Based on the happenings over the past few weeks, and especially given that Google is sending warning messages about unnatural links to webmasters, it seems almost inevitable that the next great link building business scam will be promising to clean up linking messes for websites, so those sites will have a chance to get back in Google's good graces.
Not all such businesses will be scams. It is possible to go through a process to "cleanse" a site of enough of the spammy links that the site can return to Google. Whether or not that site's ranking returns is a whole different question.
My Site's Ranking Tanked. What Happened?
Before making the decision to pursue the time consuming process of cleaning up "bad" links, it pays to understand the variety of potential reasons your site might have dropped in the rankings in the first place. Not all rankings drops have to do with your site's links, and not all Google warning messages result in a ranking penalty or removal.
Google's known about these unnatural links for years. All that's new here is Google has decided to tell you about them, and good for them.
Google won't tell you the exact URLs they think are unnatural, for reasons that you can kind of understand. They don't want the link networks to know they've been caught until they have found as many different pages in the network as possible.
Here's a summary of seven different occurrences that could explain a drop in your site's rank.
1. Other Sites Gained Additional Legitimate High Trust Links to Help Their Content Outrank Yours
This is the most painful explanation to accept. Nobody cheated. You just don't have the content quality that a competitor (or some other site) does.
To get your rankings back to where you were, your choices are to
- Seek additional high trust links for the content you have.
- Create additional linkworthy content and help it attract links.
- Cheat, which is how most sites got in this mess in the first place.
2. Google Updated its Algorithmic Signals
This happens fairly regularly. Google's algorithm isn't set in stone. Google tunes and tweaks how it scores pages, links, text, etc., in hundreds of ways.
You might have ranked No. 3 when Google put more weight on something like unique TLD inbounds that contained anchor text. But if Google adjusts signal strength for that specific signal, you just dropped. You did nothing wrong.
3. A Trusted Site Linking to You Shut Down
Sites and pages sometimes close down. Even high trust sites. Unfortunately, Google doesn't give credit for links from high trust sites that shut down.
At one point, I had a link from a university that offered an ecommerce program and one of the professors maintained a collection of curated links related to search engine optimization (SEO) and link building. The professor decided he didn't have the time to maintain the page, and instead of leaving it there (like I wish he had), he took it down. 404 file not found. And there went my Pagerank 4 .edu link up in smoke.
4. You've Done Nothing Wrong, but Another Site Cheated and Now Outranks You
This can make you angry, especially if you are sure a competitor has been cheating with their link building tactics, and even more so if their content is terrible. Can you sit by patiently and hope Google detects their bad links and drops them?
This often happens. I saw a ridiculous link spam service rank above me and I'd never seen them before. I ran a backlink analysis and could see their link spam immediately. But I did nothing and did not contact Google. It took about a week and the spammy site vanished from the rankings. In other words, Google detected what they were doing and took action.
5. Google Devalued Pages Linking to Your Site That Used to Help You Rank High
This is little bit tricky to get a handle on. More than just a Panda quality issue, an easy way to explain it is to go back several years to when Google devalued directory links.
These directory links were not "bad links". Nobody was "cheating" when they submitted their site to 50 (or more) directories in hopes of getting a higher rank. But at a certain point, Google decided that there were many directories that existed to make a buck off people who might not be sophisticated enough to know the directories were only there to capitalize on the linking frenzy of the day.
So Google started ignoring links from some of the lowest quality directories. It was like those directories did not exist, even though they did exist. If your site had 200 links from directories that had been helping your site rank, the moment Google stopped giving credit to those directories, you lost whatever credit you were getting for those links, as did every other site listed in those directories.
It wasn't a penalty, though it might look like it. Your site dropped because Google decided those directory links didn't help their algorithm provide the best search result possible.
Like pruning a tree of its useless/dead branches, Google also prunes the web of pages it feels aren't helpful. If you had links on those pages, it's like they no longer exist. Should you remove them? No. They are neither good nor bad, they are neutral and have no effect.
6. You Got Caught Using Spammy Linking Tactics
If you have been participating in a link network or buying high pagerank anchor text links and your site just tanked, you know who you are and you know the jig is up. Do you try and clean these up? Yes.
7. You're the Innocent Victim of a Vicious Negative SEO Attack
While rare, the reality is this approach can work. I have clients who swear to me they have not created those links and I believe them.
The negative ranking effect may not last forever, and maybe not long at all, but it can work. Do you reach out to Google with your case? Absolutely.
What To Do About It
The above are just seven scenarios that could explain a change in your site's rank. There are others. Please feel free to comment and add your own thoughts.
Many times the best response is to do nothing at all until and unless you see your rankings change. Just because you receive an email from Google about unnatural links does not mean they are about to drop the hammer on you.
Hopefully you know enough about the SEO and link building history for your site to be able to discern what might have happened to you. You can also find many SEO related experts who can help you for a fee, or explore websites such as Search Engine Watch's SEO section to help you with these and other strategic linking issues and opportunities.
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