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Risky Link Building Practices

Rewind SEO’s Encyclopedia of Risky Links

NOTE: Use the quick navigation bar on the right to skip to a specific link type  ->>> 

This page lists link types, uses, and patterns that make up the most the most common causes for Google Penalties in 2014. It can serve as a rough do-it-yourself penalty diagnoses guide of your penalized or at-risk site to determine broad penalty causes or impending risks. The information is equally valuable for screening SEO services or backlink packages to determine how risky they could be for your site. Though keep in mind that many SEO services will be using the more risky links on second and third link tiers that will be considerably safer than pointing directly at the site. 

The intent of this guide is that even if you are a laymen with little understanding of SEO strategies or concepts, you can still get a good idea about the causes of a penalty or impending risks. Obviously an analysis on this scale is NOT a substitute for a comprehensive penalty assessment which will be necessary for an accurate disavow. Depending on the penalty and links, you may also need to follow up a disavow with a backlink removal project which we can also provide.

Triggers for Google Penalties

Penguin Analysis

The following list contains the common link types, uses, and patterns that trigger algorithm penalties and sometimes incur manual webspam penalties like ‘unnatural links’. Note that these are general rules where you should be thinking about the link profile as a whole, not individual links. A few risky links won’t matter in an otherwise strong organic looking link profile but when these link types and patterns are used at scales where it becomes a significant proportion of the links, these are the most common causes of penalties we see.

To skip to a specific section or link type, use the quick navigation box in the top right sidebar of the page.

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Commercial Anchor Over-Optimization

Unsafe anchor text distribution is a common penalty trigger and the first thing you should check for, particularly for Penguin recovery. It involves over-optimized anchor text ratios for one or more exact match keywords. It is particularly common for commercial keywords (AKA ‘money’ keywords). We commonly find this problem with sites that have used cheap automated link building services that only allow a few different keywords, and also older link profiles that have experienced long-term penalties. Over optimized anchor text ratios are prime targets for Google Penguin and can easily be fixed or greatly improved with careful application of the Google Disavow tool. Additional improvements can be achieved with carefully diversified link building.
General Penguin-Safe Anchor Text Guidelines:

  Anchors with ranking keywords (AKA ‘money keywords’) should ideally be making up less than half the link profile. Higher percentages do not guarantee a penalty but do put the site at higher risk.

  No single anchor text keyword or phrase except brand name and naked URL(s) should be over 10% of the total link profile. Money keywords should be under 5%.

‣  Exact money keywords should be mixed with other related keywords as well as natural phrases that include those keywords.

‣  Keyword+natural phrase and keyword+brand name anchor variations should approach similar numbers or even exceed exact-match keyword anchors. It is still extremely rare for low-budget SEO services to even include ANY of these anchors.

‣  If the brand name is also an exact-match ranking keyword it should be treated much more carefully as if it is a ranking keyword and not a brand.

‣  15% – 30% naked URLs (url address with no anchor phrase) is safe and natural. This is very important for safe SEO and Penguin recovery projects.

‣  15% – 30% generic anchor text like ‘click here’, ‘home page’ and ‘learn more’ is safe and natural. Again, very important for safe SEO and Penguin update recovery.

‣  When in doubt, SEO analyze the 3 top ranking competitors in the site’s niche next to your own site’s link profile. Compare ratios of the different anchor text types and try to match their levels.

Because anchor text ratios (and link types) naturally vary across different sectors of the internet, the best way to determine normal and safe anchor text ratios is always a competitor analysis. However, generalized ‘all purpose’ guidelines similar to what we have just summarized are listed below from Geoff Kenyon’s excellent case study via Moz:

Anchor distribution for penguin update recovery

Generalized Safe Anchor Type Distributions – these ratios are rough guidelines and can vary considerably from the listed values.   For example, not every site will have or need a brand name.

[ugly red text alert!!!] 

We cannot emphasize enough how significant it is to use safe ratios for anchor text, particularly exact commercial keywords and keyword phrases! This is almost 100% a common denominator across every algorithm penalty to date and most manual action penalties as well. It is almost certainly the single most significant contributing factor to receiving a penalty. If you want to be completely safe, just don’t use money keywords at all for any follow links!

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Deindexed Domains

Deindexed domains have been completely removed from Google’s search index, usually for penalty reasons. Needless to say, these links provide no positive SEO value and are usually a risk. Links from deindexed domains will accumulate much more rapidly sites that used ‘SEO only’ type backlinks. In older high-risk link profiles, the numbers of deindexed domains can end up being very significant. Such sites may have well over 50% of their linking domains deindexed and penalized in Google. This in turn can trigger a penalty due to poor link quality.

Such links are prime candidates for a Google disavow list but can be nearly impossible to remove manually due to their webmasters essentially abandoning the sites until they expire.

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Sitewide Links – Header, Sidebar and Footer Links

After Penguin 2.0, mass site wide links over-optimzed with money keywords appeared to be the single most common cause of new algorithm penalties for our penalized clients at Rewind. These sitewide links suddenly became THE common denominator in nearly 75% of our analyses at Rewind SEO. The rank losses ranged from minor SERP drops of 1-2 pages which could just be link devaluation, up to severe SERP losses almost off the radar. In short, large scale sitewide links with money keywords are an extreme risk!

I do recommend sitewide links be nofollow but do not discount the legitimate dofollow site wide backlinks. If your business uses sitewide backlinks, you should definitely take a look at our detailed case studies on the exact reasons these links get penalized and how you can avoid these penalties without losing your links.

For much much more info on these header, footer, and sidebar links, see our detailed case studies and review on safe and risky uses of sitewide links.

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General Web Directories

General link directories, also called web directories, or sometimes self-proclaimed as “SEO friendly directories” are a long-outdated link building tactic. These directories usually have categories on a wide range of topics covering potentially any type of site. Google’s official stance is that most general directories exist purely for SEO purposes. Accordingly, these directory links are commonly cited in the example links section as a cause for manual penalties and many directory sites get deindexed or heavily penalized in Google SERPs. It is highly recommended to disavow all except the top general link directories you find in the penalty analysis including paid directories. Dmoz.org (Open Directory Project), Business.yahoo.com (yahoo’s business directory), and botw.org (Best of the Web directory) are some of the only exceptions to this rule.

In fact, directories are commonly used in negative SEO cases we see, though also appear often in penalized sites that have outdated and now considered manipulative link profiles.

It is important to distinguish general SEO directories from niche directories and many business directories/citations. Both of these directories are legitimate for SEO and completely different from ‘link directories’. Niche directories are restricted to a specific vertical while business directories are proper citations, only allowing businesses with a physical brick-and-mortar address and phone number.

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Social Bookmark Links / ‘SEO Bookmarks’

Unfortunately pretty much ALL bookmarking sites are all spam links except for the the well known PR 7, 8, and 9 social networks  which are of course much more than just bookmarking sites and also are mostly enforced nofollow links anyway. As of 1-2 months prior to Penguin 3.0, we have seen large numbers of these sites getting deindexed, even page rank 3 and 4 domains. With the launch of Penguin 3.0, it seems these links have become even more toxic and many sites seem to be penalized entirely due to their large numbers of these bookmarking spam links. 

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Wiki Links

Several years ago wiki links were the cool new and innovative link type to be spammed to every imaginable wiki with the cheapest auto-spun content. They are still being spammed to every imaginable wiki with unintelligible content but have now become one of the most generic and common spam link types, far surpassing article directories in volume.

A meaningful entry (and link) on a topically relevant wiki site is going to be good link of course. Wikipedia and possibly a few other authoritative and heavily moderated wikis are good links as well but they are also nofollow links in order to avoid spam. 

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Blog Comments on Irrelevant Blogs OR with Money Keyword Anchors

This is a recent confirmation though one hopes, this was already common sense to any SEO because this is one of the most common spam link types. Blog comments are not risky links in general but when the commenter’s ‘name’ is a money keyword, the link becomes a significant spam signal. The safest anchor text for a blog comment is obviously your name (or any name). In some cases, a company name may be appropriate though Matt Cutts has warned against this as well.

High numbers of blog comments on topically irrelevant blogs and sites is another risk. 

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Automatically Approved Blog Comments

Auto approve (AA) blog comments are unmoderated pages where comments are automatically approved and posted. These are extreme risk links due to comment spamming programs like scrapebox. They can be found in the link analysis by checking for high outbound links counts (OBL) and will usually have your link placed on a non-relevant page spammed next to hundreds, even thousands of other completely irrelevant spam links.

The idea that auto approve blog comments are safe on pages with low outbound links is also incorrect and outdated. These links may not be immediately risky, but over time they will be spammed more and more so at best it’s a ticking time bomb. Either way, high proportions of blog comments in general are a risk. All recent AA blog comments I see now are almost 100% used for negative SEO.

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Automatically Approved Article Directories

Non-editorial article directories are risky because they are usually filled with unreadable spun content and therefore just another type of spam site. If the particular article linking to your site is unique and readable that’s one good thing. However, these sites will often have manual or algorithm penalties, get no human traffic, and are just risky link neighborhoods in general due to massive overuse. It’s easy pick out many of these sites by the simple fact that they’ll have “article” in the name. A few of these links won’t hurt you but a large number of AA article directories will help to trigger a penalty.

A small number of editorial article directories like EzineArticles.com still carry some power and also bring some traffic. However, these are still risky and considered manipulative by Google. We have seen EzineArticles listed as a specific example in a reconsideration request rejection notice. To be safe, just stay clear of all article directories since even editorial directories can be referenced in a manual penalty.

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Bulk Forum Posts

Mass forum post backlinks are similar to AA blog comments though usually with smaller counts of outbound links. These spam links are generated by programs like xrumer, will usually be mixed with a lot of other spam posts, and only work on abandoned forums. Pure spam links.

Forum posts in general are low quality links that only have real value with forums and topics relevant to your site. Also be EXTREMELY careful when making forum posts with money keyword anchors. Particularly if you are a member with one or only a few posts on the forum. These posts and links are commonly singled out as “unnatural links” in manual penalty notices, even if they are legitimate helpful posts but using an over-optimized money keyword anchor…

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Bulk Forum Profiles

These ‘entry level spam links’ are one easiest types to create in bulk on the order of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. There are a lot of common footprints to find these links by URL alone. Any Penguin recovery project must get rid of these links as a high priority.

To clarify, forum profiles which have real forum posts and activity are not a problem. Bulk forum profiles refers to profiles with no posts (or a single spam post).

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Bulk General Profile Links, AKA ‘Web 2.0 Profiles’

These are basically inactive/empty profile links on a variety of different types of sites (not just forums). Link building services like to call them web 2.0 profiles or similar names. These are considerably lower risk than forum profiles and also have more SEO value (due to site type diversity). However, they are low quality links and in large numbers are still a major risk for Penguin. Due to common CMS platforms, web 2.0 profiles are readily visible in an analysis by various URL footprints.

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‘SEO’ Press Releases (Dofollow Links)

This is a fairly new development from mid 2013 but everyone should have seen it coming for years. Press releases have been massively over-spammed to free non-editorial press release sites and now are considered risky links. Google now specifically states in their webmaster guidelines that dofollow money keyword anchors in press releases are considered link schemes. Real editorial press releases are great for press exposure and traffic but these should generally be avoided for SEO purposes. Write some newsworthy press releases and distribute them on real PR sites but don’t consider this as a method for SEO. Low quality auto-approve press release sites are just spam neighborhoods.

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Exposed Link Networks and Blog Networks

Blog networks are powerful but risky Blackhat backlinks that can look like legitimate blog post links. Most are hidden with little or no footprints by using different or hidden domain registrant details, hosting IP address, Class-C IP block, DNS, Google Analytics code, and more. However, cheap or abandoned blog networks will have many of these commonalities in plain view, leaving obvious footprints to anyone who is looking. Exposed link networks are a risk for both algorithm and manual penalties. Google’s web spam team is always looking for poorly hidden footprints to reveal a link network. When they find these networks, the links are devalued and the site has a high chance of getting slapped with a manual penalty.

Fortunately these same footprints are also how to find these links in a penalty analysis in order to get these links removed or disavowed. Exposed network links always need to go. Hidden networks you can keep at your own risk for Penguin recovery projects. But for manual ‘unnatural links’ penalties, ALL known link networks need to be removed (not just disavowed) as the #1 priority before a reconsideration request. Link networks are very common causes for manual penalties.

Penguin 3.0 update: from what we have seen so far with sites hit by Penguin 3, it is becoming clear Google can detect at least some primitive/cheap blog networks. Of course we don’t recommend using PBNs (private blog networks) at all but if doing so, it is strongly advisable avoid networks where it is possible for anyone to post to almost every single site, because many sites doing this will cause a BIG footprint for the whole network, particularly when the sites have no other relation except the common network sites. Also advisable to avoid networks that are filled only with posts using all money/commercial anchor text; unfortunately that is almost all of them…

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Lack of Quality Links

This is a very general but important consideration. A lack of high quality links with tons of low quality links can also lead to a penalty and is very common in penalized sites. I will not go into what a quality link is here, except that it must include good and original content, page and domain quality metrics, and/or topical relevance of the domain. Cemper Power and Trust or Moz Authority and MozTrust are both reliable metrics from Link Research Tools and Moz respectively. On the other hand, Google Page Rank is not a reliable quality metric! Page rank is almost a year out of date and should be considered a legacy metric with little significance.

In general, the presence of even small percentages of high quality links, editorial links, and links from relevant authorities can make a significant difference in how safe the link profile is as a whole and how much ‘padding’ you get for the risky links. When in doubt, we always recommend a side-by-side competitor analysis putting your site next to top ranking competitors.

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Link Type Diversity

One of the most fundamental principles in SEO; link profiles with very little diversity in link types usually appear very artificial. Ratios will vary based on site type and topic so again, when in doubt, check what the top ranking competition is doing.

 

This concludes our list of the common causes for Google penalties. Remember again that this guide is intended for general diagnostic purposes. It is a ‘rule of thumb’ guide. If you are actually making a disavow list for a Penguin recovery project or a manual link removal list for a reconsideration request, you will need a more comprehensive assessment backed by link metrics in order to avoid disavowing potentially good links and also getting any less common or hard to find risks. In this case, consider our comprehensive SEO Analysis and Penalty Recovery Solution

 

Disclaimer

All statements and suggestions are backed or derived from our experience at Rewind SEO working on hundreds of Penguin recovery projects and countless more manual penalty analyses. However, this information may not be universally applicable or true. Ultimately it is Google that determines ‘good’ and ‘safe’ uses of backlinks and they seem to change their ‘rules’ quite often so there is no guarantee that all safe or effective SEO practices today will be valid for future algorithm updates. Certainly in the past, we have seen huge changes from Google in terms of how different backlinks and backlink types are treated in their search and penalty algorithms. Always keep this in mind when building links. The safest type of link is one that looks as organic as possible within your full link profile and serves a purpose beyond SEO.

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Case Study How To SEO SEO Theory

Header, Sidebar, and Footer Links

Penguin: The Sitewide Link Slayer

Let’s start with some history. After Google Penguin 2.0 nearly a year ago, I saw massive increases in sitewide link penalties from clients coming to us for penalty recovery and cleanup. Footer links seemed to be the single hardest hit link type but blogroll and sidebar links were no safer. In the weeks following Penguin 2.0, sitewide links appeared to be involved in nearly 75% of the penalties I was working on at the time… An astonishingly high number! 

The basis for this conclusion were the sheer numbers of sites we were getting with high numbers of sitewide links including many web design agencies. The majority of these penalties were algorithmic but we have also seen a fair share of manual penalties involving heavy sitewide linking both before and after Penguin 2.0. It’s also worth noting that Penguin 2.1 (Oct 4, 2013) did either nothing or very little with sitewide links and penalties today rarely have these links.

After Penguin, it has become clear that if you are using sitewide or footer links at all, it is now absolutely essential to avoid risky linking practices with these links.  Every seasoned SEO will know that there is nothing new about the spam risks of sitewide links. For anyone new on the topic, here is the ‘official’ word on Sitewide linking from Matt Cutts at Google:

Not the most informative video but it is unusually lucid for Matt Cutts. The two takeaway points are that sitewide backlinks have diminishing SEO returns with higher numbers of links and also they have potentially heavy spam footprints. A sitewide link on 1000 different pages may not have any more SEO value than a single contextual link in relevant content. On the other hand, sitewide links have a much bigger spam footprint than just about any other type of link.

 

Examples for Penalized Sitewide Links

Let’s look at examples for the three most common types of sitewide links and go over why they’re done wrong and what has changed after Penguin (particularly Penguin 2.0). 

 

 

Footer Links

Footer links are the most common type of sitewide link I see for penalized sites but not necessarily because they is the most risky. Just because they’re the most commonly abused and also easier for Google to pick out as likely paid links.  Here is a typical example of penalized footer links:

 example paid footer link

The dofollow footer links in this image are highlighted in blue. There are a number of specific problems.

 

1.  No relevance or real reason to exist

There are four unrelated footer links. The key points being four and unrelated. They are unrelated to each other and also to the site itself. Additionally, I don’t show the site but this footer is for a foreign language blog (Hindi, I believe). Hindi blog with four English footer links, all unrelated and off topic to the site. So if you ask yourself, “What is the reason for these links to exist?” The answer is clearly for manipulative SEO only. This is screaming spam and paid links to Google

 

2.  Exact match ‘money’ keywords

Three out of four of the footer links use exact match keywords. “Advisor Price” is the only brand name keyword here. As it turns out, sitewide links are an absolutely terrible place to put commercial keyword anchors. It looks spammy and can imbalance safe ratios for commercial keywords. In my opinion, a sitewide link with a pure commercial keyword phrase is the most toxic type of link possible in terms of risk.

After Penguin 2.0, all of our web design clients had one thing in common. Literally every one of them was being penalized for the exact same issue; they all used money keywords in anchors for their sitewide footer links on clients’ sites. Our advice is always the same: if you use footer links, use brand name or else naked URL. NEVER use ranking keywords in footer or sitewide links. I repeat, NEVER use ranking keywords in footer links!

 

 3.  Link network with sitewide links?!

Here’s another image similar to the previous one:

example footer link

What’s new? Everything… Yet nothing… This is actually a different site but with the same theme and same footer links. One keyword is different but essentially it’s the same footer on a different URL. Yes, it really is a blog network (link network) of footer links with zero effort at hiding the footprints… Our client actually had their site placed on literally hundreds of blogspot footer links exactly identical to the two examples above. This was truly a disaster piece that negative SEO gurus should take notes on!

The above 3 points illustrate some of the common methods of sitewide linking before Google Penguin. Now in 2014, it is very rare to see footer links like these even with penalized sites. 

 

Footer Link Best Practices

Based on what I have seen, footer links seem to have very limited uses where they can be safe. Web design firms can use dofollow footer links for their client’s sites if they use best practices and also have a diverse link profile including other strong links that are not sitewide. They should also have the option for the client to opt out of having the link or having it nofollow. Sister sites/companies would be another legitimate reason to use an external footer link as long as these sites have a legitimate reason to be separate.

In general, footer links should be used meaningfully and in moderation, with only brand or naked URL anchors, and a clear reason to exist. Otherwise they are a significant liability for both algorithm and manual penalties. The most important point is that they should have a clear reason to exist. This means a clear relation to the site they are placed on, whether a sister company or branch, a web designer client, or something else. Otherwise, it risks looking like a clear paid link. 

 

Blogroll and Sidebar Links

Sidebar and Blogroll links are the same type of link. As the name implies, these are a list of links on the sidebar of a site that appears on every page. Organic blogroll links are common with mom blogs, fashion blogs, hobby blogs, some health/nutrition/diet blogs and other specific niche blogs linking to genuinely relevant resources. That said, blogrolls can potentially be more dangerous than footer links because whereas a footer has limited space, the blogroll is a vertical list of links and essentially has no limit which makes them easy to acquire in bulk. This unfortunate convenience means that blogrolls are very common for selling sitewide links. A brief search on fiverr.com will confirm this: 

example blogroll links from fiverr

 

There is another common issue with these sidebar links. When they are all different niches with none of them relevant to the blogroll site itself, this essentially creates a footprint of paid links. 

I’ll spare the eyesore of a blogroll done wrong, mostly because of the typical size… In our SEO analysis for backlinks to penalized sites, I often see blogroll after blogroll with 100+ links that scroll down several pages, far beyond where the main content ends. Such sidebars will often have all exact match keyword anchors, and all unrelated to each other link and the site itself. 100+ off-topic sitewide blogroll links is a spectacularly bad SEO tactic both for risk and link juice value. With such blogrolls, it is clear the only possible reason these links exist is because they are paid.

In short, blogroll links are a common paid link type and as sitewide links they are often a trigger for Penguin or manual penalties when done wrong.

 

Blogroll Done Right

Of course sidebar and blogroll links can be done right too. For example, on this bird watching blogroll:

organic Blogroll links

These links appear to be genuine blogs without commercial intent. The anchor texts are not exact keyword (spam). There is a reasonable number of links (14 total) and they are clearly all relevant the topic of the blog. A blogroll done right.

In general, I have seen many legitimate and safe blogroll links from hobby blogs, mom blogs, personal fashion blogs, and health/nutrition/diet blogs. These blogroll links will be nearly 100% relevant links to the blog’s topic and almost never use pure money keywords. Again, ask yourself the reason for the link to exist. If it is clearly as a useful and relevant resource, then it is fine.

 

Top Menu Header Links

Top menu or header links are usually used for onsite navigation, not backlinks. However, they are occasionally used for offsite links as well, usually for sister sites or (like a forum for the site). Perhaps the idea of using header menu backlinks is that links higher up in the html code are or once were thought to have more SEO value (Moz circa 2010). Sitewide header links can be done like footer links as a single horizontal row of items on the header menu. Alternatively, they can be placed on a dropdown menu with a series of links that more closely resembles a blogroll. Here is a particularly terrible example of the latter:

example hacked header link

This is the header of the site. Each of the blue menu items above the image is actually a dropdown menu of external links. Additionally, notice the statement above the menus that gives it away as paid (rented) links. 

So here we have:

Non-relevant sitewide header links.

Massively spammed on multiple dropdown menus.

Explicitly stated to be paid links.

It is interesting to note that our client actually had a real editorial link within this site’s content. This site was PR3 and most of its former pages gave 404 errors. This is very likely a hacked site or re-purposed expired domain made for SEO. Clearly it was no longer a legitimate site to have a link from.

 

Safe Practice for Sitewide Header Links

In my opinion, the only time to safely use a sitewide header link is where there is a clear relation/affiliation between the two sites. In other words linking to a very close sister site or sub-site where it is not even clear to the user that it is a different domain. This is because the header is usually reserved for onsite links only. Here is an example of a header link done right:

 Sitewide header link done right

Where is the header link you ask? Exactly! It is done right because the header link is indistinguishable from the other navigation links and looks completely natural. In this case, the forum is actually on a dedicated domain so the “Forum” menu item is the external link. This header is from one of our big client’s PR4 sites with absolutely no risk issues or penalties. They just wanted to check with us to be sure.

 

Conclusion

Sitewide links are not unconditionally bad links. There are many legitimate reasons to use them but there are also many ways they can go wrong. When using sitewide links there should always be clear topical relevance or else another legitimate (non-SEO) reason to exist. Among other things, this means absolutely never using pure commercial keywords used as the anchor text.

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SEO

Some Irony from 2007 on MattCutts.com

How Much Times Have Changed – Blog Comment Spam in 2007

I think this screenshot speaks for itself:

commercial anchor text (money keyword) on a blog comment at mattcutts.comBack in 2007 comments were approved with exact anchor text on the blog for Google’s head of webspam, mattcutts.com.  And these aren’t just black sheep. There are lots more comments like it.

Apparently comment spam like “A nice blog. Amazingly useful content” was a new thing then too… I guess a reminder of how much times have changed and how little these rules are actually set in stone.

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SEO SEO Theory

Why Google is Spreading Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt on Guest Posting

If you haven’t been keeping up, this year Google has launched a major Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) campaign against the practice of guest blogging.

Guest blogging is the practice of writing posts on other related blogs in order to expose your company or site to their audiences. It is generally done on relevant sites and is… or was… considered a white hat practice if there ever was one. Certainly a guest post requires a link back to your site for interested readers and since guest posts are editorially approved and usually on topic with the blog, by normal conventions, guest post links should be do-follow links… After all, do-follow links are the ‘default’ for links in editorial content and links in general.

Google penalties for guest postsThere were earlier signs and hints from John Mueller but for the most part, all started with Matt Cutt’s proclamation on January 20, 2014 on “The Decay and Fall of Guest Blogging for SEO”. Both before and after this there had been ongoing take downs for link networks which were not surprising to anyone. But then on March 18,  Cutts gave an impending warning on Twitter and then the manual penalty of what appeared to be a legitimate community for guest blogging, MyBlogGuest(.com), run by Ann Smarty (story covered on SEW).  This manual penalty on My Blog Guest coincided with a number of other reported manual penalties on sites who had used MBG to facilitate guest posts at least once in the past. The connection was clear that Google was treating this community like a manipulative link network and was not just hitting the facilitator. The witch hunt even seemed to extend to sites that linked to MBG as evidenced by Doc Sheldon’s Penalty.

Whether or not the penalty on MBG was justified, it least it should be clear to anyone that there are much blacker hats Google could have chosen to go after, but rather than go after any of the hundreds of pure link networks, they chose My Blog Guest which was both much more legitimate, arguably not a network, and also more well known.  This is why I classify it as a PR/FUD action, not a webspam action. But let’s dispense with the popcorn and get to the real question…

Why would Google launch a FUD campaign against Guest Blogging?

Let’s start with two reminders. First, guest blogging can be a great method to expose your brand or product to audiences on relevant sites. That’s obvious. Second, some of the best content on the web happens to be in guest posts. This should be equally obvious.

So why is Google taking such an extreme stance almost (but not quite) to the point of saying dofollow links on guest posts are manipulative, period?

I suspect the answer has nothing to do with content quality. I repeat, Google’s issue with guest blogging has little or nothing to do with content quality itself. It actually has to do with an unresolvable loophole in their algorithm in the same vein that paid links fall into. Specifically, the algorithm cannot distinguish between an organic link, a guest post, and for that matter, a paid link. In short, guest posts are being treated as too powerful by Google’s algorithm and Google has no way to tune it down.

Why can’t the algorithm distinguish guest posts from ‘organic’ posts?

Guest post links are indistinguishable from organic links simply because not every blog or author uses an established authorship system (G+ authorship, Gravatar, etc…) and not every guest post is going to be placed in a special neat “guest post” category telling Google what it is. Therefore, guest post links must be treated as identical to relevant organic links in blog posts. You might be asking, “So what?” So consider this from a search engine perspective. Should a site with 10 organic links on relevant sites be considered with equal ‘confidence’ to a site that obtained 10 guest posts on relevant sites? If you think of links in terms of “votes”, certainly not. The organic links mean 10 people found the site genuinely useful or interesting enough to link to, while the 10 guest posts mean 10 bribed votes (bribed with content, usually average content, possibly great content, but still bribed with it either way). Certainly I don’t see why well written guest posts don’t deserve a link for both visitors and search engines, but the bottom line here is that, all else equal, real organic links ought to be treated as more valuable in Google’s eyes, and in the case of guest posts, they are not able to make this distinction.

So in short, guest posts links are being treated as “too powerful”, that is, more powerful than they “deserve” relative to an actual organic link. Again, I don’t mean this as my own judgment, just as a hypothetical view from Google’s perspective as a link-driven search engine.

The Solution: Spread The FUD

Given that there is no present algorithmic solution, Google seems to have decided that high profile manual policing/penalty action combined with other generous doses of FUD is the best solution to limit the use of links in guest posts. The uncertainty and doubt, in the form of ambiguity on exact rules and policies, is to limit the practice as a whole.

So is this just deja vu of crack downs on link networks, blog networks, paid links, and unnatural links that the algorithm can’t handle? Not Quite…

oneofthesethings...is not like the other

As we have already seen many times, Google only uses mass manual penalties on link methods the algorithm cannot adequately address. The difference here is that link networks, link exchanges, paid links, and other heavily penalized link methods are clearly manipulative link types but guest blogging is largely still a legitimate practice and should remain this way.

 

Will Guest Blogging with Dofollow Links Die?

Despite all the FUD, this would be almost inconceivable. Guest blogging will not die and guest posts with dofollow links will not die. Why? First, as discussed above, the action would be entirely manual because algorithms can’t pick these links up. Also, if dofollow guest posts were penalized unconditionally, the amount of collateral damage to sites that were following the best practices of their time would be massive. More importantly, there is nothing fundamentally wrong about a guest post with a dofollow link… At its core guest blogging is a white hat method. It is about exposing your site, company, or product to new audiences. In it’s history of algorithm updates and penalties, Google has never been able to enforce nofollow links for any link type. Dofollow links are the default, nofollow are the artificial links; special cases. The average blogger, webmaster, or business owner may know nothing about SEO or nofollow/dofollow links but they have every right to accept guest posts if useful or well written and relevant to their site. ‘Banning’ dofollow links in guest posts would not only require a massive amount of manpower to enforce. It would also be content suicide. As much as we like to pretend otherwise, the link is part of the reason for writing guest posts, great ones that relevant authority sites will accept. Dofollow links in guest posts are not going away but they are going to need to be done much more safely.

Guest Post Best Practices

If you don’t want to be penalized for guest posts, here are some suggestions on doing it right:

1. Post on relevant and authority sites only. This obviously implies well written content but quality content by itself is meaningless without placement on strict quality sites. Spammy sites accepting every type of guest post are just link farms asking for a penalty which means the link is a liability, not an asset.

2. Do not use pure commercial or ‘money’ keywords as anchor text. Compound keywords like “learn about [money keyword] here” are considerably safer, as are brand name, naked URLs, and other generic anchors like “learn more”.

3. Don’t be greedy. If there are links in the content, link to other relevant authorities besides your own site whenever appropriate.

Following these guidelines and making sure guest posts are just a part of the link profile should keep the site safe while giving you powerful relevant links and sources of traffic besides Google.

Categories
SEO SEO Theory

Summary of Google Webmaster Q&A Feb 24

In the latest webmaster Q&A hangouts, John Mueller, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst has answered (or revealed the answer) to a lot of big questions on how the disavow works and how long it can take for heavily penalized sites. This post will go over some of the main points in the meeting. 

This is the 1 hour video from the Feb 24, 2014 hangout:

How Long Does a Disavow Take? 

It has already been clear that for minor penalties or unpenalized sites, disavowing links can bring positive effects in a matter of weeks or even sooner. However what was not clear is why some heavily penalized sites seem to take much longer to see any effect, even when we disavowed upwards of 80% of their links by domain. This is addressed around 12:00-13:00 minutes in the video:

1. Algorithm/link spam penalty issues can take half a year to a year (6 to 12 months) for algorithms to fully recrawl and reprocess everything.

2. Disavowing links takes them out of the algorithms completely (it does not just devalue them some, they are completely ignored).

He goes back to the first point (6-12 months) at least two more times in the video. The next suggestion is to look into social media or ad buying during this time to get traffic. An alternative would be paid traffic like Google, Bing, or Facebook ads.

Reconsideration Request Best Practices

Another good point comes around 17 minutes on Google Reconsideration Requests. This is nothing new but given some of the requests I’ve seen recently, it’s a good review for newbies. For reconsideration requests Google is looking for:

  • Prove you understand the problem by detailing it
  • You have fixed it by doing (details of the clean up)
  • Documentation for the cleanup
  • “We wont do it again…”
  • All this while being concise and too the point

 Again, nothing new but good info for anyone who has little experience with writing reconsideration requests.

Cloning a Site from Domain to Domain with No Redirect

This is an interesting point around 23 minutes in the video that concerns starting a site over on a new domain using no redirect. Here John Mueller states that if you don’t do a redirect and just copy a site over to a new domain, this is still seen as a “site move” by Google’s algorithm and it will attempt to “forward those signals” from the old domain to the new one. This is explained as being done for sites that can’t redirect from the old domain for example from free hosts or hosts with limited functionality or webmasters who are not aware of redirect. It is not a strong as using a redirect but cloning a site exactly and then shutting down the old site may pass some link value through. Potentially this could be passing some negative value as well for penalized sites though this was not confirmed.

Other questions that were not confirmed are whether or not this actually passes some of the penalty or negative value? And second, will Google still ‘remember’ the content if the old site is set to be completely deindexed in webmaster tools before putting up a new site? What is confirmed is that if the site, theme, or content is changed slightly (unspecified amount)  it will be considered as a completely different site by Google and nothing will be passed from the old site.

Site Removal Requests in Webmaster Tools are Almost Instant

This is covered around 33 minutes in. Using the site removal request in Webmaster tools removes any number of pages from Google’s index in less than a day. While not using this tool could take over 6 months to deindex a 404 page in Google. Again nothing new here but good information regardless. Particularly when starting over on a new domain.

Honeymoon Period for New Sites is Not Going Away

This is relevant to blackhatters using churn and burn sites. Based on the response around 38:00, the implication is that the “honeymoon period” where new sites are given significant SERP boosts and immunity to penalties for some months is not going away any time soon. But that’s my take, don’t take my word for it; the direct question was more dodged than answered in the video. 

Optimizing Website Load Time is Not Important for Algorithms

According to Mueller at 48:10, page load time has almost no significance in SERP ranking. There are a lot of website analysis tools that have popped up recently. Website load time is great for visitors but changing the load time by milliseconds won’t make a difference in SERPs. Apparently website load time is only taken into account if it’s very slow… 1 second or half a second wont make a difference except for visitor behavior.

That’s pretty much all that I found interesting that was covered in the video.

Categories
How To SEO

Diagnosing Your Penalty

Assessing the type of penalty is always the first step for an SEO analysis. When a website receives an algorithm penalty like Penguin, there is no warning except for a loss in SERP rankings and corresponding loss in traffic. More often than not, this penalty can be easily attributed to either a new link building campaign or a major algorithm update that has hit you for existing links.

On the other hand, a manual webspam penalty can be discovered by checking the site’s status on Google webmaster tools so this is always the first step. To check for an unnatural links penalty or unnatural links warning, log into your webmaster tools account, select your site, click on the “Search Traffic” menu to expand it, then click “Manual Actions“. See the red circled menus items on the image below:

Manual Penalty tab in Google Webmaster Tools

 

Once you reach this page, check if there is any stated penalty under “Sitewide Matches” or “Partial Matches”. If there is anything here it is a manual penalty. In this example case, there is a manual penalty under “Partial matches”. Expanding it, this is the specific message:

Manual penalty message

Obviously there are many different types of manual penalties. This particular penalty message is usually for a more mild manual penalty. If there is no penalty message here, it is most likely an algorithm penalty. Since this is a common misunderstanding, I’ll repeat this in bold for emphasis:

If there is no manual penalty message, it is probably a link-based algorithm penalty.

 

What About Panda?

From what I have seen, Panda has been toned down some and/or most people are well aware of it. The good thing about panda is how often it refreshes (supposedly roughly once every two weeks). If you made recent changes in site content or structure in the last few weeks, it may be a Panda (on-site) penalty. But if nothing has changed recently onsite, you can usually rule Panda out. In this case, it is most likely the Penguin (link based) algorithm penalty. Penguin is the most common Google penalty but potentially can be fixed with a disavow alone.

If you have a manual or Penguin penalty, definitely check out our encyclopedia of risky links and link building practices.

Categories
How To

How to Format the Google Disavow List

If you wish to create a disavow list or modify your existing disavow, you must understand how it is formatted in order not to mess anything up. On the other hand, the format is very simple. The disavow list can contain a combination of comments, individual URLs, and entire domains to be disavowed. It will look something like this:

example disavow fileThe disavow can contain individual URL page entries or entire domains.

Disavow Format

Each entry needs to be on a new line. There are 3 types of entries:

  1. “#” for lines with comments. This is for your own reference and/or notes or documentation in reconsideration request (manual penalty) disavow. You can add as many lines of comments as you need; each line must start with #.

  2. Use a full URL on a new line to block that specific page.

  3. Use “domain:” followed by a root or sub-domain to block every link from that domain. Obviously this is for cases where you are certain you don’t want links from that domain.

 

Notes for Domain Disavow (domain:BadDomain.com)

‣  Disavowing a root domain WILL disavow all subdomains. E.g.  “domain:blogspot.com”  will disavow blog123.blogspot.com and blog456.blogspot.com. This is previously a detail we had wrong (along with much of the rest of the internet) but has been confirmed by John Mueller from Google. On the other hand, disavowing a subdomain specifically, like “domain:blog123.blogspot.com” will NOT disavow the root domain (blogspot.com) or any other subdomains. 

‣  Disavowing by domain must NOT have “http://” or “www.”  It must simply be plain domain:domain-name.com or else domain:sub-domain.top-domain.com. 

‣  Disavowing bad links by domain is the method we recommend for almost all cases. This ensures other bad links you may not be aware of are disavowed as well as all future links from that domain and links on dynamic pages (with changing names) like on many forum profile lists and SEO link directories.

 

If you need to submit the list visit this quick Guide to Submitting the Disavow List.

Categories
How To

Guide to Submitting the Google Disavow File

This is a simple guide on how to submit the disavow file to Google. It is short and extremely easy, a refreshing change for Google.

1. Log into your webmaster tools and visit the following link: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main

2.  Select your site you wish to disavow links for by clicking on the URL box next to the “disavow links” button.

Google disavow tool

3.  Click the red button.  This will bring you to a warning page. Click the “disavow links” button again on this page:

Disavow warning

4.  You will see the page in the image below. Click “Choose File”, upload the properly formatted disavow file (should be a .txt file under 2MB in size).

Confirm disavow and upload links

5.  Then click “Submit” and you should get an immediate confirmation. It should be something like this:

Results for the submission on January 13, 2014 8:55:49 PM UTC+11
You successfully uploaded a disavow links file (DISAVOW_FILE.txt) containing 213 domains and 15 URLs.

Then you are done.

If you need to edit or format your disavow file, visit this quick guide on how to format the disavow list.

Categories
SEO

Ahrefs.com Report Link Metrics

ahrefs metrics

This is a simple definition of every link metric for Ahrefs.com reports. These are the metrics you get when exporting links in a csv file through “Raw Data Export” (Ahrefs.com site explorer). Ahrefs changes their metrics and names over time so I’ll try to keep this page updated. Most recently a new metric called “Ahrefs Domain Rank” (ADR) was added. I have also updated several of the metrics’ labels for 2015 from their previous 2014 names.

Page last updated Sept 18, 2015.

 

Ahrefs Backlink Metrics

Index – Link number on the ahrefs backlink report (not a backlink metric). This is a legacy metric no longer included on most Ahrefs reports. 

URL Rating (UR) – Ahrefs URL Rating (replacing what was formerly called Ahrefs Rank or AR) is a purely mathematical equivalent of the now retired Google ‘Page Rank’ metric, also similar to the ‘Power’ metric from Link Research Tools. URL Rating is specific to URL and is based on the number of links to that page and relative strength of each of those linking pages. UR also accounts for how multiple outbound links will proportionally dilute the strength of any linking page to the URL in question. The UR scale goes from 0 to 100 (though no URL is actually 100).

For SEO purposes, be aware that since it is purely a mathematical measure, it does not account for how different link types may actually be weighed differently (in Google) such as being based on link or page type, relevance, location on the page, etc… Learn more about URL rating on the the ahrefs FAQ page.

Note that URL rating was also called “URL Rank” on their older PDF reports.

Domain Rating (ADR) – Ahrefs Domain Rating (replacing what was formerly called Domain Rank) is essentially the URL Rating of the domain as a whole including all subpages. It’s not clear how the scale works as a whole but the #1 linked site, facebook, has a ADR of 100 and seems to set this maximum value on the scale. By comparision, the #2, twitter, has an ADR of 98, while Google.com, at #8, has an ADR of 92. 

Ip From IP address of the website/domain.

Referring Page URL / UrlFrom – URL address/page the backlink is located on.

Referring Page Title – Title of the page the backlink is on.

Internal Links Count / LinksInternal – Number of internal links (pointing within the site) on the page.

External Links Count / LinksExternal – Number of external links on the page (pointing off of the site).

Last HTTP Code – Page http error code when last crawled by ahrefs. This is a legacy metric no longer included on most Ahrefs reports. 

Link URL / UrlTo – URL address the backlink points to.

Size – Size of the page in bytes. 

TextPre – Text just preceding the link.

Link Anchor – html anchor text phrase of the link.

TextPost – Text just after the link.

Last Checked / Visited – Latest date the page was crawled by ahrefs.

Ordinal – Order number of specified link on the page relative to other links (in the html code, not necessarily visually).

First Seen – Date the link was first seen on the page by ahrefs.

Previously Visited – Previous crawl date from ahrefs (could have been before the link existed).

Last Check – The latest date ahrefs has crawled the page to update their index.

Day Lost – The date ahrefs detected the link was lost (now dead link).

Type – Link type (text, canonical, redirect, frame, etc…)

NoFollow – Is the link nofollow? (true/false)

Image – Is the link an image? (true/false)

Site-wide – Is the link on every page of the site, e.g. header/footer/sidebar? (true/false)

Alt – Alt tag of the link (usually for images).

 

ahrefs link report metrics


 

Why the Guide?

Years ago when I was new to Ahrefs I searched all over for a simple guide that would explain all the link metrics but apparently there were none on the internet so I wrote my own (originally for my own reference). Most of these should be obvious but some of them are not. I don’t know why Ahrefs.com doesn’t have a guide like this on their site since not all their metrics are immediately oblivious from their names. I had to ask their support what “ordinal” meant. Also note that Rewind SEO has no affiliation with ahrefs.com except, obviously, as a subscriber to their awesome link index!

Categories
How To

How to Download the Link List from Google Search Console

Google webmaster tools (now renamed to Google Search Console) provides a significant list of links to your site but it can be a little tricky just to figure out where download this list. The following guide explains how to download the list of backlinks to your site from GWT. Note that this requires your site be registered in Google webmaster tools first.

Download Backlink List from Google Webmaster Tools in 5 Simple Steps

1.  Navigate to Google webmaster tools / Search Console at www.google.com/webmasters/tools.

2.  Log in and click on your site’s URL address in webmaster tools to bring you to the main overview page for the site.

3.  In the main menu (top left), click on Search Traffic to expand the menu, then Links to Your Site.

google webmaster tools menu

4. Under the “Who links the most” category, click More >>. There is more than one “More” link so make sure you click the correct one. See big red arrow in the image below.

GWT sample links instructions p1

 

5. Click on the “Download latest links” button and save the .csv file. This is the list of sample links with dates that we want. Note that “Download more sample links” is exactly the same list but without discovery dates so otherwise no difference. See image:

gwt download latest links

 

And Done! 

*Note 1: sites newly registered on webmaster tools will not show any sample links for some time or will show very small numbers.

*Note 2: The webmaster tools link list is notoriously slow at updating (it really is a ‘sample’ list and not their actual current index). So Google may still show sites here that have been dead for months, which means the list is not an accurate current snapshot of all links. However, it is still useful supplementary data and a small additional link source for any comprehensive link analysis. 

 

More About the Google Webmaster Tools Link List

Keep in mind this is a “sample” link list so is probably nowhere near ALL the links to your site that Google has in it’s index. However, no index has all the links and many of these links may not be found in other indexes like Ahrefs (2nd largest index), Majestic SEO (3rd), and others so it is significant to use if you (or we) are doing a comprehensive analysis on your site. In some comparisons I did, there was an average around 30% overlap between links reported in the Ahrefs.com index and Google webmaster tools. This means this sample list is a very significant source of links for any comprehensive link analysis. Of course, no index can see all the links on the internet so the only way to get the entire list would be if you have link building reports from the SEO services or tools that built them.