Last month, I asked for advice regarding a huge drop in my Google search rankings. For around six months prior to the drop, I ranked at #1 when searching for my name, David Airey. The penalty imposed on my website dropped this position from #1 to around #70 and I also lost rankings for a host of graphic design-related terms, making me a lot more difficult to find online.
What you thought happened
There was a lot of differing opinion on my fall, found via:
- Comments here on my blog from last month
- A tale of Paid Link pain and woe on Sphinn.com
- Web Desinger Needs "Help" thread on the ihelpyou forum
- Google Punished My Site For Selling Links – Not! by Jim Boykin
David Hopkins, of Mutiny Web Design, kindly referred my Google penalty issue to Hamlet Batista, a seasoned search engine marketer. Hamlet wrote a great blog post about my predicament, and offered some stellar advice through our conversation in his post comments.
One of Hamlet's remarks, in particular, involved 'diffusing a Google-bomb', which I'll come to shortly.
Why I actually got penalised by Google
First, however, and according to Matt Cutts himself (head of the Google spam team), my Google penalty was imposed for two main reasons:
- Having paid links to bad neighbourhoods
- Trying to game my search engine rankings with black hat SEO
On Matt's blog, he took some time out of his no-doubt hectic schedule, to make this comment about my situation:
"...so the paid links for business card printing and ink cartridge refills are gone and won’t be coming back? The other thing I noticed is that it looks like you silently changed the terms of your contest and didn’t mention that to anyone. I believe your original linking terms said:
"You can describe the draw any way you like, as long as you link to my homepage (www.davidairey.com) using logo/graphic design-related anchor text. A few examples of what you could link back with include: logo designer, best logos, Edinburgh graphic designer, graphic design in Scotland, great logos etc."
What's interesting about those two paid links that Matt mentions, is that the one for business card printing was automatically placed in my sidebar, after I signed up for Text Link Ads (TLA). When you sign up for TLA's service, you install a plugin on your blog, and your site details are placed in the TLA marketplace. If someone wants to add a link to your blog, they pay TLA, you get 50% of the money, and the link to the customer's site is placed on yours automatically. As far as I can remember, there's no screening process.
Even though the TLA website has a Google Page Rank of 7/10, it doesn't appear anywhere near the top results when conducting a Google search for "text link ads" — the company name — so there appears to be a similar penalty imposed on the TLA site.
What's also interesting is that although I had removed the TLA plugin and stopped using the service at the beginning of September, my Google penalty was imposed around September 18th, so it's clear that I was doing a few other things wrong.
The other paid link that was mentioned, for “ink cartridge refills,” was a private advertiser, so there's more personal blame with this one, and I could've checked to see how “safe” their website neighbourhood was by using the Bad Neighborhood Link Exchange Tool. From what I've read, that can help to protect you if you're unsure who you're linking to. For instance, if you think that Google might look upon a website in a bad way, then best to use the rel="nofollow" code in your hyperlink so search engines don't count your link as a thumbs up.
If you have any info about the usefulness of the Bad Neighborhood tool, I'd love to know. Don Lawson at Affiliate Watcher asks some interesting questions about linking to bad neighbourhoods.
You can read more about what Matt Cutts has to say on paid links here. The blog post is a couple of years old, yet I believe it's still relevant. For a more up-to-date point of view, Chris G recently asked, "Where do you stand on the paid links issue?" which makes for an interesting read.
The second point that Matt mentions, is the conditions I initially stated when running last month's graphic design prize draw.
I asked entrants to link to my website using specific anchor text, in effect, I tried to 'game' my Google search engine ranking positions (SERPs). This is known as 'black hat SEO', which, according to About.com, is "customarily defined as techniques that are used to get higher search rankings in an unethical manner."
Actions taken before my penalty was reversed
The first thing I did was to remove the paid links. Paid links aren't against Google's terms of service, but paid links without the rel="nofollow" attribute are, and I didn't use that tag. What's even worse is when you accept payment for a link to a website in a 'bad neighbourhood'.
Next, and on the advice of Hamlet Batista, I emailed all 250 people who published blog posts linking to my graphic design prize draw, asking them to remove any links to my site. I wanted to "diffuse the Google bomb", as Hamlet put it. Thankfully, and within two days of my email, I received many replies from the prize draw entrants, telling me they'd removed the links. If you were one of those people, thanks so much for helping out, especially those of you who didn't win anything in my draw.
After sending the link removal request, I filed a re-inclusion request through Google's webmaster tools. Filing this request doesn't guarantee anything, and you might not hear anything back about your particular situation, but it's an important part of the process. I provided as much information in the re-inclusion request as possible, mentioning that I knew I did wrong with my black hat 'Google-bomb' tactic, that I'd contacted all prize draw entrants asking them to remove links, and that I'd also removed any paid links from my website.
For courtesy, I left a comment on Matt Cutts' blog, informing him of my misdoings, my bulk email to recipients, and my re-inclusion request. Very kindly, Matt responded, saying he'd have someone look into it. I can't be sure if my request would've been granted had Matt not stepped in. Thanks again for your time, Matt.
How to avoid a Google penalty
- Don't do black hat SEO.
- Add the rel="nofollow" tag to any paid links on your website.
- Be careful about linking to “bad neighbourhoods.”
If there's anything I’ve written that’s off the mark, I'd greatly appreciate your comment.
A huge thanks to everyone who offered thoughts and advice.