Google's Link Schemes page is quite possibly one of the most critical pages on the internet if you plan on ever doing well in Google.
Now I'm no legal expert, but it seems to me that the following paragraph is written in language that's broad and vague enough to cover just about anything you could ever possibly do that might result in a link:
Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.
Any behavior that manipulates links to your site or from your site??
Then we have this bit:
Additionally, creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links, can be considered a violation of our guidelines.
How in the world can we seriously think that Google can accurately tell whether a link was editorially placed and/or vouched for by the site's owner?
I truly think that Google has gone mad.
The Toxification of Links
Everyone knows that Google's algorithm was built on the importance of links, but like all good marketers we've manipulated them so heartily that it's become apparent that it might not have been the most well thought-out process.
Usually if you build something, you figure out how it could go wrong and you account for that right?
Now it's not just a paid link that can sink you. It's just about any link. (It seriously is just about any link.) Of course it's everything else (even spammy structured markup!) but still, since the algorithm was built on links, there's always going to be a big focus on links.
I know many of you are thrilled that MyBlogGuest was penalized in the same way that you're happy when any site gets hit for whatever reason. But the critical thing to remember here is that every time Google makes an example out of someone, there are casualties, and your site could be next.
The Unfairness of Some Link Penalties
In fact, one of my last link audits was done for a site that had never pursued links, never bought links, never added their URL to all the free spammy directories, and just truly never did anything wrong compared to what I usually see. However, due to the nature of their niche, they attracted a lot of links. They attracted links from horribly low-quality sites and forum comments, but they also attracted links on authority sites.
The site was hit with a manual penalty though, not by an update. Someone had to decide that they were guilty of unnatural linking, but it wasn't their fault.
Regardless, Google doesn't care that it wasn't their fault. They still have to fix a mess that they didn't create by doing anything other than having a linkable site.
I've done many link audits where the client absolutely was to blame, but more and more I'm seeing these really great old sites that actually just got screwed through no fault of their own.
Since Google keeps adding things to their naughty list, many sites are being penalized for links they built before those types of links were a violation. It doesn't help them to say that though. They just get left with the cleanup and the hard work that comes from getting back into Google's good graces, and it's starting to really sicken me.
If I create a performance bonus system for my employees and they start doing a better job, is it fair of me to decide that I should now make the system harder for them to utilize? If I gave them $50 for meeting a certain target, however I've defined the target, once they've met it for a few months should I then lower it to $15, and then when they adjust to that, just say "I've decided that you don't deserve the bonus but keep working hard!"? Should I then look back at something they did years ago and fire them for it?
If you don't usually build links yourself, what you aren't seeing is the true unfairness of some link penalties. Site owners can buy links for 5 years and never once suffer a rankings or traffic drop.
They can weather algorithmic updates and never incur a penalty. Their link profiles can be almost totally composed of paid links that have passed manual reviews done by other SEOs.
It's for reasons like this that I say that Google absolutely cannot detect what happened in order to get a link. Is knowing that the reason they've decided to just scare the pants off everyone?
I do think that with Google these days, it's becoming a doomsday scenario. Just as they created this whole paid link economy by making links so critical, they're now creating a whole link cleanup economy.
My audit request emails usually triple every time there's a big shakeup. While it means business for me, it's depressing.
I'd much rather have an email that says "I need your help as I'm not sure how to go about creating good content for my readers" than "I've just been penalized and I have no clue what to do." These people are human beings and when you talk to several of them who truly have no idea what has happened, especially when they didn't do anything wrong, you realize what's at stake.
But What Could Google Do?
Yes, links are out of control and I am a link builder so I live and breathe links. I think people need to build better ones and stop taking shortcuts. But what constitutes a shortcut to me might be something that you think is the only way to go. It's very subjective.
Should people just stop complaining though? I'm sorry if your site isn't number one and that some crappy sites rank higher than you do. I'm sorry that you don't have the same amount of money to throw at links and that you're on Page 5 and your competitors are having you for breakfast, but that's the way most things work isn't it?
The company who buys the big billboard on a highway gets more eyes on his brand than the company who advertises alongside five other companies on billboard on a country road. Why aren't we complaining so loudly about that unfairness?
Oh wait, it's because that's marketing, and that's just how it works in a capitalist society.
What if we all started loudly fussing about something else? Would we start to see Google cracking down on people who use emoticons or have silly company names?
Should anyone whose company starts with "A1" be kicked out of the index? Because let me tell you something: unless your name really is "A1" and you get poured onto steak (or a giant mushroom in my case), choosing that as a business name is inherently manipulative.
Google Has No Good Way to Control Links
Google seems to be exploring all their options.
Manual spam reports? They didn't really work.
Nofollows? We just started manipulating those for our own benefit.
Algorithmic updates designed to penalize sites with spammy link profiles? They sure didn't catch all of them.
Manual penalties? They're being unfairly done at times.
Continually adjusted webmaster guidelines that warn us of all the horrible ways that we could be in violation? With the wording of those warnings, you would be just as well off to never read them if you ever want to build any links or really do anything that has to do with online marketing.
What's left now?
A big public crackdown like we just saw with MyBlogGuest is the perfect example. Before, when these public smacks were done, they were on mostly big sites that didn't scare the common webmaster but when you've done something as simple as agree to put up a guest post out of the MBG community and you get hit with a penalty, maybe you'll think twice before you ever link out again.
So they think.
People will continue to link out. They might be less likely to do it for free though. Whenever there's a big shakeup with links, webmasters are scared. Our response rate on outreach takes a dive every single time. However, within a few weeks, it's all back to normal again. The main difference is that webmasters raise their prices. A few of them will stop selling links, or linking out for whatever reason, but there will always be new sites run by people willing to run the risk in order to make money for the short term.
If we all operate thinking that one day we'll have a problem, we'll get used to that idea and we'll still build links. We'll just hopefully do them more cautiously and with the expectation that one day we might be removing them and starting the whole vicious cycle over again.
If you sell links on your site, maybe you'll learn to stop selling them to totally irrelevant clients. If you buy links, maybe you'll stop trying to get a bulk deal and have your site plastered across 100 low-end sites for $100.
What about the people who do neither though? Will they nofollow any outbound link? If they legitimately link to you and happen to use good anchor text, how nice will they be when you contact them and ask for the link to be removed? Will you have to pay them to do it even when you didn't pay them to put the link up?
Buckle up everyone, as it's going to get uglier, messier, and more of a free for all than ever.