Used dodgy “SEO” in the past? There may be trouble ahead.

I’ve been getting quite a few emails recently with a request I hadn’t seen before. I run quite a few websites, some of which contain a lot of links to other sites in their comments sections. And the emailed requests I’ve been getting? These have come from siteowners asking me to remove specific links to their sites in these comments sections.

Why would they do this? It turns out that their sites have been banned from the top Google results and they are trying to rectify the situation. And this is important, because if you (or one of your predecessors) ever employed a low cost, “get you to the top of the Google results” SEO service, there’s a chance you could be getting the same ban soon. Some of the organisations which have emailed me asking for their links to be removed are professional outfits that Google really shouldn’t be banning. Neither their site, nor the commenters on mine, have done anything without honest intentions. But something’s gone very wrong.

So what’s happening? Well, the Google results are largely powered by the number of links to a site, as we know. If 100 websites link to you, and only 10 to your competitor, it’s likely you’ll be above them in the results. One quick win for the folks who offered to get you to the top of the Google results would be to visit loads of websites with comments sections, and add links to you in those comments. You can employ teams of people in Asia to do this, or there’s loads of software to do it automatically. One of my websites, which is very popular, receives thousands of “spam comments” each month. Fortunately we can filter them out and not publish them.

Over the years, Google has got increasingly sophisticated at detecting this. Remember, it has massive patterns of data. It knows that for a typical company in your sector, there’ll be so many links from directories, so many from independent articles, so many from blog comments, etc. If your website has a strange pattern of links, especially from unrelated websites, alarm bells will sound. And Google has had enough. Rather than just ignoring the links, it’s been issuing “penalty notices” for a while now. Sites with hundreds or thousands of links from comments sections on irrelevant blog sites are getting thrown out of the results, with devastating effects for the sites involved.

What’s more, if you engaged in this practice in the past (or someone did it for you) and you haven’t had a penalty yet, don’t think you’ve got away with it. Google seems to be moving the threshold all the time, catching more and more transgressors.

So back to those emails I’ve been getting. What’s happening is that the websites concerned are having to approach the sites which link to them and ask for those links to be removed, in the hope that their “link profile” will move back into Google’s “acceptable” territory. This includes asking websites like my own, where the links were genuine and well-intentioned (we moderate everything). There’s no time to work out which links are good and which ones bad, they just have to try to get everything removed. It’s a massive cleanup operation which has no guarantee of success. But without it, a business could be ruined.

If you’re worried that your company’s site may have been “helped” in the past by now-discredited link building techniques, search online for “Google Penguin” and the “disavow tool”, and read a few articles like this. And once again, never, ever use cheap “SEO consultancies”. Doing it properly costs many thousands of pounds. Doing it cheaply is far worse than not doing it at all.

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