Yes they really are!
Oui. Ja. Si. Ja. Da. Ken. Hai. 是 [Shi]. Já. Haan. Да. Evet. Nai. Tak. Taip. Kyllä. Ja. Ya.
They are actually killing you site and business, that is if you are building a sustainable medium to long-term online business as most people do. If you are into the “trickery” business (like short term with no brand attachments … ) then unnatural links may still do it for you. (read about it at the end of the article).
Here are a few things on what this article is/isn’t:
- This is not SEO propaganda – just a catchy title
- This is a Serious SEO Case Study.
- This is about link building strategies that work/[or don’t] in 2013.
- This is about real sites with real problems.
- This is about Google.
- This is for every SEO Pro! (penalized or not)
How good is Google at spotting shady links you might ask yourself?
This case study analyzes the ranking trends on a set of sites and correlates this information with their unnatural link profiles.
We took 4 sites in the “birthday invitations, cards and more” niche that were ranking top 10 on a set of keywords representative for the niche. One of these sites stands out with a steady SEO visibility growth in the last year.
This is the SEO visibility of the CardStore.com site for the last 2 years. Looking at the SEO visibility trend, it seems that they also had SERP volatility in the past due to some Google Penalties or Algorithms updates. Even so, they recovered and are increasing their SEO visibility more and more.
Looking good! Their link profile is Green and Orange. This means that the site is having a healthy link profile. Healthy link profiles may have a small amount of suspicious links. Nothing to worry about!
On the other hand, some of their competitors don’t have such a great SEO visibility.
Correlating the ranking data with the linking data, it is almost obvious why some sites are struggling in Google while others are winning.
Looking at the correlation between the unnatural links and SEO visibility, we can easily see that Google pushes up the sites with more natural looking link profiles. The sites with shady link profiles are steadily declining.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into the story of each individual site.
Let’s look at what CardStore is doing, in terms of link building strategies.
By checking the competitive link analysis area we can easily spot a very low amount of commercial anchor text compared to the other sites. This usually indicates a site that is doing either smart SEO or isn’t doing SEO at all. The other sites seem to be a bit more aggressive in terms of SEO.
Another important fact that dictates a steady growth would be a consistent monthly link acquisition.
This chart only tells you that the CardStore site has a constant link acquisition trend, with numbers that are above their competitors’. This doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the links. If we look at the link velocity we see that this is trend started in 2009 and goes on since then. This single fact increases the chances of something “good” actually going on, leading to a link profile with a much higher number of referring domains.
Trying to discover some of their major link building strategies, I noticed what link building strategies they did not use. I refer to Web Directories and Article Directories Link Building.
Looking at some of the other competitors, we see 2 of them being quite active on Webdirectory link acquisitions, while others have a similar and more natural link acquisition pattern.
Overall this site’s main characteristic is that
No External Backlink Over-optimization!
Their webmaster confirmed that the site received unnatural link warnings from Google and also said that they did not see a decrease in search traffic.
In the PaperCulture case we see an increasing SEO visibility trend, even though the site has been sent unnatural link warnings. Taking a look at the naturalness of their link profile we can see that they have a small amount of unnatural links.
Their main problem seems to be the struggle to grow their SEO visibility.
It is important to know that unnatural link warnings do not necessarily mean a decrease in traffic they might also mean an SEO growth blockage. Removing the unnatural links might enable the site to grow faster, only if they increase the link acquisition trend in a natural way.
With the high level of toxic links this site has, this only indicates the certainty of a Google Penalty or Unnatural Links Warning. This is also confirmed also by the SEO visibility trend. The latest major SEO visibility fall is on the Google Penguin 2.0 date.
At a more in-depth look, we spot the main problem in their link building strategy:
From my point of view, this “ancient” link building strategy, that once worked extremely well, slaps all the sites that abused it quite hard now. My recommendation for link profiles such as this is to start diluting them by doing “natural” link building and steadily removing the web directory links that were built in the past.
Their naturalness level is at the lower end limit. This means that they are on “moving ground” and that they are at risk to be hit by Google because of unnatural links.
SEO visibility has a rather big decline! My opinion is that this big decrease is not related to unnatural links but more to a Google Update in January 2013, a possible Google Panda as reported on several sites for that particular timeframe.
Having identified their biggest drop and looking at the rest of the visibility we see a linear visibility with a very small increase trend. It is important to notice that Google Penguin 2.0 did not have any impact on this site, even if they have a link profile with 19% to 25% unnatural and suspect links. I have seen these numbers on a lot of other sites that have problems with their link profile and have not been penalized yet. Looking at how Google’s algorithms have evolved in terms of spotting unnatural links, I would say that it is only a matter of time until these kind of link profiles take a big hit and loose any SEO visibility that they might still have.
In this particular case their brand vs commercial anchor text distribution is looking pretty natural. The “anchor text distribution” is also used by Google, in order to determine the overall naturalness of a site’s link profile.
Conclusion & Advice
With several in-house studies we did, similar to this one, I would “dare” to say that sites that haven’t been over SEO-ed have a very good chance of continuing with steady rankings and growth, while sites that move over the 15-20% unnatural links limit, have a very high chance of being penalized by Google for unnatural links.
Sites with Orange + Green Link Profiles are considered safe sites, in terms of unnatural link penalties. Unfortunately not many sites fit in this category and for the ones that don’t, I highly recommend starting to actively build links by not building links :).
That means forget about SEO for a moment (at least the way you did it before) and try to recover that lost authority that you once had. In order to do that you just need to prove to Google that your site is trustworthy of being top ranked in their index. You can only do this by following their guidelines and not by trying to bend the “law” in order to get a better ranking. Re-build your business model by focusing on SEO as an integrated marketing activity and not by trying to trick Google in thinking that your site is “the site” that should be ranked in the top spot.
And remember … all this makes sense, only if you care about Google’s traffic.
Good luck and I hope this case study helped you understand link naturalness, toxicity and SEO volatility better.
Unnatural Link Detection Tool Used
A new feature that was silently added last week, is the Unnatural Link Comparison widget in the Competitive Link Analysis Area. This case study already highlights some of use cases for this chart. The major use case is the ability to compare multiple sites from a backlink profile naturalness point of view.
The SEO visibility for the analyzed sites was reported by SearchMetrics.
Always open to questions and discussions … so if you have any, ask them in the comments.
PS: If your business model is short term, you should be reading this.