29 Jun Predicting Intent: What Unnatural Outbound Link Penalties Could Mean for the Future of SEO
As SEOs, we often find ourselves facing new changes implemented by search engines that impact how our clients’ websites perform in the SERPs. With each change, it’s important that we look beyond its immediate impact and think about its future implications so that we can try to answer this question: “If I were Google, why would I do that?”
Recently, Google implemented a series of manual penalties that affected sites deemed to have unnatural outbound links. Webmasters of affected sites received messages like this in Google Search Console:
Webmasters were notified in an email that Google had detected a pattern of “unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative outbound links.” The manual action itself described the link as being either “unnatural or irrelevant.”
The responses from webmasters varied in their usual extreme fashion, with recommendations ranging from “do nothing” to “nofollow every outbound link on your site.”
Google’s John Mueller posted in product forums that you don’t need to nofollow every link on your site, but you should focus on nofollowing links that point to a product, sales, or social media page as the result of an exchange.
Now, on to the fun part of being an SEO: looking at a problem and trying to reverse-engineer Google’s intentions to decipher the implications this could have on our industry, clients, and strategy.
The intent of this post is not to decry those opinions that this was specifically focused on bloggers who placed dofollow links on product/business reviews, but to present a few ideas to incite discussion as to the potential big-picture strategy that could be at play here.
A few concepts that influenced my thought process are as follows:
- Penguin has repeatedly missed its “launch date,” which indicates that Google engineers don’t feel it’s accurate enough to release into the wild.
- The growth of negative SEO makes it even more difficult for Google to identify/penalize sites for tactics that are not implemented on their own websites.
- Penguin temporarily impacted link-building markets in a way Google would want. The decline reached its plateau in July 2015, as shown in this graph from Google Trends:
If I were Google, I would expect webmasters impacted by the unnatural outbound links penalty to respond in one of these ways:
- Do nothing. The penalty is specifically stated to “discount the trust in links on your site.” As a webmaster, do you really care if Google trusts the outbound links on your site or not? What about if the penalty does not impact your traffic, rankings, visibility, etc.? What incentive do you have to take any action? Even if you sell links, if the information is not publicly displayed, this does nothing to harm your link-selling business.
- Innocent site cleanup effort. A legitimate site that has not exchanged goods for links (or wants to pretend they haven’t) would simply go through their site and remove any links that they feel may have triggered the issue and then maybe file a bland reconsideration request stating as much.
- Guilty site cleanup effort. A site that has participated in link schemes would know exactly which links are the offenders and remove them. Now, depending on the business owner, some might then file a reconsideration request saying, “I’m sorry, so-and-so paid me to do it, and I’ll never do it again.” Others may simply state, “Yes, we have identified the problem and corrected it.”
In scenario No. 1, Google wins because this helps further the fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) campaigns around link development. It is suddenly impossible to know if a site’s outbound links have value because they may possibly have a penalty preventing them from passing value. So link building not only continues to carry the risk of creating a penalty on your site, but it suddenly becomes more obvious that you could exchange goods/money/services for a link that has no value despite its MozRank or any other external “ranking” metric.
In scenarios No. 2 and No. 3, Google wins because they can monitor the links that have been nofollowed/removed and add potential link scheme violators to training data.
In scenario No. 3, they may be able to procure evidence of sites participating in link schemes through admissions by webmasters who sold the links.
If I were Google, I would really love to have a control group of known sites participating in link schemes to further develop my machine-learned algorithm for detecting link profile manipulation. I would take the unnatural outbound link data from scenario No. 3 above and run those sites as a data set against Penguin to attempt 100% confidence, knowing that all those sites definitely participated in link schemes. Then I would tweak Penguin with this training dataset and issue manual actions against the linked sites.
This wouldn’t be the first time SEOs have predicted a Google subtext of leveraging webmasters and their data to help them further develop their algorithms for link penalties. In 2012, the SEO industry was skeptical regarding the use of the disavow tool and whether or not Google was crowdsourcing webmasters for their spam team.
“Clearly there are link schemes that cannot be caught through the standard algorithm. That’s one of the reasons why there are manual actions. It’s within the realm of possibilities that disavow data can be used to confirm how well they’re catching spam, as well as identifying spam they couldn’t catch automatically. For example, when web publishers disavow sites that were not caught by the algorithm, this can suggest a new area for quality control to look into.” — Roger Montti, Martinibuster.com
What objectives could the unnatural outbound links penalties accomplish?
- Legit webmasters could become more afraid to sell/place links because they get “penalized.”
- Spammy webmasters could continue selling links from their penalized sites, which would add to the confusion and devaluation of link markets.
- Webmasters could become afraid to buy/exchange links because they could get scammed by penalized sites and be more likely to be outed by the legitimate sites.
- The Penguin algorithm could have increased confidence scoring and become ready for real-time implementation. View Full Article >>