I have been practicing SEO for a decade. Each time Google comes up with some major algorithm update, the Webmaster forums light up in panic. And each time that happens, I grin. My sites are not affected. My clients are not affected.
Well, the Penguin finally bit. Ouch. Yes, one site I work with got the "unnatural links" message, and we have set to work examining all the backlinks with a fine tooth comb, in order to restore the site's rankings and reputation.
I must state my own personal bias up front. I am not a records-keeping type of guy. I do my work. I promote. I move on to the next thing. I don't look back. I don't ruminate daily on the ups and downs of traffic. As long as the long-term trend in rankings, traffic and conversions is good, keep moving upward and onward.
So a detailed review of the backlinks for this site really opened my eyes. There are a lot of links - and I mean a lot! - that we had no idea we had. Some are of very good quality. Some of very poor quality. Some Google probably accepts. Some it probably flags as "unnatural." Some might even be negative SEO (yes, they look suspicious), yet not enough of these to believe there was a negative SEO campaign against the site.
And many of these links you might also have without knowing. So here they are...
Article Directory Links
Most Internet marketers use article marketing as a tool for either publicity or SEO (often both). This site had many articles in many directories. The top directories were handled manually, but many were submitted in a semi-automated manner. To be frank, a lot of those directories are pretty poor quality (I know, I know). But some are actually not bad - manually reviewing submissions, respectable PageRank, custom design.
To clean up the site's backlinks, we removed the articles one-by-one from the site's accounts in each directory (unfortunately there is no "delete account" option for most of them).
But some of these directories would not let us log in. The articles had actually been placed by somebody else. Negative SEO? Probably not. Scraping from another site where we did place the articles? Some. Automatically duplicating everything from one article directory to another, where the same person owns all the directories? Also a possibility. Articles syndicated from another article directory? Could be.
Forum Profile Links
One of the more interesting links I found for this site was a forum profile in a name totally unknown to us, linking to the site with some promotional language (like way more professional SEO-looking than those offshore profile-creators would ever do). I wrote the forum owner, who will hopefully remove the profile - or at least the link.
In other words, just about any link can show up unannounced.
High-profile Editorial Links
If you are a daily traffic watcher of a small site, a link from The Huffington Post or The Globe and Mail or USA Today would not go unnoticed. There would be a huge spike in traffic and you would see that link. But if you are not watching too carefully and your site is big with traffic from many different sources, you might not notice every authority link - especially if some come from business or consumer association sites (high authority, but not necessarily high traffic) rather than news sites.
I was very pleased to see how many of these top quality editorial backlinks this website had acquired. I knew of many of them (just doing occasional check-ins on Blekko), but certainly not all. It confirms the value of constantly creating really good quality content and sharing it as widely as possible through strong social media accounts and networks.
Spammy Blog Comments
As puzzling as the forum profile example above, are the spammy blog comments linking back to the site. Most of the site's comment links are not spammy, but I did find a very few that were. Like they had been done through some automated program - generic text that revealed the submitter had not read the post, with over a hundred other spammy comments on the same page.
Negative SEO? Possibly? In fact, I am not sure I have any other explanation for it. Except that I did not find hundreds of them, just a few. Is it possible that there are hundreds, but they are on such crappy pages that they don't show up on anybody's radar? If that is the case, maybe Matt Cutts is right about negative SEO being unlikely, after all.
Now I must state for the record that scraped content links are not "unnatural" links. In fact, nothing is more natural. The more content you create, the better you publicize it, the more it gets picked up by high- and medium-authority sites, the more it will be picked up also by robots.
But I worry that Google looks at all these links from some pretty crappy robot-generated sites as unnatural linking.
I should also state for the record that not all scraped content is equal. Some is pure trash. Some are on better quality websites, where the webmaster carefully selects which articles to republish. Some republish whole articles, others just the title, others the title and a summary (you know, like Google, for instance?). Not all scrapers are robots. And some scrape from your site directly and others scrape from other sources (article directories, press release websites, social bookmarking websites, etc.) keeping the links to your site intact.
I should stress that where a human is involved in curating content or links to content and picks those items he wants to link to (such as in blog carnivals, link round-ups, or even just picking and choosing which articles to republish), these are the very "editorial votes" that Google says you should be trying to get for your website.
We found every imaginable type of scraping, good and bad, high-quality and low quality when reviewing backlinks. Do you know which Google defines as "unnatural"? Neither do I. And Google isn't telling.
There are a number of different types of sites that seek to catalogue the websites on the Internet, usually using robots to create a page just for your site (with data and stats) or to create search pages or directory pages.
Like scraped content, these are actually "natural"; you have nothing to do with them, and the more you promote your website, the more likely these sites are to find your site and catalogue it.
When reviewing the backlinks for this site, I found plenty of different examples of these links.
I know, you are strictly white hat and you have never paid for, begged for or offered sex in exchange for a hidden link on anybody's website. But if you have been active enough in social media, forums, the blogosphere and just generally "getting around", you probably have some hidden links.
I found hidden trackback links, hidden header links and hidden comment links when sorting through. Some were clearly plugin glitches. Other were ... um ... [insert sound of scratching head].
The Internet is a big place, and there are millions of people and bots wandering around freely and messing things up. And a few are building things up. Along the way, they leave a trail of links. And they might not tell you about that trail. If you are not keeping a very close eye on your backlinks on an excruciatingly regular basis, chances are that you have some of these links without knowing it.
May they all come for sites like CNN and The Wall Street Journal. And from Search Engine People, of course.
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