On January 28th you may recall that I did a huge blog post on why I’m building a bigger link network. In that post I showed in great detail how Godaddy were utilising customers who are using their SSL services and getting top search rankings by adding anchor-text-rich backlinks in the widgets that clients place on their websites.
About a month after my blog post, Godaddy dropped back to page two for all of the terms they were ranking number one for. Even though they dropped off the radar slightly, the SSL certificates niche is still an industry I watch with great interest because it’s one where big brands can get away with doing pretty much anything they want (unless someone calls them out on it?). The latest update from that industry is pretty bold: Symantec have since taken over all of Godaddy’s rankings and they’re doing the exact same thing, having amassed almost 3 million backlinks in the last 7 months.
Just take a look at this screenshot from Ahrefs:
You’re all smart enough to be able to go and look at their backlinks in much more detail, but here’s a sample of some of the hugely authoritative websites they’re getting widget links from:
And on it goes.
On Perurail, the link is nicely placed in the footer (without a no-follow attribute) and appears sitewide. The Norton badge works totally fine (it is a pop-up with security information like most privacy badges) so there’s really no need for the link.
They also have a nice link from the sitewide footer from Norton.com – the anti-virus company which are owned by Symantec.
Note that the link doesn’t appear until you click on the “+ icon” next to Website Security Solutions. I’m not going to make any comments about the ID’s in their HTML and the name of their CSS file, but to let you come to your own conclusions about whether they have any idea what they’re doing here ;).
Also interesting is that their sitewide link on Keurig.com only appears when you click on the ‘Sign In’ button in the top right hand corner of their website. There’s no badge attached, just the text “About SSL certificates”. The exact phrase that Godaddy were using for a lot of their links.
(I would guess that Keurig have no idea about this).
They didn’t always use this term. After some serious link sleuthing it appears they used to try to optimize for “About trust online” but I’m sure this new version is much more lucrative.
The rankings for the page speak for themselves…
The sad thing is that, legitimately, Symantec are probably one of the better sites to rank for these search terms, yet they have to resort to tactics like this. I wouldn’t believe for a second if anyone told me they’re oblivious to what they’re doing and didn’t realise it would have positive SEO implications. They have this anchor-rich do-followed link on at least 1,200 websites and growing.
It’s also clearly a very new practice.
A few weeks ago one of my eagle-eyed readers in the home improvement niche showed me some rankings for a website named Houzz. I’d never heard of them so was quite surprised to see them literally dominating their industry’s search results, in some cases occupying 17 of the first 20 Google search results.
I tweeted a screenshot of their rankings which got quite a bit of attention:
After a bit more research, it turns out that Houzz are a pretty huge brand in the home improvement niche. I’m sure most American readers of this website have heard of them already, but if you’re in another geographic region they may be new to you. Here are some stats from their advertising page:
As you can see, they’re not some small website that has managed to take over Google. They’re a well-known brand with, honestly, what seems to be a pretty cool website. I don’t know if there’s a UK-alternative but I can see it would be very useful for people who are looking to furnish their home.
Keeping in line with those amazing search results for their brand, SEMRush reports that their search traffic has done nothing but increase over the last two years.
I have to be totally honest here: I went into my analysis of the Houzz brand with the hope of finding something suspicious. Dominating search results like they are just isn’t “normal” and certainly not something you see every day. Despite all of the tools at my disposal, it took me a good 40 minutes to figure out what they were doing.
After combing through literally thousands of links in Majestic SEO and Ahrefs (with premium accounts), I have to say that a large portion of their backlinks seem to be totally legitimate. They’ve smartly built a brand that people naturally want to talk to. If you want to show your credibility in any facet of interior design, you probably have a profile on their website and then you link back to that from your own website.
The type of link building that they do which I’m about to “out” to you was found by trying to use their widgets which, surprise surprise, is what Godaddy and Symantec have been abusing as well.
It’s almost like they’re not even trying to by secretive about it.
I mean, each of these widgets has more than a dozen links in them (without no-follow, of course) and they’re clearly benefiting from it. It’s working so well that I’m sure they have little incentive to stop.
Update:: 24 hours after this blog post went live, Houzz have removed all links from their widget. Sadly this will only protect new people who add their widget. Since the previous links were hard-coded as you can see in my screenshot, this means they still keep the millions of links they built with this tactic and no doubt they’ll keep the rankings too.
I know I shouldn’t be surprised at Google’s preference over big brands and how it’s getting out of control but it still amazes me they go after the smaller guys with such focus. The recent drama around a website owned by Doc Sheldon caused quite a stir. His entire website received a manual penalty over one or two blog posts that had been written on the site.
I missed the news as it “broke” but Search Engine Land wrote a pretty scathing review of Google and Matt Cutts in their post entitled: “How a Single Guest Post May have Gotten an Entire Site Penalized”.
I’m not going to rehash what a lot of bloggers have said far better than I could so I recommend you read their article to get the full story. Just keep in mind that Google are now taking to determine what content is actually relevant for your website.
@DocSheldon what "Best Practices For Hispanic Social Networking" has to do with an SEO copywriting blog? Manual webspam notice was on point.
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) March 24, 2014
Without looking at the post, I don’t see how that isn’t relevant for an SEO and marketing blog? Even more so when you realise that Doc lives in Mexico.
Danny Sullivan, the founder of SEL, is pretty much the number one authority when it comes to search engine news and Google goings-on so I found this part of his analysis interesting, but not surprising:
“[..] the BBC, Mozilla and Sprint all had penalties issued against them involving a single page of content on their sites. But unlike Sheldon, only those pages were penalized, not the entire site.”
I was quite sad to see that Google’s actions over the last few months have had such an impact on one of my favourite SEO bloggers, Jon Cooper from PointBlank SEO.
Jon wrote a detailed blog post titled: “Why I Blog Less Frequently: I’m Scared“. Of all the things he covered in the post, I would say it could be summed up with this sentence:
“I really believe Google is transitioning from being on the defensive, to being on the offensive. Fear building is continuing to grow, and it’s definitely off to a hot start in 2014.”
I still get total beginners to SEO saying they now have no idea what they’re allowed or supposed to be doing.
I still get link removal requests on the various sites I run even though they are totally legitimate links.
I still see “toxic links” and “bad link removal” services being advertised around the web with huge marketing budgets — a profitable niche that Google has opened up with their actions.
I still see Google going after the little guys rather than tackling major players.
There should be zero doubt in your mind that making the average person scared to do SEO is Google’s aim. As I mentioned in my post on Godaddy, when we censor our own activities it makes their job much easier.
I’m not trying to get you to become some Google hater and search engine rebel – I’ve stressed in multiple blog posts that their job is equivalent to a goal keeper trying to save 100 penalties at the same time – but their focus publicly definitely appears flawed.
This Google paranoia has also worked on me. With blog posts like this I’m definitely “poking the bear” (as Jon put it) and with that in mind I’m not going to say too much more about certain tactics that I get involved in. For instance, the number one request I get for content on this blog is to cover link networks in more detail but some of the things I do just wouldn’t be as effective any more if I wrote them down here, in public.
Similarly, a lot of little hacks and tricks you come across when analysing rankings so often are working in credibly well. These are things you will have to figure out for yourself if you haven’t already. I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions (I’m primarily writing this for new visitors to the blog) that I advise you to build another site in the industries you’re targeting and really push the boundaries. Don’t jeopardize a 5-year old website with great branding because some ViperChill guy says the Google guidelines don’t mean shit. Try out “greyhat” tactics on your new domain and see what happens.
You may just be pleasantly surprised. There are a lot of flaws in the Google algorithm at the moment, not limited to how to recover a rankings penalty in 2-3 days and get hundreds of thousands of pages indexed quickly (which rank).
Speaking of flaws…
What is perhaps the most important question I have when I come across websites and results like this is simply: Do Google know about it?
Did any part of Google’s internal alerts pick up on what Symantec, Houzz and other brands with similar strategies are doing?
Really there’s two scenarios’ here: 1) They know about it and they aren’t doing anything. 2) They don’t know about it.
Which either shows that Google are letting big brands get away with doing whatever they want, or the algorithm for a company valued at 400 billion dollars can handle a single link to My Blog Guest better than it can an internal page suddenly picking up three million backlinks.
When I write about this topic and show the strategies of certain websites, I really don’t expect much to change. Here’s a rundown of some of the websites or industries I’ve blogged about to show I really don’t have an impact as some people would suggest:
The Godaddy situation was quite interesting as – while they did appear to drop back to page 2 for all SSL related terms – it’s not something I can prove. When I wrote about them originally I wasn’t watching them with a rankings tracker and neither SEMRush nor Search Metrics show that they slipped for SSL related terms. All I know is that when I said they had the number one spot for certain SSL keyphrases, not one person in 200 comments called me out saying “I don’t see those search results” which has happened with other blog posts.
Also, ranking on page 2 doesn’t scream “Google penalty!”.
I’m not trying to say the above examples are good industries or overly competitive (though there’s a lot of money to be made in each of them), I’m just showing that my writing on these topics didn’t seem to have an effect on the search results. I don’t expect Houzz or Symantec to get penalised because I write about them here and honestly I would prefer if they weren’t directly targeted – there’s clearly something lacking in Google’s algorithm here if they aren’t turning a blind eye to it all which I think they are.
I’m simply writing this with the aim of hopefully educating you that the guidelines Google-preach are not as enforced as you would think. They are a company that has shareholders to please, and unstable organic search results has certainly pulled a lot of people over to PPC advertising who didn’t need to use it before.
One of the craziest examples I saw recently of the flaws in Google’s algorithm was the drama regarding movie websites. To cut a long story short, a lot of sites in the movie review business lost almost all of their Google traffic for a 10 day period. This includes authority websites like Slashfilm and Screenrant.
Now, this isn’t actually the crazy part. Matt Cutt’s response on Twitter just seemed so…odd:
@slashfilm I hope to dig into this soon. Sorry it's been a few days.
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) February 22, 2014
What kind of response is that? To me it shows that Matt clearly knew there was a problem with the algorithm but didn’t have time to do anything about it. Just imagine for one second that they weren’t able to even reach Matt on Twitter (a.k.a the hundreds of millions of foreign webmasters out there); how long do you think they would have suffered?
If you’ve ever had any doubt that Google apply different algorithms to different industries, there’s your undeniable proof.
I’m a big fan of Inc. magazine (and using Inc. in my business names) and came across a great feature in their latest issue. I don’t get the physical magazine; I just download it on my iPad so it’s very convenient. The feature was basically along the lines of 35 questions you should ask yourself if you run a company. Usually these kind of features have great headlines but lame content. That certainly wasn’t the case here — some of the questions were amazing and really made me think.
There seems to be a version of it online, here, but keep in mind a lot of those questions are pretty bad (there’s 100 there, versus a condensed 35 in the magazine).
I think one of the toughest questions was submitted by Pat Lencioni, founder of The Table Group:
“If I had to leave my organization for a year and the only communication I could have with employees was a single paragraph, what would I write?”
Keeping in mind that my answer here will be towards people who are involving in the running of the SEO company I co-founded with Diggy, rather than my entire business operations with plugins and affiliate sites and forums and…you get the picture.
Here’s what I would say right now…
“Continue to focus on what you find is working, rather than what any organisation (e.g. Google) or SEO claims to be the strategy to follow. Never jeopardize a client for the sake of a quick win. The people who thrive in this business are equal parts testers and equal parts action takers. You can’t use one part of that equation properly without the other. Don’t think about what I would do; do what you think is right.”
The last sentence was inspired from watching an interview with Tim Cook who revealed that “doing what he thinks was right” is the advice Steve Jobs gave him to continue leading Apple forward.
Hopefully there are a few questions in that list that can help you take your own business to the next level.
I’ll be doing another blog post like this in a similar vein (but with a more positive result) in the next few days so make sure you’re on my email list if you aren’t already. Just put your primarmy address that little yellow box below. I’ve never sent a spam email in my life and don’t have any plans to start now 🙂.