Back in December something happened that caused me to take a minor hiatus from blogging. While I had all kinds of things to blog about, I was unable to do so as I was bogged down in blog admin.
What happened? Google put a “manual action” on my site. In a nutshell, they shut down all my search engine traffic via Google as they suspected I had “unnatural links” to themayfairy.com. How does one get “unnatural links” to one’s site? Well, you can pay other websites to link to your site in an attempt to subvert Google’s algorithm, pass PageRank and make your site appear in more searches than it would otherwise. This is a somewhat dodgy and old fashioned SEO boosting technique and I have never indulged in it. So you can imagine my surprise when Google accused me of such a crime and forced me to get off the proverbial search engine tit.
I only found out about this because I had signed up and verified my site via Google Webmasters (something I highly recommend all bloggers do). They were kind enough to explain themselves and give me a list of steps I needed to take in order to redeem myself. Basically, go through ALL of the links back to my site (also something Google Webmasters provides to you), isolate the ones that were “artificial” and ask the website owner to either remove them or replace them with <nofollow> links. If they refused, then I could go through the process to disavow the links.
Are you familiar with <nofollow> links? It’s a link that has a little bit of HTML attached that tells search engines not to follow that link. Normally if you link to a site from your blog, you are vouching for the content of that site. You are telling your readers and search engines that you trust this site and you recommend visiting it. If you have merely included a link to a site because someone paid you for the link it’s not really vouching for that site’s content, so you should make that link <nofollow>.
This has been a topic that has been hotly contested across many blogger groups, usually closed, non-public groups as no one seems to want to discuss this anywhere open. I’ve seen bloggers get on their high horse and threaten to “tell Google” about another blogger’s <nofollow> mistakes in order to ruin their search traffic. It’s all rather nasty. Frankly, the internet is full of stories where Business A knows that their competitor, Business B, is buying backlinks and has reported them to Google and is now stroppy that Business B still ranks higher than they do and Google appears to have done nothing. Google must get a huge number of these reports daily, god knows how much individual attention they pay to any of them.
Maybe one such grass attempted to report me. Considering I’ve never specifically bought backlinks I thought it all rather unfair but that’s the cookie I’m crumbling. I’ve investigated thousands of links to my site. I found one that obviously used to be another site, but was probably hacked and is now a suspected phishing site. Not the kind of thing you want pointing to you. I disavowed that link right away. I found a handful of others that just looked spammy. I contacted the website owners, gave them a week, didn’t hear back and disavowed the ones who didn’t amend their links.
That only left the links from other bloggers. Several times I have paid to be featured on the sidebars of other bloggers. Upon further investigation I found that these bloggers were using <do follow> links. Not good. Even though I am no longer on their sidebars I was still included in their monthly “sponsors” post from that time, so I contacted them and told them all about <nofollow> links. By and large they obliged me by amending their links. I doubt I even knew the difference between a <DoFollow> and a <NoFollow> link back when I purchased space on those sidebars.
After fixing those links I applied to Google for reconsideration. Weeks went past, then finally, an answer. Rejection. I tried again with a lengthier explanation. I received another rejection. Then the whole reconsideration system broke down on me and I had no idea if my updated (and now somewhat hilariously worded if I do say so myself) reconsideration requests were even going through to Google. I could do nothing, so I kept reading.
One of my mailing lists sent me an email about the latest Penguin update and how innocent people were getting caught up in it. Contained in one of the linked articles was a small paragraph about how Google hates site wide links as it believes them to be susplicious as hell. Susplicious being the improved version of suspicious. What’s a site wide link? A link to another website that appears on pretty much every page of your website. For example, if you have ads on your sidebar your sidebar probably appears on every page of your website in order to up your advertising revenue.
Know what else appears on every page of a website that links to you? A frigging blog roll. Bloggers have a tendency to put a list of all the other blogs they like on the sidebar or footer of their blogs. Sometimes these bloggers stop blogging after a few months but leave their blogs up and they eventually become low quality back links.
After reading this I began to suspect the blog roll. I’m on rather a lot of them. So I put in another reconsideration request to Google explaining what a Blog Roll is and listing the blogs who had included me in one. It was accepted. My time in search engine purgatory was over!
What I’m trying to say here is watch who is linking to you. I wasn’t punished because I was trying to break the rules, or had messed up any links on my own website. I was punished because of links coming from other people. To be honest I try to make sure the links on my site are appropriately attributed, but it is just another thing on a long list of things to do and there is a lot of cake in the world that needs eating. Guess which one gets my full attention? The cake. Always the cake.
In light of the present situation I am going through my links and double checking them. I have found a couple of issues, but it is all a bit of a grey area.
What are The Rules?
Well, you can find the Google guidelines here. Basically, you should use a <nofollow> link for:
- Untrusted Content
ie, links that appear in your comments section; links that you aren’t vouching for, that someone else has just added to your site
- Paid Links
ie, when a brand is paying you to write about their new product and include a link, that’s a paid link. If a blogger is paying you for a link on your sidebar, that’s a paid link
- Crawl Prioritization
ie, private parts of a website that require a login, that don’t need Google indexing
Now, there is some debate over what constitutes a paid link. If someone doesn’t give you money, but they do give you a free product or experience to review does that still constitute a paid link? Google weighs in here. In a nutshell, this constitutes a paid link:
“Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link”
I still think this is vague. Sometimes I have been specifically asked to include a link with a review or post about a gifted product. In this circumstance I understand that the link should be <NoFollow>. However, sometimes I have been given a product with no massive obligations hanging over my head. Obviously they would like a blog post, but I haven’t signed my life away to deliver one. I feel the PR wants to give me an “out” in case I only have something negative to say.
In these cases if I have written a post and I have included a link it is because I actually like a product or experience and I want to make it easy for my readers to find that product online. I actually am vouching for the link. There are plenty of posts I’ve written that don’t include links, either because I didn’t like it enough to include one or I didn’t think the post needed it.
This is a personal editorial decision, but in an age of tattletale bloggers it is a concern. I found this article about reporting links to Google rather interesting. Please note that other search engines such as Bing or Yahoo! do not share the same policy about paid links as Google. That’s not to say they encourage them, but they acknowledge it as a grey area.
This is just another thing for bloggers to be aware of. Make sure you only include follow links for sites that you do actually vouch for. Similarly, make sure all paid links that you create and that are created for you are <nofollow>. This could save you and everyone else a lot of hassle in the future.
I personally feel that your blog should include a healthy mix of DoFollow and <nofollow> links. If a blog only contains post after post of <nofollow> links I stop seeing those as recommendations and begin to see it as one big advertisement, unless I really, really, really love that blogger. I get that for some people their blog is their job and they need to make a living, but I just want to know where to go for dinner and there’s a lot of competition out there trying to give me their opinions.
If you use Firefox you can use this handy plugin to easily see if the links on any webpage are <nofollow> links. Beware though, once you fall down that rabbit hole this whole thing can become fascinating. Please just do me one favour; if you’ve ever sold links on your sidebar please make sure your <nofollow> game is strong. This whole situation of mine was a major ball ache. Don’t you be a ball ache for someone who was once enough kind enough to flick you £10.