21 April 2012
Google's recent crackdown on inorganic links has enabled an unexpected and very unwelcome reaction - blowback, in the form of negative seo, which has just introduced a huge new risk for web businesses, as well as corrupting the search for everyone.
Because of our penalty work, we have a unique view into the changes, as they happen, on the enforcement side of Google. Beginning in March 2012, we started seeing a change in the way that Google was penalizing sites. Up until that time, the primary penalty was a trademark suppression (harming your brand searches) which usually saw most of your ranks disappear past page 3-5.
But recently, the most common penalty has been one that granularly impacts very specific ranks. And very recently some sites are getting a warning in advance of of the penalty. It's very likely that this is the main off-site focus of the plan announced recently to address "over-optimization" in a big way. In every case, the penalized sites had suppression only on the terms they were slamming with links. And the links are usually all automated garbage.
This penalty has nailed a lot of sites, and many of them learned about the link problems after filing for reconsideration. A message mentioning the detection of "inorganic links" appeared in the response in WMT. So far, so good - we like getting info on the penalty, especially if it's accurate and permits us to clear it, which involves removing the offending garbage links. The problem stems from the numbers - garbage links posted via automation tend to be very numerous. Have not yet seen a site nuked by garbage, but automation can do amazing things.
Here's where it gets both crazy and dangerous. So the crazy part is that the marketing of these garbage links has itself become a fairly big industry encompassing SEOs who sell & specialize in the services, the workers here & abroad who do the work, the software makers who sell the tools to automate the posting process, and of course, the webmasters, copywriters & hosting companies. There are many businesses that perform ONLY this service. And this industry has been rocking because garbage links in large numbers typically do work, coupled with the fact that Google has permitted this to go on for a very long time. It's now common practice to have lots of garbage links (unless you read this 2010 post: A New Google Penalty).
As predicted, Google has brought the hammer down on something that is now already pervasive, and while we feel that some kind of action really is overdue, we're concerned at what we're witnessing. The real and formidable task for Google is doing the right thing for everyone. Here is where it gets dangerous.
As soon as it became obvious to us why Google was harming sites, it became clear that negative SEO was possible, because there is no accountability on links pointed at you. In other words, Google can't tell who is responsible for the garbage links. The reason that Google lost the war on paid links is that they can't really tell the paid links from the naturally occurring links.
But knowing who posted garbage links is the same problem, and because you can't prove a negative (I didn't post those links), this problem is much worse. As usual, Google is putting the burden of proof on the site owner and this time it could really be a huge burden, even if you are innocent.
Just as the banning of paid links led to the corruption of link environments as the link sellers saw their businesses under attack and opened their doors to porn and gaming links to make money while they still could, the SEOs whose livelihoods get taken away as their garbage links no longer work still have the tools at hand to enter a darker business model: taking down sites for pay. In other words, the SEOs who's clients have walked because of penalties and notices are turning to a new use for their skills - negative SEO. It's so easy to do that it's inevitable that this will become a major problem for everyone.
We're watching it happen right now. Very successful SEO agencies are being dismantled as the work they do is perceived to be toxic. At the same time businesses who never used these garbage link building services are starting to receive notices and penalties for links they did not post. The scare is on, and companies are now being forced to put resources into finding the links in order to communicate to Google that they didn't post them. What a waste of time and resources, not to mention the bad taste in your mouth left by being punished for doing nothing and then having to prove your innocence.
Please, Google, do the right thing.
Stop trying to convince us that it can't happen, because we have the proof in the form of victims left in your wake. We're going to seek publicity in the mainstream media with some of the victim's stories because the public needs to know how unfairly sites are being treated and as a consequence how badly the search has been corrupted.
The ethical move would be to permit webmasters to disavow links from within WMT. Many of us have been clamoring for this improvement for years, and we don't understand why you would instead choose an enforcement path that will so certainly lead to innocents being harmed. You've made a huge mistake this time - it needs to be walked back and a better solution put in its place.