Signs Of Linking Over-Optimization

With all the discussion about the soon to arrive over-optimized website penalty, what about links? Many people think of SEO as an on-site matter, even though SEO is also deeply related to external signals, such as the links that point at your site and they way they point at your site.

How much is too much?

As Barry Schwartz recently mentioned in Google Sending Warnings About “Artificial” Or “Unnatural” Links, “Google says this isn’t a fresh crackdown on link networks but rather a change from bad links being “silently distrusted” to being more vocal about this type of penalty.”

So, Google is now going to warn people about their link profiles, whereas before, they didn’t. It would be a wondrous thing if Google actually gave you the exact URLs on which the offensive links existed, but that’s not happening.

I understand why they do not, but it would be nice if they did, because many people running websites took over the job for a previous person, SEO firm, agency, etc., and have no idea about the linking history of the site they run.

It’s no fun to find out that site you are now in charge of was part of  a deep link network for five years before you were in charge. See When Link Rehabilitation Is A Viable Option.

If you are a link builder and have performed back link analysis for a client, you know how unpleasant it is to be the one to have to tell the client their site has a manipulated link profile. It’s especially difficult when they had no idea, and no clue as to who created those links, when, or how to get rid of them, or if they can.

But that’s exactly where we are. A great big pile of what do we do now?

I don’t envision I’m going to offer a link rehabilitation service, though it would be a great new niche for link builders to get into. The reason is because in most cases, there isn’t a lot you can do to remove the offending links. Often, the owners of the sites will not reply to emails or phone calls, nor will they want to remove the links because that’s a tacit admission that their service can no longer be trusted.

Pick A Number…

But let’s back up for a moment. Exactly what constitutes off-site over optimization of links?

We know blog network participation is one thing. Things get fuzzier when we look at specific metrics like anchor text or reciprocal links or sitewides or blog rolls etc. You can’t pick a fixed number and say that number is the tipping point for any given metric.

I’ve shown before that if you are looking at a specific vertical, like Bat Conservation societies, they often all link to each other out of a common courtesy and shared  mission. It isn’t about SEO.

Would you be surprised if you learned that there were 15 different organizations around the world that were devoted to that subject and all of them linked to each other? No, not all all. It’s quite natural in that particular case. But isn’t 90% reciprocity kind of spammy looking? Yes it is, if the vertical is online slots. But if the vertical is Bats, no, it isn’t.

Anchor text would seem to be an obvious target. Most people outside the SEO world really don’t fully understand its impact, what it does, why it matters, etc. And Google has mountains of historical data that show what a typical “normal” distribution of anchor text should look like across subject areas. I bet even now, with the Web approaching twenty years of age, the most common anchor text is still probably “Click here”.

So I would like to end this by starting this. What constitutes over-optimization of external inbound links? How would you measure it? What allowances and exceptions would you see as crucial? And at what point do you tell a client to go back and “undo” what’s been done, kill the site completely, or leave what links already exist alone and make changes moving forward?

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Week Column

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About The Author: has been creating linking strategies for clients since 1994. Eric publishes the strategic linking advice newsletter LinkMoses Private, and provides linking services, training and consulting via EricWard.com.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.facebook.com/jamesjhuman James Hu

    content, content, content!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000185816853 Octavian Ambrosa

    Interesting, however I really don’t understand how is this penalty something NEW added to the engines, since even until now over-optimization was already described in Google’s algorithm as a spammy/unnatural on site or off site keyword “behavior” – spamming on page to rank higher, using the same anchor text off site towards the same page (home page usually), unnatural linking patterns… etc.

    What effect is to be expected from this new penalty?

  • http://twitter.com/daliburgado Dali Burgado

    You pose some excellent questions, Eric.  The first thing I think of when it comes to over optimization is overwhelming exact match anchor text and perhaps the lessening of the importance of links coming from the same C Block.

    And at what point to you decide to undo what’s been done… Geez.  I would guess it depends on how strong the penalty is and how much time/resources is available.  Definitely pays to diversify the digital strategy nowadays.

    Thank you for the insights!
    Dali

  • http://www.ferreemoney.com/blog/ Neil Ferree

    There’s a fair amount of “F.U.D.” (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) in this article. The guys at SEOmoz logged a similar position on the caveats of having an overly optimized site and the perils that come with such antics. Those who participate in link self-serving networks are probably on thin ice? Those who rely on quality content and a well honed Web 2.0 link wheel will likely endure.

  • http://twitter.com/johnelincoln John E Lincoln

    I dont think Google knows what they are doing anymore. They want you to get backlinks, but only in a certain way. They send you a notification about a bad link you may have no control over. The whole thing is ridiculous. But hey, I guess we will keep playing the game until a lawsuit sticks.

  • Adam Machado

     All this talk of Link Rehab is a sham. 

    Getting the unnatural links detected message means nothing.  Google has been finding and devaluing untrusted links (and networks) for a very long time. The only thing new is the
    notification. All the notification is meant to do is scare webmasters.  Fear is the only tool Google has against “unnatural link building”. 

    The argument, that some are making, that it is a good preventative measure to remove spammy
    looking links, or to submit for reconsideration, is poor advice at best.  All you are doing is
    hurting yourself.

    Google doesn’t penalize a website purely for having some “unnatural” looking links.  Any
    ranking losses that are experienced would be from previously valued links being devalued
    (Submitting for reconsideration would not change that).  A short 30-90 day trust loss can occur
    if there are a ton of “unnatural links” detected but that almost never happens to sites with
    other “Natural” looking links, social signals, quality content etc…  Again, submitting for
    reconsideration will rarely result in a removal of the temporary/automated trust loss.  All it
    will do is prompt Google to do a manual review of your site.. which rarely is a good thing for
    the webmaster…… accept in the very rare case that there was sabotage. Even then, Google is
    no longer empathetic to the story that “my seo company did it without my knowledge”.  

    If you are an affiliate site with fluff content, zero natural links, no social signals, etc…
    Than yes you will probably be “penalized” if a ton of “Unnatural” links are found.  But again,
    this has been the way of the world for many many years. 

    IF YOU GET THE NOTIFICATION, YOUR BEST BET IS TO IGNORE IT. Continue to perfect your link building skills (So that future links are less likely to be devalued), build quality content, build a social presence etc…  and your rankings will come back in no time.

  • http://twitter.com/marcusbowlerhat Marcus Miller

    I have just picked up a new client, competitive space, and whilst they don’t have a bad link profile (or any kind of link profile to be honest) but the competition, wowzers, talk about over optimisation! 

    The leader in this space has a link profile something like this (from memory):

    500 total linking sites 
    10,000 followed links
    12 facebook shares
    4 google +1′s
    1 facebook likes
    1 tweets

    Well, 10,000 links and practically zero social activity, well that stinks, but if we look at the anchor text, well, that is really letting of some stinky vibes (again, from memory):

    4000 links for the main three word keyword from 150 sites
    3000 for the main word of the main keyword (mattresses) from 75 sites
    1500 for the main keyword variation from 50 sites
    1500 approx for a variety of other keywords
    200 approx are unfollowed
    6 branded links (3 varieties including the www and non www domain)

    As far as I can tell there is not a single ‘click here’ or much in the way of natural looking anchor text throughout that 10,000 inbound links.

    To make matters worse, the sites that are doing the linking are hardly relevant or quality and it is the typical footer links and content based links from utter dirge. 

    What is amazing is the competition is no better and the whole first page, well beyond the ads , a wikipedia entry and a couple of shopping results is this massive spam fest. 

    I have just started digging, but it appears there is no one is this niche doing content, but seeing these kind of results day after day, I don’t think this over optimisation penalty can come soon enough. 

    I have compiled some data to see if when the penalty hits, sites like this suffer, as really, you don’t need to be the most advanced categorisation algorithm in the world to see that this site is buying it’s way to the top. Combine this with the generally poor quality of the SEO’d content on the sites pages and… 

    Well, if I was google, I would be embarrassed, but I sometimes wonder, in some topics, is there anything that deserves to be better ranked or is EVERY SINGLE BUSINESS playing this crappy links game. 

  • CoCoCreative

    I think, especially with the introduction of AuthorRank, that SEO is moving toward content-based strategies – building links through infographics and guest blogs, rather than filling out directory forms. The business that embrace this strategy sooner will be ahead of the curve as Google makes it more and more impossible to manipulate the SERPs with black hat strategies.

  • Ryan Reed

    Honestly, from doing competition research, I can tell you that the over-optimization of anchor text is a bunch of crap.  The number one spot in most niches still has 90% of links with main keyword as the anchor.  

    So until I actually see this “penalty” in action, I’m gonna stop worrying about it.

  • http://twitter.com/sharithurow sharithurow

    Hi Eric-

    I think it’s interesting that many SEO professionals use all of these wonderful tools to get link profiles and analyze them.

    But very few (too few, IMHO) don’t even think about the searcher/user.

    When I decide how many links (internal/external, navigational), annotations, etc. to put on a page, I very much use current and classic research on cognition, visual hierarchies, usability testing, and so forth.

    I often feel that SEOs really miss the mark on searcher goals, behaviors, and characteristics.

    I am in the middle of working on another ecommerce website and testing the prototypes. It’s there where we see users/searchers outright comment when they feel a page is “crowded,” “busy,” and the proverbial, “God, this page sucks!”

    :-)

    I use SEO tools as well. But I also work heavily with searchers who fit the personas/profiles of my target audience. So I have very little concerns about overoptimization blings…but you never know.

  • RedEvo

    As we all know Google’s algo is link based, it has to be if it’s to remain automated. The reason for this, in Google’s own words is, “Intuitively, pages that are well
    cited from many places around the web are worth looking at.” This from their paper ”
    The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” from WWW7.

    However, this draws on the academic model of peer reviewed papers and citations, it doesn’t work in the business world and never will. Recently I decided to put myself out there job wise, I run a successful agency but you know, if the price is right and all that. I quickly realised I was wasting my time because I didn’t have any experience managing search improvement campaigns with six figure budgets! Go figure.

    Increasingly Google is going to make owning a successful website too expensive for small businesses. I know this because I work with them day in day out. For many businesses finding £5k-£10k to build a great site is a push, finding another £10k to create great link worthy content, spend an age telling people about their business and then hoping people find the information useful enough to link to is cloud cuckoo thinking.

    Furthermore, ordinary people don’t know what a link is or how to create one, save sharing a funny video on their facebook page. This means the link based algo once again falls flat on its face as it’s not democratic, it’s biased towards those who know or those who can afford to hire those who know.

    I’m thinking of revisiting my previous passion, playing the drums. All this search stuff is just too stressful :)

  • http://www.digital22.com/ SEO Agency – Digital 22

    While I agree with what Google’s main aim seems to be I think penalties for a websites link profile is extremely dangerous ground to get onto as it is not in the control of the website owner / SEO agency.

    On page over optimisation penalties makes sense because the website owner is the only one who can control it (or pass on the responsibly to another employee / agent) and often the content is lower quality as a result (from the viewers perspective), however if Google start handing out penalties for poor link profiles then what is to stop a competitor from simply building a bad link profile for you?

    I would guess that Google will simply continue to de-value the links rather than penalise the websites they are linking too…

  • Linda Robison

    Thanks Adam.

    How does one figure out if the links they having pointing to their site are not “natural”? What does a “natural” link look like?

    Also, how do you check to make sure you have “social signals”?

  • http://twitter.com/marcusbowlerhat Marcus Miller

    It’s hard to know how they will handle this but I imagine that linking to your competitors to do them damage is not a widespread practice. Too risky, what if the links work? So, devaluation will be the general rule of thumb but, Google holds lots of information and if a site has manipulative links, and a series of other on site manipulative tactics that tie in with the dodgy link profile, then a manual penalty could easily be applied. 

    There is a tendency to reduce this down to one area like links, but really, manipulation may be across several different areas, some on, some off the site so penalising can still be done, just not on links alone and not algorithmically on links alone. 

  • http://twitter.com/mikegracen Mike Gracen

    Finally, a voice of reason.

  • Michael Walter

    Possible though that acquiring authoritive or too many related links, may make the page more relevant than what is truely is. Should such pages rank high? And would Google devalue those kinds of link profile as well, i.e as it would with a stash of low value inbound links?

    Also would a true value, usefulness, etc of a link need be determined if they are clicked sufficiently, and the kind of sites that they are from (e.g. forum, facebook, blog, etc) otherwise they may as well be (unlinked) text. Even if they are supposedly relevant links.

    I notice the New York Times always links out to Amazon. Trusted. Authorative. Branded. But many other lessor sites, not as much, but often to their own NYT related pages. That’s what I do, focus on – about linking out, and writing linkworthy content, never for building inlinks. Gets my blogs ranked.

  • http://www.brandsexposed.co.uk/ Brands Exposed

    It seems its all about the links now, i feel its more to do with balancing out link profiles than the numbers, sites with too many links to one page seem to get a penalty as do sites with over optimised anchor text, seemingly, branded links are pretty good though, Just look at some of the sites ranking for the phrase “seo” 90% of the leading companies profile comes from the phrase “seo” but it seems to allow this as its in his domain. Just a little unfair as all his links come from his customers, if thats not a bad profile then what is!

 

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