In 1865, Fredik Idestam built a pulp mill on the banks of the Tammerkoski River in southwestern Finland. He soon added a papermaking machine. As with any papermaking company at the time, much of what the company produced was used for stationery, newsprint, and books – the primary means of communication before the age of television, radio, and telephone. So in a way, it was in the communications business.
By 1900, it was already one of the biggest paper producers in Finland and was looking for growth opportunities. Electricity was a rapidly growing source of energy at the time. So in 1902 it decided to build its own electric generators and sell the current to local businesses. By the end of the 1920s, however, the company was struggling financially so it decided to join forces with Finnish Rubber Works.
Rubber (being a natural insulator for electricity) offered obvious synergies for the combined companies. By the early 1920s, telephone service was a rapidly growing business and cables were still being laid from city to city. In 1922, the Finish Cable company was wisely added to this growing conglomerate. Over the next several decades, it continued to expand smartly into adjacent industries and around the world.
By 2010, it had become a $40 billion company, with operations in 120 countries around the world, and a market leader in its main business line, which is still communications.
You know the company by the same name it had a hundred years ago when it was producing paper in Finland–Nokia.
I really love this story because it shows a company reacting to a changing landscape and thriving because of it. Often, I feel like we have to do the exact same thing when it comes to SEO. Whether or not an idea fits perfectly within Google’s guidelines.
The reason I say bigger link network is because I’ve built them before and honestly believe everyone should try building one. Every single person who is active in SEO – especially those who do it for clients – should have built at least one link network for testing purposes. It’s not like anyone is forcing you to actually use the links for your authority sites; there’s very little to lose by testing them out in a new industry.
To be honest with you, I’ve never wanted to have to build a bigger link network. Or I should really say lots of small ones around different industries. To give you an idea of scale, my own network will probably be well past 1,000 domains before the end of this year. I’m not looking forward to the renewal fees, but they have more than paid for themselves already.
I’m aware that admitting and even talking about building a link network probably doesn’t put this brand in a very good light. Please spare the jokes about this brand already having a bad reputation ;). Put simply, my motto for this blog is, and always has been, “write what I would want to read.” That’s where 100% of my material comes from–topics I wish other people were writing about in such detail.
This may seem like quite a strange topic for someone who, for eight years, has been highly focused on the Google “right way”. Not too much has changed there because I still believe in the Google way. If you could overly-simplify the Google algorithm and say that they just want “great resources for end users which pick up links naturally” then I think that’s a great model. It’s obviously an ideal in the perfect world.
The problem, of course, is that it just doesn’t work. Building a search engine to correctly order billions of web pages for billions of queries has to be one of the greatest computational challenges in human history. I genuinely believe that. But the challenge really shows and the end result is something I can only describe as Google search results not being fair based on the guidelines they set.
Not everyone gets the same treatment, so why should we all act the same?
Over two years ago now, back in December 2011, Joost de Valk a.k.a Yoast wrote a interesting blog post about Godaddy performing spammy link building techniques. Yoast higlighted that Godaddy we’re using widgets on their website builder and linking back to their own website with anchor-text rich backlinks. He also revealed that it was working really well, having a huge impact on their search traffic in recent months.
Two years later, this practice is still happily going on. Instead of just focusing on their website builder, Godaddy have also employed this tactic for people using their SSL certificates as well. If you do a Google search for SSL Certificate, I see Godaddy in first position (I removed the ads at the top for clarity purposes).
It’s not a hugely surprising search result on the surface of things. After all, Godaddy are the biggest web hosting company in the world (based on number of customers) and a well-known brand in the industry, whether you like them or not.
Keep in mind his is a highly popular search term, with 40,500 exact searches per month and a recommended Adwords bid price of $14.58. I found the ranking as I was actually looking to purchase an SSL certificate, which is no-doubt a phrase where a lot of searches convert into buyers.
If you look at the anchor text profile before you look at the actual links to the page, you can just tell something unnatural is going on:
All of these perfect anchor-text links are of course coming from the widgets that GoDaddy are putting on client websites. Notice that under each graphic there is a text link there. Even more amazing is that some of these links are white text on a white background so you don’t see them unless you try to copy some text on the page. I assume webmasters have done this to try and hide the link without knowing how to modify the code GoDaddy gave them:
That picture should give you an idea of how they’re alternating the links, surely a practice not to look too unnatural (hah!) and rank for more terms.
And just look at how well it’s working:
And because some of you are super-smart you may be thinking that these are all very old and not a practice that Godaddy still gets involved in. I did purchase their SSL certificate and I was not given the link code but in both Ahrefs and MajesticSEO, a lot of these links have only been discovered in the last couple of months. I’ve included a screenshot of a few sample links in Ahrefs below:
I also emailed Godaddy SSL support about this practice regarding site seals. It took a few emails for them to understand what I was talking about so I sent them the screenshot you see in this post of all the widgets with the links underneath. There was zero-denial in their reply:
It’s a practice that Yoast outed for their free site builder and it’s a practice they’ve also employed across other services they offer, such as SSL certificates. And because they have such a huge brand and user base already, even if you wanted to compete with them using this exact same tactic – which Google don’t like – you would stand little chance. The irony is that you would probably get penalised.
These links are not no-followed either which is Google’s recommendation for widget links; check the websites in that Ahrefs screenshot for examples (thanks to Mr. Floate for helping me with that). Is Google going to make Godaddy go and disavow these links and contact webmasters to take them down? Yeah right.
“We actually came up with a classifier to say, okay, IRS or Wikipedia or New York Times is over on this side, and the low-quality sites are over on this side.” – Google’s Matt Cutts
Cnet are one of the best tech resources out there online. There are very few people who would question that statement. Google obviously think the same, because CNET manage to rank for an awful lot of web hosting related queries.
The problem? Their page has no reviews, no more than 100 unique words and is simply just pushing affiliate links.
This is the page that is ranking 3rd in Google for “web hosting reviews” with over 12,000 searches per month and a suggested Adwords bid price of $14.65 per click. Yet, there are no reviews. The only thing I’ve missed from that screenshot is their Google ads at the bottom of the page. Don’t think those links on the sidebar will take you to anything substantial either. They have some forums, but even the hosting section I could only see one recent thread on actual hosting companies, which has 2 posts.
That page is ranking for a lot of alternatives on this term as well.
Another page on the CNET website is actually competing with us in our XXX Niche Case Study and is very similar to what they have here (though obviously a different niche). A thin page, getting undeserved rankings purely because of their brand name.
Go and check out the backlinks to that page in Ahrefs. You’ll probably get a laugh out of it like I did.
There have been many blog posts around the web on the controversy surrounding the Rap Genius drama so I’m not going to cover it in a lot of detail here. The short version of the tale is that Rap Genius, a lyrics website, were asking affiliates to place a number of links back to certain pages on their website to get higher search rankings for those terms.
Here’s what happened, in bullet-point form:
I was recently reading this article on Branded 3 about doing link removals. In the article they say they’ve had 60 manual penalties removed by not actually removing any links and just using the disavow tool. This is interesting, albeit strange, since in posts just a few months ago they said they do perform link removals.
What really caught my attention though was the comments section. There were quite a few angry webmasters there, with one example being Stephen. Here’s what he had to say:
Now, when I first read this comment I thought “I bet if I look at his website I can see where he’s going wrong very easily“. That’s probably a cynical approach, but I’ve came across many webmasters who can’t believe they’re not ranking well yet they have very few backlinks, they’re in a really difficult niche or some other fairly obvious reason.
That wasn’t the case for Stephen. I see no reason why he should have lost his rankings.
And more importantly, I see no reason why it’s his job to go and manually process every link he has when a new update around the corner may make all of that time and effort spent pointless.
With a bit of online detective work I managed to find Stephen’s tapas website (his comment username wasn’t linked) and pretty quickly found that the search term he was referring to was “spanish tapas”. This is part of the title tag of his Proper Spanish Tapas website and sure enough, I saw him in 15th too. He doesn’t have the most attractive website design, but it’s clearly an authority website on this topic:
The first obvious thing I can see is that the structure of the search results have not turned in Stephen’s favour. I have visited this search result page from many different IP addresses and each time I was presented with 6-7 results (across page 1 and 2) which are recommending restaurants. It’s odd that Australian websites come up when I’m using a Texas (USA) based IP but there you go. I change the IP and these recommendations of restaurants change.
It’s definitely not a typical, local based Google search result, but if anything it is probably the main cause of the rankings slip for Stephen. I don’t really have any qualms with that; this is Google’s search engine and it’s up to them which kind of results they want to display.
My problem is why About.com have two listings on the first page, the BBC are ranking and so are WholeFoods Market.
This is not a dumb SEO question. The obvious answer to that website is that they’re “authority domains” or “authority websites”. That may be the case, but they are not authorities on this niche and I’m sure they will never try to be or claim to be.
Whole Foods basic page on this topic is killing Stephen’s 50+ pages of information on a website that is 8 years old. The Whole Foods page has 2 backlinks. The BBC page has links from 12 different domains.
Yet his website has been unfairly shut out and replaced in a Google algorithm which puts so much weight on brands, that people who love and are passionate about a topic have a really hard time getting noticed. Surely they should be the people ranking?
And I did look into his backlinks. The funny thing is that some of them aren’t from the best sources but he attained them in a really credible way. For example, he has links from article directories, but they’re the best articles I’ve ever seen published on such directories. And it’s not like he’s trying to build them now, he published them back in 2006 and 2007. Again showing how long he has been building a website on this topic. He even authored a book on the subject, if you need more convincing there is no need to question this sites authority.
He has plenty of natural links that come from simply creating a great resource:
Sadly, when a brand like WholeFoods or About.com can whip up a simple page on this topic that is barely useful to a searcher, those links just aren’t good enough when an update comes. Stephen is not alone. There are without a doubt millions of webmasters struggling because of this kind of thing. I’ve spoken to plenty of them when I do phone consultations.
To oversimplify the concept of building a link network for those who aren’t familiar with the idea, it goes like this: You build other websites around similar topics to a website that you want to rank – usually on powerful expired domains – and then link back to your original website.
If we’re using a whitehat to blackhat scale then this probably sits bang in the middle at being a grey hat tactic. Definitely not the kind of links Google want you to be getting, but also not hacking peoples websites and injecting your viagra links into them either.
I do believe there is a right way to do things when it comes to building a network, like actually making the sites you build attractive and useful, meaning no default WordPress theme and no-spun content. Just human written content that actually has some value in it if anyone were to ever come across them (although that is not the aim).
One thing you have to be careful of when you build a link network – we’re ridiculously over-paranoid about ours – is privacy. If you don’t set things up properly then you could easily create a footprint which links all of your websites together and could possibly get all of the sites linked from those domains penalised. Some of the obvious steps to take when protecting yourself are:
And so on. There are about 10 more steps that we take with our network but I’ll save those for another day. That’s not to say we’re totally safe – not even guest posting is totally safe these days – but myself and Diggy will take our chances.
I’ve happily outed my own link networks before when we built really terrible ones such as for our Penguin2.com case study.
We have a very slow, expensive process, but I believe it’s worth it for the long run.
Originally, as I’ve said in this post, this was all primarily for testing. I have seen link networks, freshness abusers and plain spammer-owned sites outranking me and others in far too many industries to ignore trying this. I’ve simply decided to ramp up my efforts in the wake of all the drama surrounding Google and how they operate in the industries I follow, not limited to the examples I’ve posted above. And not to mention the over reliance of Google on ranking “brands” highly, even if they aren’t the best result on a subject.
This is not a post trying to convince others to build their own network – think of it more as an interesting opinion piece – but to help weigh any options you may have I’ve structured the rest of the post in a Good vs. Evil format with what I see a networks benefits and weaknesses are.
Something interesting that has happened in a number of the niches I’m involved in is that a link network has helped me to get a lot more natural links to my website. That may seem a little odd, until you hear why.
Whenever people are doing round-up posts for things like “Here’s what X amount of experts in X niche say about X” – which are all over the web – then they will often go to Google and look at the top sites ranking in those industries. I see at least 5 of these blog posts in the internet marketing niche every week, and I promise you they are common in other large industries as well. I’ve gained a lot of natural backlinks just by answering a quick email because someone already found me in Google.
I guess you could say this about any tactic that takes you to the top of Google but my point is that you don’t only need to rely on a network just because you’ve used it. They can be excellent platforms to build from.
Of course, this is only going to happen if you’ve done a good job with keyword research and know how to use network links to get you good rankings.
One of the most recent takedowns of a private blog network was that of Anglo Rank. Some of the biggest search blogs on the web covered the news of their demise.
What amazes me is not that they were caught and lost rankings but that Anglo Rank is nothing more than a service being promoted on BlackHatWorld. If you read the thread then you’ll see they’ve still been making plenty of sales in January, so it didn’t even deter people from that exact network. You really think Google would have better things to focus on to get some PR, scaring webmasters into any type of off-site SEO *cough*Godaddy*cough*.
Just after that, came Backlinks.com:
If you’re not building your own link network then you have to be very careful about link networks that you use from other people. Every single day on my Facebook ads I see people promoting link networks. They scrape the fans of popular facebook pages – ViperChill, Smart Passive Income, etc – then try to sell you on the network dream.
These are the same sites that tell you there are only 18 days left to opt-in, yet a week later they’ll say there’s 18 days left. I would stay very clear of anything like this. A network that is open to anyone with a Facebook account is not going to have customers promoting the best websites or be very secretive about where the links are coming from.
Ironically, I believe the people in question that Pat are talking about are aligned perfectly there on the right hand side of Facebook with his status update. I’ve saw them running ads with his face on and many other internet marketers.
One of the great side-benefits of running a network has been being able to keep ahead of the latest SEO changes. There was literally an update two weeks ago, yet not a single person reported it. At least not until a few days after we noticed something. Being totally honest here, I didn’t even notice it myself until members of our private community started sharing their experiences:
At first I kind of dismissed this blog post. Everything looked fine for the sites using our network (and the thread OP said PBN links looked fine), and when I checked sites like MozCast – which monitor Google fluctuations – everything seemed pretty normal.
I decided to reach out to Dr. Pete who handles MozCast (as far as I know) but he hadn’t noticed anything either:
I decided to post a question on Inbound.org to make sure we weren’t crazy and other people must be noticing something as well.
Crickets. There’s one person discussing the update.
Then one week after I asked about it, a better worded title makes the homepage of Inbound.org about that exact same topic.
I deserve absolutely no credit for this discovery, and owe it all to people in our community who were happy to discuss these effects on their own sites which I hadn’t noticed, and it seems like the entire SEO community didn’t notice either (for at least a week).
This gave me a lot of data to work with, well in advance of the “SEO world” and I’ll be updating all of our users in the next few days about what I think the update addressed.
I recently had the opportunity to work on an SEO campaign for LG. Unfortunately, since it was a country-specific product and they were hiring multiple freelancers, their budget was a lot smaller than I was expecting and thus I didn’t end up working with them.
Even if I had got to work with them, the last strategy on my list for building links with them would be building links from a blog network. That’s not say I don’t think they would work, but some brands are simply not going to be okay with you building those types of links, and I’m not really surprised.
If you are going to be focusing on creating great content that gets people talking though – which isn’t always easy in the air-conditioning industry – the budget would have to be bigger than someone who is happy with network links that you can build for them.
There’s one thing that’s quite clear when looking into the drama around Google’s Disavow tool is that they simply do not know which links you’ve created yourself and which links someone else has built for you. As far as I know, it would be impossible for any search engine to ever know this. What has seemingly happened in thousands of cases (if not more) is that you will receive some kind of penalty for unnatural links and get a warning about this in Google Webmaster tools.
You will be shown a sample of the links you have to take-down and then it’s up to you to manually contact webmasters to get those links taken down. Don’t expect that because you do this though you’ll be guaranteed to rank where you did previously or even just get back in the Google index for your brand name.
Just this month, the message Google are giving webmasters has changed.
The latest reports from this month are that you may be asked to remove more links and then you’ll have to wait a few weeks for them to get back to your new request:
Keeping in mind that once again it’s your responsibility to go and find these links; Google are not going to tell you about all of them. It’s a ridiculous move on their part because they’ve now opened up a totally new SEO industry where companies are charging businesses to help them find the links to remove. Not everyone has the money to pay $79/m to Ahrefs or similar to get a better idea of their link profile.
I’ve actually been giving free reports to some people because they simply have no idea what links are pointing to their website that Gogle may not like.
With a link network, you can take down any links in minutes. No worrying about contacting webmasters whatsoever.
Recently, a client of mine – let’s call him Stan – invited me to meet up with one of his friends who was interested in my services. I met up with him for lunch a few days later and he was a great guy, already ready to start paying me after seeing what I had done for Stan.
He asked me to never tell anyone his industry as he really thinks he has a hot corner in a popular category – which I would mostly agree with – and wanted me on board.
I checked out his site, saw there were quite a few improvements to be made, but thought the terms he wanted to target sounded long-tail enough before I did any proper research. When I got home I was sad to see sites like the NHS (The UK’s National Health Service), Wikipedia, About.com, .Gov and .Edu authority sites on the topic.
Even for long-term phrases which were sometimes very-specific product names, big recognisable organisations were showing up in the search results. I sent him a pretty simple email, “I don’t think I can make a good impact on this search term for you and it wouldn’t be fair to accept your money”.
It wasn’t his budget, it was more about the links I could build for him. Network links would simply not penetrate those search results baring a stranger than normal Google results page.
It should be no secret to regular readers of this blog that I love making money by targeting new industries, which I’m fortunate to have been successful with. I’m finding good new niche ideas on a regular basis, but they’re so new it’s almost impossible to get “proper links”.
One example I gave a few months ago was Neverwet. At the time, an affiliate website was ranking 1st in Google.
What are my options here, really, if I want to make money from that niche?
I could go on, but you’re starting to get the idea. In a new niche when I’m breaking through a new market, network links work amazingly well. They work just as well for local SEO as well, but I don’t want everyone knowing that. A little reward for those of you who read every word of this post ;).
Something I noticed a few months ago after my blog posts on Google freshness was that someone started a Negative SEO campaign for this website, essentially sending links from erotica style websites with similar terms as the anchor text.
I have to admit I laughed when I first saw this:
The other funny thing is that I am 99% certain I know who did this — someone I know personally. Fortunately it has not affected the rankings of my WordPress SEO page, but even if it did I wouldn’t do anything about it.
Why? Because I believe Google can do the job just fine on their own. I think the disavow tool really gives them fantastic PR in terms of scaring webmasters to do anything external that even hints at being done to get better search rankings. I refuse to have to spend days or even weeks of my time trying to get these links manually removed; especially when someone can click a button and build them all back up again.
If only we were all ex-Google product managers like one of the founders of Rap Genius.
I know Google isn’t the only marketing option. I know there are millions if not billions of search results where most people would agree they’re great results with the sites on them being great resources. I also have no desire to start using Bing. But I have zero doubt that the game we are playing here is just not fair. There are times when the individual just has no chance against big brands, and the ‘rules’ just aren’t able to be enforced.
I know many people who would never consider doing anything but writing great content and trying to get ‘natural’ links. I think that’s great. I would never perform an unnatural link building campaign for this website, mostly because I don’t need to or have the desire to rank for much.
The irony though is that focusing on content can even land you in trouble, as Rae recently put it:
“I’m sorry, but I live in reality. In reality, creating good content guarantees you nothing.
There’s no guarantee good content will magically be shared.
If it does get shared, and gets shared so much that a larger site republishes it, it could screw me.
If people like it, and link to it with too much anchor, it could screw me.
If not enough quality sites link to it in proportion to the overall inbound links, it could screw me.
If multiple bloggers with a good audience who can give me good exposure, but that also blatantly sell links or publish a lot of guest posts links to it, it could screw me.
If I include a nifty graphic in it and enough people repost that graphic and give me a link credit for being the source, it could screw me.”
There are industries and cases where utilising a link network would not be a very effective option, but there are other markets where – with these links – you’ll actually have a
fighting thriving chance at getting your quality resource noticed.
Just my $0.02. Hello, 2014.