Archived posts from the 'Google' Category

Google to kill the power of links

Well, a few types of links will survive and don’t do evil in Google’s search index ;)    I’ve updated my first take on Google’s updated guidelines stating paid links and reciprocal links are evil. Well, regardless whether one likes or dislikes this policy, it’s already factored in - case closed by Google. There are so many ways to generate natural links …

The official call for paid-link reports is pretty much disliked across the boards:
Google is Now The Morality Police on the Internet
Google’s Ideal Webmaster: Snitch, Rake It In And Don’t Deliver
Other sites can hurt your ranking
Google’s Updated Webmaster Guidelines Addresses Linking Practices
Google clarifies its stance on links

More information, and discussion of paid/exchanged links in my pamphlets:
Matt Cutts and Adam Lasnik define “paid link”
Where is the precise definition of a paid link?
Full disclosure of paid links
Revise your linkage
Link monkey business is not worth a whoop
Is buying and selling links risky? (02/2006)



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Danny Sullivan did not strip for Matt Cutts

Nope, this is not recycled news. I’m not referring to Matt asking Danny to strip off his business suit, although the video is really funny. I want to comment on something Matt didn’t say recently, but promised to do soon (again).

Danny Sullivan stripped perfectly legit code from Search Engine Land because he was accused to be a spammer, although the CSS code in question is in no way deceitful.

StandardZilla slams poor Tamar just reporting a WebProWorld thread, but does an excellent job in explaining why image replacement is not search engine spam but a sound thing to do. Google’s recently updated guidelines need to tell more clearly that optimizing for particular user agents is not considered deceitful cloaking per se. This would prevent Danny from stripping (code) not for Matt or Google but for lurid assclowns producing canards.



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Google enhances the quality guidelines

Maybe todays update of Google’s quality guidelines is the first phase of the Webmaster help system revamp project. I know there’s more to come, Google has great plans for the help center. So don’t miss out on the opportunity to tell Google’s Webmaster Central team what you’d like to have added or changed. Only 14 replies to this call for input is an evidence of incapacity, shame on the Webmasters community.

I haven’t had the time to write a full-blown review of the updates, so here are just a few remarks from a Webmaster’s perspective. Scroll down to Quality guidelines - specific guidelines to view the updates, that means click the links to the new (sometimes overlapping) detail pages.

As always, the guidelines outline best practices of Web development, refer to common sense, and don’t encourage over-interpretations (not that those are avoidable, nor utterly useless). Now providing Webmasters with more explanatory directives, detailed definitions and even examples in the “Don’ts” section is very much appreciated. Look at the over five years old first version of this document before you bitch ;)

Avoid hidden text or hidden links
The new help page on hidden text and links is descriptive and comes with examples, well done. What I miss is a hint with regard to CSS menus and other content which is hidden until the user performs a particular action. Google states “Text (such as excessive keywords) can be hidden in several ways, including […] Using CSS to hide text”. The same goes for links by the way. I wish they would add something in the lines of “… Using CSS to hide text in a way that a user can’t visualize it by a common action like moving the mouse over a pointer to a hidden element, or clicking a text link or descriptive widget or icon”. The hint at the bottom “If you do find hidden text or links on your site, either remove them or, if they are relevant for your site’s visitors, make them easily viewable” comes close to this but lacks an example.

Susan Moskwa from Google clarifies what one can hide with CSS, and what sorts of CSS hidden stuff is considered a violation of the guidelines, in the Google forum on June/11/2007:

If your intent in hiding text is to deceive the search engines, we frown on that; if your intent is purely to improve the visual user experience (e.g. by replacing some text with a fancier image of that same text), you don’t need to worry. Of course, as with many techniques, there are shades of gray between “this is clearly deceptive and wrong” and “this is perfectly acceptable”. Matt [Cutts] did say that hiding text moves you a step further towards the gray area. But if you’re running a perfectly legitimate site, you don’t need to worry about it. If, on the other hand, your site already exhibits a bunch of other semi-shady techniques, hidden text starts to look like one more item on that list. […] As the Guidelines say, focus on intent. If you’re using CSS techniques purely to improve your users’ experience and/or accessibility, you shouldn’t need to worry. One good way to keep it on the up-and-up (if you’re replacing text w/ images) is to make sure the text you’re hiding is being replaced by an image with the exact same text.

Don’t use cloaking or sneaky redirects
This sentence in bold red blinking uppercase letters should be pinned 5 pixels below the heading: “When examining […] your site to ensure your site adheres to our guidelines, consider the intent” (emphasis mine). There are so many perfectly legit ways to do the content presentation, that it is impossible to assign particular techniques to good versus bad intent, nor vice versa.

I think this page leads to misinterpretations. The major point of confusion is, that Google argues completely from a search engine’s perspective and dosn’t write for the targeted audience, that is Webmasters and Web developers. Instead of all the talk about users vs. search engines, it should distinguish plain user agents (crawlers, text browsers, JavaScript disabled …) from enhanced user agents (JS/AJAX enabled, installed and activated plug-ins …). Don’t get me wrong, this page gives the right advice, but the good advice is somewhat obfuscated in phrases like “Rather, you should consider visitors to your site who are unable to view these elements as well”.

For example “Serving a page of HTML text to search engines, while showing a page of images or Flash to users [is considered deceptive cloaking]” puts down a gazillion of legit sites which serve the same contents in different formats (and often under different URLs) depending on the ability of the current user agent to render particular stuff like Flash, and a bazillion of perfectly legit AJAX driven sites which provide crawlers and text browsers with a somewhat static structure of HTML pages, too.

“Serving different content to search engines than to users [is considered deceptive cloaking]” puts it better, because in reverse that reads “Feel free to serve identical contents under different URLs and in different formats to users and search engines. Just make sure that you accurately detect the capabilities of the user agent before you decide to alter a requested plain HTML page into a fancy conglomerate of flashing widgets with sound and other good vibrations, respectively vice versa”.

Don’t send automated queries to Google
This page doesn’t provide much more information than the paragraph on the main page, but there’s not that much to explain: don’t use WebPosition Gold™. Period.

Don’t load pages with irrelevant keywords
Tells why keyword stuffing is not a bright idea, nothing to note.

Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content
This detail page is a must read. It starts with a to the point definition “Duplicate content generally refers to substantive blocks of content within or across domains that either completely match other content or are appreciably similar”, followed by a ton of good tips and valuable information. And fortunately it expresses that there’s no such thing as a general duplicate content penalty.

Don’t create pages that install viruses, trojans, or other badware
Describes Google’s service in partnership with StopBADware.org, highlighting the quickest procedure to get Google’s malware warning removed.

Avoid “doorway” pages created just for search engines, or other “cookie cutter” approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content
The info on doorway pages is just a paragraph on the “cloaking and sneaky redirect” page. I miss a few tips on how one can identify unintentional doorway pages created by just bad design, without any deceptive intent. Also, I think a few sentences on thin SERP-like pages would be helpful in this context.

“Little or no original content” targets thin affiliate sites, again doorway pages, auto-generated content, and scraped content. It becomes clear that Google does not love MFA sites.

If your site participates in an affiliate program, make sure that your site adds value. Provide unique and relevant content that gives users a reason to visit your site first
The link points to the “Little or no original content” page mentioned above.


“Buying links in order to improve a site’s ranking is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results. […] Google works hard to ensure that it fully discounts links intended to manipulate search engine results, such link exchanges and purchased links.”

Basically that means: if you purchase a link, then make dead sure it’s castrated or Google will take away the ability to pass link love from the page (or even site) linking out for green. Or don’t get caught respectively denunciated by competitors (I doubt that’s a surefire tactic for the average Webmaster).

Note that in the second sentence quoted above Google states officially that link exchanges for the sole purpose of manipulating search engines are a waste of time and resources. That means reciprocal links of particular types nullify each other, and site links might have lost their power too. <speculation>Google may find it funny to increase the toolbar PageRank of pages involved in all sorts of link swap campaigns, but the real PageRank will remain untouched.</speculation>

There’s much confusion with regard to “paid link penalties”. To the best of my knowledge the link’s destination will not be penalized, but the paid link(s) will not (or no longer) increase its reputation, so that in case the link’s intention got reported or discovered ex-post its rankings may suffer. Penalizing the link buyer would not make much sense, and Googlers are known as pragmatic folks, hence I doubt there is such a penalty. <speculation>Possibly Google has a flag applied to known link purchasers (sites as well as webmasters), which –if it exists– might result in more scrupulous judgements of other optimization techniques.</speculation>

What I really like is that the Googlers in charge honestly tried to write for their audience, that is Webmasters and Web developers, not (only) search geeks. Hence the news is that Google really cares. Since the revamp is a funded project, I guess the few paragraphs where the guidelines are still mysterious (for the great unwashed), or even potentially misleading, will get an update soon. I can’t wait for the next phase of this project.

Vanessa Fox creates buzz at SMX today, so I’ll update this post when (if?) she blogs about the updates later on (update: Vanessa’s post). Perhaps Matt Cutts will comment the updated quality guidelines at the SMX conference today, look for Barry’s writeup at Search Engine Land, and SEO Roundtable as well as the Bruce Clay blog for coverage of the SMX Penalty Box Summit. Marketing Pilgrim covered this session too. This post at Search Engine Journal provides related info, and more quotes from Matt. Just one SMX tidbit: according to Matt they’re going to change the name of the re-inclusion request to something like a reconsideration request.



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Hassles of submitting a blogspot XML-sitemap

Usually my posts make it into Google’s Web index within 2-3 hours, but not yesterday. Since Ms. Googlebot became lazy fetching my pamphlets, I thought she needs a hint. With one of the last updates Blogger’s feed URLs have changed, but lazy as I am I’ve still the ancient ATOM feed in my sitemaps account. So I grabbed the new URL from the LINK element in HEAD and submitted it as sitemap. Bugger me. Not enough tea this morning. I didn’t look at the URL, just copied and pasted it, then submitted the feed to no avail. Oups. Here is why it didn’t work:

Blogger.com doesn’t come with build-in XML sitemaps, but one can use the feeds. That’s definitely not a perfect solution, because the feeds list only a few recent posts, but better than nothing.

Here are the standard feed URLS of a blogger blog at blogspot.com (replace “sebastianx” with your subdomain):
http://sebastianx.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default (ATOM, posts)
http://sebastianx.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default?alt=rss (RSS, posts)
http://sebastianx.blogspot.com/feeds/comments/default (ATOM, comments)

None of these can be used as a sitemap, because the post-URLs are not located under the sitemap path.

Fortunately, the old feeds still work, although they are served as “text/html” what can confuse things, so I’ve to stick with http://sebastianx.blogspot.com/atom.xml as “sitemap”.



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Google nofollow’s itself

Awesome. Nofollow-insane at its best. Check the source of Google’s Webmaster Blog. In HEAD you’ll find an insane meta tag:
<meta name=”ROBOTS” content=”NOINDEX,NOFOLLOW” />

Well, that’s one of many examples. Read the support forums. Another case of Google nofollow’ing herself: Google fun

Matt thought that all teams understood the syntax and semantics of rel-nofollow. It seems to me that’s not the case. I really can’t blame Googlers applying rel-nofollow or even nofollow/noindex meta tags to everything they get a hand on. It is not understandable. It’s not useable. It’s misleading. It’s confusing. It should get buried asap.

Hat tip to John (JLH’s post).

Update 1: A friendly Googler just told me that a Blogger glitch (pertaining only Google blogs) inserted the crawler-unfriendly meta element, it should be solved soon. I thought this bug was fixed months ago ... if page.isPrivate == true by mistake then insert “<meta content=’NOINDEX,NOFOLLOW’ name=’ROBOTS’ />” … (made up)

Update 2: The ‘noindex,nofollow’ robots meta tag is gone now, and the Webmaster Central Blog got a neat new logo:
Google Webmaster Central Blog - Offic'ial news on crawling and indexing sites for the Google index (I’d add ALT and TITLE text: alt="Google Webmaster Central Blog - Official news on crawling and indexing sites for the Google index" title="Official news on crawling and indexing sites for the Google index")



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Help Google revealing the secret sauce!

Do you remember this Do’s & Don’ts page?

Google Information for Webmasters
Webmaster Dos and Don’ts
Do:

  • Create a site with content and design that are straightforward, appropriate and relevant for visitors to your site.
  • Feel free to exchange links with other sites that are compatible with your site’s content and users’ interests.
  • Be very careful about allowing an individual consultant or company to ‘optimize’ your web site. Chances are they will engage in some of our "Don’ts" and end up hurting your site.
  • Consider submitting your sites to our partner directories Yahoo! and DMOZ.

Don’t:

  • Cloak.
  • Write text or create links that can be seen by search engines but not by visitors to your site.
  • Participate in link exchanges for the sole purpose of increasing your ranking in search engines.
  • Send automated queries to Google in an attempt to monitor your site’s ranking.
  • Use programs that generate lots of generic doorway pages.

http://www.google.com/webmasters/dos.html five years ago (restored)

That’s Google’s Webmaster guidelines as per 2002, when the Webmaster’s section covered all topics on a dozen or so pages. In the meantime it was translated into many languages, and grew considerably. Todays Webmaster Help Center is an authoritative resource for experienced search geeks able to gather the tidbits various Googlers spread on the Web too.

That’s going to change. Ríona MacNamara from Google’s Webmaster Central team in Kirkland asks for ideas on How to revamp Google’s Webmaster Help Center:

We’re planning to restructure the Webmaster Tools Help Center to improve the way we organize and present help content. We want to make sure that our content is technically accurate, relevant, and up to date, and that it’s easy to navigate and find exactly what you’re looking for. Is the content broad enough in scope? Deep enough in detail? Does it have the right mix of instructional and conceptual info? […] Is the Help Center — well, helpful?

I hope that Google is willing to evolve the Webmasters Help Center to become a useful resource for spare time Webmasters, site owners, publishers, bloggers and other non-geeks, along with in-depth information addressing search geeks. Assuming in its current shape it’s meant to help out non-search-geeks, I must state that it hosts some of the worst FAQ items ever. The contents are certainly helpful if the reader has a great deal of Google specific knowledge, experience in reading Google-ish text, and knows what to read with a grain of salt because Google cannot tell the way the cookie crumbles to protect their secret sauce. Well, instead of reading rants, or bitching yourself, why not add your 0.02?

Click here to tell Google what you want and expect.

Please don’t get fooled by “Tools” in the thread title. The tools are nicely explained, what we want is the secret sauce dumped into the general help system ;)



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No search, more fun: Netscape spamming Google

Google dislikes crawlable SERPs. But Google still indexes huge chunks of SERPs, and to make it worse, these disliked URLs sometimes rank above other useless webspam from Amazon, Ebay, and cohorts on the very first search result page.

For example Netscape is still flooding Google’s search index with crap as per the quality guidelines, which clearly state:

Use robots.txt to prevent crawling of search results pages […] that don’t add much value for users coming from search engines.

Netscape.com lacks a robots.txt, but how many patterns does it need to identify these pages as SERPs? Next search.netscape.com has a robots.txt, but it lacks a Disallow: / directive, respectively Disallow’s of all their scripts generating search results.

Is it that simple to get gazillions of useless autogenerated pages ranking at Google? Indeed. Following the Netscape precedent every assclown out there can buy a SE-script, can crawl the Web for a bunch of niche keywords, and will earn free Google traffic just because he has “forgotten” to upload a proper robots.txt file and Google isn’t capable of detecting SERPs. I mean when they don’t run a few tests with Netscape-SERPs, where’s the point of an unenforced no-crawlable-SERPs policy?

I just found another interesting snippet in Google’s quality guidelines:

If a site doesn’t meet our quality guidelines, it may be blocked from the index.

I certainly will not miss 1,360,000 URLs from a spamming site ;)



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Follow-up: Erol’s patch fixing Google troubles

Erol developers test their first Google-patch for sites hosted on UNIX boxes. You can preview it here: x55.html. When you request the page with a search engine crawler identifier as user-agent name, the JavaScript code redirecting to the frameset erol.html#55×0&& gets replaced with a HTML comment explaining why human visitors are treated different from search engine spiders. The anatomy of this patch is described here, your feedback is welcome.

Erol told me they will be running tests on this site over the coming weeks, as they always do before going live with an update. So stay tuned for the release. When things run smoothly on UNIX hosts, a patch for Windows environments shall follow. On IIS the implementation is a bit trickier, because it needs changes of the server configuration. I’ll keep you updated.



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German spammers banning all domains out there

If you receive an email in german language from Google’s Search Quality team (donotreply@gmail.com) telling your site was banned by Google for 30 days please don’t worry. That’s faked. Legit (similar phrased) emails must come from a google.com email address. If the hoax-email comes with an attachment, don’t save or open the attached file (zipped google_webmastertools.exe)!

Here is the email:
Entfernung Ihrer Webseite [domain] aus dem Google Index
The email looks pretty authentic, its style and wording are somewhat Google-ish. I speak German, hence I’m sure that gazillions of innocent Webmasters and site owners buy it and panic. Unfortunately most filters let the zipped attachment (google_webmastertools.exe) pass thru. I didn’t open it myself and I bet it’s not a bright idea to try it.

Google told me that Stefanie from the real Search Quality team over in Dublin will soon post a warning on the german blog.

Here is an original penalty warning in german language:
Entfernung Ihrer Webseite aus dem Google IndexThese emails are sent from donotreply@google.com without attachments.

Update 05/10/2007: Here is Google’s official statement (in german language) and the english version by Vanessa. The attached .exe is a joke, it executes cmd.exe c\:clear complete harddisc (Hoax.BAT.Small.a).

Update 05/11/2007: Because these emails are easy to mistake for authentic ones from the Search Quality team, Google temporarily discontinued sending them as they work on ways to provide more secure communication mechanisms. This update reads as if Google has stopped to send out penalty notification emails in all languages: “… as we’ve temporarily stopped sending emails about guidelines violations, you can safely assume that any email you receive isn’t from us. Note that we do provide information about some violations in webmaster tools.”.

Update 06/19/2007: German forums and blogs report another flood of these faked emails, and this post got tons of visits from searches for quotes from the email quoted above. Calm down, don’t panic: Google still doesn’t send out penalty notifications via email (in Deutsch). So please ignore the spam and refer to the diagnostics tab in your Webmaster Central account when you assume a penalty.

Update 07/18/2007: Google released the message center where site owners can poll for penalty notifications. They are still working on a safe solution for emails. Probably ‘-950/-30/-n penalties’ won’t get announced any time soon.



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Google hunts paid links and reciprocal linkage

Matt Cutts and Adam Lasnik have clarified Google’s take on paid links and overdone reciprocal linkage. Some of their statements are old news, but it surely helps to have a comprehensive round-up in the context of the current debate on paid links.

So what –in short– does Google consider linkspam:
Artificial link schemes, paid links and uncondomized affiliate links, overdone reciprocal linkage and interlinking.

All sorts of link schemes designed to increase a site’s ranking or PageRank. Link scheme means for example mass exchange of links pages, repeated chunks of links per site, fishy footer links, triangular PageRank boosting, 27-way-linkage where in the end only the initiator earns a few inbounds because the participants are confused, and “genial” stuff like that. Google’s pretty good at identifying link farming, and bans or penalizes accordingly. That’s old news, but such techniques are still used, widely.

Advice: don’t participate, Google will catch you eventually.

Paid links, if detected or reported, get devalued. That is, they don’t help the link destination’s search engine rankings, and in some cases the source will lose its ability to pass reputation via links. Google does this more or less silently since 2003 at least, probably longer, but until today there was no precise definition of risky paid links.

That’s going to change. Adam Lasnik, commenting Eric Enge’s “It seems to me that one of the more challenging aspects of all of this is that people have gotten really good at buying a link that show no indication that they are purchased.”

Yes and no, actually. One of the things I think Matt has commented about in his blog; it’s what we joking refer to as famous last words, which is “well, I have come up with a way to buy links that is completely undetectable”.

As people have pointed out, Google buys advertising, and a lot of other great sites engage in both the buying and selling of advertising. There is no problem with that whatsoever. The problem is that we’ve seen quite a bit of buying and selling for the very clear purpose of transferring PageRank. Some times we see people out there saying “hey, I’ve got a PR8 site” and, “this will give you some great Google boost, and I am selling it for just three hundred a month”. Well, that’s blunt, and that’s clearly in violation of the “do not engage in linking schemes that are not permitted within the webmaster guidelines”.

Two, taking a step back, our goal is not to catch one hundred percent of paid links [emphasis mine]. It’s to try to address the egregious behavior of buying and selling the links that focus on the passing of PageRank. That type of behavior is a lot more readily identifiable then I think people give us credit for.

So it seems Google’s just after PageRank selling. Adam’s following comments on the use and abuse of rel-nofollow emphasizes this interpretation:

I understand there has been some confusion on that, both in terms of how it [rel=nofollow] works or why it should be used. We want links to be treated and used primarily as votes for a site, or to say I think this is an interesting site, and good site. The buying and selling of links without the use of Nofollow, or JavaScript links, or redirects has unfortunately harmed that goal. We realize we cannot turn the web back to when it was completely noncommercial and we don’t want to do that [emphasis mine]. Because, obviously as Google, we firmly believe that commerce has an important role on the Internet. But, we want to bring a bit of authenticity back to the linking structure of the web. […] our interest isn’t in finding and taking care of a hundred percent of links that may or may not pass PageRank. But, as you point out relevance is definitely important and useful, and if you previously bought or sold a link without Nofollow, this is not the end of the world. We are looking for larger and more significant patterns [emphasis mine].

Don’t miss out on Eric Enge’s complete interview with Adam Lasnik, it’s really worth bookmarking for future references!

Matt Cutts has updated (May 12th, 2007) an older and well linked post on paid links. It also covers thoughts on the value of directory links. Here are a few quotes, but don’t miss out on Matt’s post:

… we’re open to semi-automatic approaches to ignore paid links, which could include the best of algorithmic and manual approaches.

Q: Now when you say “paid links”, what exactly do you mean by that? Do you view all paid links as potential violations of Google’s quality guidelines?
A: Good question. As someone working on quality and relevance at Google, my bottom-line concern is clean and relevant search results on Google. As such, I care about paid links that flow PageRank and attempt to game Google’s rankings. I’m not worried about links that are paid but don’t affect search engines. So when I say “paid links” it’s pretty safe to add in your head “paid links that flow PageRank and attempt to game Google’s rankings.”

Q: This is all well and fine, but I decide what to do on my site. I can do anything I want on it, including selling links.
A: You’re 100% right; you can do absolutely anything you want on your site. But in the same way, I believe Google has the right to do whatever we think is best (in our index, algorithms, or scoring) to return relevant results.

Q: Hey, as long as we’re talking about directories, can you talk about the role of directories, some of whom charge for a reviewer to evaluate them?
A: I’ll try to give a few rules of thumb to think about when looking at a directory. When considering submitting to a directory, I’d ask questions like:
- Does the directory reject URLs? If every URL passes a review, the directory gets closer to just a list of links or a free-for-all link site.
- What is the quality of urls in the directory? Suppose a site rejects 25% of submissions, but the urls that are accepted/listed are still quite low-quality or spammy. That doesn’t speak well to the quality of the directory.
- If there is a fee, what’s the purpose of the fee? For a high-quality directory, the fee is primarily for the time/effort for someone to do a genuine evaluation of a url or site.
Those are a few factors I’d consider. If you put on your user hat and ask “Does this seem like a high-quality directory to me?” you can usually get a pretty good sense as well, or ask a few friends for their take on a particular directory.

To get a better idea on how Google’s search quality team chases paid links, read Brian White’s post Paid Link Schemes Inside Original Content.

Advice: either nofollow paid links, or don’t get caught. If you buy links, pay only for the traffic, because with or without link condom there’s no search engine love involved.

Affiliate links are seen as kinda subset of paid links. Google can identify most (unmasked) affiliate links. Frankly, there’s no advantage in passing link love to sponsors.

Advice: nofollow.

Reciprocal links without much doubt nullify each other. Overdone reciprocal linkage may even cause penalties, that is the reciprocal links area of a site gets qualified as link farm, for possible consequences scroll up a bit. Reciprocal links are natural links, and Google honors them if the link profile of a site or network does not consist of a unnnatural high number of reciprocal or triangular link exchanges. It may be that natural reciprocal links pass (at least a portion of) PageRank, but no (or less than one-way links) revelancy via anchor text and trust or other link reputation.

Matt Cutts discussing “Google Hell”:

Reciprocal links by themselves aren’t automatically bad, but we’ve communicated before that there is such a thing as excessive reciprocal linking. […] As Google changes algorithms over time, excessive reciprocal links will probably carry less weight. That could also account for a site having more pages in supplemental results if excessive reciprocal links (or other link-building techniques) begin to be counted less. As I said in January: “The approach I’d recommend in that case is to use solid white-hat SEO to get high-quality links (e.g. editorially given by other sites on the basis of merit).”

Advice: It’s safe to consider reciprocal links somewhat helpful, but don’t actively chase for reciprocal links.

Interlinking all sites in a network can be counterproductive, but selfish cross-linking is not penalized in general. There’s no “interlinking penalty” when these links make sound business sense, even when the interlinked sites aren’t topically related. Interlinking sites handling each and every yellow page category on the other hand may be considered overdone. In some industries like adult entertainment, where it’s hard to gain natural links, many webmasters try to boost their rankings with links from other (unrelated) sites they own or control. Operating hundreds or thousands of interlinked travel sites spread on many domains and subdomains is risky too. In the best case such linking patterns may be just ignored by Google, that is they’ve no or very low impact on rankings at all, but it’s easy to convert a honest network into a link farm by mistake.

Advice: Carefully interlink your own sites in smaller networks, but partition these links by theme or branch in huge clusters. Consider consolidating closely related sites.

So what does all that mean for Webmasters?

Some might argue “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, in other words “why should I revamp my linkage when I rank fine?”. Well, rules like “any attempt to improve on a system that already works is pointless and may even be detrimental” are pointless and detrimental in a context where everything changes daily. Especially, when the tiny link-systems designed to fool another system, passively interact with that huge system (the search engine polls linkage data for all kinds of analyses). In that case the large system can change the laws of the game at any time to outsmart all the tiny cheats. So just because Google didn’t discover all link schemes or shabby reciprocal link cycles out there, that does not mean the participants are safe forever. Nothing’s set in stone, not even rankings, so better revise your ancient sins.

Bear in mind that Google maintains a database containing all links in the known universe back to 1998 or so, and that a current penalty may be the result of a historical analysis of a site’s link attitude. So when a site is squeaky clean today but doesn’t rank adequately, consider a reinclusion request if you’ve cheated in the past.

Before you think of penalties as the cause of downranked or even vanished pages, analyze your inbound links that might have started counting for less. Pull all your inbound links from Site Explorer or Webmaster Central, then remove questionable sources from the list:

  • Paid links and affiliate links where you 301-redirect all landing pages with affiliate IDs in the query string to a canonical landing page,
  • Links from fishy directories, links lists, FFAs, top rank lists, DMOZ-clones and stuff like that,
  • Links from URLs which may be considered search results,
  • Links from sites you control or which live off your contents,
  • Links from sites engaged in reciprocal link swaps with your sites,
  • Links from sites which link out to too many questionable pages in link directories or where users can insert links without editorial control,
  • Links from shabby sites regardless their toolbar PageRank,
  • Links from links pages which don’t provide editorial contents,
  • Links from blog comments, forum signatures, guestbooks and other places where you can easily drop URLs,
  • Nofollow’ed links and links routed via uncrawlable redirect scripts,

Judge by content quality, traffic figures if available, and user friendliness, not by toolbar PageRank. Just because a link appears in reverse citation results, that does not mean it carries any weight.

Look at the shrinked list of inbound links and ask yourself where on the SERPs a search engine should rank your stuff based on these remaining votes. Frustrated? Learn the fine art of link building from an expert in the field.



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