Most of the time when Google releases an update to its algorithm that determines how websites in its index get ranked for certain keyword searches, my advice to clients is to rest easy and change nothing. My firm has never engaged in search engine spam techniques like churning out content that is full of keywords but meaningless to a human being, or creating thousands of links from irrelevant and/or low quality websites. Our focus has always been to create unique, engaging content, and focus on quality over quantity when it comes to link building. Just the same, we were caught off-guard by some of the changes Google made this year, culminating most recently with its Penguin 2.1 update that rolled out earlier this month.
We were surprised earlier this year when the rankings for one of our clients started suffering. At first I suspected some problems with our fulfillment process, and I eventually switched the client to a new team with fresh eyes. In making that transition and engaging in a full audit, we discovered something we were already aware of, but hadnâ€™t realized the import of earlierâ€“the client had a ton of bad incoming links, built by a firm they had used before engaging us, and these bad links were doing damage to the clientâ€™s websiteâ€™s rankings.
In case youâ€™re a newbie to SEO, incoming links, also commonly referred to as backlinks, are a primary part of Googleâ€™s method by which it determines how to rank websites. At the simplest level, Google looks at how many links are pointing to a website and the quality of the websites those links are coming from. All other things being equal, a website with a lot of incoming links would rank higher than a competing website without many incoming links. In the past quantity appeared to trump quality, and many SEO firms engaged in the technique of building as many incoming links as possible, regardless of whether those links made any sense. For example, an SEO firm would find a directory of self storage companies, and create a listing for their client, a dentist, on the self storage company directory. What does dentistry have to do with self storage, you ask? Nothing, but Google didnâ€™t seem to care. An incoming link was an incoming link. The intelligent strategy seemed to be to find an offshore SEO company with hundreds of employees who could produce hundreds or thousands of incoming links each month.
Then Google changed. First there was the Panda update in early 2011, followed by Penguin a year later in early 2012 (for a full history see Mozâ€™s excellent Google Algorithm Change History page). Suddenly the quantity of incoming links took a backseat to the quality of those links. Many of the same websites that were gathering up as many incoming links as possible, regardless of quality, were also engaging in the wrong tactics when it came to content creation. What Panda started for these folks, Penguin finished, as online marketing specialist Kristin Hines points out here. Many websites saw their rankings, traffic, and revenue fall off dramatically, and one of our clients got caught up in this. As Hines says, â€œCan bad content youâ€™ve created or links you built from years ago come back to haunt you? Absolutely! This is one major surprise for webmaster whose sites were hit with either Google Panda or Penguin.â€
You might ask how good my SEO firm can possibly be if we didnâ€™t see this coming. Isnâ€™t this what we were being paid for, to avoid exactly this type of problem and make sure our clientâ€™s rankings stayed high? The issue was thisâ€“while we knew those bad links werenâ€™t going to do any good, we didnâ€™t know they would hurt, at least not to the extent they did. Our behavior was rational, based on the information available to us. Each time we analyzed the clientâ€™s account we would look at the 50 things we could do to improve that clientâ€™s results, and getting rid of the old, bad links another firm had built wasnâ€™t a high priority. Those links werenâ€™t causing any damage, nor was it certain they ever would. Getting rid of hundreds or thousands of bad links can be a time consuming process, and was it worth diverting several thousand dollars of what the client was paying us to remove links that werenâ€™t doing any harm, when we could be building high quality links and creating high quality content instead? It would have taken 2-3 months of putting all other efforts on hold to remove those bad links, and if the client had asked us why we were making such an investment with his dollars, our best answer would have been â€œSomeday this might hurt you.â€ Chances are, the client would have fired us for using a substantial amount of his money to fix something that was causing no harm, and once fixed would provide no apparent benefit.
When the damage became bad enough, removing the bad links became a high priority, and we convinced the client to invest in link removal. I wonâ€™t go into details here on how best to find bad links and remove them, but here are some helpful resources:
- Link Removal Request Tips for Webmasters Business Owners by Marie Haynes
- 5 Important Link Removal Facts Post Penguin 2.0 by Jon Ball
- How to Remove Unnatural Links to Your Site: Choosing the Best Solution after Penguin 2.0 by Alesia Krush
- Google Penguin Penalties: How to Remove Harmful Inbound Links by Frank Isca
As we removed bad links to our clientâ€™s website we saw almost immediate positive results. Unfortunately, we still became a victim of our lack of foresight, and it was too little, too late. The client, disappointed with the negative results leading up to our decision to remove the bad links, fired us anyway. The obvious lesson for any SEO firm wanting to keep its clients would be to check for bad links right now, and proactively remove them. It is one of the first things we now point out to prospective clients, and if necessary we advise them to increase their budget for the first few months so we can add an intense bout of link removal to our other online marketing services. The larger lesson is to understand where Google is going, and push clients to move in that direction. As Wayne Gretzky said, â€œI skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.â€ Any other option is a losing one.
For clients of SEO firms, or companies doing their SEO work in-house, this is a lesson that staying up on the latest trends is not optional if you want to succeed against the competition. If online marketing is critical to your success, you might outsource much of your SEO work, but you still must understand on some level what your SEO vendor is doing. The SEO firm you hire should be making an effort to educate you, along with doing their work. If you do SEO in-house, you should not just know that your SEO team is â€œkeeping busy,â€ but you should understand what theyâ€™re keeping busy with and why. If you abdicate responsibility, your competitor wonâ€™t, and theyâ€™ll win.