This year, as you may know, Google has been sending out a whole lot of messages to webmasters about problematic links. People are in a frenzy trying to get rid of links that may or may not be hurting their search engine rankings, and this is a frenzy created by Google. It may not be exactly what Google intended, but it’s happening.
Does Google have you in a frenzy? Let us know in the comments.
Sure, there are plenty of cases where webmasters have engaged in some suspect linking practices, but there are other cases where links appearing around the web are out of webmasters’ control.
The fact is that the web is about links. Links are what make it a web. It was that way before Google existed, and it still is that way. However, Google has become such a dominant force on the Internet, that webmasters who rely on Google traffic must bend over backwards to appease the search giant, or risk losing visibility in the search results.
Competition is just a click away, as Google likes to say, and that’s very true. It is easy for users to simply go to Bing.com or Yahoo.com or any other search engine. But for the most part, people aren’t clicking away. They’re still going to Google. Clearly, Google is doing something right, but it also means webmasters must abide by Google’s rules if they want any significant amount of search traffic.
Google, of course, launched its Penguin update earlier this year, an update that will continue to be refreshed over time. It targets sites that are violating Google’s quality guidelines. But beyond the update, Google is taking the time to send out thousands of emails warning webmasters about links, and in the process is spreading a great deal of confusion.
Google recently began sending out a new batch of the link warnings with a somewhat different twist than the ones people were getting pre-Penguin. Whereas the company’s advice in the past was to pay attention to these warnings, Google was (at first) saying that with these, they were not necessarily something webmasters need to worry about it. But of course webmasters would worry about them.
Google’s Matt Cutts aimed to clear up some of the confusion in a blog post over the weekend.
“When we see unnatural links pointing to a site, there are different ways we can respond,” Cutts said, explaining the original messages. “In many severe cases, we reduce our trust in the entire site. For example, that can happen when we believe a site has been engaging in a pretty widespread pattern of link spam over a long period of time. If your site is notified for these unnatural links, we recommend removing as many of the spammy or low-quality links as you possibly can and then submitting a reconsideration request for your site.”
“In a few situations, we have heard about directories or blog networks that won't take links down,” he added. “ If a website tries to charge you to put links up and to take links down, feel free to let us know about that, either in your reconsideration request or by mentioning it on our webmaster forum or in a separate spam report. We have taken action on several such sites, because they often turn out to be doing link spamming themselves.”
Regarding the newer messages, Cutts said, “In less severe cases, we sometimes target specific spammy or artificial links created as part of a link scheme and distrust only those links, rather than taking action on a site’s overall ranking. The new messages make it clear that we are taking ‘targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole.’ The new messages also lack the yellow exclamation mark that other messages have, which tries to convey that we're addressing a situation that is not as severe as the previous "we are losing trust in your entire site" messages.”
“These new messages are worth your attention,” he said. “Fundamentally, it means we're distrusting some links to your site. We often take this action when we see a site that is mostly good but might have some spammy or artificial links pointing to it (widgetbait, paid links, blog spam, guestbook spam, excessive article directory submissions, excessive link exchanges, other types of linkspam, etc.). So while the site's overall rankings might not drop directly, likewise the site might not be able to rank for some phrases. I wouldn't classify these messages as purely advisory or something to be ignored, or only for innocent sites.”
“On the other hand, I don't want site owners to panic,” he added. “We do use this message some of the time for innocent sites where people are pointing hacked anchor text to their site to try to make them rank for queries like [buy viagra].”
But site owners are panicking. As usual.
OK, we get that Google has its rules, but there is something about the whole thing that doesn’t feel quite right. It’s not necessarily Google’s stance on any particular kind of linking, but that Google, for all intents and purposes, even gets to tell people how they can and can’t link. How they can and can’t build the web.
Sure, sites are free to disregard any of Google’s rules. You’re not going to go to prison for engaging in practices that Google doesn’t like, but if you’re running a business, being ignored by Google can have a tremendous impact on your well-being. For that reason, many businesses feel that that Google has a boot on their neck.
This isn’t a call for government regulation of Google, though many would like to see it (in Europe, Google is already facing it). As I said, I do agree that competition is a click away. Nobody’s forcing people to use Google. They’re just using it because they want to.
But Google could save the web a lot of trouble by handling things differently, or perhaps finding a better way to rank search results, without punishing sites for its own reliance on links.
People are scrambling to have links removed that may or may not even affect their sites in Google. Some of these links are links that people would be happy to have pointing to their sites, but fear of Google’s wrath has them in a frenzy, and they don’t want anything tarnishing their search rankings.
I want to include a few samples of what people are saying in link removal requests. WebProNews parent company iEntry owns a number of directories, none of which have ever accepted payment for listings, and many of which are nofollowed, yet are receiving requests like countless other sites for link removals because of the fear Google has instilled in webmasters. Nevermind that directories have existed since long before Google existed, and that Google seems to be OK with some directories. For that matter, some directories that are getting link removal requests, Google even links to itself from its own search results.
Now, let’s look at some samples.
“We are glad that our website ****.com is Live in your directory. Unfortunately we received a 2 notification letter from Google telling that our website is having unnatural links. Our firm decided to contact all our live links in all web directories and will request to delete it. Please kindly delete this website in your directory. I hope you do understand our concerns.”
This person was glad to be listed, but feels they have to pull out because of Google.
“Thank you so much for your effort to include ******* in your directory. However, due to recent changes in the company's online marketing strategy, I am humbly requesting for the links to be deleted from your database...Really sorry for any inconvenience that this request will cause/may have caused you. Hoping for your consideration and understanding.”
That’s another thing. Google is greatly inconveniencing not only those with links posted, but those who have posted the links. Wouldn’t be easier for Google to just take the actions it feels it needs to, without causing such a stir? This is no doubt costing business a great deal of time and money.
“Unfortunately we're facing an important situation right now and we could really use your help. Our website is currently under a Google penalty - basically that means that Google thinks some of our links are unnatural, and they have pushed our site to the back of their search engine results. We are working with consultants to ensure our site meets Google’s Quality Guidelines, and they have advised us to remove any links that might even appear as if they were paid for. Often, these links were naturally placed and are on great sites, but in an effort to be overly cautious, we need to have them removed anyway.”
"Our main goals is to get back to business and ensure we’re creating the best site and resources for our visitors, but until we get this issue taken care of, we’re at a bit of a standstill...."
Fear of Google is causing people to seek link removal even for naturally placed links on great sites. Naturally placed links on great sites.
“Because some of our sister stores received a Google penalty, we've been working to clean up our backlink profile and want to remove any links that Google may even begin to consider as unnatural or paid. This is absolutely no reflection on the value of your site, and we apologize that it is necessary. However, in an effort to be certain we are complying with changes in Google’s Quality Guidelines, we would be grateful if you could remove the links from your site.”
“May I ask that you remove the link to ********** from your website? We do appreciate that the link on your site may not be causing us any problems however we wish to cover all bases as if we get this reconsideration wrong it will have huge implications on the future success of our SEO efforts.”
So this person appreciates the link that may not even be causing any problems, but just in case, they want the link removed, because of Google.
“We have received a notice from Google regarding presence of links of our website ******** on your website and they have asked us to get them removed, failing which yours & our sites will be penalized in google search, resulting in loss of business for both of us.
“Therefore, you are requested to remove all the links as soon as possible, preferably within 72 hours, and confirm to us so that we can inform Google. It is not a reflection of the quality of your / our website, but only an approach to maintain our respective search engine rankings. Waiting for confirmation of removal from your end.”
Speaking of inconvenience, this person even included a deadline, and still noted that it’s not a reflection of the quality of the site.
“The following site ********* has links on their website without authorisation from anyone in our company linking back to our website. The website owner needs to remove these ASAP. As the registrar you are also seen responsible to ensure the website owner/ domain host they get all links removed, this is infringement of intellectual property.
Then there’s this kind of request. People actually suggesting that linking is somehow an infringement. Linking. You know, that thing that the world wide web is based upon? SEM firms are even advising clients to take such action. Some are advising that clients send cease and desist letters. For linking. Because of Google.
Now, this all may not be exactly what Google had in mind. A lot of people are overreacting, to say the least. But that’s what happens when one company has so much power on the Internet. Not that long ago, you might have thought that the more links out there pointing to your site the better. That’s more paths to your site, and more chances for people to find it, but with so much reliance on Google, people are getting rid of many of those paths for the all important one. Many of the things Google does with regards to how it treats certain kinds of links make a lot of sense, but this kind of madness that has people frantically seeking link removals (and even sites charging for link removals) doesn’t seem great for the web.
It’s understandable that people want to be very careful about not having a negative impact on their search rankings, but this goes to show how much power Google really has over the web, just in its own efforts to try and make its own product better based on its flawed algorithm.
I say flawed algorithm, because it’s not perfect. That’s not to say it isn’t as good as or better than competitors’ algorithms. There’s no perfect way to rank web content. If there is, nobody to my knowledge, has implemented it yet.
When Google started, PageRank and links were a revolutionary way to rank search results, and there’s no question that they have an important place today. However, it seems like Google is indirectly reconstructing the web by sending out all of these messages to webmasters, who will essentially act as pawns in the process of making Google’s own search results better (which may or may not even actually happen). It does suggest that Google is relying on webmasters just as much as webmasters are relying on Google. Perhaps even more so. What would happen to the quality of search results if no webmasters abided by Google’s rules? It’s an interesting scenario to consider, no matter how unlikely. People fear Google too much not to obey the rules. Those who don’t obey are punished one way or another.
Unfortunately, it’s entirely possible, at this point, that obeying the rules is out of webmasters’ control, as long as negative SEO is able to exist, which Google seems to have recently acknowledged that it is.
Google did recently indicate that it is working on a way for users to tell Google which links they want it to ignore, and webmasters/SEOs will certainly be happy when it gets here, but why doesn’t Google simply ignore the links it decides are problematic, without making webmasters jump through hoops? To some extent, Google seems to be taking the action it deems appropriate on certain links (as in the subject of this most recent round of messages), but people are still getting messages, and Google is still taking it upon itself to dictate which links on the World’s web are valuable, and which are not.
Google clearly still sees links as an incredibly important signal in ranking content, hence the company’s emphasis on penalizing any manipulation of them.
“I don’t doubt that in ten years, things will be more social, and those will be more powerful signals, but I wouldn’t write the epitaph for links quite yet,” Matt Cutts recently said at SMX Advanced.
Smart site owners find ways to diversify their traffic, so they don’t have to rely so much on Google for traffic. Social media has been a godsend for a lot of business, and the landscape continues to change rapidly. Even Google itself is doing some interesting things to change how we find and consume information, which may actually make search less crucial. We are living in interesting times, indeed. In the meantime, however, it appears that a great deal of the web will bend over backwards to appease Google, as to not be punished for what Google doesn’t like.
Are you sore from all of that bending yet? Let us know in the comments.