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Google’s Crossed the Line on SEO Publicity Stunts

by Jon Cooper
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Some of what you see & hear being penalized by Google is a publicity stunt.

For example, when the blog networks that got deindexed roughly a month ago, only the biggest & most well known ones took a hit. Other smaller networks that you’ve never heard of went on their merry way. I’ve even used a couple for my niche sites during the last few weeks. Of course Penguin did a way with some of them, but nonetheless, at the time those big dogs were being deindexed and as the outcries over “blog networks don’t work anymore!” were everywhere, it was just to send a message. 

But a recent publicity stunt crossed the line, big time. After iAcquire was outed for paid links, their site was deindexed by Google. Although it might be a coincidence or a bug, I see it as just another manual action that is meant to send a message and doesn’t hold any real weight outside of this occurrence.

Except it did something that was way, way worse. It penalized a site that never actually violated their webmaster guidelines. It penalized a site for the services it was performing for its clients, and if they’re going to do this to iAcquire, then they need to do it for every website that offers services that violate its guidelines.

They’d have to start deindexing black hat forums & black hat software providers. They’d have to go down the line on their own results for queries like “link building services” and “link building packages”.

And honestly, it’s a shame, because they honestly think they’ll try & manipulate us into thinking paid links have no place for the Web.

I’m not going to bash Google without giving them a solution, and it’s simple:

Make obvious paid links pass no value.

It completely solves your problem. If paid links won’t work, then we’ll stop spending our money on them. It’s that simple. You don’t have to penalize us for them, you just have to make us look like an idiot for spending our time & resources on these when we could be obtaining white hat links.

And about the obvious part – really, there are so many obvious paid links I see everyday that pass value & work that Google completely misses. From what I’ve seen, the majority of paid links have footprints and are somewhat obvious, and if there any type of paid links that are screaming at us saying they work, then it’s this kind.

The funny part is that you wouldn’t have to come up with that complex of an algorithm to find them & make sure they pass no value. Here are a few obvious signs that would root out a ton of paid links:

  • 10+ exact anchors in the sidebar
  • An edit to a post that only added a link to an existing piece of exact anchor text months after the post was first indexed
  • Exact anchors in sidebars that are completely unrelated & irrelevant
    • Set filter to do this 99.9% of the time for adult, poker, & similarly spammy links
  • 3+ links to the same website in the same post (and if they’re the only links, then it’s even more obvious)

Those are just off the top of my head. There are flaws in a couple of them, but I bet if you spent a few hours working out the kinks, you could figure it out down to the last details.

So in conclusion, Google, stop with the publicity stunts. If you want people to say paid links don’t work, then make them actually not work. Make us go through so many hoops to make them happen that it would be more worthwhile to build white hat links than to pay for these. It’s the only way you’ll be able to win.

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This post was written by...

Jon Cooper – who has written 119 posts on Point Blank SEO.

Jon Cooper+ is an SEO consultant based out of Gainesville, FL who specializes in link building. For more information on him and Point Blank SEO, visit the about page. Follow him on Twitter.

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69 Comments
  1. Mark says:

    A very interesting debate. Some good points by Jimbo and Kane Jamison. Firstly, I have to agree with the fact that Google can pretty much do what they want with their own search results. They draw their own line, and they can decide to move it if they want – it’s up to the users to decide whether they accept where Google have drawn the line. As an SEO, I am uncomfortable with them flexing their muscles in a way that is potentially destructive to the businesses that get hit – maybe jobs could be lost because of this.

    Furthermore, if deindexing iAcquire is a publicity stunt designed to send a message to the whole SEO industry, I expect that it’s probably been extremely effective. We’re all talking about it. And you can’t argue with the notion that Google may see iAcquire as being detrimental to search results if they have been ‘outed’ for actively building paid links. Google are the regulator in this industry, and this latest move – although justifiable in many ways – is ruthless.

    However, that’s not to say that iAcquire haven’t been seriously unlucky. They are certainly not alone in building links this way- in fact, I’d wager that the vast majority of the SEO industry are engaging in some kind of activity that Google would consider to be against their rules, which is why it really gets on my tits when these whiter than white hats write blogs trying to convince us all that they’re not doing anything slightly questionable. iAcquire have taken a hit for the rest of the industry, and for this reason I agree with Jon that they’ll have to continue deindexing a hell of a lot of other sites if they’re going to be consistent. [Shudder]

    My new company haven’t been doing SEO very long at all, so I can safely say we’ve never done anything dodgy – not because I wouldn’t have, but because I haven’t had chance yet. That’s being totally honest – and this will certainly put me off going for a few ‘grey’ quick wins to impress my new boss. [Pats Matt Cutts on the back... but a little harder and for a little longer than he might be comfortable with]

    Finally, I completely agree with LikeButta. The guy who did this to iAcquire is a little weasel who has taken a brown one on a famous company in order to get his own link bait. I think we can call this “White Hat Negative SEO”. Within the rules, but doesn’t make you any less of a weasel.

    The leading bloggers in the SEO industry, like Jon and Mike King, have a duty (not personally but as a collective) to represent the industry and educate people about how to do SEO “the right way”. Destroying a company’s reputation for the sake of link bait and a pat on the back from Matt Cutts on Twitter is not ethical by my standards. Obviously this guy thinks differently, and the crap is really going to stand out on his shiny white hat when other people inevitably start throwing it in his direction.

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Thanks Mark, I appreciate your comment. Lots of great points, and I agree with just about everything said. One thing though in the first paragraph about people might be losing their jobs over this; I can say that people have lost their jobs over this, and that’s why issues like these need to be looked at more carefully.

    • iain says:

      I agree with much of what Mark says up until the last two paragraphs. It’s not like the guy set out to damage iAcquire, they brought it on themselves with their actions. If you’re going to go around doing that sort of thing you need to be careful who you’re doing it with and who you’re doing it to.

      The fact is, iAcquire have exposed their own client by not being sufficiently careful and that has led to each of them being penalised, to my understanding. I don’t really have too much sympathy.

      • Mark says:

        Fair points Iain, I think the industry is polarised in opinion about this one. From my perspective, I think iAcquire have been extremely unlucky and seem to me to have been made scapegoats for a more widespread issue. As I said in my post above, I’d be surprised if most SEO agencies aren’t engaging in similar tactics. That’s not to say it’s right and that it doesn’t need to change. One good thing to potentially come out of this is that SEOs working in the greyer areas will be forced to clean up their act or, as Jon points out, they risk being quite literally out of the job. To that end, maybe this is a good thing for the industry as a whole, if not iAcquire.

        My feeling remains that the guy who wrote this exposé did so in a selfish way to promote his own blog. The crime was not so heinous that iAcquire should be singled out. Whether it was intended to be malicious or not, the end result is that some respected people are having their names dragged through the mud. I don’t think I could press “post” with a clear conscience knowing that I’m going to cost a company their reputation and individuals their jobs. There is a better way to do things than this.

        • Iain says:

          I can understand that perspective. If we take him at face value, however, it does seem that he made iAcquire aware of what he was writing in advance and gave them a chance to comment, which they chose not to take, presumably either doubting his ability to generate interest, or not believing it would be a big issue.

          Where I do have sympathy, though, is in the nature of the transgression. It seems so close to being a genuine white-hat link building outreach and only their stipulations on how the piece was to be presented crossed the line. It is harsh, but I think it’s clear what message Google are sending.

        • iain says:

          I put my thoughts in a blog, in case anyone cares what I think. :D http://www.paligap.com/2012/5/25/google-puts-seo-agencies-on-notice

  2. Bert says:

    Just like the politicians, the punisch people who take advantage of certain privileges that are in fact not very social, but these people just take advantage of opportunities that are allowed by politicians.

  3. jimmyn says:

    You can’t compare Google to TV ads. TV advertising has it’s own set of rules which has to be followed before the advert can be put on TV.

    In the same way, Google has it’s own set of rules regarding the websites contained in it’s search engine, but you can’t control the sites in a search engine the same way you can control the adverts you put out on TV!

    Google is the only one who can really say what type of linking/advertising is allowed (white hat) or not allowed (black hat).

    • iPushRank & Other Things says:

      Hey Jimmy,

      I guess you read too much into what I said. I am not making any direct comparison between TV ads and links. What I am trying to highlight is that every single TV ad is created to manipulate people’s buying decisions, likewise every SEO activity is undertaken to manipulate search results. If you are not doing anything illegal then it is fair play.

      If you do anything illegal i.e. inurl:.com/app/etc/local.xml and exploit magento for links then that is blackhat.

      • jimmyn says:

        It’s up to Google to decide what is fair play on their search engine though.

        Whether people like it or not, a paid link scheme can be seen as against Google’s rules and they can turf you out of their search engine if they feel you don’t comply with their guidelines.

        The terms “black hat” and “white hat” are stupid anyway, but it doesn’t have to be illegal to be so called “Black Hat”, it just has to be against their guidelines.

        • Iain says:

          Given Google’s monopoly of the search industry, I’d be surprised if the European Union would agree that “it’s up to Google to decide what is fair play”.

    • I agree here, search engine marketing is not advertising, that’s the whole point.

      If you pay for a spot, it’s a contract, you need to get what was promised to you (30 days on the highway billboard, etc.) or else you have grounds to sue.

      Ranking for anything is not a contract and it is NOT a guarantee.

  4. Very interesting debate…
    I agree with most of your points Jon, except about this being necessarily a bad link :
    “An edit to a post that only added a link to an existing piece of exact anchor text months after the post was first indexed”

    Think about it : how many times do we look for forgotten credits on the web ? “Hey you did a cool post last month about X but you didn’t give credit for the original source of information/image/etc. ! Not cool ! please put a link or at least a mention ?”
    In this case it’s not a paid link. Tough to see the difference here…

    Anyway, always a pleasure to read you !
    Cheers

    • Jon Cooper says:

      I wish that were the case, but if it’s to an external website’s homepage, like almost all of them are, then 99/100 they’re paid.

  5. Zarko says:

    Hey Jon,

    Although I’m really sorry for the guys at iAcquire and hate what Google did, calling them out saying that they were wrongly punished because they only did what the clients wanted them to do is a technicality and you know that. When client comes up and says I want to buy links do I have to offer that service?

    Again, don’t get me wrong, I have the same attitude as Mark, it’s a very thin line Google is walking on right now, but having their website breaking Google’s guidelines or activly working on several other websites in breaking Google’s guidelines is the same thing to me, and obviously to them as they do make their own rules, that’s just how it is… I just hope that you are right on the publicity stunt part and that this was a one shot fiasko and not something that will turn into a standard practice for Google… but if they just ruined a company for nothing than this is total bullshit and they should just keep smashing all of us that do buy links… where will that lead is something else…

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Zarko,

      1st of all, not trying to defend iAcquire here, just wanted to get that straight.

      I would agree with your point, but all I’m saying is that if you’re going to do it to iAcquire, then do it to others doing the exact same thing (that’s where I got into black hat software providers etc.).

      But thanks for the comment Zarko, glad you stopped by!

  6. Nick says:

    “Make obvious paid links pass no value.”

    If this was possible, Google would do it :S

    • Jon Cooper says:

      I think it is possible, but there’s just not enough effort put in by them to make it happen IMO.

      Goes back to what a lot of people are saying – there’s no guarentee with organic search results, and it’s really completely up to them who ranks, and in the end, there’s no direct profit from it, so there’s less time & resources put into it as lets say the paid search team.

      But I do think it’s possible to root out a good number of the blatant ones.

  7. Nice read. It follows what I’ve been pushing for awhile. Google needs to fix the algorithm to ignore unwanted signals, not punish them. The end result would be very similar in terms of search quality.

    • Mark says:

      Fair point Dan and I agree with you for the most part. However, allow me to play devil’s advocate. Google are sending a message to the algorithm chasers, even those operating within the lighter side of the grey area – don’t try and manipulate Google, the only way to rank safely is to produce good content and promote it properly. By ignoring unwanted signals, they eliminate an existing problem. However, SEOs will continue to find new ways to disguise “unnatural” links.

      What Google have done very successfully is scare the scheiße out of any SEO thinking of chasing the algorithm. My tactic going forward is very simple – a) get valid links, including no-follow links in the right locations, with varied anchor text; b) create great content and make use of the social media marketer that sits behind me.

  8. Dee SEO Guy says:

    Isn’t Google the same company that said they would never sell ads?

    How’s that Adwords thingy working out for them?

    They’re no more ethical than you’re average black-hatter when it comes to making money.

    If Google is as smart as people claim they are, they would have developed algorithm that’s not 99% link dependent. Instead, they are using the same algo from 10 years ago with slightly better filters.

  9. Dee SEO Guy says:

    I would have more respect for Google if they actually penalized iAcquire BEFORE they gout outed. Would be good to see them be proactive instead of reactive for a change.

    • IrishWonder says:

      I wouldn’t count on that – Google’s algo has been powered by outing and spam reports in too many cases

  10. Dan says:

    Good read Jon, I totally agree on the whole iAcquire thing – really uncalled for on Google’s part . It’s funny because as soon as I read that news I thought the same thing, did their site actually go against Google’s webmaster guidelines? Then your post came up and summed up how I felt about the situation.

    On the whole solution though, I hope that Google has already thought of that too. I think from an outside perspective, what seems simple to us may not be simple for them for reasons we don’t know. It just makes me think about when I receive SEO recommendations for a site from someone who hasn’t worked on it and doesn’t understand the technical issues that might complicate implementing certain things.

    I would think deindexing sites would be a last resort for Google as they want to provide accurate search results for any search query (or say they want to). It might just be that they haven’t figured out an alternative solution yet, but we just don’t really know since they aren’t very open about it.

    With that said, I still believe deindexing sites is not supplementary solution for the issue and deindexing sites that follow their guidelines is just plain wrong.

    Also I have to say that anyone that thinks that Google can do whatever they want, should think about the market share that Google holds for search engines. Considering that a search engine is basically a gateway to all other sites for the majority, this is increasingly posing a problem as they have almost (if not already) monopolized this market. Unfortunately for monopolies, they can’t do whatever they want. It’s just a matter of time before the FTC gets their shit together and figures out how to properly run an antitrust case against Google.

  11. Zarko says:

    Yeah, I forgot to add, the same thing happened to http://virante.com they are completelly deindexed, not that the guys gave any announcements that I know of stating why that happened, but these are two large companies that were brought down in a short time. The difference being iAquire called out first before Google got them… anyway, it doesn’t seem to be an isolated incident…

  12. I tried to refrain from commenting, but I broke down. As for any one who doesn’t like my opinion, it is that, my opinion. Not asking you to agree with it.

    Before I go into it, this is a good post by Jon. It is HIS rant and he has the right to do so. So this isn’t directed towards his point-of-view by any means.

    As of now, after reading all the “drama” that has unfolded with this entire situation, I have started to have some severely strong mixed feelings on all sides.

    Why you might ask?

    1) The original “outing” post. No, I do NOT, let me say that again, I do NOT condone publicly outing an SEO’s tactics. It is like being in grade school and being the little tattle-tale in class who tells the teacher everything someone does that they don’t think is right. There is no value in this. If you really feel that there is justification to report spam (not just because you are getting your arse handed to you in the SERP’s by a good SEO), here’s the link: https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/spamreport

    2) On the other end, Google IS the authority over their domain, much as a police department is authority over a township. You may not agree with what they do, but they they MUST police and respond to “tips” when they present merit. Google has their own guidelines and if they are “tipped” off they can investigate and penalize what they see fit. They aren’t the authority of “how we should do SEO” entirely, but they are the authority of how we SEO for their search engine. Don’t like it? Go put all your money into Bing traffic and let me know how that works out.

    3) What really bugs me are those jumping on Mike King for the “supposed” actions of iAquire. I do not know this guy personally or communicate with him, love to read his stuff though, but from what I understand the guy hasn’t worked there very long. Guilty by association? I think so. Is it justifiable or logical to blame him? Heck no. It is absolutely out of line and utterly preposterous.

    4) This is all starting to become a “crying game” from our community. I’m actually getting a bit annoyed with all of it. People get speeding tickets for speeding then complain about it. YOU BROKE THE LAW. Accept the punishment and “take it like a man.” Obviously, the first thing people do when accused of something is deny, deny, deny… How many scandals have there been uncovered over the years where someone actually admits to doing someone “wrong” when they are called on it? This situation is no different. I’m pretty sure that Google has the data to analyze the situation. If they are wrong, iAquire can address the situation and submit their request for re-inclusion and sort out the details themselves. To me, no matter how wrong or right, it is their problem now. Keep going about our business and if you are walking on thin ice, better hope it doesn’t break.

    5) Comments like “Google has monopolized the market” are so completely ridiculous it isn’t funny. There is plenty of competition. Problem is, Google has done better than the rest over the years and the majority of internet users use Google’s search engine to “surf” the web. Right now, there are issues with some SERP’s. I agree, it sucks, but THEY AREN’T PERFECT. No one is perfect. No search engine is perfect. No machine is perfect. There are flaws. It happens. Get over it. NO ONE IS BOUND TO GOOGLE AS A SEARCH ENGINE. We as SEO’s target it because it has a large audience… As said above, there are plenty of other choices. Some of which, I am using more often.

    In a way, I’m sure this was Google making a statement (agree with Jon on that very much so). A very BIG statement in fact. Have they crossed the line? I don’t know. Like I said, mixed feelings on this and I am on the fence without really trying to take a side because I feel there is a lot of hypocrisy here. Pots calling the kettle’s black and vice versa. With the agency being banned, that just shows that Google was looking to start at the top of the pyramid rather than work their way down.

    Who knows, they may have some domains which are connected to iAquire that may follow if they can prove it or feel it is warranted. Do I agree with that? Only if it truly is warranted and justifiable. Although then, as Jon hints, they better start figuring out how to be more consistent with this type of punishment.

    /endrant

  13. Bill Sebald says:

    Google does already turn off the link value of links they know to be paid, without notice.

    Not sure this is a publicity stunt. Maybe iacquire was using the link schemes they sell on themselves, and pushed Google enough with the post. It’s not like they weren’t already on Google’s radar.

    It’s pretty clear the pushes this year are in response to their inability to get an algorithm to do the job well enough to stop webspam and artificial link buidling, so this is just another drastic step. I’m not surprised by anything when it comes to how they’ll achieve their goal of cleaning their index.

  14. Nick Eubanks says:

    Gonna have to completely agree with Michael on pretty much everything he stated above.

    My biggest gripe with the whole situation is the backlash and misinformation around the SEO community regarding both Mike AND iAcquire. The truth of the matter is that no data or facts have been released and EVERYTHING is simply hearsay and/or propaganda, based on – you guessed it, hearsay and propaganda.

    I think this is a well-timed post (not surprising Jon :)) and it raises a lot of good questions and hopefully forces some insight and reflection from the SEO community in general, but more so than anything else things are changing, fast, and we as industry practitioners need to keep up or step out of the way.

  15. Hannah Hill says:

    Actually, iAcquire *was* caught violating the Google terms – their subsidiary was soliciting unattributed paid links (http://llsocial.com/2012/05/search-secrets-prominent-seo-company-covertly-purchasing-backlinks-for-fortune-1000/). Their getting busted recently may well account for why Google took action. I agree there should be more consistency, but they *did* deserve it.

    As for the white hat/black hat argument, the integrity of the system is based on organic links. It all goes back to valuable content that gets shared and linked to. That’s the whole basis of the Google system. They started counting the number of links because links are an indication of how much someone values that particular piece of content, so a link for a link’s sake throws the whole thing off-kilter.

    • Jon Cooper says:

      Hannah,

      1st of all, linked to that post already in one of the first few paragraphs. Second, I never said they weren’t buying links for their competitors; my issue is that if they’re going to penalize sites for the actions of their services, and not their actual sites, than either do it for everyone or don’t do it all.

      And great points on the whole hats part. Glad you could stop by :D

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