A recent article about Expedia.com getting hit by Google for spammy linking has finally pushed me over the edge.
After spending a lot of time over the 2 years watching the lack of progress as small websites try to recover from what Google considers “too much spammy link building” which tended to include many “below the line” activities like article marketing and directory submissions, we find that Expedia finally took a Penguin-induced traffic hit, but ONLY after they were outed publicly by someone.
It turns out that Expedia was in fact breaking many of the post-Penguin guidelines (intentionally we might add), but somehow managed to remain unscathed. That is, until a blog post surfaced from a frustrated SEO person pointing out their flaws directly to Matt Cutts.
So with this in mind, I’m coining the phrase and want a nickel every time someone uses it, Google’s Penguin and Panda updates are mediated in “Google’s Kangaroo Court”.
Making a Case For The Kangaroo Court
Still need a reference point for the concept of a Kangaroo Court? How about the scene in Batman- The Dark Knight Rises where Scarecrow was administering court? Everyone gets to choose their punishment with no appeal - death or exile (which happen to be the same thing). You don't like it, go take a walk on the frozen river. The rationale behind everyone getting the same sentence - there is none.
The essence of a kangaroo court is to create the appearance of a fair and just trial, but there is often no rhyme or reason to the final verdict, and no one to appeal to.
Does that apply here? I think so.
Let’s look at a few of the particulars:
- There are volumes of blog posts, guidelines and even videos explaining what “unnatural links” are, but outside of a few obvious things (some of which are present in the Expedia case), it’s a very blurry line. Sure, paid link networks and sitewide links on Russian porn sites are against the rules, but who decides how many is “too many” links from directory or bookmarking sites?
- There are two ways your site might be impacted – either automatically by an algorithm update, or manually by someone at the Google team.
- If your site is hit by the automatic update, there’s not much you can do until the next update takes place. To borrow a golfing term, it’s “hit and hope”, and there’s no one to appeal to if you don’t see any changes.
- If you happen to receive a manual action notification, you can work on your site and file a Reconsideration Request. Thankfully, these are being reviewed within a reasonable time frame. However, it only takes a quick search to find a lot of confusion about the messages that come back without much guidance when they aren’t accepted.
- Website owners were originally told to use the Disavow Tool sparingly and with caution, only to later be told months later that we should be attacking problem links “with a machete”.
I will share three specific client examples here, but will stop short of identifying their websites to avoid having them blasted by the “holier than thou” SEO purists.
These three websites represent, what I believe, are examples of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater by Google’s Kangaroo Court.
Each of these sites did in fact have some portion of “low quality” links, but none were engaged in a large enough percentage of those types of links or used any of the out of bounds tactics mentioned in the Expedia case. And while one could argue about the percentage of low quality links, they certainly were not enough to warrant the percentage of losses they suffered.
Client #1 originally received an “unnatural link” warming in April 2012. A review of the link profile turned up what was probably too many anchor text based links to the site from “low quality” sites. There were no link networks, no paid links and very few sitewide type links. Oh, and no Russian porn sites either.
After some link removal work, the site was beginning to recover nicely, and in September 2013 we submitted a successful reconsideration request.
However, less than 4 weeks after a Google employee reviewed the site and found it was within their guidelines, the October 2013 update of Penguin sent it right back down again, and this time the rankings dropped even worse than before.
Who goes back to jail less than a month after getting out and without committing any further crimes?
Client #2 never received a manual action warning, but their website traffic has taken pretty sizable dips starting on the dates which match major Penguin updates. The link profile of this site, another local company, looked similar to Client #1 – no major dirty laundry, just more low quality links than would be preferable, but this site is getting hammered in traffic and rankings.
Client #3 did receive a manual action warning, but has taken a beating in rankings and traffic apparently for creating content that was too good. This client created a handful of really well written articles and submitted them to 4 (yes just 4) of the top article sites, where they were then picked up by hundreds of webmasters who liked their content. No private blog networks, no spun articles, no mass submissions, just submitted to 4 sites.
So in this case, creating good content that others wanted to share actually hurt our client's efforts. This exact phenomenon is outlined really well on SugarRae.com (hats off to Rae Hoffman for pointing it out so eloquently).
Let’s Be Realistic
The point of mentioning these two projects is simply to say that after looking through hundreds of website link profiles over the last couple of years, these Google updates are NOT being administered in a consistent fashion, and the penalty does not always suit the crime.
Are there some “unnatural” links in sites that are getting penalized? Yes, of course there are.
But based on what I’ve observed, the caliber and severity of the way Google has not only dropped certain sites, but also rewarded others participating in similar activities, simply isn’t as good as I believe they can do.
I hate posting what seems like negative content about Google for fear of sounding like a whiner. The truth is Google does a great job with the majority of their products and I truly admire most of what they do.
I used to be in an industry with an extreme level of government regulation, so working in the internet world has been a blessing. And despite days when you hate government or industry regulation, at least you know where you stand and there’s not a lot of arguing about whether or not you broke the rules.
But at least in that case, the rules are written down somewhere, which is not the case here.
I’ll give Google credit for getting started in the right direction with this issue. The increased level of communication with webmasters over the last year or so is a great thing, and they’re doing a good job of being more responsive to website owners who aren’t using AdWords or paid Google apps.
That said, a bit more transparency when it comes to link profiles, reviews, penalties and such would be a good thing and would go a long way towards helping end this Kangaroo Court. And in the end, I think everyone benefits from greater transparency.