next guy. I’m a searcher too. But when you guys started applying negative factors to spammers and low quality sites that bought links, you also wiped out scores of high quality sites that were forced to buy links in order to outrank the spammers for the last several years. It’s not only spammers that buy links. I’m sure you know that, too.

So why are you decimating these high quality sites and businesses? For a while, I thought you were just evil people acting in your own self interest with no concern for others. But I had a conversation with a programer the other day who had another theory: It’s not that you guys are evil, careless people. You’re just so focused on fighting spam that you don’t even see the ‘collateral damage’. You see the low quality, spam sites that get taken out, and you see the big brands that continue to rank no matter what they do, and all looks ok. You don’t see the diversity that your updates are wiping out, the specialty sites that offer a better user experience than the big brands…the sites that previously needed to buy links in order to rank. In fact, regardless how good your intentions are, these small sites likely still have to buy links in order to beat the slew of big brands who are now able to rank blank pages with keywords in their title tags due to their massive authority and head start in the race.

The Link Disavow Tool

Enter the new Link Disavow Tool. Now, quality sites have a way to remove those links they used to need in order to rank…those links that you guys attached a negative ranking factor to, or used to trigger a site wide devaluation like Penguin. So if a business owner is lucky enough to have heard about Google Webmaster Tools and read about this new tool, they might have a chance at ranking their penalized site again.

But Which Links Are Problematic?

I’ve got a blog that I unfortunately haven’t posted on in over a year. It’s a real blog with no ads or affiliate links. A couple of years ago someone contacted me about doing a guest post, a completely legitimate guest post that was on topic and written by a topical expert. A few months ago I received an email from an SEO company requesting I remove the link to help their client recover from a Google penalty. How many people will use your new tool in such a way, to remove legitimate links that are helping them rank? How many sites will look to you like ‘bad’ sites, because people mistakenly request that links on them be disavowed?

I know you offer some guidance on that subject. But you and I both know that many people won’t even know your tool exists, others won’t read your guidance, and plenty people who do read it still won’t know which links to disavow.

A Much Simpler, More Ethical Solution

The current penalties are applied according to a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach. That might be ok if we were discussing hobby sites. But I talked to a guy two days ago with an awesome, incredibly useful site that fulfills an important need, especially in today’s economy. He’s about to sell his house, move his family, and begin looking for a new job due to his business being decimated by these penalties. He’s been labeled as guilty for doing what it took to compete. There are thousands of similar cases. I can only hope you guys aren’t thinking about them because you’re so focused on the spammers.

So rather than applying a negative value to links you don’t want to count, how about simply not counting them? At least you wouldn’t be penalizing high quality sites and businesses. If they were ranking solely on the basis of those paid or otherwise low quality links, then they’re going to have some work to do. But that’s unlikely. If they are a high quality site, they’ll have some high quality links too. The spammers will have less. So by simply discounting the spammy or low quality links, you’ll be ensuring that the quality sites rank above the spam sites.

Spammers will keep trying to game your algorithm. They’re going to do that anyway. They’re going to keep sending me loads of junk mail, bombard my blog with stupid comments, and even hack my sites with links cloaked for only Googlebot to see. None of that is going to change. Adding a negative factor to paid and spammy links might cut down on attempted manipulation. But it’s also decimating high quality sites and businesses.

So I understand you’re waging a war on spammers. I’m glad you are, as I don’t want to find spam when I search, and I don’t want to see spam sites outranking high quality, informative, useful sites. But the way you’re doing this now…penalizing sites that only did what they needed to do in order to compete under the system you built, using a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach, and then requiring them to use your link removal tool…is both unlikely to work well and unethical.

With all due respect, for the the sake of all humanity, please simply don’t count links you don’t like!

The Brave New World of SEO

Bill Slawski recently posted on a newly granted Google patent designed to “modify” rank for sites Google thinks are “spamming”.  It should be required reading for anyone interested in SEO.  In short, the patent describes Google applying time delays, negative responses, random responses, and unexpected responses to the placement of pages in the search results when the algorithm determines there is a possibility of attempted manipulation.  If the “spammer” reacts to these responses in an observable way, the page or site can then be designated as spam.

Leaving aside the fact that all SEO is an attempt at manipulating or increasing the rank of a website/page in the search results, and that entirely legit businesses following Google’s guidelines will be wrongly labeled as spammers, this patent points toward a very important ramification of micro vs. macro SEO.

Micro SEO Is Dead

Many years ago, SEO was simple.  You added keywords to all the right places, got your links with the right keyword anchor text, monitored your rank, and adjusted your keywords and links accordingly.  Sometimes you’d cross a threshold and hit a filter by having your keyword repeated too many times either on your site or in your external links.  No big deal.  Remove a few instances or switch them to synonyms, add some new links to diversify the anchor text in your portfolio, and BAM, you’d be back in the game in no time.

Spending hours and hours drilling down into Advanced Link Manager data and analyzing exact-match-anchors-from-unique-linking-domains…worked.  It worked well.

Nothing Lasts Forever

But a few years ago this started to change.  Google began ranking pages based on the authority of a site rather than a particular page for example.  So you might find a page ranking well, analyze it, and find very few traditional ranking signals.  It was ranking based on site factors instead of page factors.  This complicated analysis a bit, but not THAT much.  If you understood it, you could still figure out what was going on.

It’s one example of micro-managing SEO getting more complex.  These days though, micro-managing SEO is more than complex.  It’s a recipe for failure.

Although Google may have recently been granted the rank-modifying spammers patent, these random fluctuations have been at play for a long time.  They were commonly known among SEOs with experience as growing pains.  Especially with new sites, attempts to move up in rank would cause random result placement for a while, which would eventually settle.  These time-based delays have been common for years, and if you didn’t know about them you could inadvertently screw yourself.  Inexperienced SEOs would get a handful of links and see a small upward movement or a small downward movement, not realizing the unexpected/inappropriate movement was influenced by a time delay, and push harder or make drastic changes.  This caused them to pass filter/penalty thresholds without realizing they had done so, and ended up causing their sites to drop into never-never land for a very long time, with little chance of redemption.

It also created situations where it was easy to spend more than you needed (in time or money) for link building.  For smart SEOs, knowing there was a sandbox or time delay allowed them to play the slow-and-steady game instead of moving too fast, crashing, and burning sites.

Historical/Temporal Data In Play

In addition to the above evolution of the algorithm, new penalties have been appearing for unnatural activity over time.  Link velocity matters.  Link spikes that appear unnatural (potentially because they lack other signals of natural spikes: mentions, traffic, etc.) can also cause penalties.  And link loss can be as bad as link spikes.

It hasn’t been in effect as long as the sandbox, newer time delays, and random ranking fluctuations, but more recently, attempts to fix losses began leading to even further losses.  This may be the result of the above patent being applied before being granted.  Here’s how it works:  A webmaster gets a bunch of links and his site moves down instead of up.  He freaks out and removes the links, thinking they were the cause of the drop.  They were the cause of the drop.  But removing them looks even more unnatural than getting them, especially if the removal can be tied to the rank loss in time.  If the webmaster would have tried to create additional signals or simply slowed down, he may have come back.  But by undoing what caused the drop, he confirms Google’s suspicion…and is now labeled a spammer with greater certainty.

Unreliability of Micro SEO

Google’s algorithm is a complex, constantly changing mix of numerous interrelated factors with variable thresholds and multiple layers.  It’s no longer possible to look at isolated data and arrive at actionable conclusions.  One site with 3,567 links may rank #1, while another site with 3,567 links may be completely removed from the results.  The distribution of links to an entire site can and does influence the rank of a single page on that site.  The anchor text profile (keyword vs. generic vs. brand vs. URL, etc.) matters.  The quality of the linking sites matters.  The diversity of linking sites matters.  The placement of a link on a page matters.  The rate of link acquisition and loss over time matters.  And all of these factors are interrelated, changing regularly, and different for different sites.  And there are many more factors!

If all of the above isn’t complex enough, add in purposely randomized results over randomized periods.

SEO is not deadBut micro SEO died a long time ago.  (Unfortunately there are still many people selling it.  But I’ll save that for another post.)  Due to the complexity of the algorithm, analyzing results on a micro level is a waste of time at best.  And at worst (ever more likely), it will create obvious patterns that Google will notice and penalize.

Macro SEO: The Way Forward

Each time Google rolls out a significant change or massive penalty, there are cries around the interwebs that SEO is dead.  The cries come from individuals whose current methodologies have died.  They don’t realize it’s not SEO that’s dead, but their particular micro tactics and strategies.  Macro SEO has always worked, and it will as long as there are search engines ranking sites without requiring payment for placement.

What Is Macro SEO?

Macro SEO is about understanding the big picture.  What types of sites are ranking?  How big or small are they?  Are they brands?  What does their link profile look like, overall?  What does their anchor text profile look like overall?  Are the search results for a given phrase or niche dominated by big brands?  Are they dominated by Google verticals?

Macro SEO requires you to look at the details only in order to understand the big picture.  When micro SEO worked, ranking reports could be run weekly and micro changes could be made as a result of ranking fluctuations.  With macro SEO, ranking reports are still extremely useful.  But instead of using them to make immediate adjustments, they’re used to notice when significant changes have occurred and in what direction those changes are pointing.

Applying macro SEO means using tactics that go with the current rather than against it, and not freaking out or reacting to unexpected ranking “modifications”.  But you need to feel the direction of the current first, along with understanding the general causes of major penalties, and that does take a combination of experience and analysis.  But it’s not micro analysis.

Knowing that Google is going to mess with you along the way, that you’re going to see random fluctuations and ranking drops, will help you stay on the macro path to success.  Expect a bumpy ride.  Otherwise, you’re going to be outing yourself as the “spammer” you’ve become in Google’s eyes.

Link Building In A Post Penguin Web

Penguin AssassinGoogle launched their Penguin update on April 24th, 2012. The Penguin hobbles (with light speed) around the web looking for unnatural or spammy links, and when it sees them pointing to your website, rather than slashing the link or the benefit it’s providing to your site, the mad creature hacks your site’s limbs off, so your site falls to nowhere and can no longer climb up the SERP (search engine results page) ladder. In plain English: When the Penguin sees a link profile it doesn’t like, it kills your current rankings and makes it very hard to rank better again.

If you’ve already been mauled by the Penguin, I posted strategies for getting your site back to life at the top of the SERPs here. But what should you be doing on sites that haven’t been slashed, hacked, or stabbed through the heart by the Penguin? And what about new sites? What can you do to prevent drawing the Penguin’s attention, and his blade?

It’s All About Quality

Pre-Penguin, getting loads of spammy links from mass article submissions, crappy directory submissions, forum profiles, and similar garbage worked very well. Post-Penguin, it does not. You may still see some sites ranking with links like this, but if you do it’s probably because there are enough quality signals that Google’s Penguin either ignores the crap, or the site is considered a serious brand and has pretty thick armor. Can these crappy links still work in the short term? Maybe, but if you have enough of them you should expect to be slaughtered in the not too distant future.

Post-Penguin, you need to have a quality link profile in order to keep your head on your shoulders. That doesn’t just mean natural-looking link sources, but also natural link anchor text.

Natural Link Sources

So what’s a natural link source? It’s one that is editorially based, where a person with a real website made for real humans posts a link they think other humans will appreciate. When you add a forum profile to ThisForumReallySucksBad.com with a link to your site, no one is going to see it.  You know it, and Google now knows it. When you do a mass article submission, submitting a crappy article to 500 article directories with one blast, you know no one is ever going to see those articles.  Post-Penguin, Google knows that too. Think about it. Google is able to see into nearly every aspect of the web now, from Analytics to Chrome, they know which sites and pages real people are visiting, and what links they’re clicking on. They may be using that data, or they may be using some other combinations of data. The bottom line is that crappy links don’t look natural.

I used to think this video was both funny and tragic:

For better (for the web as a whole) and worse (for those of us that used some of these methods to stay competitive, and got nailed for doing so), the video is now largely irrelevant. It’s a funny example of what used to work. In all honesty, it’s probably better this way.

The bottom line is, you need to focus on quality link sources, which means those that are harder to get, from real sites and blogs run by real people. You need to reach out to people in your industry and anyone else who may be interested, and get them to understand that their visitors will be interested in what your site has to offer. If you do that well, they’ll link to your site from a page and in a location that visitors will actually see and click. That’s what you need to be focusing on now.

Keep in mind, if you don’t have a quality site yourself, this isn’t going to work. John Andrews has a great post on this. Go read it.

Natural Link Anchor Text

What’s a natural anchor text profile? In a phrase, it’s one that isn’t 90% “money keyword” anchors. In fact, it’s probably one that’s closer to 90% non-keyword anchors. There may be some exceptions, for example if your domain is a keyword domain like RedWidgets.com, you’re obviously going to be ok with a higher percentage of “Red Widget” anchors. But even this has changed since Penguin. Let’s take a look at the link profile for a big brand, Home Depot, using MajesticSEO:

Natural Link Profile

See any “keyword anchors” in the top 30 links? Maybe one? The majority of their link anchors are a combination of brand and URL anchors. That’s one good example of a natural anchor text profile, and it should give you a good idea as to what Google is seeing and beginning to use as a reference for comparison.

Greg Boser put up a few excellent videos here, the first two covering the two topics above…natural link sources and anchors.  They’re all well worth watching for another slant.

What About Directories

Directories have been a decent link source for a long time. Will they get you nailed post-Penguin? It depends. If you’ve paid $20 to have your site blasted out to 1,000 crappy, free directories and you’re using one or two anchors…yes, Penguin could be heading your way for some killin’. But if you’re submitting your site to a handful of high quality directories that have an editorial review process AND you’re using brand anchors rather than keyword anchors, that should be ok.

What About Guest Posts

You should know the answer already. It’s the same with guest posts. If you’re paying to get Wikipedia articles spun with a link to your site inserted, on a spammy network of blogs built only to give links…a killin’ is coming your way. But if you’re writing a quality post on a quality blog that real people read, and getting a link to your site in that post (where it is relevant), that’s a good kind of link.

The Cheap & Easy Stuff

Forget about the cheap and easy stuff. There are too many people on the web today. If you can pay a few dollars to get a link, so can everyone else. Google has got to figure out a way to determine which site is “better” than the rest, and from here on out it doesn’t look like that’s going to be based on the number of cheap and easy links with perfect keyword anchors. You need to do things that aren’t easy for competitors to replicate. You need to create something of value, and promote it to people who care. Sorry, it’s not as easy as it used to be.

Strategies for Sites Hit By Google Penguin

Google's Penguin

Google launched its Penguin “algorithm change”, on April 24th, in order to “fight webspam”. Danny Sullivan mentioned in his post on Penguin that it should be called “search spam”. Let’s take it a step further and call it like it is: Google’s Penguin targets websites that it identifies as having bought links for the purpose of ranking better, otherwise known as what nearly every website in a competitive industry does.

In a couple of the niches I monitor rankings for nearly EVERY site I track was hit! Aaron pointed out an example of a blank page ranking #1 for “make money online”, partially due to other algorithm adjustments when Penguin was launched (Google’s attempt to make Penguin harder to figure out), but also due in large part to almost every site in the top 10 for that search phrase getting cut down by the angry bird. Google’s Penguin is not your ordinary Penguin. Like Panda, it’s a nightmarish version of the creature, one that slashes first…and doesn’t even bother to ask questions later. The Penguin is a killer.

Were You Cut Down By Penguin?

Many people think they were hit by Penguin, but what they don’t realize is that Panda came tearing and pooping through the web just a couple of days before. The Penguin was running close behind, slashing in a rather indiscriminate manner at survivors (both those hit but not killed by Panda and innocent observers). Let’s take a look at a couple of my sites that were hit by Penguin, to see what a real Penguin hit will look like in your analytics data:

Google Penguin Penalty

A Google Penguin Hit

In the above graph it’s not immediately apparent that the site was hit on April 24th, until you look at the traffic patterns of the previous weeks. Look at how the traffic volume is about the same on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (4/17 and 4/18 of the previous week for example). Yet on Wednesday, 4/24 you see a significant drop when the angry bird came slashing through, and then the resulting traffic loss from the 25th onward. Let’s look at another example:

Google Penguin Devaluation Graph

Another Penguin Hit

This one is more obvious, as it’s clear the traffic dropped significantly on 4/24 and then deeper on 4/25. If Penguin started slashing on 4/24, why did it take until the 25th or even later for the full decline? Blood loss, my friend. Penguin cuts a guy mid-day on 4/24 and the blood pours out for at least 24 hours.  So you don’t see the real damage until you get an entire day of traffic data after the fact.

Here’s one more example, this time of a site that was pooped on by Panda just before being slashed by the Penguin (which has led to some people thinking they were hit by Penguin when if fact it was Panda):

Panda and Penguin Penalties

The Panda and Penguin Double Team

Here you see an example of a Panda attack on 4/19 followed by Penguin doing clean up on 4/24. (For anyone wondering, the graph looks different because it’s a snapshot from Clicky Web Analytics rather than Google Analytics, which was used for the first two graphs.) So in order to figure out if you were hit by Panda or Penguin (or both!), you need to take a look at your traffic data and pay careful attention to the dates where the traffic took a dive. If it was 4/19 – 4/20 it was Panda. If it was 4/24 – 4/25 it was Penguin.

What Kind of Spammer Are You???

That’s what you might be wondering, seeing three of my sites hit by Penguin, and Google claiming this was about taking out “webspam”. But no, I’m not a spammer. All three of the sites above were at least as high quality as the one you’re reading now. What was the problem? Well, I’d say it’s Google’s problem, taken out on me by an angry bird with a sword.

It was likely due to the Penguin thinking I had too many low quality or over-optimized anchor text links. Truth be told, I didn’t have all that many. One of my sites that got hit, for which I only purchased a few legitimate directory links years ago, had loads of links I never bought, traded, or asked for…due to real spammers and scrapers!

How to Kill the Bird

We know Penguin is targeting sites with link profiles that look unnatural, and believe me, it doesn’t take much. So here are a few strategies for getting rid of the maniacal bird and restoring your income to previous levels:

1. Remove bad links: If you’ve only got a small number of low quality or over-optimized anchor text links, especially if those are sitewide links, try getting them removed. It may take some time before Google realizes these links are removed, and because Penguin only thrashes and slashes along every month or so, it may take at least a couple of months for this to work out for you.

2. Delete pages: This is a tricky one. But if you’ve only got a few pages with bad links pointing at them, you might consider deleting those pages and re-publishing them with new URLs. If you can’t get rid of the links, getting rid of the pages could have the same effect. Keep in mind however that you’ll lose whatever link juice was flowing into those pages.

3. 301 redirect to a new domain: I don’t see this as a long term solution, but it could be a temporary fix. It’s possible that 301 redirecting a domain hit by Penguin to a new domain will help, but this isn’t likely to last forever, and if you’ve got a real brand, that probably isn’t an option.

4. Split your site into multiple sites: This is another option that may or may not be good for you. If you’ve got a site slashed by Penguin with 100 pages, you might consider putting 80 of those pages on a new domain and leaving 20 on the bloody corpse. If you’ve got really high quality material but aren’t a brand, this could work. You get a fresh start with the bulk of your site on a new domain, and you still get to keep your old site (reduced in size) in case it ever heals.

5. Get more high quality, natural links: This MIGHT be a great option, but it might not. We don’t know what the threshold is for a Penguin slashing. It’s possible that getting high quality, natural links alone will never bring your site back. So you could waste a great deal of time and money with this strategy. But combined with some of the other strategies above, it becomes a more viable option.

Soon, I’ll post on what kind of links you should be looking for in a post-Penguin world, for sites that escaped the wrath and those that didn’t. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it!