Google has been cracking down on lesser quality content littering its search results a great deal over the past year - probably more than any other time in the search engine's history. Obviously, to those who follow the search industry, the Panda update has been leading the charge in this area.
Google has been de-indexing blog networks that webmasters have essentially been paying to get links. Do you think this will improve Google's results? Share your thoughts in the comments.
One way that content, including some lesser-quality content, has been able to manipulate Google's algorithm is through paid links, and linking "schemes". Google has long had policies against these things, and has not hesitated to penalize sites it busted. See JC Penney and Overstock.com incidents from last year, for a couple of examples (not necessarily the best examples of low quality, but of getting busted). Google even penalized its own Chrome landing page, after paid links set up by a marketing firm were discovered.
Penalties like these can greatly hurt sites. There was talk that Chrome's share of the browser market was impacted by that penalty, and that's Google's own property. Overstock blamed Google for its ugly financials when it reported its earnings earlier this month.
If such penalties can have such an impact on brands like these, think what they could do to lesser-known brands.
Google is now cracking down on blog networks, which have added sites to their networks in exchange for fees. BuildMyRank, in particular has received a lot of attention.
The site posted a message about it recently:
On a daily basis, we monitor our domain network to check metrics like page rank, indexed pages, etc. As with any link-building network, some de-indexing activity is expected and ours has been within a permissible range for the past two years. Unfortunately, this morning, our scripts and manual checks have determined that the overwhelming majority of our network has been de-indexed (by Google), as of March 19, 2012. In our wildest dreams, there’s no way we could have imagined this happening.
It had always been BMR’s philosophy that if we did things a bit different from other networks, we would not only have a better quality service to offer our users, but a longer life in this fickle industry. Sadly, it appears this was not the case.
In case you're not familiar with how BMR actually works, it essentially sells link juice. In the "how it works" section, it explains that the backlinks it helps you build "help add extra link juice and added indexing speed". This comes at prices up to $400/month. Here's their video overview:
Word throughout the SEO community is that other blog networks have been getting de-indexed as well. Meanwhile, webmasters with links from these networks, have been getting messages from Google's Webmaster Tools. SEOmoz shares a message from Google Webmaster Tools that some webmasters have received:
Dear site owner or webmaster of http://example.com/,
We've detected that some of your site's pages may be using techniques that are outside Google's Webmaster Guidelines.
Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.
We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you've made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google's search results.
If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.
If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.
Google Search Quality Team
Is any of this really a surprise? If you're paying a blog network, is this not basically paying for links? The most surprising thing is that sites have been getting away with it for so long, without facing the wrath of Google. That's damn amazing, really.
"Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank," Google says in its Webmaster Guidelines. "In particular, avoid links to web spammers or 'bad neighborhoods' on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links."
It's pretty clear.
Internet marketer Jennifer Ledbetter (otherwise known as PotPieGirl) wrote a fantastic article on this whole ordeal. "Let’s face it and be real," she writes. "We’ve used any of these services, we know exactly WHY we use them, don’t we? We use them to get the in-content links to help our web pages rank better. Yes, we use them to manipulate Google rankings. We all know what we’re doing – we know Google frowns on that (ok, totally HATES that), but we do it anyway. So, please – no whining about how this isn’t 'fair', ok?"
SEOmoz CEO Rand Fishkin had some helpful advice on Twitter:
If you've been affected by Google's recent link penalties, disclosing the details of how you acquired the links can speed up reconsideration
Perhaps this is how webspam intends to fight the more underground/private link manipulation schemes
@LukeyG28 Google's shockingly good at knowing when spam's been built by you vs. others; I wouldn't sweat it.
@randfish getting a reply from the main man awesome! - although I have to disagree, if it's a authority website yes, new website no dm me
@LukeyG28 I tried recently to "bowl" a few small sites out of Google (using some black hat friends' advice/networks) but they stayed fine
@randfish those friends wernt blackhat enough lol. Ive been trialing it on some of my old sites and there dropping like flys.msg me for info
@LukeyG28 Like I said, I suspect there's some footprints of those sites that make G more apt to allow for link penalties
There has been a lot of discussion from webmasters worried that competitors will be able to hurt their sites by posting bad links to their content, and the general consensus, as it has been for years, is that if you get good links, it should counter the bad. Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable points to a quote from Google saying, "Our algorithms are pretty complex, it takes more than a handful of bad links to sway their opinion of a website. Even if Webmaster Tools shows a million links, then that's not going to change things if those links are all ignored for ranking purposes."
According to Google, you really shouldn't be focusing on the number of links you have anyway. Matt Cutts put out a video last week talking about how Google doesn't count a lot of your links.
"I think a lot of people sometimes focus on the low-quality links that a competitor has, and they don’t realize that the vast majority of times, those links aren’t counting,” Cutts said. “So, for example, the New York Times sent us a sample of literally thousands of links that they were wondering how many of these count because they’d gotten it from some third party or other source of links, and the answer was that basically none of those links had counted. And so it’s a little easy for people to get obsessed by looking at the backlinks of their competitors and saying, ‘oh, they’re doing this bad thing or that bad thing.’ And they might not know the good links. And they might not know that a lot of those links aren’t counted at all.”
It's getting to be about time for Google to announce its monthly list of algorithm changes, but in last month's list, one of the changes was "Link Evaluation".
"We often use characteristics of links to help us figure out the topic of a linked page," the company said. "We have changed the way in which we evaluate links; in particular, we are turning off a method of link analysis that we used for several years. We often rearchitect or turn off parts of our scoring in order to keep our system maintainable, clean and understandable."
While links are the foundation of PageRank, it seems to me that links have become less and less important in search visibility altogether. Don't get me wrong. Links matter. Good links are great. Links from sources Google thinks are great are still great, but just having a bunch of inbound links won't get you very far if they're not significant links.
Search visibility these days is much more about who's sharing/discussing your content (especially on Google+), who you are as an author, how fresh your content is, and how in-depth it is compared to your competition. This is of course simplifying things a great deal (Google has over 200 signals), but if you consider these things more than just chasing meaningless links, not only will you likely do better in search, you will avoid getting a destructive penalty from Google.
All of that said, you may be spending too much time obsessing over search in general, and would do better to consider other means' of traffic. How dependent do you really want to be on an ever-changing algorithm? Expanding upon your social strategy is likely to pay off much better, and thankfully, the better you do in social channels, the better you're likely to do in search.
Should Google be penalizing blog/link networks? Are links as important as they once were? Tell us what you think.