SEO Tip – February 2012 – Google’s Amnesty Program

SearchRankings.Net recently received a copy of an email Google sent to one of our clients. In the email Google explained to our client that they had detected unnatural links pointing to our client’s website. Here is the actual email message. Our client’s URL has been removed to in order to maintain privacy.

Google’s Warning Shot

[Message start]
Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links to www.abc-123-xyz.com (fake URL)

Dear site owner or webmaster of www.abc-123-xyz.com,

We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.

If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.

Sincerely,
Google Search Quality Team
[Message End]

This was of great concern to both our client, and to SearchRankings.Net. Was Google getting more aggressive? Did something else change? Why are they now sending out warnings? So many questions, so little time.

Google Slap

In the old days, if Google thought you were up to something, they just slapped you. A slap usually meant you lost most of your important rankings, and you could drop 50 spots in the search engine. 50 spots in Google is Antarctica of the search engines. In really egregious cases, Google could ban your domain name entirely. We are proud to say we have never worked with any client that has ever dealt with a complete Google ban. As a matter of fact over the last 5 years, less than 5% of the search terms we have worked with ever lost rank. Are we magicians? Maybe in with Google? No, you just have to know what you are doing, and make sure you understand the difference between a good link building campaign and a bad one.

So has Google decided to advance from “Silent Ban”, to more of a “Warning Shot” company? We were about to find out. In our client’s situation, we went through all the backlinks we could see on the website. We ran them through our relevancy and quality score analyzer (fancy way of saying SEO specialist manually reviewed every link and every website), and we removed any link that could be seen as questionable. Then we ran into something even more interesting. We found several websites that linked to our client’s website, that were not placed. These were natural links, but they came from websites, that thought they could build up their own PageRank, by linking to our client. Unfortunately these natural links hurt our client’s website. We ended up working for about a month contacting webmasters and in some cases ISP’s to get webmasters to remove links from their website. Most webmasters took our link down when we requested it, although a few delayed the process, and a few more we had to tell Google we tried to remove, but we were unable to contact the webmaster.

Google Amnesty or The Pelican Brief?

Google has used links as the primary measure of determining a websites value, rank and relevance since the search engine first made the Internet. It has constantly refined its algorithm and its processes in order to deliver the best information to the users of its search engine. The problem is, as soon as someone figures out what it takes to rank, someone else will figure out how to get it, and how to sell it. Google still did a good job of eliminating a lot of the garbage and spam from the Internet, but the service was still available. It’s important to note, there is a big difference between a qualified SEO Consulting Company, who will audit your website, make recommendations and find high quality, relevant links, and a link broker who just sells links.

The world is a marketplace, now with the Internet, the marketplace is everywhere. The process of buying and selling links is everywhere now, and the reason it’s everywhere is simple. It still works, if it didn’t no one would do it. Every year we tweak our own “Algorithm Theory”, and reduce the importance of links and increase the importance of unique content and social interactions. In our humble opinion links continue to make up 50% of a websites rank. Google has been around since 1997, 15 years of dominating the search engine space. In 15 years we have all seen things, and read things, but in all our years in the search engine optimization business, this is the first time we have ever seen a written warning.

So despite the warnings, Google still counted links among its most important ranking factors. The longer this seemed to be the case, and the larger Google became the more enterprise level companies began to take notice. Whether a company used an internal staff full of SEO experts who found websites and made calls for links, or the company used a marketing firm to do it for them, over the last 5 to 7 years, everybody uses links. So everyone uses some form of link acquisition, and at this point Google knows it. So what’s the problem?

No Links No Results

If Google removes every website it determines is utilizing links as part of its search engine marketing program, there would be no search results left. You remember about a year ago, when Google made a big deal about penalizing JC Penny and Overstock.Com? That may have been the start of the Amnesty Program. Google wanted to start shooting the warning shots to all retailers, a shot that said, “We are looking closer at your backlinks”. Well the new phase of Google Amnesty seems to be an email that says “we are still looking”. So whatever happened to our client? The one who received the email? We were able to clean up the links, and in the process we did not lose any rankings. We have since seen more email messages come through not just from our clients, but from prospects. Link clean up and remediation could be a new service for us in 2012!

So what’s Google saying now? I think Google is saying, “come on guys, let’s clean this up”, we are going to warn you first, but if we haven’t seen you change your ways, then the next step is the good ol’ slap. Heed your warnings my friends, lest you get slapped.

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