8 May 2014
by Bob Sakayama
Google's Critical Need To Repair The Integrity Of Their Search Results
While not obvious to the casual user, for the past several years, many of the businesses showing at the top of Google's search results were not ranking because of superior relevancy. Instead, they had paid seos to build large numbers of unearned links to their sites, gaining an advantage that had nothing to do with the quality of their content. This effectively corrupted the search - ironically using a strategy that until recently Google rewarded. Clearly, Google's algorithm needed a reset. So for the past couple of years, Google has been making a desperate attempt to regain the integrity of their search results. This after, for more than a decade, permitting sites using huge numbers of meaningless links, posted using automation and/or offshore labor, to advance their ranks, polluting Google's primary search results with sites successfully gaming the system. Unfortunately, Google's attempt to fix this huge problem has itself become a nightmare for the businesses who have become collateral damage in the war against spam.
Motivated by a personal injury that changed his life, Mark Agnew conceived, planned and then launched the business represented by his e-commerce site: Eyeglasses.com. This is a case study concerning a health care related, highly respected, 14 year old business that was thriving until the website was penalized multiple times by Google starting in February 2012.
As Google amps up it's enforcement policies to address the rampant gaming of their search results, some very unseemly consequences are being realized. In order to preserve the integrity of their search results, Google penalizes the ranks of websites that are caught using off-guideline techniques to advance their search ranks. A site penalized in Google will experience huge drops in traffic and revenue - a Google penalty is an existential threat to a business.
What Could Trigger A Google Penalty?
Links to your site from other sites strongly influence Google's ranking algorithm, and this fact has created an incentive for seos to seek advantages using link schemes. As of this writing, the most common penalty is one imposed for "unnatural" links - where Google considers the links to be spammy, not supported with content, posted using tools/automation, and/or otherwise not "earned" naturally. Google wants to ensure that links are only the result of voluntary inclusion into editorial content. Too many "unnatural" links pointing to your site may result in a devastating Google penalty.
Eyeglasses.com Penalized - Google demands link removals
Eyeglasses.com was first penalized in February of 2012 for "unnatural" links. Prior to this time, the site was in the top 3 most of the time for searches including "eyeglasses" and many other valuable terms. But those ranks were gone, devastating internet sales. Although Mark never intentionally engaged in off-guideline tactics to game the search results, he had paid seos to build links, not aware of the negative consequences of that decision. By the time Google brought the hammer down, some of the links were many years old.
Although the consequences of a rank penalty are horrific, the actual remediation work is straightforward but time consuming. Since there were no records of the link building sources, we worked through the arduous process identifying the links, contacting webmasters and requesting removal. After each large batch of removal successes, we filed a request for reconsideration. Because of the large link numbers, we ran many batches. And all during this time, there are no sales from searches.
Penalty Revoked - But Ranks Do Not Return
After months of painstaking work, much higher sales losses and 6 requests for reconsideration, Google finally sent a notice of penalty revocation on 27 March 2013. There was a traffic spike on that day, but the celebration was short lived.
Google Penalties Enable The Growth Of The Negative SEO Industry
From the perspective of all who use and rely on search, actions taken by Google to prevent cheating are welcome. We all want a fair playing field. But there is an unseen consequence to harming sites for their links. As soon as it became general knowledge that links could trigger penalties, unethical seos started exploiting this fact to disadvantage their competitors by posting bad links to their sites. And a new industry, negative seo, was underway, piggybacked on Google's own enforcement protocols. It turns out that assuming website owners are responsible for their links could be a huge mistake. And ruining businesses based on false assumptions brings with it ethical implications that are a long ways from resolution. Especially for those in control of this environment, whose systems are able to reward or destroy businesses.
Eyeglasses.com Penalized Again - By Negative SEO Attack
The spike in the traffic of Eyeglasses.com after the penalty was revoked lasted only one day. Ranks remained suppressed. A month later, there was no evidence that the penalty was revoked. We continued remediation assuming that, although the manual action was revoked, the site was still under automated suppression.
Then, on 9 September 2013, Eyeglasses.com received another notice of an unnatural links penalty, this time focused on links pointed to the blog. When those links and the corresponding sites were examined closely, most were posted using the same, templated page layouts. The large numbers and the shady nature of the sites involved (most appeared to be hacked Wordpress sites) are symptomatic of a negative seo attack. Attackers use automated systems to post their links and as a result, most of their links look very similar in the way they are styled, positioned on the page, and even the layout of the pages used.
Realizing that Eyeglasses.com was the victim of a third party attack that successfully tricked Google into unjustly penalizing their site, we immediately prepared a very detailed description of the commonalities of the attacking links so that Google employees could more easily identify them. We also included many specific examples of these links when we filed for reconsideration on 14 September 2013. We also requested that Google discount all links that met the profile we provided rather than harming us for them.
Should Google Be Held Accountable When It Mistakenly Devastates A Business?
When a website comes under a negative seo attack that succeeds in triggering a penalty, Google is complicit with the attackers in harming the business, especially if there are no protocols in place to prevent or quickly reverse such a penalty. And because of the damage that penalties can cause, enabling constructive communication managed by responsible parties is key to preventing or limiting the harm to innocent parties caused by mistaken penalties.
Google's First Reaction When We Report Negative SEO: YOU ARE GUILTY
Google's first response to our evidence of a negative seo attack on Eyeglasses.com was a boilerplate message claiming they could still see "unnatural links" pointing to the site, basically ignoring the evidence and continuing to blame the owners. In our experience, this is always the first reaction from Google, strongly suggesting that our reports, no matter how detailed are not even read.
But within Google's message was some additional information - examples of our problem links. Usually, this is welcome because it points us to the types of links that have triggered the penalty. But in this instance, the example links met exactly the profile of an attack link that we so carefully included in our request. Now we know our report was not read, or if read, not understood. But by presenting these attack links as their examples of problem links, Google is confirming that the attack was successful.
And instead of acknowledging the very obvious negative seo attack Google attempts to whitewash the problem with this: "Regardless of who created the links, in order to protect the quality of our search results, we have taken action to reduce the trust of inorganic links to your site."
Nothing here to see folks, doesn't matter who posted the links, we got it covered, we have taken action.
Google Responds To Evidence Of Successful Negative SEO Attacks
For many years Google denied the significance of negative seo. When Google was recently confronted with proof that 3rd parties were succeeding in getting competitors penalized, they claimed that one way webmasters could address these attacks was by using the new disavow tool. This is a submission form where webmasters can declare links they want to be ignored. If you could identify the attacking links, just submit them.
While the disavow tool is certainly welcome in principle, if you're attacked, it's up to you to make sure the attack is not successful by detecting and then reporting the links before Google penalizes you. And the reality of being vulnerable to negative seo attacks has forced many businesses into the expense of monitoring and vetting their links monthly.
Wasn't The Disavow Tool Created To Help Sites Deal With Negative SEO?
When Eyeglasses.com attempted to report a successful negative seo attack not only was that effort ignored, but the response from Google continued to blame us for the links, and included this offensive statement: "We know that perhaps not every link can be cleaned up, but in order to deem a reconsideration request as successful, we need to see a substantial good-faith effort to remove the links, and this effort should result in a decrease in the number of bad links that we see."
Does this seem right? A third party attacks your site with links, triggering a Google penalty that destroys your business, yet Google still holds you responsible for detecting and removing enough of those bad links before they will honor your right to disavow them.
Google's Incomplete Link Data
Google claims that the link data available in their Webmaster Tools area can help you find your problem links, and they encourage you to download it if you need to run discovery on your link profile. One issue we have with their data is that you are only able to download a tiny sample of those links. So for example, Google may report that you have 50,000 links, but you may only be able to download 500. We think that is only ok if we can be assured that the problems are in the downloadable sample.
Google Search Quality Staffers Are Not Technically Robust Enough To Recognize An Attack
Not only is the G team unable to recognize a negative seo attack, even when the analysis is provided, but they are also providing suggestions that cannot be acted upon. We reported a negative seo attack, provided detailed analysis of the attacking links, including examples, and received a response that not only ignored our report, but also proved that Google was tricked by the attacker. The sample links they wanted us to address were actually part of the attack!
Even more disturbing, is that their example links were not available for download until the day we received Google's response. So they were not discoverable until we are told they are a problem. We've had other experiences where the links were not in the data even when they were given as examples. Think about this - you're being penalized while the data regarding your offense is hidden from you. In Eyeglasses.com's case the link data suddenly appeared on the day we were informed that we failed the review.
This strongly suggests that there may not be a way to preemptively address a negative seo attack using Google's data. There actually may be no way of addressing an attack successfully, period.
Because we were seeing ineptitude on a grand scale, we requested that our case be escalated to management, or at least upstream to someone at Google who was knowledgeable about negative seo.
Google Is Becoming More Insular As They Penalize More Businesses
Contrary to their claims of greater transparency, for a penalized site, and especially a site penalized by a negative seo attack, the avenues for communication or recourse have gradually been removed at a time when more and more sites are being harmed. A webmaster used to be able to file a reconsideration request by simply filling out & submitting the form. But recently Google changed the reconsideration process so that only sites that have received a manual action notice can access the form. If you come under attack and are able to detect it before being penalized for it, there's no longer a way to even communicate this problem to Google.
Eyeglasses.com's Escalation Request Ignored. Instead, Eyeglasses.com Is Given Contradictory & Bogus Information
Read our disturbing conversation with Google
By late October 2013, as we continued to remove links, we discovered that the manual action flag for the blog disappeared. This should be good news. But our effort to escalate our request into the hands of a more knowledgeable party at Google failed, and instead we received a cut and pasted email once again informing us that we still have a manual action: "As mentioned, we take action on inorganic links to your site regardless of who created the links..." Once again reminding us that they're on it, dealt with it, no matter who posted.
"The manual action is on the subdirectory http://www.eyeglasses.com/blog/. You can verify the subdirectory to see links pointing to the site."
This is referring to the process by which you create an account to access Google's data on your site. Because we detected the attack on the blog urls, we already had these accounts in place and we knew there had been no data there in the past. But now we were being instructed by Google so we looked again. There was no link data available. And none a week later.
Equally disturbing was the fact that within Webmaster Tools accounts there was no manual action flag, even though the message from Google was telling us otherwise. We politely reviewed the numerous problems and requested help on 4 December 2013:
"We verified our blog url in WMT as suggested. However there is no available link data, and no manual action indicated in that account. In a previous request, we mentioned this. So we have no data and the only indication of a manual action is from your last email message.
Also, we are aware of the problem links to the blog - we mentioned these in an earlier request - these are attack links, none were posted by us and the anchors are mostly terms that are not valuable to us, including the links you sent as examples in a previous email. The fact that your example links are attack links is a huge problem for us, since it suggests you are not able to recognize the attack links, and instead are holding us responsible for them...
In summary, we have no link data in the WMT account for eyeglasses.com/blog as you referenced, and no indication of a manual action in that account. There is something terribly wrong with the information in WMT and the messaging we are receiving as a result of our requests for review. Please advise."
Google's Last Response (also 4 December 2013)
Thank you for your email.
This thread is now closed. We have offered all the guidance we can provide at this time. We encourage you to post in the forum (http://groups.google.com/a/googleproductforums.com/forum/#!forum/webmasters) where the webmaster community may be able to provide some additional input.
If you believe your site no longer violates Google's Webmaster Guidelines, please submit a new reconsideration request here: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/reconsideration.
The Google Search Quality Team.
Read our disturbing conversation with GoogleFailure To The Very End
Consistent with their previous advice, we are once again given bogus information directly from Google. Although they provided a link to submit a new reconsideration request, that link no longer takes you to the form. You can only file for reconsideration if you have a manual action notice in your WMT account. Eyeglasses.com does not have that notice.
Holding Google Accountable
When Google destroys your business by mistake, are they accountable?
What happened to Eyeglasses.com could happen to any web based business. Negative seo is real. Although Google enabled it through their harsh enforcement actions, they are not acknowledging or addressing the harm caused to innocents when they get things wrong.
When Eyeglasses.com submitted requests for review, it was clear very quickly that the Google employees handling those requests were not capable of recognizing their own errors, and had no protocol to escalate issues to managers when overwhelmed.
The individual players, who deny your requests and communicate with you when you are penalized, are protected by anonymity during the reconsideration process. If you worked at Google you would probably want the same protection. But while that is useful to the workers, it completely masks responsibility for the kind of horrendous customer service Eyeglasses.com received.
Google, if you're reading this you can act right now by contacting the members of the Search Quality Team that handled case # 3-8862000000352.
Comments by Bob Sakayama
I run an enterprise search performance team out of NYC that has been accruing expertise in penalty remediation since 2001. Unwinding a Google penalty requires knowledge about penalties as well as communication with Google. I am very familiar with Google's protocols and have had hundreds of interactions with the search quality team, many of them informative and helpful, and the vast majority leading to penalty revocation.
But when the ranks of a site are attacked successfully with negative seo, Google may not be capable of recognizing the attack. And although most businesses would consider the loss of their search ranks to be an emergency, Google does not provide a pathway to quickly resolve the error and may unilaterally shut down your ability to communicate with them. They did it to us.