Stop Playing Games, Google!

Or at least, stop dealing from the bottom of the deck.

I’m helping a friend help out another friend, in his attempt to regain his site’s rankings after a double whammy for OOP and Penguin. He had some very substantial traffic and conversion numbers until January, when he suddenly noticed he’d fallen from his #1 slot to around #6 and #7 for his major terms. Investigation revealed that he’d suddenly accumulated another 23,000 links or so… from some very questionable sources. Bottom line, he knew he didn’t do anything, so while it couldn’t be proven, it looked as though he’d been nailed by some negative SEO.

Photo by Philipp Klinger - could be the endless Google Stairway(Photo credit: Philipp Klinger)

Since this site is his principal source of income, and that income dried up overnight, he understandably panicked. Unfortunately, this led him to attempt to dilute the effects of those links by adding others.

Bad call!

On April 24th, he was a victim of the first wave of Penguin casualties, and for all intents and purposes, his site disappeared from the SERPs for essentially ALL his terms (page 19+ IS essentially invisible). The standard “naughty, naughty” message was sent to his GWT account.

He engaged the assistance of a friend of mine, and they started an extensive pruning process, Around 800 domains were sending him the links that were quickly recognized as being crappy, so they started contacting webmasters to try to get the offending links removed.

Anyone that has gone through this process can attest to the feeling of futility in that exercise. Some webmasters seem to either never check their email or just didn’t deem the request worthy of a response. A few laughed and refused, a couple offered to accommodate the request for a reasonable fee… most, thankfully, responded and did what was asked.

By the time I got involved in this project, our friend had already sent a total of 8 reconsideration requests (roughly one every two weeks), with each response being either very similar or exactly the same as the others. Perhaps the most frustrating to him was that after again pointing out that the vast majority of the links in question were directed at his site by others, not him, the response was:

“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.”

I explained to him that that wasn’t really as harsh a response as it might seem… it’s not saying ‘regardless of who created the links, we don’t care, you’re still screwed’. The net result, though, is exactly that.

Granted, he made an unwise decision to build more links in an effort to dilute the others. He acknowledges that (and admitted as much to Google). From Google’s standpoint, he deserved to get hammered, which he also acknowledges.

But of the roughly 23,000 new links (only a few hundred of which were of his own doing), there are currently only 120 left to be deleted. That’s how many webmasters have failed to acknowledge his request for removal (at least THREE requests, in fact). And all of those remaining links have been reported for spam, with the exception of a handful that are returning a 404 or 410 code.

And there’s another frustration, of course… one that has been experienced by many in similar circumstances… his competitors have shot to the top of the SERPs, filling the void that was once dominated by his site. The quality of their content is greatly inferior to his, their link profiles are much uglier than his – yet they continue to rank, now for terms that he once dominated. The possibility that it was one of them that bought the links that drew unwanted attention to his site is just salt in the wound.

There are some lessons to be learned here.


Lessons for the Link-pruner

Trying to get rid of 23,000 links in a hurry, while a business is faced with near bankruptcy, is no walk in the park. It takes a lot of work to identify the links that may be considered inorganic, dig up contact information on each domain and send out repetitive requests. Tracking the results, preparing documentation to accompany a reconsideration request, handling the many resistant webmasters encountered in the process… this all takes a great deal of time and energy. When this site has been restored in the SERPs, I’ll have learned a great deal. I’m not anxious to do it again, but at least when I’m called upon to do so, I’ll be a lot more knowledgeable about the process.


Lessons for the Site Owner

You can bet that our friend has learned a great deal, too. He’s certainly learned that it’s better to stay clean than it is to get clean. And he’s also learned to keep a closer eye on his link profile for any abrupt changes. Last, but not least, he’s had an in-depth education on what a healthy link profile should look like and what the proper methods are to acquire links. All lessons that will serve him well.


Lessons for Google

I don’t think that Google runs out and slaps sites blindly, unconcerned with fair play. I also understand (and applaud) their need to keep the SERPs clean. But I do feel that they’re unrealistic, both in their apparent conviction that anyone flagged by any of their algos is definitely one of the bad guys, and in their expectations of webmasters being able to solve an unidentified problem. I’m sure that nearly all of the folks that get hammered profess their innocence, so a certain amount of cynicism is understandable. But I think the way they go about it is ALL wrong!

If your child does something wrong, do you wait until days later, then proclaim he’s being punished until he does what he was supposed to do? Without telling him what it was that he was supposed to do? Don’t you think it might be a little more effective as a learning experience to punish him AND tell him exactly why and what’s expected of him?

See, when you effectively destroy someone’s income, they tend to panic and start doing everything they can think of to correct the situation. You may think that’s just dandy. But at the end of the exercise, there’s a better than even money chance that they won’t know exactly which thing they did fixed things. So in reality, you haven’t cause a damned thing to improve, beyond one website!

In other words, you’re not being constructive. Far from it, in fact.


The Bottom Line

Google, you need to start using some of that overflowing IQ to find a way to make it easy for people to follow your guidelines. Stop making vague statements and even more vague finger-pointing.

Find the offenders and punish them, that’s fine. Punishing repeat offenders even more harshly would be fine too, in my opinion. But if you really want people to clean up their act, you need to tell them what the problem is. Anything less just makes it a game… all stacked in your favor.

And that’s not going to get us anywhere, is it?


8 thoughts on “Stop Playing Games, Google!”

  1. “I don’t think that Google runs out and slaps sites blindly, unconcerned with fair play.”

    I do. Google is a follower of the mighty algorithm. If the algorithm says you are bad then you are bad and there is no amount of human intervention that will help.

    Not only does this incident show the dangers of relying on Google for your business, is shows the dangers of relying on a single site for your income. For those with the time or budget, we have taken to recommending building multiple sites and maintaining them for just such a scenario. If Google were to slap a site, even if the site owner did nothing wrong personally, a simple change in CPanel would have the replacement site, on a new domain, live in a few minutes and you can work on both while you wait for Google to change it’s mind.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Steve. Given the scale at which they’re working, algorithms are really the only workable method for them, IMO. But on the reconsideration side, human review and intervention are necessary. My feeling is that they aren’t dedicating the necessary manpower to the reconsideration efforts.
    It’s not inconceivable that they’ll one day automate the process to the point that a webmaster can do his cleanup and request a re-check to determine if his site is back within acceptable threshold limits. That could speed the process considerably.
    You’ve been through this exercise recently (and kudos for getting that client back on track with the first request), so you understand the frustration caused by the unnecessary are of mystery surrounding a site’s infractions.
    To me, that’s just counterproductive as hell.

  3. Google is ignorant and it will bring them down one day down the road. You can only treat your partners in a bad way for so long. Yes, webmasters are not officially partners, but without us providing decent content, Google would be nothing. Take away search and Google is dead.

    They need to wake up and provide proper tools so that webmasters can follow their guidelines. It is not that we don’t want to – but flying blind and eventually finding the (offending) needle in the hay stack is only working for so long. Every honest webmaster that gets kicked out of Google will be an advocate against Google and the numbers are growing. Every webmaster kicked out of Google will look for spreading out the risk and to find other ways to get traffic and to earn money. Google will feel that sooner or later. Why not have detailed reporting in Webmaster tools that pages A, B, C, E, G, R, and U are considered duplicate content or have a quality rating of XYZ. They already have page speed load times displayed and that is something to work with, but nothing on the link or content side of things.

    Punish the offenders, but give honest webmasters a honest chance by providing information why their site was punished. The algorithm is strong enough to find and “identify” bad links and duplicate content, it is not rocket science to move the same data into a report in webmaster tool.

    Not everyone has the financial means to hire outside help to fix a bad link profile and to check hundreds or thousands pages for duplicate content. The smaller guys are being pushed out of the market, the large corporations will dominate. Just like Walmart killing off Mom & Pop shops.

    Don’t be evil, Google. Help us and we help you to have a better search engine.

  4. Thanks for your opinion, Chris. It meshes well with my own.

    I usually find myself trying to project why Google does what they do, in hopes of understanding where they’re headed and what they might do next (yeah, I know… good luck with that!), but I can’t figure out what they think they gain by being so tight-fisted with the information.

  5. Wow, thanks for sharing what that process is like. This totally sucks, because it leaves any webmaster vulnerable to negative SEO attacks by competitors, and diverts business owners time, energy & money away from running their business to the time sucking ordeal of link cleanup. What’s so annoying is that the Penguin did NOT improve search results. The SERPs got shook up and different sites fell into place, with new sites ranking that are worse than the sites that dropped out. I’ve seen sites with massive link spam rise to the top. What the hell are you supposed to do? I wonder how the competitors who had uglier link profiles managed to float to the top.

    • Hi, Lorna – great to see you here!
      The process is no fun, to be sure. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that by the time it’s done, the site owner should be much more educated on what is and isn’t acceptable practice anymore.

      I wouldn’t say that Penguin has improved search results, yet. I do think, though, that continued efforts along the same lines will have a beneficial effect in the long run. I simply think they could have planned things a lot better to minimize collateral casualties and made the recovery process a lot more efficient.

      As for the guys with the uglier profiles… it’s my hope that their turn is coming. 😉

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Lorna. Don’t be a stranger!

  6. I’ve been trying desperately to have a inorganic linking penalty removed. I’ve created a disavow.txt file for my site with about 200 links. Of course I tried to contact webmasters of sites linking to me of which I think may come across as inorganic. What is the definition of inorganic linking anyway? So with this disavow file I feel I’ve shot myself in the foot. Some links may not be considered inorganic in the disavow file so my traffic has dropped further (11k down to 7k/day). My reconsideration request has had 2 replies from google, the latest saying:

    “There are still many inorganic links pointing to your site. At this point, we believe we’ve evaluated these links appropriately, and no further action from us is required…”.

    So.. the battle continues. It’s enough to send any man insane! I feel google have crossed the line with this. It means any competitor can start pointing rubbish links to your site to give it a penalty.

  7. Everytime I access G-mail, it asks for so many details. It tells me my password is wrong when it is not. Google just blocks, does not help

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