Unnatural Links & Google’s Penguin Update

April 27, 2012

Google Penguin as it affects Link Building
On April 24, 2012 Google implemented an algorithm update, part of which turned up the heat on low level link building. While there are many components to the update, links are part of it and that’s where I will focus this article. In the past Google has tried to ignore low level links but the truth of the matter is that dampening the influence of these kinds of links has had limited effect. The Penguin Update, as I understand it, is about applying the underlying idea of Panda to SEO. Where Panda was focused on content that did not meet basic and reasonable criteria of being useful, Penguin focuses on site optimization, including link building, that appears to go beyond what Google feels is a reasonable threshold. Prior to these recent series of algorithm updates that have been rolling out this year, Google sent out thousands of notices to users of Webmaster Tools advising site publishers to remove unnatural links found in their backlink profile. I will note some top forms of unnatural links that you may have to take a look at. 

I have been to several Internet Marketing conferences where  people discussed the poor link building practices they employ on behalf of their clients. Some of these SEO companies are servicing name brand billion dollar clients. Others have tens of thousands of clients paying them a small monthly retainer to essentially spam on their behalf. I really can’t believe these guys even brag about what they do to their clients. You would think that they would keep quiet about their bad practices.  Here is a list of ethical lapses and unnatural link building practices I have observed that you should look out for:

1. Understand what link building is being done for you
Just because a company has prestigious clients does not mean your link building program is safe. I just got spammed by a London based company whose website name-drops billion dollar brands you may recognize. I won’t name them though. The point is that it is important to do your homework before engaging a company with prestigious clients. Just because a company has prestigious clients does not mean their work is above spam.

Some companies like to say they have nothing to hide and that’s why they name drop. And those companies may indeed have nothing to hide or be ashamed of.  However, be aware that name dropping at conferences and websites is one of the oldest marketing tactics and that it actually precedes SEO and the Internet. It’s easier to do than building a repuation online and certainly easier than ranking in the SERPs. The way it works is they do a little work for a big name brand then add their name to their “Past Clients” page to parlay that into similar clients. When you see names like Etsy, Google Chrome, JC Penney and eBay on a company’s site, the assumption is that they must be legit. Big names attract more big names. It’s a marketing tactic.

Name dropping is not a sign of a poor quality company. There are many high quality companies who brag about their past clients. I’m simply pointing out that companies who brag about past clients are using their past clients for marketing purposes and if you see a big name client on a presentation slide, you as a potential client, must be aware that you are being marketed to and not take it at face value that what they are doing is safe. Don’t jump in line Soviet-style because everyone else is jumping in line. The most common mistake is to discuss minimum PageRank thresholds and the quantity of links. Instead, inquire about what kinds of links they are obtaining, ask for a general description of their link building methodology, what control they have over the links, if the links are paid for, and the associated risk level is for those kinds of links.

2. Forum and Comment Spam
Anytime the topic of the efficacy of forum and comment spam is brought up at a conference or in a forum grumbles ensue from both sides of the white hat/black hat aisle.  One thing to keep in mind is that one of the yardsticks search quality engineers use to determine whether a link is spam or not is to identify whether the link is freely given and that an editorial decision has been made to grant the link. Many low quality link builders are forum and blog comment spammers. If you apply that test to forum spam, you have to be able to honestly answer whether a moderator’s inaction to remove a link drop equates to a freely given link and an editorial decision. I understand that for many the most important consideration is whether a link helps rank a site and this question doesn’t matter. But for those who are in it for the long term, the question is important. Find out if your link builder is employing this tactic and make the decision of whether it’s a good fit for your business.

3. Controlled social content
Another common strategy that could negatively affect rankings is selling links from sites that the company has direct control of. These involve social content type sites where the content is hosted on well known social content sites and blogs then interlinked. Somone is being paid to link to your site and in this case it’s the SEO company itself.

4. Third party projects
The third and popular method a so-called link builder employs is by providing links through paid third party arrangements. This is a popular and effective method for ranking where the company makes private arrangements with thousands of web publishers to sell link inventory from their sites.  The upside for this method is that it’s a model that works for ranking websites, is fairly discrete and in the past it has been difficult for the search algorithms to detect. That’s why it is popular. It’s not link building though, it’s a form of link buying. The downside is that the model collapses about once every two to three years although during the boom between the busts a lot of money is earned by the clients.  But it’s not for everyone. If the idea of burning your current site/s and starting over sounds scary, then it might not be for you.

5. Straight up paid links
Believe it or not, some marketing companies still round up links the old fashioned way by relying on third party brokers. My question about this method is, why pay someone to shop at the link brokers on your behalf?  It’s not just a cost consideration, either. The client doesn’t always know that the links they are receiving are being purchased through a link broker. This is a strategy I have seen used for sites that are perceived to be “too big to fail” since the big brand site has so much link equity that the bad links don’t move the ranking needle either up or down.

6. Looking natural
Those are the major areas to focus on. Beyond that are the more granular considerations such as the rate of acquisition, anchor text, WordPress theme links, abundance of directory links,  and so on. Any and all links that are not given as an act of editorial decision are suspect. This test of whether a link was freely given is important because the goal of Penguin is to identify activity that lies outside of the bounds of normal. While “looking natural” has been a goal of SEOs for many years, Google has not done a good job at ignoring unnatural links, much less penalizing them. As a consequence SEOs have come up with questionable percentages of anchor text and rates of acquisition targets.

With Penguin the importance of looking natural gets dialed up. While I’m not convinced Penguin is catching all of it, I also don’t fault it because I don’t believe at this time it’s possible for an algorithm to catch it all. Nevertheless Penguin is a step in the direction of using what Google learned with Panda in relation to content and the user experience and applying those principles to how a site is optimized.

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