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When should you worry about Google punishing you for backlinks?

The SEO industry is abuzz once again over recent news which broke around a patent that Google owns. The patent states that any attempt to artificially manipulate the ranking of a pre-ranked page will result in that page being “punished” (basically).

This story was covered a few times on Memeburn; most notably here and here (I know, that is awful link text to use for SEO). Essentially, these two posts looked at the on-site manipulation of a site to effect its rankings; but what about the off-site manipulation? In other words; what about backlinks?

Every SEO worth their salt knows that backlinks are arguably the Holy Grail of SEO. They have a major effect on (search engine results pages) SERP ranking and the legitimate ones are difficult to come by. Sure, there are ways and means the “game” the system, but Google is wise to them which is why updates such as Google Panda, Farmer and Penguin came about earlier this year.

Let’s just be sure we understand something. The backlinks that the updates are specifically referring to are those which are coming from sites that Google perceives to be unimportant.

In other words, a backlink from Memeburn would probably not be seen as a spam backlink as Google sees the site as being credible. So if you happen to have your images, content, infographics displayed on and linking back to your site from a high quality site I personally would not recommend taking that link away. High quality backlinks are not the issue. It is the spammy, low quality, possibly even paid for links that are causing major anxiety in the lives of webmasters.

What are the updates trying to avoid?

  • Duplicate content — If you thought pulling all your content from Wikipedia (or any other source) was ok, you need to stop it now; duplicate content is uncool in the eyes of Google.
  • Ad to content ratio — Adverts are not necessarily penalised (mainly because Google owns AdSense and makes some serious cash off of it), but if your site’s content is merely filling empty space that happens to not be filled by a banner, there is a problem.
  • Barely enough content — Google assumes that a page needs a level of content on it to be deemed useful by a human being. When putting the content together for each of your sites pages, ask yourself: “Would the content suffice for your needs?”.
  • Low quality pages affect the entire site — This is important! If you have poor quality pages it will drag the valuable pages down as well. Google looks for the relationships between pages to determine the overall “weight” of your site. Bad pages hurt your entire site.
  • Fishy links — Not directly related to poor content, although critically as important (which is why I left it for last), getting links to your website from pages that are for insurance while you are selling magazines sends Google the wrong message. Again, the same rule applies here as in the previous point: bad links pull your site down with them.

Let me try to explain that a little more. Google Webmaster Tools has been sending out private messages to some webmasters whose sites have links pointing to them. The messages look something like this:

Dear site owner or webmaster of http://example.com/,

We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.

If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.

Google Search Quality Team

Essentially what this means is that you have been caught for engaging in some kind of BlackHat SEO; which does not impress Google much.

Here is what you need to do; first, analyse your site’s back link profile and determine if there are any sites that are linking back to yours an inordinate amount of times.

Second remove as many of those links as possible from those sites (I didn’t say this was going to be easy nor quick).

Once you have cleaned up your backlink profile to an adequate level you can then resubmit your site for revaluation; but I would not recommend taking too long because your site is already suffering.

Sadly though, webmasters are not always at fault for having poor and spammy backlinks to their sites; often competitors are the culprits behind getting poor links on their foes’ websites to push them down the rankings. Effective, yes; crappy underhanded tactic, definitely!

Author | Jonathan Houston

Jonathan Houston
Jonathan Houston is passionate about digital marketing and digital strategy. During the day, Jonathan is the Head of Digital Marketing for HKLM. Jonathan's work at HKLM includes strategy conceptualization, focusing on the alignment of digital marketing to business strategy as well as assisting HKLM's clients on fulfilling their digital... More

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