The SEO community has been in a bit of a buzz over the last few weeks. Google, dominant in so many territories, has begun to email tens of thousands of site owners with warnings.
Google’s warnings include alerts of traffic drops, traffic spikes, out of date software but also when the search engine is concerned about the quality of the links pointing to the site.
This is significant. In the past brands and agencies had to work out from changes to the search results as to whether Google was happy with the links the brand site was attracting.
Bands and agencies have been affected differently. I’ve spoken to friends and colleagues in a number of agencies and in-house teams who have not had a single warning. Those SEO strategies which focused on getting good quality links, earning them naturally through engaging content and remembering to take a multi-signal approach have done well.
However, I’ve also spoken to people in other agencies and other in-house teams who have had the carpet pulled from under their strategy. Some are at a loss as what to do next.
There are complications. Firstly, if you paid (against Google’s guidelines and possibly against UK Fair Trading and bribery laws) for links from bloggers and other site owners then you may have created an expectation that link requests are worth money. Some agencies are now paying for link removals. This is a dark and dangerous road to go down. What next? Blackmail?
Don’t write off the blackmail concerns as scaremongering. A controversial and unapproved ‘case study’ was posted on Traffic Planet in which an SEO blogger had his rankings for impressive, important and lucrative keywords destroyed by competitors who took a dislike to him. A sample of one does not make a trend but this shows not ‘negative SEO’ is possible.
There’s another catch. Google is not just going after “paid for links”. After all, SEOs have known for years that Google strongly disliked bought links. Agencies and brands still buying links knew there was a large risk.
The “low quality links” warning from Google also includes links from poor quality sites. This is complicated for a wide range of reasons.
– Neither brands nor agencies can control when a site steals their content with (or without) links in it. – Neither brands nor agencies have contact details or relationships with sites that may be linking to them and which Google dislikes. – The nature of “poor quality” is subjective and unlike paid links, poor quality sites linking to you, is not currently a breach of Google’s guidelines
In March, last year, Matt Cutts told Wired.com that before the Panda update that his team did not deal with “low quality”. While responding to a question about low quality sites, he said;
It was like, “What’s the bare minimum that I can do that’s not spam?” It sort of fell between our respective groups. And then we decided, okay, we’ve got to come together and figure out how to address this.
With this in mind there may well be branded sites who have never broken Google’s guidelines and who may yet receive a warning of low quality links from Google. These brands may have no easy way to do anything about their situation at all.
Previously Google had been reluctant to share too much insight on links too. Why? Simply put people trying to game the system would test with Client A, learn that that scheme had been rumbled by Google and try something else for Client B.
All this begs the question – why is Google now acting like this? The spectre of negative SEO is a nightmare for some.
Why is Google doing this?
Many of these warnings are actually helpful. If your site has had a malware injection, an unexpected traffic block or has fallen behind with its software version then it is useful to be alerted to that.
In many cases webmasters and site owners would rather know than not know if Google had a problem with possible SEO tactics being deployed for the site. This is true even if the webmaster could not immediately do anything about it.
I think a significantly important aspect of these warnings comes from a different angle though – I think Google is trying to protect itself.
Google grows through M&A activity and almost every recent acquisition has come with watchdog scrutiny. The concern is always the same. Is Google being a restrictive monopoly?
These warning emails are part of Google being more transparent and open (even if they’re not always immediately actionable). Restrictive monopolies are more often closed and secretive. Companies making fair use of their dominant market share are more often open and communicative.
The anti-Monopoly concerns are not just restricted to the American watchdogs. In Europe, Google is also in the spotlight. Reuters has been suggesting that April might be the month in which a formal complaint is made against the engine. This case concerns businesses like Ciao and the UK property search engine Foundem. To this day the debate as to whether Google was being anti-competitive or whether Foundem made an SEO mistake rages on.
There seems to be little hope for Google being able to push onwards, especially with M&A, while being as tight lipped as it has been in the past. If it needs to show regulators that it is communicating enough in order to not be anti-competitive then surely it needs to communicate.