Andrew Girdwood

Are evil links coming to get you?

I leapt at the chance to pen a guest post for IonSearch. The original idea was a blog post discussing what’s changed in SEO and the conference scene. Let’s briefly linger on that before getting stuck into the topic du jour – evil links.

A lot remains the same in SEO. I think my first task at bigmouthmedia was drawing large red circles around H1 tags in a website’s source for a design agency that apparently did not understand their own code. I then had to try and justify why adding keywords would be a good idea in terms of ROI. Sadly, that still happens today.

A lot has changed in SEO too. We’re in an era where a large number of signals are looked at by the algorithm. Today’s SEO is a multi-signal world. The conference landscape has changed hugely too; we’ve progressed from nearly amateur meet-ups to professional, large, events that have escaped the confines of London and New York.

A nostalgic post would have been fun to write – but I can’t prove it’s ROI. Instead let’s tackle this week’s hot topic and a likely candidate for SEO buzz for weeks to come. Let’s talk about Unnatural Links.

Google’s become more vocal about asking webmasters to deal with their own unnatural links. That’s to say the search engine is emailing webmasters with notification that unnatural links have been detected and the site has been caught. Webmasters will probably see the rankings slide for related terms within a few weeks and many will be well advised to clean up their link profile.

How do you remove these unnatural links? Often this isn’t very easy.

Unnatural links do not just mean paid for links. They can certainly include links from blogs or blog networks created purely for the purpose of linking to sites. They may also include links from poor quality, perhaps scraper, sites. You might think “Panda!” for that latest category but also cast your mind back a whole year and when Matt Cutts warned the industry off article marketing.

If you’re currently paying an agency for dodgy links and they’ve been caught then the first step is easy – get the agency to fix the problem.

I’d argue that if your current agency either drew Google’s spotlight or failed to provide the sort of multi-signal SEO strategy that shows the algorithm your site might legitimately attract low quality links in among higher quality links then it is the current agency that should try and tidy up the whole link landscape.  That’s the case even if previous agencies have written earlier blog posts that attracted some scraping or produced some articles that were later copied.  There’s certainly no harm in asking the previous agency for help, though.

I appreciate that’s controversial statement but agencies need to offer modern SEO that not only encourages natural links to client sites but also proves to the algorithm why their clients’ sites are fully deserving of – and should be credited with – all those new links.  This includes making sure domains don’t become outliers on the link graph by having far more links than their social signals suggest they should have.

Okay; but what if you are the agency?

Turning off your own networks, if you know they’re poor quality and the sort of thing Google and Bing would object too, should be easy enough. Just check that you don’t have contractual obligations to provide those services to any of your clients though. You don’t want to shut down a blog to save Client X only to find yourself in breach of contract with Client Y.

If you’ve been buying links from bloggers and other site owners then you had better hope you still have good relationships with those site owners and the sites are still being maintained.  In some cases you may have to pay people again to remove links or even offer to buy their entire site.

If it was an SEO manager or Link Builder before your time who bought the link and you no longer have contact with the link seller then try checking with your finance team. They may well have record of payments to people and they may provide addresses. Sometimes a paypal email acknowledgement will do.  These are also emails you can ask the link buying agency to supply to you if you’re working for a white hat agency that’s been employed to clean up the problem.

Failing that you can peer into WHOIS records for information on who owns domains, look for Twitter links or contact forms. Sometimes a public tweet asking for a reasonable favour yields better results than a private email plea that is easy to avoid. Google’s new author markup might also help point back to someone who can control the content and remove your link.

All this goes to show how important relationship building and outreach is in today’s multi-signal SEO world. Although be aware that working with the same small pool of bloggers again and again, time after time, is simply building a virtual link network that Google may well consider the same as a secretly owned private network.

Other options are more extreme and more of a hassle.

If you have scraped content pointing poor quality links at you and Google has classified them as unnatural then you can content the web host and ask for that content be removed due to copyright concerns. Most hosts will comply rather than risk an escalation.

In some cases you might need to cut off a limb in order to save the body. If you can’t stop links pointing at a page then, as a last resort, consider blocking that page via robots.txt or meta. That’s a good way to prove to Google you have no intention of benefiting from “unnatural links” and is a good last step before filing your appeal.

One last check, before you make a reconsideration check, is to double check affiliate activity. If you’re just responsible for a site’s SEO then this might be an area not normally on your radar. However, sometimes affiliate tracking tries to be that extra bit clever and design mechanisms that pass PageRank. You do not want to be playing that game when Google comes to re-evaluate your behaviour.

If you do have an affiliate tracking system that is likely to fail any Google inspection then you need to give your affiliates plenty of time that you will be requiring a change of tracking. However, also make it clear that the old method will be discontinued and will not generate any leads. Save a copy of that instruction email to share with your reconsideration request at Google.

When it comes to make your reconsideration request, after Google has been upset about natural links, keep in mind that Google want to see examples of good faith. In particular, Google wants to make sure you are being open and not trying to cover anything up – being open means naming not only your SEO agency but also their techniques. If you are the SEO agency then this means fessing up and being very clear about where you think you’ve gone wrong, what you’ve done to fix it and what steps you have taken to ensure you won’t make a similar mistake in the future.

Google’s exact words are;

If you used a search engine optimization (SEO) company, please note that. Describing the SEO firm and their actions is a helpful indication of good faith that may assist in evaluation of reconsideration requests.

Let’s go back to my original question. Are evil links coming to get you?

It’s certainly the case that the risk/reward balance has shifted significantly.  Writing on Branded3, Patrick Altoft, write;

All these changes are having a huge impact on SEO agencies that either use their own link networks or outsource link-building to low value foreign providers.

Over on Twitter, Matt Davies, joked that today’s SEO wisdom seems to be to take down ALL the links.

I do actually think that some people may be in a real flutter about their link situation. If you have been engaging in poor link strategies then, yes, you are at risk – but (hopefully) you knew there was a risk last month or even last year. I recommend that you stop.

Some links are just bad. These are often paid links – these are easiest to remove so consider getting that done now.

Other links sit in shades of grey. These are often links from poor quality content – these are the hardest to remove. So, before you signal profile gets too corrupted, start a strong multi-signal approach and show Google why your domain has the profile to attract a wide range of links.  Yes; this certainly means considering some high quality social activities.

By Andrew Girdwood, Media Innovations Director, LBi.

This entry was posted in Guest Blog.
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  1. Martin says:

    Excellent point made there about inheriting an SEO campaign which has previously had bad links built to it by an SEO company. I think this is something which I will be suggesting to potential clients, that they should go back to their previous SEO agency and get them to remove them. I agree 100% that you shouldn’t pay to have links removed, this is a very dangerous area which we as an industry shouldn’t be going down.

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