What If The Google Penguin Update Inadvertently Killed The Web As We Know It?

    May 26, 2012
    Chris Crum

Note: Perhaps the headline of this article is a little sensational, but don’t overlook the “what if” part. I’m not suggesting Google has some plot to kill the web. However, many businesses rely on Google and people are freaking out about backlinks. Some are going so far as to threaten legal action if links are not removed. Links. If such legal action ever resulted in the outlawing of links in any capacity, the web as we know it could be put into great jeopardy. People would be afraid to link. I don’t think Google intends for anything like that to happen, but people don’t always respond to things in the most rational of ways. I don’t believe we will see links outlawed, or that the Penguin update will kill the web. However, reactions to Google penalties are leading to some pretty strong actions from some.

Google has said on multiple occasions that it thinks the Penguin update has been a success. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

PageRank And The Web

WWW, as you may know, stands for World Wide Web. It’s a web because it it’s connected by links. Sites all over the web link to one another, creating a path for users to click from page to the next. Often those pages are to different sites. This is the way it has worked for years. Just think what it would be like if sites couldn’t freely link to one another. The web would be broken, and users would suffer.

When Google launched with its PageRank algorithm, it was a revolution in search. It seemed to be a better way of doing search. It gave a rhyme and reason to the ranking of search results. Today, Google uses over 200 signals to rank its search results, which are becoming more personalized than ever before. PageRank still matters, but it’s far from the only thing that matters.

Yet, it is PageRank that has given links on the web so much power to influence the visibility of web content. Now that just about everyone is on the web, everyone is fighting to have their content seen. Once upon a time, you would have thought: the more links the better. More links can only lead to more chances people will see your content. Now, somewhat ironically, people are finding that that the links they have out there are making their content less visible. In some cases, they’re making it practically non-existent in Google, or at least so buried, it might as well be non-existent.

Freak Out Time?

Google’s Penguin update has been a major wake up call to webmasters about certain kinds of linking practices. The update was designed to target sites violating Google’s quality guidelines. Among those guidelines are: “Don’t participate in link schemes” and “Avoid hidden text or hidden links.”

Some of Google’s guidelines are obvious – avoid obviously unethical practices. But in the link schemes department, things can get a little blurry. Just ask WPMU.org, which got hit by Penguin over a few questionable links (interestingly enough, after seemingly benefiting from Google’s Panda update, designed to reward higher quality sites).

A lot of webmasters have taken to the forums and blogs to complain about the Penguin update, but Google has, on more than on occasion, deemed the update a success. We’ll also be seeing it come back around every so often, much like its Panda predecessor.

Even before Penguin, Google was sending out tons of messages to webmasters alerting them of questionable links. All of this has gotten webmasters in to a frenzy to clean-up their link profiles, and reduce the number of links Google considers to be of poor quality, in hopes that their content can find its way back into Google search visibility.

Legal Action Over Links?

Some webmasters have even gone so far as to threaten legal action over sites that are linking to them. We referenced this in another article after Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable mentioned that this was happening. Now, Greg Finn at Search Engine Land has pointed to a specific example where PSKL got a DMCA take down notice from LifeShield, after writing a positive review.

Now, to be clear, this DMCA takedown notice is not in reference to any content theft or content use. It’s about links. It threatens legal action. It says:

I request you to remove from following website (pskl.us)
all links to www.lifeshield.com website as soon as possible.
In order to find the links please do the following:
1) If this is an online website directory, use directory’s search system to find “LifeShield” links.
2) If there are hidden links in the source code of website, open website’s main page and view its source code. Search for “lifeshield.com” in the source code and you will see hidden links.

It also says:

LifeShield, Inc will be perusing legal action if the webmaster does not remove the referenced link within 48 hours.

Jeremy at PSKL actually shares the entire conversation around the matter, which did include an apology, indicating that PSKL shouldn’t have been on the list of sites that received a notice. Jeremy, however, took issue that there was a list of sites getting such notices. Throughout the conversation, it is revealed that LifeShield had a site “cloak lifeshield and generate over 700K back links” without LifeShield’s knowledge, and that “Google stepped in and slapped” them with a penalty, which led to layoffs at the company.

Jeremy responded with, “So you’re saying that somebody went out and bought 700K back links for you, knowing that it would get you penalized by Google? So does that mean you had (Company name) send out 700K DMCA notices? Talk about throwing good money after bad. Report the linkspam to the spam team at Google, then spend that money on an SEO expert rather than on trying to bully people with intimidation.”

The response was actually longer than that, and included the metaphor of putting out a house fire with manure, but that was the main gist.

I suggest reading Jeremy’s entire post. It’s pretty interesting.

Is This Where The Web Should Go?

He does make another important point in this: A party creating large quantities of backlinks to a site in order to generate SEO (or, in this case, destroy SEO) is unethical. It is not illegal.

While many may not have a problem with such practices becoming illegal, it’s the idea that the law could intervene with linking in any form that could lead to greater problems. Just consider all fo the gray area there already is in fair use law. There will always be different interpretations, and that can get dangerous.

For the record (granted, I’m no lawyer), I wouldn’t expect any legal action, such as that threatened in LifeShield’s DMCA notice to hold much water in a court of law. Finn also points to two cases (Ford Motor Company v. 2600 Enterprises) and (Ticketmaster Corp. v. Tickets.com, Inc.), where the legality of linking prevailed.

But even if things like this have to go to court, it’s going to be a major inconvenience, and legal fees will have to be paid. If sites practicing legitimate, ethical linking habits get caught up in this, where will that leave the web?

Is this what linking on the World Wide Web will become? Will you have to worry about getting sued because you linked to a site, and that site may or may not find your site to be a strong enough site to desire a link from? Could you get sued because your page didn’t have a high enough PageRank, and not enough link juice to help the site you’re linking to in its search engine visibility?

LifeShield seems to be targeting some very specific webspam, but sending out notices to a whole list of sites. It’s likely that LifeShield isn’t the only company panicing and resorting to such action. It’s unfortunate, for the company if some negative SEO (it’s unclear if this was from a competitor) was able to have such an impact on its business, as Jeremy suggests, this may not be the best way of trying to resolve the issue.

Let’s Give Google Some Credit.

You can point to Google’s guidelines and its algorithm updates, which clearly do cause some to think this way, but just the same, Google can’t be held entirely to blame for this kind of mentality either. The company has said in the past that people shouldn’t obsess with PageRank, and that it uses over 200 signals to rank content. PageRank is not the only thing that matters. In fact, the company puts out huge lists of signal changes every month.

It shows the power over society that Google really holds though. It shows how much businesses rely on Google search that they will go so far as to threaten sites that are simply linking to them with legal action.

Should such legal action ever lead to a victory in court, that could mean very bad news for the Web as we know it, and people could be afraid to link. I would imagine that would spawn more issues of sites not getting the credit (and possible referral traffic) they deserve.

Do you think Google’s guidelines and penalties can have an influence on the law? Now that would be power, and made even more ironic still, by the fact that Google is constantly under scrutiny of its own.

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image: Batman Returns (Warner Bros.)


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.