Recently, an SEO/friend asked me to help him with a back link analysis, he had been contacted by a very panicked former client who needed help. The two had worked together for a number of years before the client brought his SEO in-house so the SEO was familiar with the site and responsible (in part) for its ranking success.
About two years ago (my friend was gone by this time) the client decided to sell space on his site. He had been solicited repeatedly by link brokers and finally gave in. He started with two text links in the footer and then added two more a couple months later. The links were to sites in ancillary industries, they used creative keyword anchors and blended with the content. The client was being well paid for their placement so when nothing happened, he added four more for a total of eight text links in the footers.
Life was good, the client was ranking in the top five for most of his terms and he came through Panda unscathed. The fact he wasn’t hurt by Panda isn’t surprising, the site has been online since 2003 and is an e-commerce property with a very strong back link profile.
But change happens and earlier this summer the site took a nose dive. Scared, the client turned to his old SEO friend who in turn, called me for a second opinion. After carefully reviewing back links, his analytics, hosting information and a couple other things, we both agreed the footer links caused his fall.
Why? For starters, he didn’t just fall a couple of spots, he was no where to be found. We’ll never know for sure but I suspect someone did a spam report after noticing the footer links and the site was pulled as a result. When that happens it’s usually because:
- there’s been a change to the ranking algo, or
- pages linking to you went away, or
- your site had hosting issues and went offline, or
- you’ve been whacked by a reviewer/spam report/dmca notice
His inbound links didn’t change, he wasn’t offline, we heard nothing about an algo change or a DMCA complaint so it had to be reviewer/spam report. Once we knew what didn’t happen, we came to the conclusion the eight footer links were causing the problem. We convinced the client to remove the links, let us submit a reconsideration request and launch an awareness campaign to keep the traffic coming. We then sent him off to increase his Adwords spend and got to work. About 45 days later, after much groveling and the promise of a first-born child, the site popped (way) back in the serps. Whoo hoo.
Here’s two interesting things about this little situation:
First, when the SEO told the client we thought the footer links caused the problems, he didn’t buy into it right away. Those footer links were on his site for several years and never caused any problems, he couldn’t believe eight little links were the cause of his downfall. The SEO and I had nothing concrete to base our assumptions but since we ruled out everything else and know how much the engines dislike paid links, figured they were the problem. Of course after the reconsideration request sparked dialogue with the search engine, he came around but initially it was a tough sell and that really surprised me.
Second, links in the footer area pointing to unrelated websites not only look out of place, they are easy for your competitors to spot. Whenever I hear about footer links I’m reminded of this video Google Engineer Matt Cutts made:
…”we do reserve the right to treat links in footers a little bit differently. For example, if something is in a footer it might not carry the same editorial weight because someone might have set up a single link and it might be something that’s across the entire site whereas something that’s in an actual paragraph of text is a little more likely to be an editorial link. So we do reserve the right to treat those links differently in terms of how we consider them for relevance, how we consider them for reputation, how much we trust them, all those sorts of things.”
Personally I would never take chances with my bread and butter sites especially if they were ranking well. The client site I talked about earlier? His site never rebounded to the top five, it’s in the top 20 now which is a huge difference traffic and income wise. The change affected his bottom line and forced him to cut staff hours and design updates.
I’ve long associated reconsideration requests with jail and probation; you do the crime, you do the time and then you’re watched and monitored down the line. Once a website/page is flagged and goes through the reconsideration process, it’s highly unlikely the page is just turned loose, I’m sure there is some algorithmic stigma attached which means you’re going to have to work harder and smarter for a very long time to get back on top and stay there.
Having to do reconsideration requests is a huge time suck and causes needless stress, don’t make it easy for your competitors and the algos to be link finks, avoid buying or selling footer links.