I have been heavily engaged in internet marketing for the last three years. As the owner of a small design firm, my foray into the field was a natural outcropping of our web design services. The vast majority of the work I do in on behalf of a handful of fairly high paying clients. While this SEO shit was initially just a part of my business, I now spend my time doing little else. I have worked to delegate most other parts of the business so I could wade tits deep into this quagmire.
I wouldn’t feel comfortable characterizing myself as an expert, but I certainly have a hard on for the game. Something in me intrinsically jives with the textured edges of this racket. I think I am built with just the right mix of anti-authoritarian angst and nerdy obsessiveness to keep me fluttering relentlessly into this bright light. In a recent moment of clarity, however, the SEO beacon looked, for a moment as if it might be nothing other than a dim porch light.
I spent last night restlessly squinting into my smartphone as I poured over two threads that chronicled the most fascinating industry intrigue in recent memory. It was like injecting the entire Marvel Civil War into my fucking veins or watching all my favorite TV shows condensed into a single huge crossover finally. It delivered on almost every level and, I believe culminated in a release that triggered just a moment of clear thinking.
As I sat last night in the unencumbered afterglow of SEO drama concentrate. I realized, probably for the first time, how completely full of shit everyone actually is. Even the highest paid, most respected, Google loving, Uncle Tom SEO’s out there are not above the wild speculation and utter disorientation that comes from having no real idea what the fuck is going on. I realized that we’re all banging our head against the same light and the only truly definable difference between any of us is that some are swinging enough sack to pretend they know which way is up.
Besides renewed perspective, my moment of clarity also delivered a true gem of understanding. It can be summarized thusly: The prospect of effective negative SEO is absolute bullshit.
Before I walk you through my reasoning, let me first say that I don’t consider myself a black-hat marketer. I do however acknowledge that the vast majority of the work I do could be characterized by varying shades of Gray. I don’t utilize these methods out of laziness, contempt or as the result of a vague moral compass. I go gray simply because it is the only thing that works. You can pontificate endlessly about quality content and point to esoteric examples of link-bait, but at the end of the day, a lily white approach won’t do shit to help the average SMB. Period.
For me, it’s more a matter of managing risk, cultivating diversity and evaluating effectiveness. Since in simplest of terms, all link building is gray in nature, the parsing of individual tactics into acceptable and unacceptable groups is subjective nonsense. I use most every tactic available and try to mitigate risk by building levels of separation between my clients’ sites and the more automated and ugly practices.
For a few, less than compelling reasons, I miscalculated the risks associated with using BuildMyRank and used them to regularly posted content that linked directly to my clients. Needless to say, I have had a fucking nerve-racking few weeks. I deleted all of the content from BMR as soon as the option was available and then quietly waited for the hammer to drop. I’ve lost more than a couple night’s sleep rehearsing plausible spins I could offer clients to soften the reckoning that was surely on the horizon.
In the end, things did not actually turn out that bad. Only one of my sites received a warning for unnatural links, and the penalty (and it is a fucking penalty) was not that bad. The client who was hit lost all of their nationally competitive rankings. Like totally off the fucking map. Top ten to not in the top 200… blown out of the water. Luckily for me the national strategy is part of the clients longer term goals. Their immediate bottom line is much more impacted by locally modified keywords. All of those local keywords saw a drop of between 5-10 places. Since these SERPs were also buttressed by the the Places results and PPC ads, the client has not sweat the penalty as much as I feared. My other sites actually all saw an increase in ranking.
Over the past few weeks I have studied the intricacies of my clients rankings with an attention to detail that should be reserved for watching porn and practicing heart surgery. I’ve read every crackpot theory I could find and was more than a little obsessed. I was rallied by the cries of injustice and found solace in the idea that Google’s actions would unleash a hellscape of negative SEO that would bring Google to its knees in repentant submission.
It was in this mood that I read the aforementioned threads. As the lunacy of it all began to swell I lost myself in a dizzying haze of idealism. As Dan Thies picked up a pitchfork and began to lead the chants for Google’s head, It felt for a moment, like revolution. And when Rand Fishken created a TrafficPlanet account in order to throw politely phrased jobs or at Google, it felt as if the inmates had taken control of the asylum. For one brief moment, we were all united behind the singular truth: negative SEO must not stand.
It wasn’t until, in the early morning hours, I caught up with the live conversation, that the ridiculousness of it all became apparent. As it was updated that Dan’s rankings had rebounded, cooler heads began to dominate the discourse. It was in this moment, reflecting back on the thread, that I sorted out why negative SEO would never work. After my realizations, I felt embarrassed for believing that Google would ever leave themselves open like this. Google may be an uncaring, impersonal, invasive, irresponsible, asshole of a company, but it is anything but stupid.
Until now the argument had primarily been between people who believed that there are no real penalties and those who pose that the existence of penalties meant that negative SEO must be possible. The truth is that neither stance is correct. There are penalties, but they are dealt in ways that make them impossible to intentionally deploy. Google would not have ever rolled this shit out without having this sorted.
To Start Lets Establish the Premises
(try to suspend disbelief with me and accept the following as fact for the time being)
- There are absolutely penalties associated with the unnatural link warnings.
Just fucking trust me… they are real. Until now 99% of penalties were something else, these however are the real deal.
- The penalties are both keyword and page specific.
This is evidenced by several anomalies I observed in the rankings. Pages ranking for the wrong keywords, stuff like that… it’s really pretty clear.
- The majority of the warnings and penalties stem from use of a few widely abused systems.
Most people don’t cop to what they have been doing so it’s hard to know for sure… but BMR is somewhere in the mix in most instances where people see both significant drop in rankings and received a warning. It is likely that several things can trigger a warning, but only a very few specific things trigger sustained drop in rank.
- The vast majority of the gray-hat practices still work great.
My more disposable sites received every kind of link, but from BMR. All, without exception, saw a drastic increase in rank.
- There have long been accounts of large link blasts knocking people out of the SERPs for a couple of days.
The phenomenon of the temporary drop in rank that happens when you throw thousands of forum links at a site is well documented. I have read several accounts of people causing a 2-5 day long drop in rank with link blasts. In all of the accounts I read the pages returned with even higher after the hiatus from the SERPs. This is what happened to Dan.
- The penalty is calculated on a curve that affects high traffic broad keywords more heavily.
My clients locally modified keywords only dropped a few places while the nationally relevant keywords are nowhere to be found. Also their business name and brand rankings did not change at all.
Ok are you with me? Don’t give up yet… here is how it has to work:
Google has taken and will continue to take very targeted punitive action against sites that engage in very specific types of gray-hat link building. They will likely target specific services rather than general link building practices.
There is no way to accurately anticipate which practices they are going to target or how often they will swing this hammer. 10,000 spammy blog comments will make the ranks flicker like it always has, but they will not incite a penalty.
Moreover the page and keyword specificity of the penalty make it impossible to silently throw links with unrelated anchor text at a site in order to taint the site without improving its rank. The reduced impact for very specific keywords make it impossible to build links using keywords phrases the site would already rank for.
Essentially in order to conduct a negative SEO campaign you would have to prophetically predict what practice (or more likely service) was next to be targeted. Then you would need to begin using this practice on your competition to their benefit. Even in this theoretically plausible circumstance, the benefit the targeted site would receive from the links would likely outweigh the hassle they would undergo filing a reconsideration request. It’s likely that the links would have to be numerous enough to themselves have a positive impact on rank.
Google intends to harness this new power and lurk ominously just below the surface able inflict carnage at any time. Then when gray-hats begin to feel safe and start to coalesce around the next magic pill… BAM! It should also be noted that this has probably already been happening for a while on smaller scale and without confirmation.
It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn close. While the Dan Thies saga breathed some temporary life back into my hope that black-hat, gray-hat, and white-hat SEOs could all join hands and unite around our unanimous disdain for negative SEO, the truth is that Google probably got this right. In the coming weeks as tempers die and negative SEO firms sputter in failure, we will all relegate back to our comfortable posts. Rand and Dan will congratulate Google at a job well done and the rest of us will sink back into the threads of forums to devise ever subtler schemes and daydream of triumph.
Rather than ending on that bit of sap, I think it would be more in my character to begin to identify the holes in this new reality.
- I am going to try and swap pages…. Invert links with 301 redirects and create new pages with slightly altered content. If the penalty is page and keyword specific like I think , I should be able to reorient my site and internal linking without losing domain authority.
- In order for this to work, the targets will likely be specific services that do not serve dual purposes. Broad penalties for too many 2.0 sites, forum profiles or blog comments will be harder to implement. This should continue to be devalued if above certain thresholds like they are now.
By: Alex Grayfox
PS: if you want to read what had me in such a state:
I wanted to revisit this post with a brief update. Much of the specifics within this post seem trite and probably flat out wrong in the wake of penguin and recent industry turmoil. I still hold true to the basic principal that any penalties dealt by Google would have to be preceded by substantial successful manipulation. Things that don’t work won’t cause penalties… they just won’t work. The idea that I can throw a steaming pile of circa 2006 directory submissions, or blast 5000 forum links at a competitor and have a sustained negative impact on their ranking is still, to me, farfetched.
Aside from things like link unbuilding, I have yet to find someone who can explain to me what a negative SEO campaign would look like. Exactly what links are so putrid and poisonous that their only impact would be negative? This specificity is usually glossed over, in part I believe, because everyone has such a cartoon concept of what a black-hat link actually is. In my opinion, a black hat links are simply the links you don’t build.
In case you’re wondering my 301 redirect experiment does not seem to have worked. Of course the Penguin rollout certainly didn’t make for fertile testing grounds. I have to tip my hat a little to Google. The essentially simultaneous timings of the Network Penalties, Panda Update and Penguin Rollout made it virtually impossible to know what is what. The lull in which this article was written was a little like the moment after a left jab right before a booming right hook releases you from your feet.
All said and done, I have come out fairly well. I do spend more time than is healthy checking SERP results and am contending with the persistent anxiety of a drug mule. But my clients are happy and I haven’t thrown in the towel. I’ve rewritten at least a paragraph or two in each of my internal process guides and working on scalable architecture for a more content centric marketing approach.
If you have something on your chest that your clients or Google might not understand, let me know. I’d be happy to publish it here. You won’t get accolades or a link that’s worth a damn… but it will feel great. Just make sure you eloquently integrate at least one f-bomb and hide a couple of typos for the tight-ass scavenger hunt.