We're seeing a train wreck here, especially with respect to Google's intention and the actual outcome. Real risk in the search for all online businesses just ramped up, while paid links just became much more valuable.
Everyone can agree with the intention behind Penguin - preventing spam from positively influencing ranks. But there are some not so good, unintended consequences stemming from this enforcement action.
From the number of requests we get for penalty help, we can usually tell when Google initiates a new enforcement action, and last week we saw record numbers of requests. As usual, inappropriate SEO techniques played a big role in why these sites were harmed.
But new to the mix were some sites who really were innocents (ie. not intentionally using off-guideline techniques) caught up in the dragnet. These innocents were in 2 groups, those that were simply clueless about appropriate SEO (biggest group by far), and those that were the victims of the actions of third parties. Remember this the next time you read that negative SEO is impossible.
Google knows innocents are being harmed. Otherwise, why the form below to inform them Penguin may have mistakenly targeted a site? We see a lot of messages from Google that appear in clients' WMT. They have been changing, and the warning is now one that is tentative - as if they suspect they may be wrong, "We've detected that some of your site's pages may be using techniques that are outside Google's Webmaster Guidelines." (emphasis mine)
Right now, for good reason, there's much discussion about rank loss and negative seo, and the retail SEOs are milking this for visibility because everyone's curious. Google and its SEO mouthpieces are downplaying the existence of negative SEO. But let's be very clear about this, the money already knows - negative SEO is real, and recognition of this fact is already changing the face of risk assessment for internet businesses. The notion of risk from negative SEO has always been around as an urban legend, but now it's on the radar as a reality. And smart businesses need to start monitoring their link profiles on a regular basis to mitigate the new risk.
So How Does All This Increase The Value Of Paid Links?
The reasons are so simple:
-1- They work.
-2- They are undetectable.
-3- All other doors are closing.
This all comes down to the fact that links are valuable for ranks, and while Google wants to enforce a no-paid links policy, it can't. Also, the streetwise players already know how wide-spread paid links are AT THE TOP OF THE SEARCH. We're talking about the big boys here, and this means that the acceptance of paid links is mainstream and pervasive.
It's becoming an unspoken fact that productive link building within the guidelines is impossible for most businesses, especially if they need to improve performance quickly. We all know what the white hat link build team does - sending out and following up on thousands of emails contacting other sites, begging for links. But can anyone claim that the links you receive as a result of this insane work are really natural? I doubt that they pass the smell test for certified organic.
Google says build great content so others will link to you naturally, and we certainly should be doing this. But just how quickly do you think that's going to attract any links of substance? So instead we have the quiet acceptance of paid links - an overt black hat strategy - successful because of the proven inability to enforce against it.
Paid Links: The Last Man Standing
But garbage links are easy to detect so they are taking the hit, and it's probably a good thing to take spam links off the table. The problems all derive from the way this was handled, and not just in the last week.
For many years up until last week, large numbers of crappy links could actually work for you, and as that became obvious, the garbage links industry took off, with buy-in from many professional SEOs. But Penguin is shutting that down. And now that the low hanging fruit is toxic, the important question is, "Where do you go for links?"
It's going to be pretty obvious to everyone that the only effective, accessible, and scalable rank push left standing is paid links.
This outcome is ironic. One of Google's biggest nemesis', and something they've been unsuccessfully attempting to shut down for years - paid links - just got a tremendous, inadvertent thumbs up from Penguin. And in spite of Google's lofty democratic principles, where rank can't be influenced by money, this puts rank squarely into the hands of those who can most afford to pay for it.
Dealing With Rank Loss From Penguin
According to Google, the 24 April 2012 enforcement update now has an official name - Penguin. And it follows right on the heals of another Panda update, released on 19 April 2012, more of a content filter.
So if you saw your ranks tumble this month, and it's important to know which update did the damage, you might be able to find out if you observe the point at which your ranks tanked and reference the above dates.
Google Penguin Response Form
I think it's very interesting that the very first part of the form is a link to a Google resource set up to receive reports of spam, basically recruiting us to contribute to their enforcement reach.
If you need to use the form, please also add a request that Google provide a way to disavow bad links from Webmaster Tools. This would permit continued enforcement, but allow businesses to escape harm caused by the actions of third parties, or for past mistakes. Forgiveness needs to be part of the enforcement action, or else the harm done to innocents cannot be undone. And forcing us to wait for the update that fixes this is not appropriate.