Ignoring Link Spam Isn’t Working

// // July 06th 2017 // SEO

Link spam is on the rise again. Why? Because it’s working. The reason it’s working is that demand is up based on Google’s change from penalization to neutralization.

Google might be pretty good at ignoring links. But pretty good isn’t good enough.

Neutralize vs Penalize

For a very long time Google didn’t penalize paid or manipulative links but instead neutralized them, which is a fancy way of saying they ignored those links. But then there was a crisis in search quality and Google switched to penalizing sites for thin content (Panda) and over optimized links (Penguin).

The SEO industry underwent a huge transformation as a result.

Google Trends for Content Marketing

I saw this as a positive change despite having a few clients get hit and seeing the industry throw the baby (technical SEO) out with the bathwater. The playing field evened and those who weren’t allergic to work had a much better chance of success.

Virtually Spotless

Cascade Print Ad

This Cascade campaign and claim is one of my favorites as a marketer. Because ‘virtually spotless’ means those glasses … have spots. They might have less spots than the competition but make no mistake, they still have spots.

This was Gary’s response to a Tweet about folks peddling links from sites like Forbes and Entrepreneur. I like Gary. He’s also correct. Unfortunately, none of that matters.

Pretty good is the same as virtually spotless.

Unless neutralization is wildly effective in the first month those links are found then it will ultimately lead to more successful link spam. And that’s what I’m seeing. Over the last year link spam is working far more often, in more verticals and for more valuable keywords.

So when Google says they’re pretty good at ignoring link spam that means some of the link spam is working. They’re not catching 100%. Not by a long shot.

Perspective

Lighting a Cigar with a 100 Dollar Bill

One of the issues is that, from a Google perspective, the difference might seem small. But to sites and to search marketing professionals, the differences are material.

I had a similar debate after Matt Cutts said there wasn’t much of a difference between having your blog in a subdomain versus having it in a subfolder. The key to that statement was ‘much of’, which meant there was a difference.

It seemed small to Matt and Google but if you’re fighting for search traffic, it might turn out to be material. Even if it is small, do you want to leave that gain on the table? SEO success comes through a thousand optimizations.

Cost vs Benefit

Perhaps Google neutralizes 80% of the link spam. That means that 20% of the link spam works. Sure, the overall cost for doing it goes up but here’s the problem. It doesn’t cost that much.

Link spam can be done at scale and be done without a huge investment. It’s certainly less costly than the alternative. So the idea that neutralizing a majority of it will help end the practice is specious. Enough of it works and when it works it provides a huge return.

It’s sort of like a demented version of index investing. The low fee structure and broad diversification mean you can win even if many of the stocks in that index aren’t performing.

Risk vs Reward

Get Out Jail Free Monopoly Card

Panda and Penguin suddenly made thin content and link spam risky. Sure it didn’t cost a lot to produce. But if you got caught, it could essentially put your site six feet under.

Suddenly, the reward for these practices had to be a lot higher to offset that risk.

The SEO industry moaned and bellyached. It’s their default reaction. But penalization worked. Content got better and link spam was severely marginalized. Those who sold the links were now offering link removal services. Because the folks who might buy links … weren’t in the market anymore.

The risk of penalty took demand out of the market.

Link Spam

I’m sure many of you are seeing more and more emails peddling links showing up in your inbox.

Paid Link Outreach Email

Some of them are laughable. Yet, that’s what makes it all the more sad. It shows just how low the bar is right now for making link spam work.

There are also more sophisticated link spam efforts, including syndication spam. Here, you produce content once with rich anchor text (often on your own site) and then syndicate that content to other platforms that will provide clean followed links. I’ve seen both public and private syndication networks deliver results.

I won’t offer a blow-by-blow of this or other link manipulation techniques. There are better places for that and others who are far more versed in the details.

However, a recent thread in the Google Webmaster Help forum around a PBN is instructive.

Black Hat Private Blog Networks Thread

The response by John Mueller (another guy I like and respect) is par for the course.

The tricky part about issues like these is that our algorithms (and the manual webspam team) often take very specific action on links like these; just because the sites are still indexed doesn’t mean that they’re profiting from those links.

In short, John’s saying that they catch a lot of this and ignore those links. In extreme cases they will penalize but the current trend seems to rely on neutralization.

The problem? Many of us are seeing these tactics achieve results. Maybe Google does catch the majority of this spam. But enough sneaks through that it’s working.

Now, I’m sure many will argue that there are other reasons a site might have ranked for a specific term. Know what? They might be right. But think about it for a moment. If you were able to rank well for a term, why would you employ this type of link spam tactic?

Even if you rationalize that a site is simply using everything at their disposal to rank, you’d then have to accept that fear of penalty was no longer driving sites out of the link manipulation market.

Furthermore, by letting link manipulation survive ‘visually’ it becomes very easy for other site owners to come to the conclusion (erroneous or not) that these tactics do work. The old ‘perception is reality’ adage takes over and demand rises.

So while Google snickers thinking spammers are wasting money on these links it’s the spammers who are laughing all the way to the bank. Low overhead costs make even inefficient link manipulation profitable in a high demand market.

I’ve advised clients that I see this problem getting worse in the next 12-18 months until it reaches a critical mass that will force Google to revert back to some sort of penalization.

TL;DR

Link spam is falling through the cracks and working more often as Google’s shift to ignoring link spam versus penalizing it creates a “sellers market” that fuels link spam growth.

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Comments About Ignoring Link Spam Isn’t Working

// 36 comments so far.

  1. Jim Robinson // July 06th 2017

    I often wonder about those sites we so often see being offered up in the “blogger outreach” emails. It seems everyone has access to the same list of sites. Are those publishers seriously not aware of what’s going on? Perhaps they’re willing to take the risk to keep the steady stream of free content coming in from their guest contributors.

  2. AJ Kohn // July 06th 2017

    Thanks for the comment Jim. I agree, it seems odd that those sites wouldn’t have some knowledge about how they fit into the ecosystem. But they need that free content to drive their ad based business. So without a consequence I’m not sure they care.

  3. Scott Nailon // July 06th 2017

    The evolution of seo has been fun to watch, it has also given people heart problems!

    I think that the most powerful thing we will have in future is publishing on our own blog and then guest posting on authority sites about our blog posts. Ensuring that we give the search engines good content to consume – content that our readers will see value in.

  4. AJ Kohn // July 06th 2017

    Thanks for the comment Scott. I’m a big fan of blogging on your own site and building your own brand.

    I’m not a fan of guest blogging myself and don’t recommend it as a primary strategy for most clients. Do it to gain visibility with a new audience if you must. And to be fair, there are some ventures where that type of broad exposure can work.

    Either way, to me it’s all about creating memorable content.

  5. josh bachynski // July 06th 2017

    The problem is after heavy penilzation of the worst actors that the general satisfaction of Searchers went down due to weird results and low-quality sites being in the top 10.

    As morally elitist as Google is, at the end of the day, all they care about is their bottom line. And if you are the worst spammer in the world, as long as your quality score is high, as long as you are satisfying the Searcher, they’re fine with that.

    As they should be.

    Because you are helping their bottom line by answering the question their user wants to have answered.

    As much as not having a mat Cuts working there anymore to help us doesn’t help us, they also no longer have a Matt cutts working there to specifically hurt us.

    That is to say, someone who is familiar with SEO practices and gets bent out of joint when we find ways around their algos.

    The new AI Google in the end doesn’t care about SEO s, doesn’t know them intimately, doesn’t really interact with them, not in the same way they used to, and as long as the quality is of a certain level at the end of the day they don’t care what we do.

    This is good for business for those of us who are smart enough to figure out there AI algos and have stuck around :-)

    And more ethical too. Because they are not penalizing businesses into Oblivion anymore.

  6. AJ Kohn // July 06th 2017

    Appreciate your views Josh, though I don’t share most of them. While there were ‘content gap’ issues after Panda and Penguin in the short-term I don’t think it was widespread.

    Those Googlers working in search quality are not simply concerned about meeting long-click metrics for the sake of those metrics. How they get there is important.

    Matt Cutts, in my view, was an advocate for SEOs. He could communicate our issues, which could then be addressed. The flip side was that he also was able to communicate the tactics SEOs used to circumvent the algorithm. I found that to be a fair trade off. In particular because I didn’t traffic in the latter.

    I think Gary and John have a good handle on many of the issues we face. Can they advocate and bring about change based on what they see and hear? I’d love to say yes but … I don’t think so. That’s not really a knock on them. They’re just not Matt. Nor are they head of the web spam team.

    Google’s mission remains the same. New techniques and presentations have been added. However, the Skynet version of Google is an industry scapegoat in my view.

  7. Jeremy Rivera // July 06th 2017

    Thanks AJ for once again hitting the nail on the head. It’s driving me and a client of mine up the wall that a competitor has tripled their link profile…all using really, really really low quality gallery image private blog network sites. There are dozens of them ALL using the same damn theme, sending followed links to that competitor and no follows to everyone else in the industry to try and mask themselves like a fig leaf over a bubonic plague infected pair of… Nevermind the metaphors this is crap that two years ago would have this site 6 feet under (and deservedly!) Now they’re making a significant amount of money instead.

    I tried reporting the blatant link manipulation, and even tweeted Ilyes the chutzpah of this PBN to no avail.

  8. AJ Kohn // July 07th 2017

    Thanks for your comment Jeremy, though I’m sad to hear that you’re seeing the same thing. This is the crux of the problem. Some of this stuff is obvious and there is money being made. It becomes hard to keep clients on the right path when they’re getting beat by link manipulation.

  9. David Farkas // July 06th 2017

    Great point A.J, but considering the fact that Google can still manually penalize sites makes it seem like a risky proposition.

  10. AJ Kohn // July 07th 2017

    That’s only partially true David. The rate of penalization has gone down dramatically and Google itself says it only does so in egregious cases. Wherever that penalize line has been drawn, it’s too far out as far as I can tell. Otherwise, the instances of link spam wouldn’t be rising.

  11. Andrew Optimsey // July 07th 2017

    Great piece AJ. Blackhat stuff is always going to exist. If there is a quick buck to be made then people are going to do it. It’s like cheating in games – you shouldn’t but if you can…

    That said, blackhat is a risky game. As/when Google catches up on this stuff (and releases updates like Panda and Penguin) those sites get hit really hard.

    If you’re one of the ‘good guys’ you can often get a lift from these ‘scary’ udpates people get so excited about – partly because all the baddies drop out of the SERPs and partly because your site is good.

    It’s long game vs. short game. I know which I’m playing – but you’re right, it’s an uneven playing field at times.

  12. AJ Kohn // July 07th 2017

    Thanks for the kind words Andrew. And I agree that there will always be those trying to find the cracks and take those shortcuts. I simply think that the blackhat game has become less risky. As a result, those naturally drawn to shortcuts … are taking them more often.

  13. Dan Charles // July 07th 2017

    I found this article to be really refreshing. I like your take on this.

    I have been on both ends of the stick, having invested in the past but recent years, avoid and discourage it. Sadly, link spam does still work in most cases. I find it hard to believe Google ignores all of it. I’ve seen competitors make no other changes to their site except for a few PBN links. These links pretty much always lead to strong lift in SERP visibility soon after. Quality content simply isn’t enough to beat them out of the top spots.

    It cant just be correlation with site quality and algorithm updates surely?

  14. AJ Kohn // July 07th 2017

    Thanks for the kind words Dan. And Google itself would admit they can’t ignore it all. They simply think they ignore enough of it. That doesn’t seem to be the case from what I and now many others are seeing.

  15. Ramesh Singh // July 07th 2017

    The problem I see here is usually when small business owners who want to earn from free traffic and he/she don’t have much budget like big brands. They intentionally/unintentionally participate in such link scheme to rank their business. Google good at detecting these link spam as they have patterns on how they work and yes totally agreed with not all get ignored by the Google.

    Reason why people opt for link scheme –
    No one links to their sites.
    A competitive market and no one know you in the market. (reputation, branding)
    Less or no budget for marketing.
    They don’t look at the bigger picture of having shortcuts.
    No real value added for sites visitors, no improvement in product/services.
    Go for easy wins.
    Pressure to perform and get the desired result for clients (SEOs)

  16. AJ Kohn // July 07th 2017

    I agree with your assessment Ramesh. To me it boils down to the fact that people are impatient, over-estimate the value of their content/product, suck at marketing and are allergic to work. This isn’t something isolated to the Internet either. It’s been around forever. But there’s a bit of a perfect storm online that connects scammers with dreamers that results in this negative practice.

  17. Jill C // July 07th 2017

    This was incredibly interesting! I must get 3-5 of those emails a week asking me to pay money for links on Entrepreneur or Forbes etc. and it drives me insane! As a SEO who tries to do things as natural as possible — it really aggravates me knowing that some ARE actually buying these links and possibly seeing improvement because of it. Because I would NEVER take that risk with a client – I feel like we are at a disadvantage.

    PBN’s in my opinion are the worst with this whole issue though – trying to explain to a client why they cannot outrank a competitor because you know they are using PBN links and you refuse to do it is a very hard conversation to have. Sadly Google is still lagging in this area big time.

    I am one of those who still holds hope Google will catch up to all of this and in the end my clients will win BIG! :-)

  18. AJ Kohn // July 07th 2017

    Thanks for your perspective Jill. I’m glad you’re still fighting the good fight. I think that’s the issue here. I want Google to help make those hard conversations easier. The more times a client sees it working (or even thinks it’s working) the harder it is for us to talk them down off the ledge.

  19. Thomas Ballantyne // July 07th 2017

    Good read AJ. It seems to me that neutralization was Googles original tactic. It took google a long time before they realized that policing the internet required punishable crimes. Panda and Penguin were years in the making. And once Matt achieved a more balanced web by breaking the rule breakers he retired and with him so retired the torch.

    Stranger still is how easy it is to spam and get away with it in local search and NO LINKS REQUIRED. Just add the city to your business name… *PRESTO* this magical SEO ingredient works!! And no real punishment will be delivered even if caught.

    What Google also don’t get is this: If I am already losing the SEO game then what harm is there in cheating? If I don’t rank and the punishment for cheating IF I get caught is “not ranking” then there is no risk.

  20. AJ Kohn // July 07th 2017

    Thanks Thomas. Your comments on spot on. The original tact was neutralization and it took them a while to figure out that wasn’t enough.

    And that last sentence is perfection! “If I don’t rank and the punishment for cheating IF I get caught is “not ranking” then there is no risk.”

  21. Nick // July 09th 2017

    Fantastic article and a well written one at that. I really appreciate your views and input on the subject. Linked here from a PBN group thread!

    Bookmarked your page.

    Cheers

  22. AJ Kohn // July 09th 2017

    Thanks Nick. And I’d be interested to get the views of folks in the PBN community. Whether that be in comments or via email.

  23. Hans Braumüller // July 10th 2017

    Hello,

    thanks for your insights. I have observed since several months similar in Germany. A competitor from a client (travel industry), who are renting and buying links are outperforming some sites in the market, ranking high in organic for very high CPC keywords in paid search. But still there are old sites (but they have done link building in the past and clean it up with the arise of Penguin and manual penalization ) with no kind of any type of link building since several years activities at Top of SERP.

    Greetings from Hamburg,

  24. AJ Kohn // July 10th 2017

    Thank you for the international data point Hans. Many top sites aren’t being unseated by this type of activity. But often it’s on a specific keyword so the spam doesn’t hurt too much (now) but it can eat away at the edges.

    That’s really what I’m seeing now. Link spam is eating away at the edges and to me that’s an early warning indicator of bad things to come if it isn’t addressed.

  25. Hans Braumüller // July 11th 2017

    Hi again,

    another German SEO told me today, that some weeks ago, a Google employer confirms somewhere that penalize by Penguin ends, because of negative effects (Negative SEO) of innocence sites?
    Do you have any online reference or resource about this?

    Thank you,

  26. AJ Kohn // July 11th 2017

    I find the negative SEO obsession to be an unproductive line of inquiry.

  27. Jon Openshaw // July 11th 2017

    Good read as per normal, AJ. This post hits close to home; it reminds me so much of my earliest work in SEO at an almost entirely black hat agency. Hope you don’t a bit of a story detour.

    The entire business back was built around link spam and high-intent, long-tail local queries. We had a spreadsheet that was circulated internally for creating local citations. We had a team overseas for churning comment spam and link wheels. It was fun while it lasted, I guess.

    When Panda and Penguin hit, the biz was eviscerated. Lost 50-60% of our core clients within 3 months. We went 100% remote office. It’s what pushed me into technical SEO, actually. I had no choice.

    At the same time, it was a hard lesson learned: there’s a right way to do things. The effort might be high, but the risk is lower. I’m okay with that. I wish this next round of SEOs would get the chance to learn that lesson, too. The hard way.

    Separately, I guess it’s not surprising that Big G hasn’t done much to pursue penalties when you look at how little they’ve done to stop those awful mobile ad redirects. It needs to hit their bottom line which, to me, means more SEOs would have to switch up for darker hats for Google to start caring again. The SERPs as a whole would need to start shifting to lower quality.

    I don’t disagree with you, by the way. It just feels like Google is fine with getting a B or B+ instead of an A/A+.

  28. AJ Kohn // July 11th 2017

    Thanks for the comments and insight Jon. And I absolutely agree that Google likely won’t take action until SERP quality is perceived to be lower. It might not actually be lower, but if enough people start questioning it then it’s a whole PR issue they have to address.

    Make no mistake, Google took action with Panda and Penguin in large part due to mainstream posts about poor search quality. I hope it doesn’t have to get to that level again. My worry is that they could keep things at B+ for a long time, which wouldn’t produce mainstream ire. That is what could extend this trend for a number of years.

  29. Andy Kuiper // July 11th 2017

    PBN’s are a BIG problem.

  30. Hristo // July 11th 2017

    If you want a real example that makes your examples blush then look at the query Bulgarian properties and especially the domain with that keywords (.com).

    Seems like there is no spam algorithm at all…

  31. Frank Sandtmann // July 11th 2017

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, AJ. They are insightful as ever.

    As Google hardly ever is doing anything without a long term plan, I am wondering, if we are somehow in a transition period right now. With the advent of RankBrain we were entering a time, when content is understood (and recognized) by an algorithm in an unprecedented way.

    Could it be the case that by now Google is quite certain that they soon will be able to rank webpages mainly on their content and authority? This would obviously trigger a certain devaluation of other signals, for example links.

    In consequence, spammy links might still work for a limited time. But Google might not deem it worthwhile to strongly fight spam in this transitioning period, as content will gradually take over as the main ranking signal rather earlier than later.

  32. AJ Kohn // July 12th 2017

    Thank you for the kind words and comments. While I do believe that Google is getting better at understanding content (not through RankBrain but other methods) I don’t think you’ll see links dropping as a signal for quite a long time.

    The main issue at hand is that Google might be able to understand the content but they can’t easily understand the value of that content without links. Because content is rather subjective at the end of the day. Sure, Google can determine the level of writing and then expertise through various techniques. But links are what tell Google that the content is valued by users.

    To me, this is just cyclical. We’ll have to go through a period where Google believes neutralization works because they’re good enough at it until … they realize they’re not.

  33. Dan Thornton // July 12th 2017

    Great post, and similar to one I’d been meaning to write, focusing mainly on local and small business SEO.

    Because if things are slipping through with larger sites (and they certainly do), it’s even worse lower down the pecking order. I’ve worked with a lot of clients in local SEO and marketing, and it’s possible to find decent performances from fairly honest optimisation in relatively uncompetitive niches.

    In the more competitive areas though it’s linkspam all the way down. I’ve offered recovery services for a while and seen relatively few sites being penalised – and even then, similar competitors are escaping, meaning that when I’ve gone through the process of cleaning everything up, we’re essentially having to fight with one armed tied behind our backs (doesn’t mean it’s not possible to win though – just a little bit harder)…

  34. AJ Kohn // July 13th 2017

    Dan,

    Thanks for your comments and insights. While I don’t do local SEO anymore I hear this complaint from a number of my local SEO colleagues. I don’t envy your position and feel like your job is going to be even harder in 2018.

  35. Victor Pan // July 17th 2017

    “It’s sort of like a demented version of index investing”

    That quote hit home for me. That and the fact that people are actively disavowing bad links that end up hurting their ranks – you can’t tell how much risk you’ve deleveraged by disavowing spammy backlinks.

  36. AJ Kohn // July 18th 2017

    Very true Victor.

    One of the reasons I believe link spam is working is that clients who are too aggressive in disavowing links wind up struggling. And if I think about it more, if Google says they’re good at neutralization then why should sites disavow at all unless they actively built those links?

    The spammy links will help that site until they’re neutralized. Makes me think Google needs to revise their guidance here so sites can focus on the right activities. Because pro-actively disavowing links … isn’t one of them.

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