* by: Bob Sakayama *
A major component of high level enterprise SEO work is the unwinding of Google penalties. As an expert in this niche, I see both large and small sites caught up in the bad karma of rank suppression, usually completely inadvertently. What I've noticed is that the common Google penalties have made a significant change of late, and these changes make it clear that the search environment is becoming more dangerous for high ranking sites.
During the month of May 2008, I was contacted by an average of 5 penalized sites a week. I can tell when a big enforcement effort gets underway because the number of Google penalties in my email can swell to 20+ per day. I mention this for the perspective this give me on the search environment we all compete in. What I see is not a healthy place.
Up until very recently, the most common penalties were triggered for clearly definable bad behavior, intentional or otherwise. The point is that historically, Google penalties were imposed for things you did wrong. Whether they were done accidentally or intentionally, the rules were clear, and once the rules were spelled out, following them was easy. If you got penalized, you found your mistakes and fixed them.
Now, we're finding that a large number of the sites suffering Google penalties were harmed by previous seo efforts. And many of these are much harder to unwind. One of the common threads in these seo managed disasters is bad inbounds. Some SEOs even owned the link structures themselves. From my point of view, it's easy to see why SEOs have such a bad reputation. If we find inbound links with 'seo' in the domain, we check that link extra carefully - it's really a necessity to scrutinize all work done by the supposed SEO experts.
But one of the most depressing aspects of the recent changes I've been observing relates to Google's handling of links. We all know about the recent talk of Google purging paid links. That, in addition to the horrific bad neighborhoods issue are actually quite scary - not because of onerous new rules, but because of the indiscriminate way sites get penalized.
The entire paid links issue is going to have to be sorted out somehow, and there are going to be sites that get harmed in the process. And it's particularly depressing to know so many sites that are buying links and rank because of it, while Google asks us to report all buyers and sellers. Which way is right? Are we reporting the bad guys so Google will deal with their ill begotten ranks, or are those high ranking sites going to continue to get away with a black hat ranking technique?
And Google's effort to keep sites away from bad neighborhoods might make sense, but the way enforcement gets applied is often innocents getting sent to Guantanamo - no escape, no representation. And think about this: We know what a bad neighborhood is. But what if your business is a casino portal, or a porn site? Well, in that case, you don't have the same bad neighborhood requirements because you ARE a bad neighborhood. So in effect, you have an advantage (and a weapon!). And if just linking from my clients' bad neighborhood sites to yours can shut you down, think of the possibilities for an rank killing strategy aimed at your competition. And of course it's already in play.
It's this last point that really scares me - 3rd party interference - because we're starting to see it. And it is inspired by Google's frantic effort to void paid links by reporting your neighbors. Basically your competitor gets links to your site from known bad neighborhood structures, and then reports you to Google. What's particularly distasteful about these efforts is that the attack is on your ranks via Google. So an attacker causes you to be penalized twice, once by the attacker, and once by Google, who penalizes your site as result of the actions of your unethical competition.