The past few weeks have been painful for many hundreds of thousands of site owners following the Google Penguin Update, unnatural link warnings, a parked domain bug, and a host of other Google updates. Businesses have folded and lives have been changed irrevocably – and all because of the immense power Google's algorithm wields.
For those that have experienced a ranking catastrophe in the last four weeks or so you’ll know only too well how it feels – and why things have changed for good. The web’s ‘Wild West Frontier’ days are over for the right businesses with the right approach to digital marketing. That is a great thing.
The issue, of course, is in dealing with the change. If your business has been either forced into the spammy links game because it was what was required within your niche to rank, or you simply trusted your agency to ‘do the right thing’ then you could have an issue. And issues cost money.
It is possible to save your site even if you have a spammy backlink profile cluttered with links Google may view as low quality. The goal of this post is to arm business owners with the tools necessary to understand what may have been triggered the drop in Google and how to avoid the same issue coming back to bite you in the future.
To begin understanding if your site may be at risk, or to take a proactive approach to protecting your organic positions, it has never been more important to properly profile your site’s backlinks.
You learn little from doing this in isolation either as Google’s understanding of how "unnatural" your link profile might be isn't based on a single universal understanding. Instead it's niche, or search specific.
For instance, the backlink profile of a site in the uber-competitive world of car insurance or, similarly, one in a mature and buoyant market where social sharing is ripe (such as parenting) will look very different to each other.
Google uses machine learning to build up a picture of what a profile should look like within each genre/niche and uses that to test sites against on the fly. Once you understand this it is a short step to the realization that you should know precisely what your profile looks like and how it could be perceived.
Balance is Key
So how do you do that and how can it help you should a dreaded unnatural links email fall into your inbox via Webmaster Tools? The best way to answer that is for us to take a look at a real world scenario, profiling one site that received just such an email and the steps that were taken to reach resubmission nirvana.
Stage 1: Profiling
There are a variety of tools out there that can make the job of making sense of the data and our favorites include, but aren't limited to the following, plus a couple of our own:
If you can then benchmark against similar sites/competitors in top five positions you can quickly build up a multi-faceted picture of where your site may be standing out.
Stage 2: What to Look for
Like any problem finding out where the issue may lie requires a segmented approach and we analyze 12 different metrics of the profile including such data as what type of sites do the links come from (blogs, generic, parked domains, web directory, article directory, personal site, ecommerce, forums, press release, wiki, news site, search engine, social network)?
Below we can see real data from the site in question (brand removed for client confidentiality):
Immediately here the number of blogs from our domain (the black column) created cause for concern. Mainly because we know those kinds of links are being hunted right now and the overall profile balance is upended by what appears to be a heavy reliance on blog posts. Such a find would result in an immediate investigation of those specific links and some re-optimization work to reduce the risk of being spotted and chopped.
Next up is developing the understanding of where on the page your links are found (e.g., blog post, forum thread, group of links, short paragraph of text, blogroll, image). It’s another key metric and generally the more links you have in clusters of other links suggests possible paid placement (big frown from Mr. Google).
Below you can see the results of this analysis for the site in question and once again our ‘groups of links’ warning bells sounds and we go off to investigate those specific inbounds:
There are many other ways of testing algorithmically for link or blog networks and one of the easiest ways is for the search engines to look for clusters of links in the web graph. This is where there is a tightly formed ‘cluster’ of sites all linking out to one another and to external sites much more prevalently than is natural. These nodes stand out and are ripe for investigation.
It’s for this reason that keeping an eye on the number of outbound links from sites that link to you is key, as if you find that a blog you have a link from also links to 200 other sites then it’s possible it’s the web equivalent of the escaped convict going to the mall in their orange jump suit.
Thankfully our site didn’t score too badly in this area with a decent spread of outbound links from their link partners.
We could go on but the one critical metric still to share is one that looks at the authority of the pages that link back. We’ve all known for a long time that Page Rank. MozRank and other metrics are a key component of the link algorithm and that is still true today. The emphasis has changed, however, from being one purely about getting ‘as many links as you can quickly’ to one of acquiring topically relevant, high PR links from content.
Sadly the work of old is now catching up with many webmasters as spammy, low value links are pounced on by the Web Spam team.
The key is diversity and as we can see from the live example graph below (showing inbound links by PageRank) there is much work to do in acquiring those higher PR links. With so many PR1-3 links they are once again at risk of raising suspicions. Efforts here should be pointed at the creation of great relationships with the web influencers in their space and in the content required to reach them. That way they will obtain those PR5 and 6 links that are necessary to put them back in that safe place again.
Stage 3: Anchor Text
You might be wondering why this has its own separate section (surely we’ve written enough right) but anchor text is so important it warrants its own moment in the sun.
It is also becoming clear to us that Google’s move to switch off a link signal has not meant they have left a gaping hole in their core algo. It’s not their style. Instead they have moved things on and my own take is that it’s been replaced by a mixture of social signals and, more importantly, greater emphasis on link relevance. And that should change the way you create link prospect lists for good.
The profiling and understanding of anchor text though in this context is perhaps the most critical aspect of avoiding penalties as much as it is for ranking for specific terms in the first place.
To understand a little more let’s go back to our example for a moment.
As you can see below we have taken a snapshot of the first 3,000 links from the site in question and organized the results by anchor text.
As you would expect to see the former agency had been hitting a couple of terms hard with lots of lower value links – hence why in the case of the term with 25% of the anchor text distribution it only has a small share of the overall PR Value.
Controlling the distribution and ensuring that no one term is used too often is a key ingredient in the overall recipe for avoiding issues later on.
The final piece of the jigsaw is link acquisition. Understanding, and monitoring this helps you both avoid penalties and understanding if one has been applied in the first place.
In the first instance checking that the rate at which you acquire links is controlled and natural will help you avoid triggering any algorithmic penalties. The chart below demonstrates this perfectly and suggests that the site in question is prospering. If you see a sudden drop in live links it can suggest devaluation, or deindexing, of some of your links and with it a tasty penalty for your own site…so beware.
The other side of the coin is this horror show – peaky link gains that just shout ‘manipulation’ from the rooftops. Avoid this and you will go some way to protecting your site from the Wrath of Google.
There are two things to remember if you do receive the dreaded email:
- You are not alone – almost 1 million sites have had the same thing and are in the same position.
- It can be fixed.
The key, however, is to understand how to avoid it in the first place and that begins with a full appraisal of your backlink profile.
The penalty is harsh. There is no way around that fact and we have had sites contact us that have ‘not built a link for two years or more’ and yet have still received the email and resulting demotion. It’s an extremely unmeasured response and one that shows this latest filter to be a less-than-polished tool with much still to be improved in terms of its ability to clean up spammy links.
That, of course, is the glass half empty view and we still believe that with the right approach and a fundamentally solid backlink profile full of diversity and relevant links then you will prosper and your business will grow over the long term.
The danger is, of course, that in making the results so volatile Google is at risk of alienating many businesses from spending time and money reaching digital audiences via search, full stop. And that’s a very real and present danger that must be addressed.
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