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The Most Devious Link Campaign of SEO History

Disclaimer: This article represents my own opinion and not that of my employer, clients, or business partners.

1,792,729

I want you to try and remember that number. One million, seven hundred ninety two thousand, seven hundred and twenty nine. It is a big number, and it represents the most successful, devious link building campaign of all time. What makes it successful is quite clear. The number you are looking at right there is none other than the number of unique websites according to NerdyData that have attempted to install authorship markup with links to Google+. Now, I am careful to say attempted because many of them have installed it incorrectly, but the backlink still exists. No doubt the 4,587,474 historical root linking domains “earned” by Google+ include even more mistakes where users didn’t even include rel=me or rel=author in their links, but we will give Google the benefit of the doubt. In terms of success, there is no other link building campaign ever like it. Nothing of this size. Nothing of this magnitude. Nothing of this success.

But Why is it Devious?

This is the most important part. People can and do run successful white hat campaigns all the time and get lots of links. Of course, they never get over 1.7 million unique linking domains, but they do get them. A link campaign isn’t necessarily devious. Let me explain why.

Deviousness 1: Google’s Quality Team has Explicitly Forbade the Practice except…

I proposed the following question both to John Mueller on the product forums and to Google’s Quality Team via email.

Hi, thank you in advance for your help.

I am starting a new business and personal listing website where people and businesses can have profiles. My SEO guy says that we should have a feature where members can get “upgraded listings” with a thumbnail picture next to their listings if they link to their profile from their site.

I told him I think this would be against the Webmaster Guidelines. I don’t want to get in trouble with Google. Should these links be nofollowed? Or is this practice OK?

Thanks again. I appreciate everyone’s advice, but I would like to hear from a Google representative if possible as well. I really don’t want to get my site in trouble.

As you can see, this is an exact metaphor of Google+. It is a social network where users can get an upgraded search listing if they link to my site. This is EXACTLY how Google+ Authorship works.

What are the responses?

Here is John Mueller

I’d strongly recommend not making PageRank-passing links to your site a requirement for any kind of interaction on your website. Links placed like that are generally not natural links, not the kind of links that our algorithms want to find. Past that, not all businesses or people have real websites, it seems like it would be a bit unfair to block them from being able to use your site to its fullest (and in turn, if they end up loving it, recommending it to their friends & business partners). By all means, make it easy for users to recommend and to link to your site, but don’t use that as a requirement.

Cheers
John

Here is the Response from the Search Quality Team

Google Search Quality Team
Jun 21
to me

Hi Parker,

Thank you for your email.

Links intended to manipulate search engine rankings are against Google’s
Quality Guidelines. These include link exchanges and paid links. For this
reason, we would discourage you from offering incentives on your site in
exchange for links.

For more information on link schemes, see this article:
http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=66356. Our
complete quality guidelines can be found here:

http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=35769#3.

Sincerely,

The Google Search Quality Team

…except when I asked Matt Cutts about it at Pubcon. He responded that thumbnails images aren’t exactly an incentive – even though his team and John Mueller definitely referred to them as incentives.

Deviousness 2: Google now Nofollows your contributor-to links…

In a play right out of the black-hatter’s 2001 playbook, Google has now blocked the passing of PageRank in contributor-to links. They terminate the cycle of link juice inside Google+, so it earns all of the value while not passing it on to anyone else. Just like folks used to block their link directories with robots.txt, Google now blocks their contributor-to links.

Deviousness 3: Force users to keep their links followed…

Google’s examples clearly show a followed link. More importantly, new research indicates that verification is only possible if the link is followed. This makes sense, of course, because an unfollowed link might be put on a site via comment or forum spam. But this begs the question why a link was ever a decent method of verification in the first place. The answer to that question, of course, lies in the end result – over 1.7 million unique backlinks.

So What Should We Do?

I think the answer is clear. Many of you are looking for a way to replace your Guest Blogging link building strategy. Well, I have your replacement right here.

  1. Set up a social networking section of your site
  2. Give users the ability to get an upgraded listing in the social site search if they link to their profile
  3. Require that they link back to the site that links to the profile and nofollow it
  4. Complain to Matt Cutts when you get penalized
The Most Devious Link Campaign of SEO History by No tags for this post.

9 Comments

  1. Alistair Lattimore
    Feb 21, 2014

    If you think about it though, it is brilliant in every way.

    You need to link to Google+ for verification & while you could nofollow the link, I expect it would break the verification loop since Google drops nofollow links from their link graph.

    In addition to the above, if you think about the point of applying a nofollow to a link, it is to tell Google that it isn’t a trustworthy link, one that you don’t personally vouch for or is advertising.

    With respect to obtaining authorship, none of those fit so it actually makes sense that it’d be a dofollow link since you are indeed vouching for the page you’re linking to – it is yourself or your business.

    Google could stop supporting verification through the link mechanism, however the volume of verified authors would no doubt drop substantially since most people that contribute content to a third party website couldn’t verify using the email based approach.

  2. Arsham
    Feb 22, 2014

    Wow — I just ran a test on our site to see if adding “nofollow” to our authorship link would break it *and it DID.*

    Steps:
    1. Turned off WordPress SEO
    2. Added “nofollow in the re= attribute of author link
    3. Ran in structured data tool
    4. Removed “nofollow in the re= attribute of author link
    5. Ran different link in structured data tool
    6. Turned WordPress SEO back on and flushed all cache :D

    Awesome post Parker.

  3. Matt Benson
    Feb 25, 2014

    So it’s more Do As I Say, Not As I Do from Google. Color me not surprised.

  4. Martin
    Feb 25, 2014

    In early 2012 Google penalised Google Chrome for unfair link building practices (yes, they actually penalised their own browser!)

    It looks like it’s time for them to penalise Google+ too!!

    Great post!

    Author Response: I agree. It was fascinating to watch, but much more is on the table now than before. A fundamental feature of Google+ is a link scheme. It is too big for Google Search Quality to take down.
  5. Adam Rowles
    Mar 5, 2014

    I wonder how many people will now set up a social networking section on their site after reading this post?

    I’m almost tempered to give it ago.
    However, I’m not going to put all my hard work at risk, I’m no Google…

    Good find btw.

  6. Kam Low
    Mar 15, 2014

    This article mirrors exactly what I have been thinking. lold at the irony of Google’s email response :)

  7. Martin Oxby
    Jun 13, 2014

    Oh this is just perfectly written up. I also noticed when links back to websites from G+ were nofollowed.

    The actual answer is not to give Google the link at all. You can authorise authorship by using a tag in the HEAD of your website. References to external resources (e.g. JS libraries, CSS) are not links.

    So don’t give Google the link, get your authorship snippet another way :)

  8. Simon
    Jun 14, 2014

    Bizarre…I have site wide rel=author and rel=publisher markup. What’s the point? According to Moz social signals are ranking factors, but isn’t G cutting off its nose to spite its face?

    Life seems strange from inside the ranking hamster wheel sometimes!

  9. Taylor Clark
    Jul 7, 2014

    Well that’s just a brilliant of bit of trickery if I do say so myself. Not even the brilliant minds at BlackHatWorld could have come up with something so devious.

    Then again, when you run the game, you get to make the rules. I suppose that now includes rules that only benefit yourself.

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