Nothing       Bob Sakayama       TNG/Earthling      

Bob Sakayama On Google Penalties

Google's Darkest Secrets

How would you feel if when you did a Google search all the top sites were ranked, not because of their relevance to your query, but because they had gamed Google's algorithm by paying money for services or software that could achieve their high ranks regardless of their content? The top sites were not ranked high because of how well they provided a solution, but because of how well they could exploit gaping loopholes in Google's evaluation process. The wholesale corruption of Google's search results actually happened on a massive scale, in ways that impacted every business dependent on their ranks, even those who played by Google's rules. But the general public never knew how bad it got.

The setup for the disaster was built into the innovation that was at the heart of Google's rank algorithm. One of Google's biggest mistakes was an oversight hard coded into their original algorithm, yet was hailed as a milestone as a way to evaluate websites for ranking purposes. That milestone was the concept of using links as a strong ranking signal - specifically, inbound links from other sites to yours. What was praised was the recognition that a link from another site to your site meant someone was approving your content enough to post a link on their site - a link which would take their visitors away - to your site if clicked. An editorial link (one embedded in the content) to another website can be viewed as a rather strong endorsement that requires action and forethought. So seeing that link as a "vote" for your content made sense, and using inbound links as a major ranking signal was hailed as an innovation. But the big mistake was counting all links equally - so a link from my blog had the same value as a link from the NYTimes. This in an environment where high Google ranks were becoming hugely valuable.

Reciprocal linking, where 2 different websites each link to the other, existed long before Google as a way for sites to share traffic with visitors who might have some of the same interests. For this reason it was originally encouraged by Google. But because these were links to your site, and because all links are equally valuable for ranks, some webmasters and SEOs went overboard. A few years later, you could be penalized for too many reciprocal links.

But the most disastrous consequence of the all-links-are-equal algorithm was the ability of the SEO community to game this flaw, resulting in Google's search results being manipulated into advantaging sites using strategies that could be purchased. By keeping in place an all-links-are-equal foundation in their algorithm for a decade, they set the stage for a new, technically robust industry to take hold whose goal was to game Google. It also spurred the rapid growth of services offering a new kind of search engine optimization, focused not on improving relevance, but on delivering vast quantities of links.

These were not links given by a webmaster who liked your content. The link building services employed teams of outsourced workers writing links into any platform that accepted them: blog comments, directories, profiles, hacked sites, created websites, social media, etc. This rapidly morphed into automation. You could purchase openly advertised software that could sign in to a blog and post a link in a comment - and do that thousands of times with a button push. As a result, many websites had several million of these links in short order.

Because it actually worked to push ranks, posting garbage links became a widespread SEO strategy. European SEOs were first to run with it commercially. There were agencies making brazenly confident announcements, offering to supply massive numbers of links, while making very public claims on their websites that content relevancy had been replaced by link numbers - an outrageous claim for an SEO agency to make. But they were proving to be correct. For their clients, it became the key to easily dominating the search and it quickly became an SEO industry standard to offer tons of cheap links.

The top of Google's page one in every competitive market was filled with sites using this technique. Which meant they were not ranking well because they best answered the search query. Google's entire search results were very thoroughly corrupted, and as someone who could see how ranks were attained it was obvious that this problem was widespread. Google had damaged their own search product by permitting an early mistake go uncorrected for a decade. And now, even the big players were involved in gaming Google. But it generally wasn't big news - until it was. Because the problem was so big that it was inevitable that some hugely significant and exceptionally provocative stories would end up humiliating Google in the mainstream press. A perfect example of the corruption of Google's search results was evident in the outrageous success of JCPenney. During the 2010 holiday shopping season they held the #1 rank for an obscene number of searches, even beating out brands whose products were clearly more relevant.

From the New York Times  February 13, 2011

"The company bested millions of sites — and not just in searches for dresses, bedding and area rugs. For months, it was consistently at or near the top in searches for “skinny jeans,” “home decor,” “comforter sets,” “furniture” and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic (“tablecloths”) to the strangely specific (“grommet top curtains”).

This striking performance lasted for months, most crucially through the holiday season, when there is a huge spike in online shopping. J. C. Penney even beat out the sites of manufacturers in searches for the products of those manufacturers. Type in “Samsonite carry on luggage,” for instance, and Penney for months was first on the list, ahead of Samsonite.com."

A forensic analysis showed massive numbers of links on obscure sites all pointing to JCPenney category pages. This link data is readily available and it was easy to deconstruct the strategy used to achieve this amazing result - someone was paid to post humongous numbers of garbage links from mostly garbage sites. And this tactic enabled JCPenney to dominate the search for the products in their store.

Prior to this event, Google had become aware of the issue and had set in motion a plan to penalize sites that violated their stated guidelines, which included a warning about "over optimization" using link schemes. This seemed like a sensible plan except for the fact that the consequences were not meted out fairly or against those whose violations were the most significant.

For example, the reports that JCPenney was "penalized" are incorrect. Google did return JCPenney's ranks to their previous positions, but this is not a penalty, they just removed their ill gotten gains. Compare that with penalties applied against much smaller firms, who had all their ranks removed and in many cases were delisted (deindexed) and were no longer found in Google at all.

Although this was a gigantic problem from the point of view of the quality of their product, Google faced no real complaints or embarrassment because the entire breakdown occurred in the meta space, behind a facade of competency, and though they should have been more critical, the SEO community back then was one of Google's biggest cheerleaders - just posting about this problem drew a fusillade of defensive comments from SEOs seeing traitors in their midst. Once a very real phenomenon, Google worship has long since disappeared.

The Great Purge

The Great Purge is what I call the corrective that Google applied to gain back credibility after the majority of businesses and SEOs that had bought into the link schemes became non-compliant with Google's guidelines.

The Great Purge occurred over several years 2010 - 2013 where Google forced sites to comply with their newly updated guidelines. They penalized offending sites by dropping their ranks or kicking them out of the results completely. Thriving businesses dependent only on garbage links were destroyed. Many legitimate businesses who listened to bad SEO advice needed years to recover. 90% of the SEOs went dark.

Google's enforcement actions triggered a number of significant controversies. Because links to a website can be posted anonymously it's impossible to know who is responsible for them. And equally important, if you have 1 million links all posted by bots, how do you remove them in order to regain compliance? How does Google handle a website owner who feels he's been penalized unfairly. How does Google know their penalty is not being weaponized for use against a competitor?

The answer to that last question is they don't.

Negative SEO

Negative SEO as a business model arose from the ashes of the Great Purge. The same SEOs that once sold garbage links for high ranks now realized they could sell the same product but now deployed to intentionally trigger Google penalties on competitors. And because links are posted anonymously, there was complete deniability on the part of the company paying for and the agency doing this work. Google penalties enabled this ethically questionable practice to flourish.

This business appeared in 2012, they were one of the early adopters. Negative SEO.me is no longer live.

 

The appearance of companies like NegativeSEO.me in 2012 contradicted an often claimed mantra coming from Google's spokespersons that it was impossible for a 3rd party to take down another site. Our work proved this claim to be false.

While investigating a client's rank loss we discovered compelling evidence of a negative SEO attack. Huge numbers of links from the typical low rent sources, but also a large number of very sketchy links coming from porn sites or using obscene anchors, gambling sites, bogus pharma (viagra, cialis) sites, obviously not stuff an owner would post or seek. Google was still in denial about negative SEO, so our reconsideration requests came back with demands to remove our links even when it was clear that we would not have posted them. This was an extremely frustrating time for innocent victims of Google's enforcement overreactions. This particular client wanted the story to be made public and we prepared a detailed narrative that could be shared with the press about our attempt to inform Google how they were enabling a 3rd party to successfully take down the ranks of Eyeglasses.com. The staffers who were assigned to our case could not acknowledge Google's error or provide actionable advice. Archive is here: When Google Destroys Your Business.

Google continues to claim it is virtually impossible to trigger a penalty intentionally, even as services are being paid to do exactly that.

Negative SEO only became more entrenched with time. If a link building service could consistently trigger rank loss, there was clearly some value to that capability, and not just to harm competitors. Because Google is so unaccountable, if the search for your name brings up something that should remain private, there's nothing you can do. Except hire a negative seo service to penalize a harmful search result and drive it off of Google's page 1.

There appears to be a thriving negative SEO market, and Google has given it a righteous claim: to be able to remove your private information and prevent it from being disclosed. Curious which gets more business, protecting privacy or taking down competitors.

In March 2021, a search for "negative seo services" yields three vendors on the first page of Google. You can pay anywhere from $139 to $1,599 depending on how many links, what kinds of extras, etc. You pay extra for adult links, gambling links, a spam blast, copy attack, link farming, etc. Your paying for an army weaponizing garbage links. Google claims it won't work. But the offers are on the table. Note the cute names for the link packages.

This is from https://negativeseoexpert.com

From https://buynegativeseo.com

From https://negativeseoguy.com

The original Google penalties were likely "manual actions" Googlespeak for penalties imposed by humans doing a manual review. If your site was hit you could make adjustments and file a "reconsideration request" which was also acted on by a human. But when Google penalizes massive numbers of sites in a short period of time, their human workload to deal with the response becomes unsustainable. Automation provided the solution.

Because link schemes were so prevalent, Google developed Penguin, an automated process to evaluate and detect link improprieties, and automatically penalize them. This is still in effect. If your site get hit by Penguin, you can't file a reconsideration request. You have to fix the problem and meet Google's standards if you have any hope of regaining your former ranks. What this means is that if you come under a successful negative SEO attack you have no recourse - no way to contest it.

There is supposedly a "white hat" way to build links. Google has never backed away from using links as a ranking signal, but they now attempt to evaluate the quality of the links. So a link from the Wall Street Journal will provide more rank push than one from an unknown blog. Garbage links are ignored. Website owners who want good links are instructed to seek "organic" or "natural" links by creating such good content that people will want link to it. Then they will need to put resources into outreach to let other sites know about their great content - they make thousands of email and phone requests with a convincing argument for a link. This is usually a hard sell. So incentives find their way into the bargain - retailers can give you a free sample for a review that includes a link. SEOs offer to write free content for your site if they can embed a link. However, using anything of value in exchange for a link is against Google's guidelines. This is not only difficult to enforce but also an area where money talks and the big players are advantaged by their influence. For example, a large enterprise may sponsor an event covered by the news media. The announcements and stories on that event all carry links from very authoritative websites to the sponsor's site. Those links are not considered outside Google's guidelines because they are not technically "paid for." Any online entity with a large number of brands has the ability to use those websites to link to and thereby advantage other businesses existing or newly created within the corporate family. By contrast, a small competitor is stuck begging for links from other small sites.

There have been many successful off-guideline link strategies that have worked in the past that Google has discovered and shut down. Tactics known a link farms, link wheels, link rings, link exchanges, buying reviews, etc. all might work until they eventually get a site penalized. Of these tactics, one stands out. Private blog networks (PBNs) consist of a large number of websites that feed their authority to a single site. Many SEOs were involved in promoting them because they worked so well. But if Google can detect a relationship among these sites, they get shut down. Many PBNs disappeared but lessons were learned as to how to avoid detection, and there is strong evidence that they can still be successful. In fact, the principle of a PBN is naturally occurring in the above example of a on online entity with a large number of brands, all linking to each other or to a new brand. This is another example of how big players can pull off rank boosting linking plans that are likely to get penalized when done on a small scale.

We can see by the top of most searches that the big brands hold a huge edge on the small players by virtue of their scale - big tends to be better. This may be unavoidable. But has Google, through their enforcement efforts cleanup up their search results so that their results are no longer being intentionally gamed by tech savvy players? History says that is very doubtful, but we likely will never know.

When a lawsuit is filed against Google claiming the business was harmed for inappropriate rank loss, Google often uses a First Amendment defense, successfully claiming that ranks are opinions and therefore protected speech. You won't win your case just because you disagree with those opinions. Fortunes ride on those opinions and the ability to influence them is the holy grail of SEO. Very smart people are trying every day to find an edge for themselves and their clients. Google is definitely NOT bug free and it is very likely there are still loopholes in their algorithm that have not been patched. Are those flaws being exploited to game Google once again? We may never know, because as rank strategies become more sophisticated, they also become less visible, because visibility is now dangerous - the most successful strategies are going to be flying under the radar & never openly advertised. And Google definitely does not want anyone to know about them. Stealth on both sides may permit Google's darkest secrets to remain hidden.

 

Gella Sales
gbs at abmeta.org

 

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