Don’t naively fall into a Google Penalty

A Client asked: Is it a good idea to try to get links from other sites and directories to help make my site more powerful? 

This question pops up regularly from folks who want to build their website’s exposure in Google searches. Before the Penguin 5 release in October 2103 the answer was definitely YES, now the answer is it DEPENDS ON LINK QUALITY.

The whole area of backlinks i.e. links from other sites is now extremely fragile/potentially dangerous and I strongly recommend involving SEO professionals or risk destroying your website’s organic performance.

What is a Backlink ?

A Backlink a connection from another website (or web resource) back to your site.  If someone on the other site ‘clicks’ the link, they arrive at your site.

Backlinks and Google

Penguin 5 (later renamed Penguin 3.0 ) was a major turning point in Google’s critical examination of backlinks to your site. If  the Penguin software decided you were trying to scam Google with bad or ‘unnatural’ backlinks, the site was punished by reducing its ranking by 20-30 positions – across all keywords – i.e. pushing your site into obscurity.

Why Does Google punish websites with unnatural links ?

While the cynic inside me says ‘…because they can’, I have to admit it was overdue. Up to 2013 it was common knowledge in SEO circles that the more links, the better search exposure a website would get. SEO programs were essentially about getting as many backlinks as possible. An entire industry emerged that specialised in producing links for anyone who would pay. These flourished in countries where labour costs made this a viable service offering.

Then the brains trust at Google said ‘No More’ – this is scamming the system. They created a subsystem (called Penguin) to inspect back links to try to neutralise the positive influence of ‘unnaturally created’ backlinks in Google searches. Almost instantly, millions of websites were impacted. Globally, many businesses found their websites didn’t attract sales leads any longer because they disappeared from search results.

Who knows how many businesses who specialised in link building collapsed – and I imagine that 100’s of thousands of people (many in 3rd world countries) lost their employment. Let’s not get into a discussion about the ethics of Google’s decision(s) or their largely unfettered  influence on the global economy.

Notably spending on Google ads increased as business owners scrambled for online exposure, when SEO was less certain.

What is Link Quality?

The Penguin software assesses if the links to your site are principally ‘real’ or if they are ‘unnatural’ in which case applies an automatic or  ‘algorithmic penalty’ on the site. As you might expect making this judgement is a complex process, which occasionally makes mistakes so from time to time Google updates its Penguin system to presumably refine it.

Note that Google also uses human backlink assessors in some situations who can impose a manual penalty on sites. Presumably they are alerted by software (probably Penguin) if a site has a suspicious backlink profile that can’t be automatically assigned a penalty.

This FAQ on What is a Low quality Backlink documents factors Google uses to determine Link Quality

How do I know which are the good backlinks?

It’s not easy, but I find that these two toolsets provide the most reliable assessment of backlink profiles:

  • Cognitive SEO
    My favourite link profile toolset as it provides:

    • The ability to import links that are reported in Google Webmasters Tools
    • ‘Auto-Classifies’ links into Un-natural, Suspect and OK
  • AHRefs
    uick and convenient

Each of these SEO Toolsets provides some ability to provide link profile assessments without having to buy the product, so you can certainly have a bash at self-assessing your site, but if you need a detailed link profile report contact me and I’ll prepare and interpret it for you.

How many bad links can I have before a penalty?

Great question but unfortunately the answer is only speculative, and like many things Google, it’s a moving target. There are a small number of unnatural links in most site’s link profile – often these are inadvertently or innocently ‘unnatural’.
As a broad rule of thumb I suggest keep the ratio of unnatural links well under 10% of all links. NB This could change without notice!

How do I get rid of bad backlinks?

Essentially you need to get them removed, and as they exist on another website you need to get the person who controls that site to do it.  This article covers the process of removing unnatural backlinks.

Your fall-back position is to ask Google to disavow your site of these links.

I’ve removed the back backlinks. What now ?

Sit tight and wait for the next Penguin crawl. When is the next Penguin update you ask? Great question. I wish I knew the answer. You can visit resources like Algoroo that track Google updates, and wait with bated breath.

…and now the character building comment: It’s unlikely your website will bounce back to its pre-penalty ranking. Yep. That is a fact. The path to full recovery from a penalty is indeed long and tortuous

I hope I’ve persuaded you that it’s really important to not get penalised in the first place.

How exposed is your site to a Penguin penalty ?

Just this week I examined a website’s link profile to discover that some idiot has just added 300+ clearly unnatural links over the last 2 months. It’s a penalty time bomb, and the site will surely collapse into search obscurity after the next Penguin spin cycle.

I’m horrified to see an allegedly ‘professional SEO provider’ is still performing unnatural back linking. I’m also concerned for the client who has been paying good money for this naive and dangerous ‘SEO Service’. They’ve got some short-term results but at any moment their site is going to fall into a Penguin penalty.

Make no mistake. It’s still going on right now.

Take Aways:

  1. Get your website’s backlink profile checked
  2. Get bad backlinks removed
  3. Breathe
  4. Go to 1.