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Understanding Google’s Latest Assault On Unnatural Links

Understanding Google’s Latest Assault On Unnatural Links

By Eric Ward on August 13, 2013 (Updated 2/22/17, originally written for SearchEngineLand)

Without much fanfare or publicity, Google quietly updated the Link Schemes/Unnatural Links document inside the Webmaster Tools section of their site last month.


If not for the excellent work of Barry Schwartz, many of us would have missed it. (I have a page change tool app set up for that exact URL, and it didn’t catch it for several days.)

Since this news hit the mainstream linking/SEO community, there’s been no shortage of reporting on the changes themselves, with nearly 6,000 results for the exact match search phrase “google updates link schemes.” The Web is certainly a remarkable echo chamber, considering this news is less than three weeks old as I write.

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What is harder to find — and what I’m going to take a stab at — is further parsing the specific Google changes in a way that helps define what is and isn’t acceptable at the tactical level.

I don’t do this as a spokesperson for Google. I have no secret insider info, and I base everything that follows on experience and opinion. As I enter my 23rd year as an online marketer/content publicist, I figure I must have learned at least two or three things during that time.

Links To Manipulate PageRank
What Google Said

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.

Why It’s Frustrating.

“Intended.” “May be considered.” With just 4 words, Google has left themselves plenty of wiggle room — and with good reason. The key issue for all of us is, how does one divine intent? It is quite possible to engage in a link building campaign that was not designed to manipulate PageRank but which has that exact effect — so how exactly can an algorithm know if you meant to do it on purpose?

What I Think/Tactical Response

My hunch is that the history of your inbound link profile will show whether you are purposely involved in link schemes or not.

A good metaphor here would be a college transcript. If you were a C student for three years and suddenly pulled a 4.0 your senior year, that tells a story about you as a person, at least academically. Similarly, if your site has a four-year history of backlinks from article farms, hundreds of mindless directories, and 10 different press release sites, then doesn’t that also tell a story about your site? I think so.

But no story is ever complete without a full examination of all aspects of a person (or a website). That’s why I think Google has to leave some wiggle room. The same exact anchor text press release strategy can have completely different effects for two different sites, based on their historical “link story.” The only proof I have of this are the stories from people I’ve consulted with who have used the exact same tactic and had completely different results. When I dig deeper into their backlink profiles, there’s always something there that tips me off. Something that looks a little right, or wrong.

From a tactical standpoint, you obviously should avoid pursuing links based on PageRank alone. One of my favorite questions to ask myself about ANY link I am pursuing is, “Would I want this link even if it didn’t help me rank higher?” Asked another way, “Can this link help me in ways other than just organic rank?” A larger part of your linking strategy should be the pursuit of links that fit these criteria.

Buying Or Selling Links
What Google Said

Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link

Why It’s Frustrating

Your average webmaster is likely not an SEO expert and thus may not be aware of what “PageRank” is — or how it’s passed.

What I Think/Tactical Response

Again, it’s all in the interpretation. Google is pretty clear about paid links that pass PageRank. The complication lies in the fact that many webmasters don’t have a clue what PageRank is.

Case in point: I was seeking links for an aviation website and identified a state aviation association that had an outstanding and heavily curated collection of aviation resources. If you had a high caliber aviation website, you could be included for free — but they also allowed you to pay a $50 fee to have your site included in a special “Featured Sites” section.

In talking further with them, many things became apparent. They had absolutely no clue what nofollow/follow meant. The term “anchor text” was foreign to them. They weren’t experts at SEO, they were aviators — and they weren’t selling links in order to help people rank sites higher at Google.

At first I was skeptical, but the more I talked to them and the more I steered the conversation toward SEO, the more obvious it became to me that they were not aware that, from a technical standpoint, what they were doing was a violation of Google’s Quality Guidelines.

In fact, I think many of us are so tightly enmeshed in this industry that we forget how many millions of websites exist and are maintained by people who have no clue about the minutiae of Google’s guidelines. In this case, the guy running the site was a pilot, and wouldn’t know a nofollow link from a windsock.

From a tactical standpoint, you must ask yourself if the risk of obtaining any link via any form of payment outweighs the reward. If Google did not exist, and you were paying for a link, the only logical reason for doing so would be because you felt that link would send you click traffic. That should be your guide. If Matt Cutts was looking over your shoulder as you purchased the link, could you explain to him why it has nothing to do with rank and everything to do with audience relevance?

Link Exchanges
What Google Said…

Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking

Why It’s Frustrating

Once again, we’re left with some ambiguity. What precisely constitutes “excessive” in this case? And how does Google determine that an exchange is done “exclusively” for any particular purpose?

What I Think/Tactical Response

I’d like to know how Google defines “excessive” in this case. After all, there are many scenarios in which link exchanges would make absolutely perfect business sense. For example, let’s say you are a wedding planner in Atlanta, Georgia. You have partnerships with caterers, photographers, DJs, limousine companies, florists, entertainment companies, movers, cello players, harpists… even seamstresses and unicyclists, for all we know!

In what way would it not make sense for all these business websites to link to one another as a means of helping each other raise awareness of their individual companies? Forget Google, we’re talking marketing. Awareness. Click traffic.

This is what’s frustrating about ambiguous words like “excessive.” At what point should I stop partnering? How about hot air balloon companies? I’ve seen weddings that had them. What about boat charter companies, for those who want a wedding at sea? Or at a museum, or on top of a mountain?

The point here is, how does an algorithm determine that which is excessive from that which is excellent marketing? Again, is it historical linking behavior? But what if that wedding planner had been using a black hat SEO firm and for several years had been engaging in foolish linking tactics that had been detected by Google, but now was working with me on a completely different, white hat approach that was not for Google search rank, but for brand awareness and expansion? Can Google detect this? I sure hope so.

From a tactical standpoint, my suggestion is that reciprocal links can be very useful, but don’t reciprocal link with unrelated business for search rank purposes. Don’t expect Google to understand why a wedding photographer, SCUBA instructor and dulcimer player are related, even though we can likely envision a scenario where they actually are related.

Article Marketing & Guest Posting
What Google Said…

Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links

Why It’s Frustrating

What exactly is “large-scale” here?

What I Think/Tactical Response

Let’s say I have a client create a fantastic article/ebook designed to help hearing-impaired high school seniors understand their unique college financial aid options. I then do outreach to a few hundred high schools and pick up 75 links as a result. Is that too “large-scale”? Or is it only a problem if I am submitting to the many article databases designed just for that purpose?

Is it based on anchor text and links? Can I submit an article to 5,000 venues as long as I don’t embed a keyword rich anchor anywhere, but instead include a plain text link in my bio? I’ve written over 100 articles for Search Engine Land, and a link to my site is in the bio of every one of those pages. Is that “large-scale”?

From a tactical standpoint, my suggestion is that you avoid completely all mass/general submission venues for articles. There’s no value left there IMO. But don’t ignore the opportunities that going vertical can present, like my ebook example above.

As for guest posting, this tactic all boils down to two key questions. 1) Why are you doing it? (Search rank? Traffic?), and 2) How credible are both the guest poster and the blog on which the post will reside.

I’ve never done a guest blog post and probably won’t, but one deal-breaker for me would be if a blog is actively marketing guest blogging opportunities. The words “Blog For Us” has become a red flag for me. I’d look at the caliber of all the contributors, the topics of their content. You could write the most elegant guest post in history, but if that same blog follows up your guest post with one about cheap Canadian pharmacies, well, oops.

Automated Linking
What Google Said…

Using automated programs or services to create links to your site

Why It’s Frustrating

Do partially automated tasks count? How can Google tell?

What I Think/Tactical Response

Lastly, Google states “automated programs or services to create links.” But automated in what way? If I write 50 individual email link requests that are all 100 % personalized, and then save them in my outbox and use Thunderbird’s “Send Later” scheduler, isn’t that technically automated? Yes, but it’s not the kind of automation I believe Google is referring to.

From a tactical standpoint, my belief is there are many elements of the link seeking process that can be automated safely, and many others that cannot. Prospecting can be automated, though you should still augment it with your own research. Contact tracking and follow up is easy to automate. Identifying the proper contact person who can make a decision? That should not be automated.

Much of this is common sense. We all know when someone is playing us for a link and trying to make it look “personal.” Yet, people still try. Would you believe that in 18 years and thousands of link requests, I have never once sent an email unless I had the name of the person I was sending it to. A “Dear Webmaster,” or even “Dear Sir or Madam” is an automatic delete. Just because something can be automated does not mean it should be automated

Obvious, Or Not?

Some of what I’ve written above is definitely food for thought, but at the same time some of it seems quite obvious. But I assure you, it isn’t as obvious to many folks outside the SEO world, and that’s the overwhelming majority of site owners. They have no idea about the various monthly changes Google makes and what they mean.

Many operate solo, while some are at the mercy of an SEO shop or consultant to help them — and they’re often shocked to find out they have done something that perhaps they shouldn’t have. I know this to be so because I talk on the phone every day to people about these very topics.

Confusion is the norm. Fear. Especially for those who have been penalized and don’t know why, or who have just learned about a linking strategy and aren’t sure if it’s safe or will cost them their business.

I admit to being a Google fanboy, and I applaud Google for being more and more transparent with their guidelines. For giving people examples of bad links, for updating their Unnatural Links and Link Schemes documentation.

But even with this welcomed transparency, there is confusion, and perhaps even more confusion now than ever, based on my inbox. The devil is always in the details — in this case, in those few words sprinkled here and there that leave so much room for interpretation, and in mistakes with linking strategies. How would you define these words?

  • Intended
  • May be considered
  • Excessive
  • Exclusively
  • Large-scale
  • Widely distributed
  • Automated
  • Low-quality

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with me that Google has to leave wiggle room because there could be exceptions? What would/should those exceptions be similar to the ones I’ve mentioned above? What else could Google do to help us?

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