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Can you link build to a penalised site?

It has long been held in the SEO community that if you are working with a website that has fallen foul of a Google penalty that link building is akin to pouring petrol on the flames, particularly if the penalty is because of your backlink profile.

This however as been thrown into some confusion by a recent reply by Google’s John Mueller on the Webmaster Central Help Forum. Have a read for yourself and see what you think.

Let me try a longer answer 🙂


In theory: If a site is affected by any specific algorithm or its data, and it fixes the issue that led to that situation, then the algorithm and/or its data must be refreshed in order to see those changes. Sometimes those changes aren’t immediately visible even after a refresh, that’s normal too.


In practice, a site is never in a void alone with just a single algorithm. We use over 200 factors in crawling, indexing, and ranking. While there are some cases where a site is strongly affected by a single algorithm, that doesn’t mean that it won’t see any changes until that algorithm or its data is refreshed. For example, if a site is strongly affected by a web-spam algorithm, and you resolve all of those web-spam issues and work to make your site fantastic, you’re likely to see changes in search even before that algorithm or its data is refreshed. Some of those effects might be directly related to the changes you made (other algorithms finding that your site is really much better), some of them might be more indirect (users loving your updated site and recommending it to others).


So yes, in a theoretical void of just your site and a single algorithm (and of course such a void doesn’t really exist!), you’d need to wait for the algorithm and/or its data to refresh to see any changes based on the new situation. In practice, however, things are much more involved, and improvements that you make (especially significant ones) are likely to have visible effects even outside of that single algorithm. One part that helps to keep in mind here is that you shouldn’t be focusing on individual factors of individual algorithms, it makes much more sense to focus on your site overall — cleaning up individual issues, but not assuming that these are the only aspects worth working on.


All that said, we do realize that it would be great if we could speed the refresh-cycle of some of these algorithms up a bit, and I know the team is working on that. I know it can be frustrating to not see changes after spending a lot of time to improve things. In the meantime, I’d really recommend – as above – not focusing on any specific aspect of an algorithm, and instead making sure that your site is (or becomes) the absolute best of its kind by far.



We understand that there are lots of nuances to this and we should not take it strictly at face value, after all the algorithms are interdependent and none simply stand alone so changing one can influence others. But the ‘linking and sharing’ is directly attributable to new links being added to the site and this is link building no matter which way you cut it up.

We’re extremely conscious that there is a danger of extrapolating from a single point and taking his words out of context, but when those words back up what we all see every day in the SERPS we can surely be excused for that?

Google still naively clings to the belief that if you create great content people will like and share it and these are the signals it is looking for. This simply won’t happen if, for example you are a Funeral Director so part of SEO is link building to these sites. Despite a great Whiteboard Friday from Rand Fishkin on this topic the other day the fact remains that the majority of small businesses simply don’t have the time, resources or desire to do this, even if they had the knowledge.

Which leaves us back at good old link building. It’s not gone away nor will it anytime soon we think.

The Evil of Negative SEO

Negative SEO does exist and here’s the proof

One of the most asked questions from clients over the last few months has been “Do you think we have been hit by negative SEO?” Our standard response has always been “No” as to date we have not seen a clear example of negative SEO hitting any our client’s sites.

Whilst negative SEO has gained a lot of coverage over recent months it has mostly been from people with a bad backlink profile looking to find an excuse for their site’s poor performance.

This morning however one of our client sites received an “Unnatural Links” notification in Webmaster Tools. Given that we haven’t been link building for this client or site and we know that they haven’t then this was a bit of a surprise.

Here’s the graphs and what they show is that in the last three weeks the client has magically acquired over 150,000 new backlinks from over 500 referring domains.
Negative SEO Referring Domains Negative SEO Backlinks

If that wasn’t strange enough then a quick look at the anchor text reveals that virtually all of them include the word ‘valium’. Given that our client has nothing to do with Pharmaceuticals or medications then it’s no surprise that they received an Unnatural links warning. Add to this the fact that all the links pointed to the home page and it’s clearly a crude attack on their site.

As you can see from the graphs this site has built no links at all; ever. They managed to naturally acquire just over 200 links in the last five years before the link spike on the graph.

So we have our first clear example of negative SEO. As to who has done this there is probably no way of finding out but we do know that Google has stated that they won’t penalise sites that have been hit in this way.

This type of behaviour is rare and more often than not the client has previously engaged and SEO firm, usually the cheapest available, and they have built the links they were paid to build. These links are now coming home to roost as the short cuts that were taken, sometimes many years ago, are turning into toxic links which need removing.

Just this week we have launched our new site offering exactly this service; a manual clean up operation on the worst offending links in your profile. Matt Cutts says it is essential and we have seen first hand just how devastating this is to established site. So if you have a backlink profile that needs some help then take a look at www.linksremoval.co.uk as we may be able to help.

Meanwhile, the reconsideration request will be going in this afternoon so we will soon see if Google is true to its word that it won’t penalise sites that suffer this fate…..


Why clients unwittingly drive ‘black hat’ SEO

With so much being written these days about what Google does and doesn’t like and what the most important ranking factors are it is interesting to reflect on how we got to this situation.

When webmasters discovered that the number of links that pointed to your site had a direct relationship to how you ranked on Google the floodgates opened. Pandora’s Box had been opened and billions of websites were set up with no purpose other than to create a network of backlinks.

These networks became paid options and in no time a whole new industry grew up around buying links to improve search engine ranking positions.

Despite Google’s efforts in the past few years and an increasing grip of the Penguin updates, the issue of links still hangs over the whole world of SEO.

Links are supposed to be votes of confidence in your website. They are supposed to be given freely and they are supposed to be natural. Couple this with great on page content and you should be onto a winner.

Sadly this isn’t the case.

Far too often we see sites outranking our clients where the only thing going for them is the quantity of backlinks they have, not the quality.

So why, when everyone knows that buying links is a bad thing, are there still firms out here selling them and people out there buying them?

A search today for ‘buy links’ show the following result;

Buying links Google search

A search on Google for ‘buy links’

Sandwiched in between ads for people selling links is an article from the great Rand Fishkin at Moz entitled ‘Buying Links is shallow, short term thinking’ from February 2012.

I couldn’t put it any clearer myself.

So back to the question; why does this industry still thrive and survive?

Recently we were approached by a client who wanted to engage our services but within this were some clear performance metrics based on customer acquisition. Normally we don’t have a problem with measuring performance however in this case the results needed to be achieved within three months otherwise a penalty clause could be invoked. This is not an untypical client request and it easy to see why.

Clients do not have endless pots of cash to throw at ephemeral ‘digital’ work and they naturally want to see an ROI. Results are often driven at board level and particularly in larger companies results are measured in timeframes of no longer than a quarter. The City’s quarterly reporting schedule has a lot to do with this but the problem is that it drives short term focus on results instead of long term strategic thinking.

Let’s be clear; three months is not long enough for SEO to work. In most cases work we do takes at least six months to show clear benefits and the long term benefits last for years. This is why we rebranded last year from SEO to Digital, as the job is about digital marketing and not about short term keyword position gains.

The only way anyone is going to get traction within three months is by employing some ‘black hat’ tactics, or at the very least ‘grey hat’. As a client, by insisting on results in such a short timeframe you are asking for your agency to cut corners. You are driving performance but you are sanctioning work which, if you could see what it is doing and the long term damage it brings to your website, you would never agree to it.

In the next week we will be launching a new service and a website aimed at people who have been hit by Google and need links removing from their backlink profile. With over ten years of awful link building there is a massive amount of clean-up work to be done and having done this for clients before and achieved good results we know how to do the job.

The sad part is that there is no need for this. Google allowed this to happen and they are now responsible for driving the need for this type of work. But more than that, companies themselves are driving the need for this type of work by insisting on unachievable performance timeframes.

So if you are looking to engage an agency any time soon, think carefully about what you are asking them to do, or you could find that you are engaging them to simply build tomorrows problems into your website today.


Why Google’s link penalties are stupid, pointless and damaging business

We are getting used to having to clean up backlinks now and like most other decent firms out there we follow a rigorous process to ensure that we weed out everything that may have caused the problem in the first place.

Of course getting rid of everything that is causing a problem is nigh on impossible and this is the root of the issue.

Buying links was far too easy because in the main it was an automated process. Anyone could jump online and get 1,000, 10,000 or a million backlinks for next to nothing. Links were cheap because it made no difference where they came from as long as they linked back to a target site and usually had the ‘money’ keywords in them.

So, scripts generated millions of links on sites set up exclusively for the purpose of hosting these links, but no thought was ever given to removing them. And when you start to try and remove them then the problems really begin.

Many of these automated sites have no contact details, no webmaster looking after them and even if you can get through to someone the chances of getting a response are slim indeed. Of those that do respond at least half of them want money to remove the links which leaves us with the considerate and caring webmasters who do respond, appreciate the problem and remove the link for you. Sadly these webmasters are few and far between.

Practically therefore we are dealing with an almighty mess which needs to be cleaned up and it takes time, patience and perseverance to prevail.

Frankly this is beyond most website owners.

We started working with a client earlier this year who came to us because their keyword positions were dropping. We advised them fairly quickly that their backlink profile was the source of the trouble and it needed cleaning up urgently. As soon as we were engaged we set about the process of clean up but four weeks in Google spotted the problem backlinks and applied a manual penalty.

The penalty has been a pain the backside for the client. They don’t rank any more for the keywords that bring in the revenue for them and they are losing money, fast.

There will be some out there that may feel that it is their fault however, like so many other businesses out there now in the same situation, this was something they neither wanted, expected nor deserved. Like so many others they employed a firm to ‘do some SEO’ and like so many were amazed to find themselves shooting up the rankings. They didn’t employ them to use black hat tactics, nor to do anything that would deliberately jeopardise the firm’s reputation or online business. Like so many others, they were duped by lazy SEO.

The firms that caused this are mostly long gone, or are refusing to take responsibility for their actions and websites that used to offer to sell you backlinks are disappearing overnight.

So here we are cleaning up the mess, but the issue here lies with how Google are treating firms who find themselves in this unfortunate position.

We’ve long argued that this clean up and penalising of firms is pointless and unnecessary. Right now our client is faced with a long clean-up project and no idea of when they might expect to be free of Google’s swingeing penalty.

We followed our usual process of downloading all the links we could find, over 300,000 in this case, and set about weeding them out. We contacted hundreds of webmasters and following a few weeks of effort finally put together a disavow file to go with the file of links we had already removed. We asked Google for reconsideration but this morning found this;

Google Reconsideration

Now we’ve blanked out some important bits, such as who the client is but there are a number of worrying elements to this refusal.

Firstly, and most worryingly, the three links they give as examples do not show in Google’s’ own list of links. Nowhere in Webmaster tools do these three links show, nor indeed many other toxic links that we have found. In fact these three didn’t appear in the 330,000 links we found for this client which suggests that the problem is even bigger than most of the link tools out there.

The problem therefore for the average website owner is how on earth are you supposed to find and remove links that Google won’t tell you are there but expect you to find? And if Google knows they are there, and against their webmaster guidelines, then why aren’t they showing in Webmaster Tools?

The second part, which we already knew is that you need to show a significant and sustained effort to clean up links otherwise Google simply won’t pay attention to you. Disavowing the links is not enough; you need to be seen to have sweated to remove them.

The final bit which is enough to make anyone’s blood boil is that Google “won’t review another request from this site for a few weeks from now”.

How on earth is this allowed? How can one of the biggest companies on the earth get away with telling other businesses that they are switching off their revenue stream and keeping it switched off for an indeterminate time? Surely unless Google can prove, beyond doubt that the company have been deliberately trying to manipulate the rankings (which in this case they haven’t) then acting a judge, jury and executioner is an abuse of a monopoly position.

It’s enough to make most businesses give up. And all of it is totally unnecessary.

Google already knows which links are right and which are wrong. It could simply ignore those that are wrong in any algorithmic calculation and only count the good ones. Surely this is a better way of dealing with it?

We’re convinced this is wrong and massively open to abuse. There is nothing stopping us today creating millions of links which are totally against Webmaster guidelines and pointing them at a competitor to damage their site. How would Google know? How would anyone know? And frankly how would that competitor ever clean up the mess?

Google has dug itself quite a deep pit here and should someone choose to take them to task over this I doubt there will be any reasonable defence for this behaviour. Stop it now Google, whilst you still have a good name.


The Ever-Changing World of Link Building

Link building is dynamic and ever-changing, but it is still an integral part of any form of digital marketing, and should be one of your SEO priorities. What started as a simple ‘who shouts the loudest wins’ with very few rules has slowly been becoming a super-strict game – with the rules strictly enforced by the mighty Google.Google

It may be all well and good finding ‘quick wins’, but the ugly truth is most of the time these are short-lived, short-term and ineffective solutions, and although Google is just a machine, it’s unlikely you’re going to ‘fool the system’ for too long.

We’ve said it time and time again and we stick by it, the best practice for SEO should always be do it right the first time.

That being said, what exactly is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to link building? This is something that seems to change on a regular basis, and we spend a fair bit of time keeping up with the rules as Google churns them out. But for now, there are a few rules you should always abide by when it comes to link building, as dictated by Moz.

One of the first rules they touch on is something we’ve been preaching for a while now – which is beware your anchor text. When it comes to websites being penalised for their backlinks the common factor often seems to be the anchor text, and you should be particularly aware when you control the anchor text. Google knows when you control the anchor text and that is exactly what they are looking for, and self-controlled links with over-optimised anchor text are subject to devaluation and penalisation.

With regards to this, you should be even more cautious with links that scale, such as widget links, author bio boxes, etc. Combining these two elements leads to a bulk amount of poor links that are even more prone to devaluation and penalisation.

You should never ask for anchor text, whenever you do this, regardless if you try to diversify the way you do it, you create over-optimisation and a predictable pattern, which more often than not will lead to a lot of red flags being raised. Letting people link to your site however they choose, whether it’s how you want it or not creates a much more natural link profile, which is ultimately what you are looking for.

And one of the final “avoid” rules from Moz is avoid site-wide links, which again is something we have been preaching to our clients for years. The only obvious exception would be site navigation, but besides this site-wide links of any kind, particularly site-wide anchor text footer links should be avoided at all costs.

The key point out of all this, despite the ever-changing rules and dynamics behind it all, is to keep link building. Google is continually changing its algorithm and rolling out new updates and rules, but this doesn’t mean you should ever give up on link building. Link building has always and we suspect will always be an integral part of search engine optimisation.

Read more about the dos and don’ts of link building or watch the video over at Moz: http://moz.com/blog/the-rules-of-link-building-whiteboard-friday


Why anchor text is killing your website

We’ve been busy recently working for a range of clients, all of which have one thing in common; their sites have been hit by Google. The hit in each case has not been one where you get a warning message in your inbox advising you of a manual penalty, but a more sinister algorithmic penalty that is characterised by a gradual loss of rankings and a long slow decline in organic traffic.

With each of these client sites the one thing that we can say with a degree of certainty is that in every case the problem has been backlinks.

For many years prevailing SEO wisdom has been that you need backlinks to rank and many firms, including some very well known ones, succumbed to temptation and spent a lot of money buying links. In many cases however they simply engaged an SEO firm who convinced the client that they ‘knew what they were doing’ and that ‘it works for all our other clients’. Links were bought not built properly and today this is crippling their sites.

These firms now find themselves with a backlink profile which is the product of years of link building and the issues are deep rooted and endemic.

With the recent work most of the clients had not succumbed to massive link buying sprees so the profiles were relatively clear and in one case two other SEO firms had looked, unsuccessfully, for the correct solution.

We had a slight advantage in that we could look across a range of clients and because of that we could spot patterns which would not otherwise be obvious to a site owner. The more we looked at these sites the more a pattern began to emerge. The trouble seems to have started for each site around the time of the Google update of May 9th 2013.

To do this analysis we used a range of tools including the wonderful Panguin Tool from Barracuda Digital (thanks guys!) and these screen shots are taken from their tool.

Panguin analysis of anchor text penalty
anchor 5

anchor 4

anchor 3

anchor 2
Now as you can see the profiles all show different patterns and trends and some recover whilst others continue to slide. One was even in decline before this point however when we looked at each of them on an individual basis we found the same problems.

Irrespective of the number of backlinks to a site, the issue was the mix of anchor text that we found. In fact in one of the profiles above we found that the over optimised anchor text was all coming from sites that the client actually owned so we changed it overnight and from that point the site started to recover. In all the other cases however the problem was embedded far deeper and nothing short of a long term link cleaning and removal exercise would do.

One thing that we’ve been asked about by clients is how we spot a bad backlink profile and here’s an example we’ve unearthed which should highlight the problem.

We selected Singapore as the destination for our searches and chose Finance as the sector and after about six searches we found what we were looking for. A single page site, not an obvious brand name, ranking on page one for a hard keyword.

The question is how does a site with so little content rank above major international brands? The answer is simple.

Let’s start with what Google says you shouldn’t do when creating links to your site;

Google Webmaster Guidelines

Google Webmaster Guidelines

Add to this list any buying of links that is intended to deliberately manipulate Page Rank and this is a good starting point for the tactics used by Black hat firms in the past. What is missing from this list however is the obvious and that is that a backlink profile should be completely natural and if it is not then it’s pretty easy to spot.

A good place to see what a ‘natural’ profile looks like is to examine a well known and popular site like eBay or Amazon so let’s look at both of these with the help of Majestic SEO.

Link profiles for eBay and Amazon

Link profiles for eBay and Amazon

With millions of backlinks between them the sample size is big enough to give a representative sample and in both graphs you can see the same pattern. This isn’t to say that this is the only pattern you can or should see, more that these two are natural. However when you look at The Telegraph and Next you can see that this pattern appears to repeat itself.

Link Profiles for Telegraph and Next

Link Profiles for Telegraph and Next

So if this is a ‘natural’ backlink profile does it mean that anything outside of this is unnatural? No, just that these are good clean and natural profiles and critically any Search Engine will know this.

Accepting therefore that link profiles will vary there is a single consistency across each of their backlink profiles and this is it;

anchor 15

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The common theme here is that the majority of all the links that come back to the site are on their brand, or more specifically they are not on the ‘money’ keywords; the ones that the site wishes to rank for.

Contrast this with the example we found in Singapore and see if you can spot the issue;

anchor 13

Not a single link was to the brand under which they advertise; the one that appears on the header of the site, in the Title tags and in the url. Everything was about the keywords for which they wished to rank.

The sharper eyed amongst you will also have noticed ‘Burberry’ sneaking in there as well and clearly this is nothing to do with finance. This is another ‘black hat’ tactic and a look at the expanded list for this site shows you what they have done;

anchor 14

The appearance of ‘Burberry’, ‘Cialis’ and ‘Viagra’ are instant giveaways that this site has been subjected to the worst kind of ‘black hat’ SEO. Old spammy domains which have had millions of spam links created have been 301 transferred to this new domain meaning that the weight of the backlinks goes with it. This site could rank for many things, none of which are to do with its backlink profile.

Luckily Google is alive to this kind of manipulation now and we firmly expect this site to have disappeared in the very near future.
So the key to the backlinks, and ensuring that your backlink profile is clean, is to make sure that your profile matches the big boys. People link to them on brand not on what they do and there’s no reason they shouldn’t do the same for you.

If you think about it logically why would 1000 sites randomly all link back to you on ‘beech garden furniture’ as an example, only using the same words in the same order but all in lower case as well? In the example above how on earth did 640 sites who didn’t presumably know each other manage to link back on ‘burberry scarf replica’?

Professional link building, and therefore link clean up, is all about the details and knowing where to start. So if you’ve been hit by Google then take a good look at your anchor text and the answer may well be simpler than you think.