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When I first started out with SEO I was determined to be as “whitehat” as possible. I wouldn’t do anything to potentially risk my site being penalised by Google. In fact, after just one year of running this website I had the opportunity to get a link from Matt Cutts, Google’s head of web spam.
Matt emailed me privately to ask that my content was only preaching white hat SEO and that he wouldn’t regret linking to me. I had nothing to hide and told him as such. Later that day I got the link I was hoping for. I’m sure that was the first and last time such a thing will ever happen.
Why? Well, as my recent blog posts have shown, I don’t follow the Google guidelines like I used to. I’ve become very much jaded to what Google preach and what works in terms of getting search rankings. That’s not to say I want to hack websites and use them to rank for Payday Loans, but I am far more concerned about what actually works rather than what “should” work.
If you don’t read the rest of this very long post then let me summarise it as this: Google is failing to enforce their guidelines on a huge scale, especially when it comes to big brands.
It’s not the first time I’ve made this statement. I’ve made similar comments in multiple blog posts and have always backed it up with as many examples as necessary. Today I’ll do the same.
Before I get into what might seem a bit like Google bashing, I want to add my usual disclaimer that I think Google are a great company. I love Gmail. I love Google Maps. I prefer Google search over Bing or Duck Duck Go or Yandex or anything else out there. However, their practices and transparency when it comes to SEO leaves little to be desired for small business owners.
We’re not playing a fair game, so why play by rules that other people can ignore? I’m building an online empire here; not trying to make friends with any Googlers.
I’m not sure if this applies to every Facebook user but I’m constantly being hit with ads about how you can now run your own Shopify store and sell right from Facebook. There must be some partnership between the two companies because I’ve never been able to get an ad approved that has the word Facebook in it.
Shopify are of course one of the biggest (if not the biggest) brand online when it comes to building your own eCommerce store. As such, it really surprises me to see them having to go down the route of putting perfect anchor-text links in the footer of their users websites.
On all 404 pages of their users websites Shopify add two nice links, one for ‘Point of Sale’ which gets 38,000+ searches per month and one for ‘Ecommerce Software’. They constantly change the anchor text to try and rank for different terms as you’ll see in a second.
Fortunately they don’t rank well at all for Point of Sale, but they’re sitting happily at the number one spot for Ecommerce Software. It’s not searched for in huge numbers, but I’m sure it converts well.
It’s clearly something they’ve been testing a lot as well. Ahrefs reports them with just 72,000 sites linking to them, but over 36 million (!) links from their users. Just look at the phrases they’re playing around with:
Those are some very big terms, with some very high link counts.
Once you see this in action and see it working so well, you’re left with two possible decisions that are happening here. Either Google are well aware of this but don’t feel it necessary to penalise Shopify like they would you or me or they simply aren’t aware of this.
Either outcome is equally worrying (or exciting, depending on how you look at it).
Of course, there’s more.
X-Cart, who have been alternating for first and second place with Shopify since I started watching this SERP a few weeks ago are doing the exact same thing. Placing a nice anchor-text optimized link in the footer of all their clients websites.
Any time a site has over a million backlinks and they have a small percentage of sites linking to them I’m going to assume they’re doing something Mr. Cutts wouldn’t approve of.
I’m not going to bore you with the details of their backlink profile – I doubt many people are as sad as me and find it interesting – but let’s just say it’s about as natural as a Playboy models assets.
As an aside, of course it’s totally up to these companies to link to themselves however they want. Just like it’s up to me to not waste my time disavowing the tens of thousands of porn links that point to this website. The point I’m trying to make however is that Google simply can’t (or won’t) follow through on their own guidelines…as usual.
While small time webmasters are get slapped left and right with every update, big brands are publicly growing their link count in the millions – with perfect anchor text – and thriving in the process.
This blog is not really known at all outside of the SEO ‘circles’ online. I would love to be in the audience leagues of someone like Seth Godin but I’ve already accepted that due to what I write about that is never going to happen.
Yet I have a strong feeling that one of the world’s biggest eCommerce companies – worth billions of dollars – are going to change their actions based on this blog post by little old me.
Now, it’s really not my direct intention. I’m not writing this to give some of the developers at Shopify a little overtime this weekend or next. They’ve surely got better things to do and I’m sure they’re just carrying out orders for someone else anyway when they implemented this ‘feature’ into their clients 404 pages.
However, someone at Shopify knows without a shadow of a doubt that what they’re doing is “wrong” in the eyes of Google.
Houzz knew they were doing something wrong as well. Within 24 hours of my blog post about how they were abusing their loyal readers by stuffing dozens of links in their widgets, they removed them from their widget code. I personally consider this a huge victory.
The average webmaster who may not be that technically savvy probably has no idea they’re linking out to dozens of pages on Houzz’s website when they install one of their nice widgets. Of course, Houzz continue to thrive with SEO results like never before.
Why did they change something they had been happily doing for years? Perhaps they were scared of some backlash from the blog post and a loss in rankings. As much as I hate what they’re doing, that’s never my aim.
What I refuse to believe, however, is that they didn’t know they were pushing the line for a very, very long time. This is a multi-billion dollar company and they didn’t have one SEO on their team who could find what I found within 10 minutes of using Ahrefs? Not a chance. They knew what they were doing.
Keep in mind that their previous widget links were hard coded so they’re still benefiting from millions of backlinks they received while totally abusing the Google Guidelines.
Another good example are RetailMeNot. Less than 24 hours about my post on their sponsored post network where people could link back to them in a review they took down the page on their Canadian site and re-directed it back to their homepage.
This is an interesting one as, more than likely, the page wasn’t really in operation any more (they had previously taken it down on their .com domain). Yet again, a company worth billions of dollars didn’t have an SEO on their team competent enough to find pages like that and think it may be a concern?
That really surprises me.
Unfortunately the latest Google updates have had a huge impact on RMN in the stock market:
I’ve heard some rumors that there are some highly profitable hedge funds which do nothing but play the stock market for companies that are highly reliant on SEO (as are Retail Me Not). If they see the brand doing something risky, they short the stock. Otherwise, if they see potential, they buy shares.
That’s a blog post for another day though.
It really doesn’t make sense that these huge companies are risking their business unnecessarily. No doubt Shopify would still be getting a ton of traffic from search without adding these links to their users websites.
But is that enough for them? If you trust SEMRush data (which I usually find to be highly accurate) then they’ve essentially doubled their search traffic while decreasing their ad spend.
Ignore what Google want you to do. Get more traffic from Google.
What is it with these huge brands pushing every boundary out there? We’ve already established it’s highly unlikely they have no idea what they’re doing. We’ve also established they’ll only really do something about it when some blogger shows what they’re actually doing.
We’ve already covered a few billion dollar companies. Let’s cover one more: Salesforce.
Salesforce own Desk.com, a cool-looking customer service SaaS solution on an equally cool domain name.
They have sitewide sub-domain links from some of the biggest brands in the world:
And on and on that list goes. That’s a link profile worth millions of dollars in just a few bullet points. Imagine they were all linking to you with the exact anchor text you’re looking to rank for in Google? Well, luckily for Desk.com…they are.
Here’s the footer for SoundCloud (http://help.soundcloud.com)
Here’s the footer for Rdio (http://help.rdio.com)
Here’s the footer for StumbleUpon (http://help.stumbleupon.com)
Here’s the footer for TED (http://support.ted.com — please note this was oddly removed in the last week but I found this image via Google cache).
Without me adding arrows to those small pictures you hopefully noticed the same anchor text in each instance for ‘customer service software’. Unsurprisingly when Desk added this to their software templates they didn’t link the text for ‘powered by Desk.com’ as they don’t want to ruin the anchor text of those backlinks.
To be clear, it is well within Desk.com’s rights to do this. Google don’t control the internet and they don’t get to dictate what people do on their websites.
What I’m trying to show however is a tactic that clearly works while clearly violating what Google outline in their guidelines:
“Additionally, creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links, can be considered a violation of our guidelines. Here are a few common examples of unnatural links that may violate our guidelines:
Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites”
I took this a step further to see if any of those unnatural link detection tools would react to what Desk.com are doing in an automated way. I did this to see if it would be possible for Google to fairly easily do something similar.
For this I used Cognitive SEO. Just look at how crazy their reporting went for this domain:
Clearly it doesn’t just take a human eye to spot how far this arm of Salesforce is taking their SEO efforts. As a side note I want to thank Razvan from Cognitive who was extremely useful via email and helped me to generate this report.
When Desk are having no issues with their own search traffic or rankings, you have to wonder how smart Google really are when it comes to figuring this stuff out or if they even want to.
And if others don’t have to play by the rules and they can get a shit-ton of traffic in the process, who am I not to follow just for the sake of being able to call my SEO “whitehat”.
I still believe big brands are getting a huge amount of ranking preference, something I have covered in previous posts. I don’t have many sites that can get away with a 40% anchor-text optimisation for one term and when I do, they certainly haven’t picked up millions of links in the last year which should have surely set off some flags.
I don’t work for Google and I certainly don’t have enemies at any of the companies I’ve blogged about. In that case it may seem strange that I would go into a lot of detail about what certain companies are doing which could be perceived of as “wrong”.
Of course, every one is free to go about doing SEO in their own way. I certainly don’t want my own SEO efforts spread all over a blog in this field (it has happened before and that sucked). Finding a middle ground is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a long time.
When I started this blog at 16 years old, my aim was to simply to talk about SEO and share my findings. I wrote some pretty terrible articles but at least they all had the same aim: Educating people when it came to SEO based on my own findings.
Nothing I have ever written or will ever write is aimed at being malicious towards a brand (besides WarriorForum who are ripping off marketing newbies left and right). With this in mind, I have purposefully left out a lot of additional examples in this post of more companies following similar tactics.
I have already mentioned that I will never cover the SEO of small businesses or webmasters running affiliate niche websites and so on. This may give the perception that only big companies are pushing the boundaries but of course that is not the case.
I hope that when I do cover something and you’re highly interested in this field then you’ll continue with your own research and simply use these posts as a starting point. For instance, I’ve already covered Godaddy and Symantec totally abusing the SSL space adding widgets to their users’ sites.
A new player has just entered the field using the exact same model. It’s not the kind of thing I want to re-cover week in week out and hope it’s something you can monitor on your own if you have such a desire.
When I covered Houzz in detail, it was because thousands of webmasters had no idea they were linking to dozens of pages on Houzz’s website. This is highly unethical of Houzz and a very shady business practice. They thankfully think the same after they changed this within hours of my blog post. In this case you can’t convince me that “outing” was wrong.
When I covered RetailMeNot in a lot of detail I did find that they have broken a lot of ‘rules’ but ultimately concluded that so are their competitors and RMN are probably the best search result for most terms.
I’m actually quite surprised they got hit as hard as they did with the latest Google update but have a feeling that Google Ventures backing will see them rise up again.
My middle ground is this: Ignore the small guys and if I cover the “big brands” then don’t cover more than I have to in order to make a point.
I have yet to see my blog posts have a direct a negative SEO impact on any company I have blogged about (barring spammy search results which constantly change) and genuinely hope that remains the case. If this is one day not the case, I will more than likely refrain from ever doing these types of posts again (at least in public).
It’s very clear that these million and billion dollar companies still struggle with SEO. RMN changed their website after I covered them. Taking down a page on their site I found within minutes. What is a company that relies on around 80% of its revenue from search traffic paying its SEO team to do if not find things like that?
As I mentioned higher up the post, TED.com removed the Desk.com footer link just in the last week yet they have been linking to Desk for months. This is still quite strange to me. But maybe the SEO guys at StumbleUpon or Rdio or FOX news don’t realise they can do the same (or at least nofollow it for their own protection).
What if Desk.com were penalised because of their tactics and all of these big sites came down with them? Of course that’s very unlikely to happen, but it’s been clear for a very long time that linking out to penalised sites can get you penalised as well. This has been happening for at least as far back as 2008 when Patrick Altoft saw a rankings drop for linking to DigitalPoint.
DigitalPoint at that same time had been using their forum members to build up a co-op link exchange which Google publically penalised.
I hope this section comes across as I intend for it to as I would like to reference it in future blog posts when I analyse more industries and brands. I’m always open to feedback on how I can cover the SEO tactics of others in a better way though so please do feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
You may notice that in the navbar of this website I have added a new link called “Glen vs Google”. This is to coincide with the re-branding of my podcast. I’ll be talking more about this podcast rebranding in a future episode but the main reason for the change is that I run a video course (and business, really) which teaches people to focus on one industry yet I’m a little all over the place with my branding here.
The title tag for this blog is still Viral Marketing yet I haven’t really wrote a single blog post on the topic. I recently sold one of my largest businesses – blog post coming soon – and now the vast majority of my income is pretty much reliant on Google rankings. I want the information I share to be focused more towards that and the challenges I face.
Both in getting new rankings in new industries and maintaining the positions I currently hold.
At the start of this year I wrote a detailed blog post about how I’m focusing more than ever on building my own link network(s) to rank highly in Google. I want to say now that this has not slowed down and if anything, I’m focusing on it more than ever.
In that post, I did say that link networks are not for everyone. If you’re working with big brands or you’re a big brand yourself then building a network and getting caught would look terrible for your image. Then again, companies who get penalised do pick up thousands of links with all the news reporting that follows ;).
The announcement that I’m focusing so much on a ‘forbidden’ tactic was quite a far cry from my days of trying to only do what was right and following G’s guidelines to a tee. I don’t really like the terms greyhat or blackhat so I’m just doing to call this “Dark SEO” which can be used to cover anything that isn’t white. My reasons for utilising my own link network haven’t changed: It works.
And if / when it doesn’t work, it’s very easy to take down your links and disavow them if you were to face any issues. That’s not so easy to do with any other form of link building.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely not against the idea of building great websites, writing great content and picking up links naturally. In fact I much prefer that model as it levels the playing field and gives anyone a chance to stand out.
But when big brands can abuse their position and utilise their clients sites to get millions of links, in hundreds of industries, there’s no amount of “great content” that is going to attract you enough links to catch up.
A mix of both of these right now is pretty much the perfect model for me. Build great looking websites with great content and earn links. In the meantime – or at the same time – supplementing that with network links.
I’m not telling you to do the same – there are risks involved – I’m just sharing what I do myself.
It was very interesting to read the results of a 2014 “Link Building Survey” by SkyRocket SEO which was posted on the Moz.com blog.
Here is what 315 survey users voted to be the most effective link building tactics right now:
It’s no surprise to me that content and outreach is at the top of the list. It’s also what is probably thought of as the “safest” form of link building since the aim is to earn links rather than build them.
It did surprise me to see blog networks with just six votes though. Especially when so many bloggers are touting their effectiveness. This does however tie in with the conception of utilising your own link network as something shady or unethical.
In another section on the most harmful types of links someone can build, paid links come out on top. They’ve certainly had a lot of scrutiny over the years; but they’re seemingly far from harmful for big brands. At least in terms of algorithmic detection.
In my next post (in two days) I’ll show a company getting more than 600,000 visitors per day from search who are buying links on a large scale. Their search traffic growth is certainly not slowing down, either.
I hope you got a lot out of this one and will continue your SEO efforts with a bit of scepticism about the rules. I’m not saying to break them, but just realise that many do and thrive in the process.
As always, comments are my best way to know what you think about the content here so I would appreciate any feedback. I’m not going to do a Copyblogger on you and make you discuss my posts on Google+.