Much of the search marketing industry is up in arms over notifications from Google Webmaster Tools warning users that they’ve fallen from Google’s graces and should be on the lookout for “artificial or unnatural links... that could be used to manipulate PageRank”.
What began as a ripple back in February has become a tidal wave of discontent and alarm as more report receiving the notices.
The hardest hit so far, if you can judge by the buzz on the web, are blog networks like BuildMyRank (which is actually shutting down). It’s unclear whether it’s an algorithmic update or manual penalty, but it’s likely not a coincidence that Google recently discussed the deindexing of web hosting services earlier this month. Where Panda set out to rid the web of mass-produced, low quality content, this latest action from Google seems designed to sniff out unnatural backlink profiles and those responsible.
The “unnatural” distinction is an important one, as until now, SEOs and webmasters have largely been discouraged from creating paid links. Especially since the JCPenney debacle, we all know, inside the search industry and out, that buying links is bad, bad news.
In a 2008 interview with Eric Enge, Google Web Spam Czar Matt Cutts talked about link building – specifically, how to do it ethically and within Google’s guidelines. In fact, over the years, Cutts has shared link building tips often; see the Google Webmaster Help YouTube channel for examples. Some of the strategies he recommends are original research, creating controversy, and using humor. Still, it’s all about the content.
Recent events seem almost a fundamental shift in the way Google perceives inbound links; they’re now saying not only can you not buy them, you can’t try to build at all. Of course, Google is predictably tight-lipped about what it is, exactly, that has relegated the offending sites to the wrist-slap list. That means that, as usual, we can only take best guesses.
The theory I think holds the most water is Frank Watson’s, who contributed to this article. It does seem that this round of penalizations and deindexing incidents is the result of Google’s sniffing out large quantities of unnatural anchor text alone.
For example, an unnatural link profile for a flower shop might look like: 1,000 links with the brand name as the anchor text; 3,500 links using “buy flowers online”; 5,000 links using “order flowers online,” etc. You would expect more links to use the brand name as anchor text; large quantities of links using very specific, high search volume terms, even more than the name of the business, could be a red flag. This is the kind of profile that might signal a stinker to Google.
Any objections I’ve seen over how easy a straight anchor text flag is for competitors to abuse have been pooh-poohed, as in, “People should just focus on their own sites,” or “No one is going to waste their time doing that.” Oh yes, yes they will. It happens often.
It doesn’t seem as though those who have received the notices have suffered greatly... yet. In their closing announcement, BuildMyRank gave clients the option of deleting all of their links. By all accounts, they seem to have handled the situation as best they could. And for their clients, getting rid of those links is probably the most logical option.
Yet, others are panicking and freaking out in a rush to dump links they got from blog networks. Little birdies are whispering that Google has offered to go light on those who give up the name of the SEO company who developed their nasty links. Whether or not that’s true, it might be a bad idea to either get rid of a chunk of your link profile before you have to, or throw a company under the bus without firsthand knowledge of whether they were the problem.
Google does have a way of inciting panic, and it’s no wonder... so many rely on them for organic traffic to drive a large portion of their revenue (and therein lies your first mistake). If the knee-jerk reaction to Google’s sending out warning notifications is that everyone and their brother runs out to file reports and beg for mercy, or to go so far as trying to delete backlinks, hasn’t Google saved themselves a lot of work!
Unnatural links, paid links... obviously they’re not going to pay off in the grand scheme of things. But before you jump on the bandwagon, ask yourself if you can handle the immediate drop in rankings and possibly traffic if you delete a bunch of backlinks. Or should you stop, breathe, plan, and try something new to build up some volume of backlinks before pulling plug on any that might be deemed “unnatural?”