In April 2012, Google made a major update to their search ranking algorithm. Dubbed Penguin by the SEO community, the update was designed to better identify, and reduce, webspam (violations of Google's Webmaster Quality Guidelines). Although the Penguin update only affected ~3 percent of English queries (according to Google), it has caused something of a panic among both SEO companies and business owners alike. And one of the most frequently discussed and debated topics related to Penguin is paid link building.
The goal of this blog series is to help business owners better understand the recent search engine updates and provide some ideas and ethical strategies for link building as well as SEO in general. Whether you're shopping for an SEO company, you're already investing in SEO (and having success), or your site has recently been penalized by Penguin (or Google's last update - "Panda"), the next few posts will provide you with some valuable information and timeless SEO strategies that, if implemented, will measurably improve your organic rankings.
Note: Not sure whether your site has been penalized by Panda? Read this blog post.
A Little Background
To make sure we're on the same page, let's quickly review how the search engines work.
Three things are required for your website to rank on the first page of Google, Bing, and Yahoo. First, your site must be coded in a way that makes it easy for the search engines' software (often called "crawlers", "spiders", or "bots") to find, read, and index. For example, if your (bonehead) web developer leaves the meta name="robots" content="nofollow" tag in the header of your site post-web development, your site will never rank organically, and you might be left scratching your head wondering why. Second, you need unique, relevant, and remarkable content. We're talking about content that adds genuine value to your prospective customers - something that can't be found (multiple times) on eHow or About or Buzzle - content so compelling that people share it with others. Finally, you (your company/website) need to be recognized as an authority. Authorities are typically frequently referenced or cited. You need others to "cite" you as... for lack of a better term... "THE MAN." On the web, this means having other reputable, relevant, and authoritative websites link to you (typically referencing some remarkable content you've created or your company in general).
In summary, to rank well organically you need:
- 1. Search engine friendly website coding and structure
- 2. Unique, relevant, and remarkable content on your website
- 3. Other relevant, reputable, and authoritative sites linking to you (authority)
Getting Organic Links is Tough
Of the three factors required to rank well organically, for most businesses, links are by far the most difficult to get. Of course, how difficult it is to get links really depends on your industry. For example, if you're in the business of selling cool and unique iPod accessories, it's going to be (relatively) easy for you to get links. There are thousands of quality tech blogs that adore Apple products and iPods appeal to the digital generation - people likely to have their own personal blog, website, and probably a large online social network to match. In this type of industry, all it takes to get thousands of links to your website is one mention from an influencer or influential blog.
Unfortunately, the same is not true for our typical client (most of our clients are contractors and home services businesses - fire protection, hvac, plumbing, roofing, etc.). While YOU might be passionate about helping people keep their home's plumbing system in order, you're going to be hard-pressed to find thousands of (quality) bloggers that share your passion for that kind of crap (ha ha - couldn't help myself). If you are a locally owned company, you probably don't have the budget to create world-class infographics or promote online contests or other commonly used link building tactics.
In a day and age where everyone is pressed for time and resources - especially small business owners - a lot of people look for the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to achieve their target end result. Sadly, few people are aware (or appreciative) of the 10,000 hour rule. They don't realize that nearly every perceived overnight success was ten years in the making. It almost seems as though every inquiry we get is from a business owner that needs leads yesterday. If this sounds like you, recognize that, in our experience, there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time you spend operating in the "we need results like yesterday" (vs. thinking long-term, big picture) and the chances your business will grow to the size you'd probably like it to be.
The Rise of Paid Links
How does all this apply to SEO?
Over the past five to eight years, millions of businesses - from local, Mom and Pop contractors to huge companies like JC Penny and Overstock.com - have engaged in paid link building - paying other websites to link back to pages on their site (in an effort to accelerate being perceived as an authority on the web). Paid links are a direct violation of one of Google's Webmaster Quality Guidelines. Why? Because Google uses links to determine authority and reputation. Being able to buy authority goes against Google's goal of presenting their searchers with the most relevant and authoritative results (given the search query).
Just like citations are one of the ways academics gauge the value of an article, links are used by the search engines to gauge the importance of a particular website or webpage. More links, and in particular, more links from other authoritative websites, equals higher organic rankings. Paying webmasters or websites to link to you creates a situation where certain sites are being made more visible - not because of their value, but because they've paid more money to be there. Just imagine the problems that would occur if medical doctors started paying others to cite their work - thereby boosting its importance (wait... maybe this already happens!).
While buying links to boost your PageRank (the score Google uses to measure your website's authority) has always been against Google's rules, many SEO companies and businesses found paid link building strategies that Google's algorithm seemingly couldn't detect. Even worse, ethical SEO companies questioned continuing to follow Google's rules when many paid link building strategies appeared to be inexpensive and highly effective (if only in the short term). It's expensive to pay professional copywriters to create unique content based on primary research. It's certainly far more expensive than hiring overseas workers for $8 per hour to submit fake profiles to thousands of websites - from dating to real estate - inserting keyword rich links in the bio of a fictitious person - a strategy that appears to have boosted the rankings of thousands of online marketing companies.
Another commonly employed paid link building technique is/was setting up a "network" of anonymous blogs. The owner of the network would then send a solicitation email like this one (see below) asking the SEO company or business owner if they wanted to buy blog posts (which include a link for the keyword(s) of your choice).
It's easy to see how SEO companies and business owners could succumb to paid link building. It's painful to watch your competitors outrank you when you're busting your butt to follow the rules and do things "the right way."
Google Fights Back
Of course, Google has always recognized the potential for SEO companies and businesses to attempt to understand and then "game" their secret ranking formulas. As a result, Google is constantly changing the ranking signals they use to determine which sites rank where. In February 2011, Google made a major algorithm updated (called "Panda"). Based on the shake up in the organic search results, Panda seemed to target mostly "content farms" - websites creating pages and pages of (relatively) low-quality content (think ezinearticles.com). Then, just over a year later, another major algorithm update came (dubbed "Penguin").
Similar to Panda, Google Penguin was aimed at reducing webspam from the organic search results. Shortly after this update, unsuspecting business owners and SEO companies, began getting link warning messages sent via their Google Webmaster Tools accounts. These messages warned of a high number of "unnatural links" pointing to your website(s) and suggested corrective action - i.e. getting the links removed (note: to date, we've never received one of these messages - nor have any of our clients - but have read and researched the subject extensively).
Penguin's focus on fighting webspam combined with Google's stance on the paid links and the warnings sent via Webmaster Tools, sent the SEO community, and businesses heavily reliant on SEO for leads, into a panic. Suddenly, every message board, forum, small business website, and search engine news site is talking about paid links - is Google (now) able to detect them, are sites being punished for having them, should you work to get any unnatural links to your website removed, the list of questions goes on and on.
If you didn't know before, you know now the main factors the search engines use to determine which websites rank where (organically). You understand what paid links are, why the search engines despise them, and what Google is doing to identify and punish businesses using them to boost their search rankings. In our next post (check back in a week or two), we will provide you with an ethical SEO strategy and tactics to improve your website's authority without paid link building or the threat of punishment from Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.
Read part 2.
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