Link Finks And Getting Whacked

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:


  1. there’s been a change to the ranking algo, or
  2. pages linking to you went away, or
  3. your site had hosting issues and went offline, or
  4. 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.


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  1. Debra says

    I always listen to what Aaron has to say, his insights are invaluable since he owns a number of sites in a wide variety of niches and actively works them. I think it’s important to listen and watch a lot of people and sites but with an open mind, use what you learn and test on your own.

  2. Jim says

    What a great little case study,. I find Richard’s comment the kind of ridiculous denial you get from people with a vested interest in link brokering. He says “There’s absolutely no proof that the links caused the problems in the first place” when in fact, the submission of the reconsideration request and subsequent readmission into serps is plenty of evidence. Great story.

    Aaroin Wall has posted about rank-ceiling penalties before. Not sure if I believe his theory but you have to wonder if there is a “6th rank” penalty being applied here.

  3. Debra says

    Preaching to the choir about being able to post what you want on your website, I’ve often said it’s a Google world and we just live in it. We’ll never know for SURE but given the circumstances I’m pretty confident a spam report was done and that’s why the site/pages were removed from the index. We could have left the site alone but since we didn’t know there was a problem until it vanished from the serps, doing the request seemed like the best course of action. The site is doing better, seems we’ve had another small shfft in the serps this week and they’re crawling back up to previous levels, so YAY for that. Honestly, a lot of people looked at this site and weighed in on the “what made it fall” scenario, we all came to the same conclusions. These people were whacked for having eight unrelated paid links in their footer. If youy’re going to shout fire, expect to get hosed.

    Regarding the comment about competitors/paid links: I TOTALLY agree that it is not impossible to link-bomb a site, it’s done a lot and with mixed results. But this isn’t the same situation, the guy I wrote about was selling space on his site (openly) and in a stupid way (openly) and apparantely got called on it. You and I can’t control what’s done on someone else’s site but you can totally control what you do with yours. That’s in the guidelines for both engines (G/B) The sites those links were pointing to? They didn’t fall out of the serps, they are fine.

    @Kevin, yes you can place competitors links on other people’s sites, and your competitors will probably thank you for doing it ;)–

  4. Debra says

    We talked about a lot of things but in the end, felt it was the best course of action. If this had not been a money-making site that employs a fair number of people I’m not sure we would have done the reconsideration request but we did.

  5. Robert Antwi says

    Great SEO story, its good that the client came to sense and took your careful assessment as the cause for the sudden drop in ranking. I look forward to reading your whole blog Debra

  6. Richard says

    I don’t buy it. This “case study” is based on too many assumptions. There’s absolutely no proof that the links caused the problems in the first place. I would argue that the links probably weren’t the culprit, but by admitting to selling links and doing a reinclusion request, the client is worse off. (thus ranking lower than they did in the first place) If you suspected the links were the problem, why not just take them down and wait for the bots to crawl the site again?

    I’ve seen site owners who posted paid links get hit – but they rarely lose rankings. PR maybe, but rarely are their actually rankings impacted. Google likes to let the algorithms do their thing and doesn’t like to get humans involved. That’s exactly what a reinclusion request does – gets humans involved. I’ve seen it way too many times. If you’re buying links or hosting paid links and you suffer any kind of ranking drop, it’s always the paid links that get the blame. 9 out of 10 times it’s something else!

    Seb (poster above) makes the most valid point when he asks: “Why can’t we do this for client competitor sites and have them penalized?” to which I say – EXACTLY! That’s why Google doesn’t act on paid links like every seems to think they do. Ban my site for buying links today and I’m just gonna buy links for everyone outranking me tomorrow.

    Bottom line – that website owner should be free to post whatever links he wants on his site. He should be allowed to monetize the site any way he likes, and he shouldn’t get penalized for it. I don’t actually believe he was, but I’m sure I’m probably alone in my opinion.

  7. Kevin says

    Did you consider not doing a reconsideration request? Just fix the issues and let the natural crawl sort things out. Perhaps this is would take a few month’s, but avoid long-term probation? Thoughts?

  8. Debra says

    They are campaigns geared toward driving a lot of traffic versus links. Advertising, using social news sites like Digg, massive email promotions – all are awareness campaigns.

  9. Debra says

    The lure of easy money has a very strong appeal. Time will tell for the rest of it.

  10. Mike says

    “We convinced the client to remove the links, let us submit a reconsideration request and launch an awareness campaign to keep the traffic coming”

    What’s an awareness campaign?

  11. Ben Norman says

    Interesting case study there, it is a shame that the client had placed these links on their website. I am surprised that these links seemed to of had such a profound effect, although I know how much Google dislikes paid links. I wonder how easily the site is likely to get back up to the top of the rankings since it must have history relating to the targeted keywords and the associated click through and bounce rates.

  12. webuildlink says

    Great Research,
    How much time it took you to assumption that eight little links were the cause of his downfall?

  13. Tracy Anderson says

    Google obviously has does not want to be spammed, but the fact that changes in their algo can have such a huge impact on the livelihoods of so many people when they get wacked makes me wish they would be a bit more transparent

  14. Seb says

    If this is the case, it begs the question: Why can’t we do this for client competitor sites and have them penalized?

  15. Debra says

    Ugh, sounds like you have your hands full.

    The algo bias makes sense to me, they certainly have the resources to tag a page/site and just watch it. All of the sites I’ve been involved with who have done reconsideration requests, none of them have gone back to their top spots so you have to wonder if a site wears a scarlet letter for life. Well — non branded sites that is. We know JCPenney did a reconsideration request and promised the world ( and they’re back up and running in top spots.

    Glad you stopped by John and thanks for the tweet :)

  16. says

    Debra –

    This is a great post. I am dealing with something similar right now, except that my client has been buying a lot of low quality links (directory networks etc) for a long time. They got hit with a “doorway pages” penalty back in April (and brought us on in September), but we are concerned that the backlink profile is a huge liability for them with submitting a reinclusion request, especially since their whole network of sites (75 in total) has these crazy paid link backlink profiles. It’s my fear that even with doing their best to clean up the profile before submitting a reinclusion request, they’ll still be sandboxed for a while and never regain their rankings.

    I think your point about it taking a lot of time and effort to get back on top and stay there, because of a possible algo bias against them, is very interesting. I’m afraid that is going to happen here as well.


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