In the past 6 weeks Google has made more changes that directly affect the SEO industry than at any point in the past 8 years. We all remember huge updates such as Vince in 2009, Florida in 2003 and Panda in 2011 but the Unnatural Link update of March 2012 is bigger for the mainstream SEO industry than any of these.
Historically the major Google updates have focussed more on certain kinds of websites rather than directly taking action against tactics that sites have been utilising. For example the Vince update moved lots of brands to the top of the rankings and there really wasn’t very much anybody could do about it – you are either a brand or you aren’t and becoming a brand is a much bigger project than can be influenced by SEO.
Likewise the Panda update was about reducing visitors to sites deemed as being low quality by Google. This was again about the actual usefulness and uniqueness of the content on the site rather than the specific SEO strategy that the site had chosen. Certainly most well-known brands in the UK didn’t suffer from major problems with Panda.
The Unnatural Link update works in direct contrast to previous updates because it penalises websites purely based on the link strategy they have chosen to adopt and it has caused huge problems for the sites that are affected.
Since we blogged about the unnatural link notices that Google has sent to almost 1 million websites in the past few months the we’ve had loads of people getting in touch with Branded3 to ask for our advice on dealing with the issue and as a result we have analysed over 50 reputable websites who have received the message and/or a direct penalty causing a reduction in rankings.
Based on this experience we have observed the following:
- If you get this message in your Webmaster Tools account then it is likely that the site will receive a penalty within weeks
- We have seen several instances where the penalty was given exactly 21 days after the link notice
- Strangely we have also had people contact us with a penalty and no link notice. Sometimes the link notice followed after the penalty
- The penalty is usually phrase based – sites lose rankings for all keywords related to the ones used in the anchor text of the links Google has identified as being “unnatural”
- The penalty is too sharp to be purely link devaluation – in most cases the landing pages being hit fall lower than they would rank with no links at all
- For the worst offenders the penalty can be sitewide
Google has indicated that the message about unnatural links isn’t due to a larger crackdown but the wording of their comment is misleading. The correlation between the unnatural links message and sites losing rankings for the keywords that they have been building lots of unnatural links to is too high for the events to be unrelated. The new algorithm is finding the unnatural links, alerting you to them and then penalising your site for the keywords found in those unnatural links.
By conducting analysis across the sites that have contacted us we have a unique insight into what Google has been identifying and we have summarised this into a the list below.
- Commercial Link Networks – if you use a link-building product with a name then it’s likely that this product has already been wiped out or is a target for Google in the near future. They have already de-indexed tens of thousands of websites on networks such as Build My Rank and most of the other well-known tools and systems.
- Agency Link Networks – we have spoken to several well-known SEO agencies who use their own blog networks to build links exclusively for clients and some are reporting mass de-indexing by Google across thousands of sites. This shows that Google has the technology to identify the networks without relying on creating accounts and using the products like some suspected they were doing with services such as Build My Rank. This hasn’t been widely reported but it’s clear that Google knows about these networks and they are a target for elimination.
- Sidebar Links – if you have lots of sidebar links these are a big red flag to Google. Take them down.
- Anchor Text – Tim Grice, Head of Search at Branded3, posted about this recently and then Google confirmed things early in April. The way that Google evaluates anchor text has changed and sites with lots of keyword anchor text are more at risk of a penalty and/or link devaluation.
- Sites That Have Become Toxic – sometimes a link can be placed on an average site and 12 months later the site owner has decided to sell dozens of links and paid posts every month to unrelated sites. The site has turned from a good link source into a toxic site and the link needs to be removed.
Google is asking people to clean up the bad links but just how easy is that? By far the best route is to contact the agency or link-builders who placed the links in the first place. They will know who to contact and how to get these links removed.
If this isn’t possible then you can manually email all the sites via contact details or the whois information and request that the link is removed. This is a very time consuming process and will only work for sites that have a real person answering emails and managing the site.
The really low quality sites won’t have any method of contacting them so there is no way to remove the link. As yet Google has not provided a satisfactory method of dealing with this problem however we hope that they will allow sites to request that links are ignored at some stage in the future via Webmaster Tools.
When contacting sites make sure that you ask who placed the link so that you can get in touch with the link-builder directly. We had a case 2 weeks ago where we were removing links placed by a UK agency and found that they had outsourced the work to a member of the Digital Point forums. He admitted to placing links across 600 domains and was happy to remove them for a fee – this dramatically sped up the link clean-up process.
We have heard several reports where a site has requested reconsideration before they have managed to remove all the bad links and this has generated a reply from Google to say that the links are still live. In most of these reports the site was penalised within a week.
Don’t bother asking for reconsideration until you have made every effort possible to remove your low quality links. You can link to a Google Docs file showing all the low quality links that you have removed and ask them to ignore the links that have no contact details and you are unable to do anything about.
The Agency Business Model
All these changes are having a huge impact on SEO agencies that either use their own link networks or outsource link-building to low value foreign providers. If Google devalues or de-indexes all these links then the agency will really struggle to deliver results for the client especially if the fees being charged are not enough for the agency to conduct the sort of good quality content production and link outreach that meets Googles guidelines.
Some agencies are already reporting large numbers of messages in their client’s accounts about unnatural links. I’ve spoken to several who are admitting privately to over 30 clients receiving the messages and some are reporting a lot more than that.
Short Term Rankings
In the past year we have been seeing “here today gone tomorrow” websites spending less and less time at the top of Google before they are detected. Previously a site might build spam links and rank for a year, now the timescale is more like 3 months.
Site owners need to understand that there is no point in getting rankings in 3 months if those rankings disappear 6 months later. If you want to build a long term business then you have to adopt a strategy that delivers top rankings that will stay for the long term even if this takes longer to show results in the short term.
Performance Based SEO
Some agencies offer agreements where they get paid once they deliver results and this can work well for both the agency and the client assuming that an intelligent contract is setup.
The problem now is that with Google more actively penalising websites for historic spam links an agency might take on a client and suddenly the client loses rankings through no fault of the current agency.
When talking to potential clients every agency needs to evaluate the current link profile and be aware that if Google penalises due to historic links this might cause targets to be missed. Certainly taking on a performance based contract for a site with anything other than a squeaky clean link profile isn’t a commercially sound decision.