A Google Allegory

When John Chow’s rankings dropped a few months ago, a lot of SEOs believed, and continue to believe, that Google banned him for selling links and wanted to set an example. It seems that many ignored his review for a link back campaign, which was clearly designed to game Google. It was also the main driver in his former top ranking for “make money online.”

Now it seems that something similar happened to graphic designer David Airey, and many started to advise him to remove the paid links from his blog. On the other hand, the site is still listed, only it’s on search engine result page (SERP) 6. John Chow is listed too, coincidently on the same SERP. Some say it might be a duplicate content issue. I have to agree with Jim Boykin, however, that there is no evidence that Google is dropping sites that are selling links, and I can say from experience that duplicate content filters tend to keep at least one version of the content—they don’t remove all of them!

One of the main problems I’ve seen in the SEO industry is that we formulate theories based on incomplete information. The fact that key information necessary to make our job easier remains closely guarded by the search engines (for obvious reasons) does not help either.

There is still some critical information missing here…

Will Google ever penalize sites for selling links?

This whole thing reminds me of a fable I heard a few years ago:

There was once a wise man in a small village. The people went to him to ask questions about any topic under the sun. The wise man always provided the right answer, no matter how difficult the question was. Word traveled fast and people from nearby villages came to seek his wisdom. Tall and short, young and old, everyone asked him their most challenging questions, only to see him take one or two seconds to respond and then, calmly, say “Next!”

One day, a very intelligent man came across the spectacle. He was not looking for advice and he did not like the fact that the wise man commanded such respect. He decided to expose him and ridicule him.

He grabbed a bird and trapped it in his hands. He walked like this, hands behind his back, so that the wise man could not see what he had. Then he asked: “Oh great wise man that knows all, what is it that I have in my hands?” The wise man responded without hesitation: “You have a bird in your hands.”

“Okay,” he said to himself, “now I am going to ask if the bird is alive or dead. If he says dead, I will set it free and show everybody that it is alive. If he says is alive, I will squeeze it with my hands and show everybody that it is dead. Let’s see how he is going to get away with this one!”

“Is is dead or alive?” the man asked. The wise man responded: “It is in your hands. Only you can decide if the bird lives or dies.”

So far we can say, based on existing evidence, that Google is not penalizing sites for selling links. Whether they will do more than just limit the site’s ability to pass PageRank and Anchor Text in the future is Google’s call, not ours.

Update

David Airey commented on this post and provided a very useful piece of information.

During the initial stages I did ask for specific anchor text – ‘logo design’ (I design logos), but was eventually warned off it. Too late perhaps?

As you will read on my comment, this is very similar to what John Chow was doing. It is very hard to argue that David was not trying to game Google for search rankings.

Google doesn’t like it when you try to game their rankings with link bombs (especially in the open). I advised him to reverse the effect of the link bomb and request a re-inclusion request. Read the comments for the full analysis and advice.

Update 2

David followed my advice and Matt was kind enough to help him. Matt confirms they did not like the link bomb nor the unrelated paid links on his blog.

We can ask ourselves why would Google penalize David for paid links and not the countless high profile sites, but as you just learned from my fable, it is their call and not ours.

42 replies
  1. David Hopkins
    David Hopkins says:

    Hamlet, that is a good fable to compare this situation to. It is not common to come across profound pearls of wisdom such as that on a marketing related blog.

    A related case to this is the fact that Text Link Ads do not come up on the first 100 pages of Google for a search on 'text link ads', even though they have nerly 7,000,000 links, PR 7 and their domain exactly matches the search phrase. I would imagine that has something to do with selling paid links :P

    On the duplicate content issue. As I mentioned on David Airey's blog. I once come across a site that had severe problems with duplicate content. The site had somewhere in the region of 1,200 pages with exactly the same content with the exception that it had different towns in the title and H1 tags. Even though for most of the pages there was no competition, all of the pages would come up on around page 25 on Google. The duplicate content also seemed to be affecting the site's overall ranking, as it didn't come up anywhere for its main and uncompetative keyword even though it had some good links. After the site was re-developed and the 1,200+ spam pages were dropped the the site instantly went up to page 8 or something like that for its main keyword.

    On another note, someone poionted out that John Chow has also dropped to a PR5.

    Reply
    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      David – Thanks for your kind words and for your plug on Lyndon's blog. I really appreciate it.

      When you search for 'text link ads', all their competitors are still there. They all broker and sell links. Maybe Text-Link-Ads was/is buying links for their own domain too.

      There is manipulative duplicate content and non-manipulative. Every site has some level of duplicate content. Remember that search engines can detect exact and near duplicate documents. When there is no manipulation, the search engines leave one version and toss the others.

      Now, the example you mention sounds like a bit manipulative and it would be very likely to be penalized (complete drop).

      When I moved from hamletb.wordpress.com to hamletbatista.com, hamletbatista.com was not ranking for my name, but hamletb.wordpress.com was. I registered both sites on GWC and requested the removal of hamletb.wordpress.com. After a few days hamletbatista.com was back.

      Reply
  2. David Airey
    David Airey says:

    Hi Hamlet,

    I appreciate that you're very busy, so it's great you took time to write about this.

    One thing that wasn't really covered in my initial blog post was the neighbourhoods I was linking to. Those four paid links weren't using the 'nofollow' tag, and a couple of them seem very much like bad neighbourhoods. This is another possibility, although as you rightly say, we can't be sure.

    I enjoyed your fable.

    Reply
    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      David – It's my pleasure. Linking to bad neighborhoods is about ratios. I don't think a couple of links would affect much. When you link to a bunch of bad apples is that you get in trouble.

      I think I read something about a contest in your blog. Was there any link back request in return? Did you ask for specific anchor text? Please let me know the details.

      Reply
      • David Airey
        David Airey says:

        I ran a prize giveaway, where people could enter by either blogging about the draw, or subscribing to my site. During the initial stages I did ask for specific anchor text – ‘logo design’ (I design logos), but was eventually warned off it. Too late perhaps?

        In total, I had around 200 blog entries written about my prize draw. Thing is, I offered additional entries if those blogging would mention my sponsors, and what I found happening was that many people were lifting my blog post code, with details of all prizes and sponsors, and pasting it into their posts. So perhaps duplicate content was another possibility?

        Since commenting here, I’ve been told that two of the four paid links looked very like bad neighbourhoods, and someone asked me, on the Digital Point forums, if I was using rel=”nofollow”. I said there, in the forum thread, that I wasn’t, which made me think someone had reported me. Still, I’m not clued up on this at all.

        Reply
        • Hamlet Batista
          Hamlet Batista says:

          During the initial stages I did ask for specific anchor text – ‘logo design’ (I design logos), but was eventually warned off it. Too late perhaps?

          David – You just gave me a very important piece of information. This is very similar to what John was doing. It is very hard to argue that you were not trying to game Google' rankings.

          Google doesn't take it kindly when you try to game their rankings with link bombs. You will need to reverse the link bomb.

          Now let me explain why your other two examples are less likely to be the case.

          You had a bunch of people copying your content. Google would remove all but leave one. Otherwise every blog will disappear from Google thanks to all the scrapper sites. At the moment, they leave the page with the highest PageRank. Please read my post "Content is king but duplicate content is a royal pain" for more details.

          As I said above, unless you are linking to a bunch of junk sites, there is not need to penalize your site for a couple of bad neighbors. Why aren't the free counters sites, etc. banned? Even Matt Cutts links to spam sites every once in a while to prove his points :-)

          Given the information you just gave me. This is what I would do in your case.

          Login to GWC and track down all the links you received with "logo designer" and any other anchor text you specifically requested.

          Contact them and request them to remove the links. I know is hard to do that, but I guess now they are not providing any ranking benefit anyways.

          Your site is still in the index, but it is obviously penalized somehow, so please send a re-inclusion request to Google. Explaining in detail what you did (link bombing) and offer them guarantees that you learned your lesson and you won't do it again. Courtesy copy Matt Cutts.

          Why do I recommend this?

          If Google lifted your 'penalty' you will get back those rankings that they considered 'undeserved'. You did not earn them because other site owners though you are a great logo designer (I am sure you are), but because you asked them for the link so that your site could rank for such term. If you have them remove those links and explain this to Google, I am sure Google will have no problems restoring your site.

          Reply
          • Hamlet Batista
            Hamlet Batista says:

            How can I CC Matt Cutts into the reinclusion request?

            Include a unique code in the subject, for example "re-inclusion request daviddarey linkbomb" or something similar, then leave a comment on Matt's blog telling him about the request and the code he can use to track it down.

          • David Airey
            David Airey says:

            Thanks again, Hamlet.

            There's no subject field in the reinclusion request form, but I left a message on Matt's latest blog post, informing him that the request is for the URI indicated through my comment name.

            I've emailed all 250 or so entrants, and have had around 30 links removed already (the email was sent an hour ago).

          • David Hopkins
            David Hopkins says:

            I agree with Hamlet that a few links from 'bad neighbourhoods' are not going to hurt your site. If you have too many links from bad neighbourhoods it probably won't affect your rankings at all. It will however cause your site to have a very low Google cache frequency – 2 to 3 months. It may also raise flags against your domain.

  3. Sam Daams
    Sam Daams says:

    Loved the fable.

    There's actually quite a few cases similar to these two floating around if you visit google groups, some of which are WAY harder to understand (top quality sites, tens of thousands of natural back links, no dup content, no paid links etc.). These two just managed to get all the attention. There is definitely something cooking at google and whether these are test cases or not, it serves to underline the fact that no matter how much you know what you are doing, Google can change the rules on you with no warning, regardless of whether or not you comply to their terms and conditions.

    Reply
    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      it serves to underline the fact that no matter how much you know what you are doing, Google can change the rules on you with no warning, regardless of whether or not you comply to their terms and conditions.

      That is why I found this fable to be very appropriate for the case ;-)

      Reply
  4. JEz
    JEz says:

    Hi Hamlet,

    I liked the fable too ;-)

    The issue regarding paid links seems to refer to buying them rather than selling them.

    JC "bought" reviews with the promise of a link back.

    On webmaster central Google ask users to report sites buying links as opposed to selling them.

    Another question would be whether Google would penalize the rank of a site selling links, or just de-value its outbound links.

    After all, selling links does not necessarily make the content less useful to readers (which is Googles stated concern), whereas buying links allows poorer sites to rank above better quality ones.

    Jez

    Reply
    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      Another question would be whether Google would penalize the rank of a site selling links, or just de-value its outbound links.

      So far they don’t seem to be doing it, but they are the ones that create the rules ;-)

      Reply
  5. Sharingmatters.com
    Sharingmatters.com says:

    Great fable. I like the precision you form sentences with:
    "One of the main problems I’ve seen in the SEO industry is that we formulate theories based on incomplete information". Very analytical diagnosis. I thought a lot about it and it is not only in SEO but generally in every aspect of our lives. We judge different cases and matters based on just few facts, prejudice etc. The world is so complex that there is no other way out. On the other hand, maybe people should more often say "I don't know", "I am not sure", "I don't have enough information to answer that question". But in the world were personal opinions can rule the world (blogs, youtube, facebook) it is hard to be a wise man. But this leads to a massive gibber that we can see in the Internet.

    With SEO it is a different story. It is like walking in the dark… :)

    Very good post. It was nice to read. Very useful discussion in comments as well.

    Reply
  6. Sam Daams
    Sam Daams says:

    Great advice to David, Hamlet. That might indeed be what did him in in this case. Good idea on how to CC Matt as well. With all the SEO advice out there, how come more people can't give advice like this?!

    On the note of 'link bombing', do you think having your site digged/reddit'd too often in a certain time frame will hurt your site in Google??

    Reply
    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      Great advice to David, Hamlet. That might indeed be what did him in in this case. Good idea on how to CC Matt as well.

      Thanks, Sam. That is the best I can tell him based on the information he provided.

      With all the SEO advice out there, how come more people can’t give advice like this?!

      I think it depends on your personality. I don't have any problems admitting when I am wrong or if I need more information or simply don't know. When people see you as an expert, you are somehow expected to have an answer for everything, like the wise man on my fable :-)

      On the note of ‘link bombing’, do you think having your site digged/reddit’d too often in a certain time frame will hurt your site in Google??

      Absolutely NOT! Link bombing is about asking people for links with specific anchor text.

      If you can get Dugged/Reddited/Sphinned, etc. several times a day, everyday, GREAT FOR YOU. Tell me your trick! :-)

      Reply
      • Sam Daams
        Sam Daams says:

        Absolutely NOT! Link bombing is about asking people for links with specific anchor text.

        If you can get Dugged/Reddited/Sphinned, etc. several times a day, everyday, GREAT FOR YOU. Tell me your trick!

        That's what I thought. Just trying to find a reason why we can't seem to rank anymore for queries we've always dominated (and still do on all search engines but G). And we have happened to have some luck on the ol' Digg/Reddit/Stumbleupon a few times (that's fun stuff, especially Stumbleupon traffic) in that period, so now I'm getting paranoid that it could be things like that.

        Argh, what does one have to do to get a site with 25000 natural backlinks listed normally these days?!?!?

        Reply
          • Sam Daams
            Sam Daams says:

            Wow; thanks Hamlet!

            As an aside, can I just say how refreshing it is to be able to get email updates of comments being posted? I rarely comment unless the topic really interests me, so when I do I want an easy way to keep up to date with the ensuing discussion. Too many blogs don't offer this anymore and it's impossible for me to understand why. Anyway, side issue… email to be sent now.

          • Hamlet Batista
            Hamlet Batista says:

            I just moved the blog to a brand new (and speedier) server. I also moved to WordPress 2.3 and activated some of the plugins. I will try to find time to complete the rest of the customizations. I am glad you like the subscribe to comments feature.

  7. John
    John says:

    Hey man, you have the sidebar problem happening. I am using Firefox 2.0.0.6 and it is there. The sidebar has dropped to the bottom of the page, likely the result of something you have put in the sidebar that is too big.

    Cheers,

    John

    Reply
    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      John – Thanks for the heads up. I am not sure what the problem is. It happened when I moved the blog to a temporary server with more CPU and RAM (the blog was crashing too often on the older server). I am moving it again to the definite one with the latest version of WordPress shortly.

      Reply
    • Sam Daams
      Sam Daams says:

      It'll be real interesting to see if something changes now. Also interesting that MC specifically did mention those off topic links from your site to others. Although that could just be a tactic to create more confusion about why you were penalized to start with…. smart move either way to blur the reason!

      Reply
      • Hamlet Batista
        Hamlet Batista says:

        Also interesting that MC specifically did mention those off topic links from your site to others. Although that could just be a tactic to create more confusion about why you were penalized to start with…. smart move either way to blur the reason!

        Sam – Remember our rankings are on their hands. They decide if our sites live or die ;-)

        Reply
  8. Zoran Rudman
    Zoran Rudman says:

    Hamlet,

    I've checked that site and I can't see that it is penalized.
    Site ranks for various queries and it is very well indexed.

    How did you it figure that the site is penalized?

    Reply
    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      Zoran – Thanks for your comment.

      I did a search for his name now and I see a page of his site coming up first. That was not the case before. Please follow the link to Matt's comment to understand why his site is now getting back up in the results ;-)

      Reply
    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      David – I am really glad you got your rankings back. Consider yourself very lucky.

      Thanks for the mention. For me, the most important thing is that I was able to help.

      PS: Don't forget to thank my loyal reader David Hopkins, he sent me an email asking me to help you. As you probably know, I am an extremely busy person, but like to please my readers whenever I can ;-)

      Reply
  9. Michael David Austin
    Michael David Austin says:

    I notice that the link on your page says "Full RSS Feed", but that the actual feed items are truncated. You might have an issue with a WordPress plugin installed or if it is intentional, you might want to remove the word "Full".

    Reply
    • Hamlet Batista
      Hamlet Batista says:

      Michael – Thanks for your the heads up!
      It happened when I moved to WP2.3. I just installed a plugin that fixes this 'feature' and pinged FeedBurner.

      Thanks again and welcome to my blog.

      Reply
  10. Sunanda
    Sunanda says:

    My partner is suffering by same sort of problem of rank drop. But no clue.

    His site webseos.com was in top 10 on many seo related Local kwds like SEO expert, SEO Kolkata, SEO expert Calcutta etc. But I saw that rank gone to 5-6th page in Google for last one year.

    Even I saw for some large phrase which occurs in his web page once or so, when searched in Google, the site is not at all get ranks in 1st or 2nd page and getting ranks in 4-5th page. I think I am suffering by some kind of PENALTY. But no clue what happened.

    I came across your blog, and found your problem is same. But he is quite astonished of the rankdrop.

    Reply

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  1. [...] engtech wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptAsking for links with specific anchor text can get your blog blacklisted by google. Contest bloggers be aware. [...]

  2. [...] of Mutiny Web Design, kindly referred my Google penalty issue to Hamlet Batista, a seasoned search engine marketer. Hamlet wrote a great blog post about my predicament, and offered some stellar advice through our [...]

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