What they are, how to avoid them, and how to fix them.
The dreaded Google site penalty. Thousands upon thousands of sitemasters have relied on organic traffic for their success only to realize their search rankings, seemingly out of nowhere, plummeted.
But how do these penalties work, and what do backlinks have to do with them? More importantly, how do you avoid and fix these penalties when your business depends on your SEO success?
What are Google’s spam penalties, and how do they affect websites?
As you probably know, search engines use a lot of algorithms to determine the best sites to rank. After all, Google’s main goal is to provide the best experience (and the best search results) possible.
The reality is that marketers are clever, and business is competitive. There will always be black and gray-hat folks trying to figure out a shortcut to high rankings. Spam penalties are meant to limit this as much as possible.
When a site is penalized by Google, that site often experiences a huge drop off in rankings, and therefore traffic, and therefore sales, leads, or subscribers. Just ask JC Penny what that’s like for business.
By now, most people know that adding a bunch of keywords in hidden text doesn’t work anymore, but there are still plenty of people who try to take advantage of the search results. In terms of SEO, backlinks are the focus of most of them.
So what makes a backlink bad or good?
Remember, Google wants to provide the best possible organic results to its users so the short answer should be pretty easy to understand: links that are earned naturally or built manually are good.
You may have heard the terms PBN, link farm, or something else. What they all boil down to is that they’re sites or networks specifically built to link to people’s websites, and they don’t serve much of a purpose otherwise.
Oftentimes, programs and bots will be automatically spamming these kinds of sources, as well as places like blog comments or forums, with any and all backlinks they can create. There’s no contextual content, so the linking source is only looking to add SEO value, not actually citing the webpage as a source. Think of it as someone promoting their new business in an academic paper.
Other types of “bad backlinks” often come from sources filled with sensitive content, which are often either filled with spam or spam sites themselves (think adult sites, gambling, drugs, etc.).
Does that mean building backlinks is risky? No, not at all. If you’re manually building backlinks on good websites that are relevant to your business, you’re in white-hat territory. In general, you just need to ask yourself:
- Is this a reputable site?
- Is my link relevant to the content of the page or website?
- Is it naturally placed? ^For example, this article is relevant to marketing, but it would be weird if I just stuck a link to a Moz piece about PPC right here.
If you’re more or less confident in your answers to that question, you’re in the clear. You can ask for links, suggest them, build them, and source them, but you can boil it down to simply asking if the link you’re placing has objective quality.
It also means you need to make sure you’re building a natural backlink profile. If you have thousands of dofollow links and 2 nofollow links, that can be a problem. If all of your links are coming from DA95 sites, it’s unlikely you earned or built those links in a white-hat way. If you have 5000 directory links but no editorial links…you get the idea.
Does that mean paid backlinks are risky? Yes. Now, I’ll clarify. Plenty of reputable agencies, including Invalley, charge for guest posts, placements, PR work, etc. That’s not the same as paying for a link.
Going back to the notorious JC Penny example, those are links that were pure payola. That is, money was paid directly to a website owner solely for the purpose of obtaining a backlink. It wasn’t genuine outreach, and it wasn’t for the purpose of improving quality of content.
You should never buy a link from a sitemaster, and you should never work with an SEO specialist who will not explicitly confirm that they do not buy links from webmasters.
How to Check Spam Scores and Vet Backlink Sources
There are a number of sources you can use to check site metrics, link metrics, and even your own website’s spam status. We’re not using affiliate links, we’ll try to point you in the direction of industry standard tools.
Checking Spam Score: Technically, this is a Moz-specific term. You’ll want to use Moz’s premium software to check this, but there are a number of free sources you can search for as well, and Search Console does offer a variety of options here too.
Vetting a Website: Of course, you can check THEIR spam score. You can also run a backlink analysis with Screaming Frog (that’s just my personal favorite) or any other number of tools online to see who is linking to them and what that looks like.
You should also dive into their content and see if anything seems misplaced, unnatural, or otherwise spammy.
When building backlinks with an agency or freelancer, always ask for samples. Make sure those samples show you where those links will be built, and not just the homepage.
How to Fix a Penalty
This could be a whole different blog topic, but here are a few basics.
First, disavow any spammy links you have, one by one. Google now has tools to do this, but this can also be done in robots.txt files and other back-end website sources.
Next, remove any garbage content that got you penalized by editing it or redirecting it to a better source on your website; it might be prudent not to just delete it and call it a day.
Finally, start building GOOD links. The more quality sources you have pointing at you, the more “convincing” your argument to the algos will be that you shouldn’t be suppressed.
How Does Invalley Help to Avoid Penalties?
We’ve heard horror stories about “the last guy” who did more harm than good with a website when they took a link building project. We get it, and it’s something that we’re careful about. We will never use automatic submissions, pay for placement, or take part in any other kind of link activity that can hurt your website.
We’re proud to say that all of our services are white-hat, and always will be.
A few indicators for quality we always use are:
- Spam Score: We never build links on domains who will pass spam ratings to you.
- DA/DR/TF: Having thousands of links from DA5 sites won’t help, and probably means a spam penalty is coming sooner than later. We take care to build links on sites with a variety of domain ratings, and with different link types, so that your backlink profile is natural.
Aside from just avoiding penalties, building a portfolio of manually submitted, white-hat links can also help to reverse the effects of an existing penalty. The Monthly Mix package is a good example of a service that can help you with this.
While other services we offer focus on powerhouse DA links, the Monthly Mix does a little bit of everything, and the quantity element of this package can be huge in reversing negative SEO impacts from spam penalties.