No one gets a site penalty on purpose. Sometimes it happens through carelessness, sometimes through black-hat techniques and, sometimes, through honest SEO mistakes.
I’ve watched four such mistakes happen recently. These sites were honestly attempting to follow SEO best practices, but they were penalized. Why? I’ll explain all.
It is worth noting that I wrote this article based on a real-life experience, so this isn’t pie-in-the-sky theory. Each point that I discuss below is tied to a real life ranking problem. Each example that I discuss is connected a to a real-life online business. (However, company details have been changed to protect their identities.)
A Disclaimer: If you find any points of connection between your site and the examples, don’t panic. Millions of sites have affiliate programs. Millions of companies engage in cozy relationships. Just because you share a commonality does not mean that you’re careening for a penalty.
1. Link-Leveraged Business Relationships
The problem explained: Many businesses create relationships with other businesses. As a way of cementing the relationship, the businesses offer to create links to one another in order to enhance SEO and click-through traffic.
Sometimes, however, these good intentions – trading links – end up hurting one or both of the sites.
Example: A major online retailer of greeting cards – we’ll call them “FaithCard” — entered into a relationship with a major brick-and-mortar retailer, “AM Stores.”
Every AM Store (and there are thousands of them) carried FaithCard’s products. FaithCard’s arrangement with AM Store provided a discounted product price, as long as AM Store’s website would include a link to FaithCard’s website.
So, AM Store placed a footer link to FaithCard.
Obviously, FaithCard got a ton of links as a result of this footer link – 16 million, to be exact. Every page of AM Store’s website included a direct link to the homepage of FaithCard.
This became highly problematic. Soon after the footer link was added, FaithCard got hit with a manual penalty.
Investigating the link profile, it was obvious that FaithCard had a highly suspicious link velocity (rate at which inbound links are acquired), a disproportionately high number of links from a single site, and link positioning in the footer.
The problem with FaithCard was compounded by the fact that they had quite a few other harmful backlinks. The footer link buildup from AM Stores, however, was the last straw. Footer links are notoriously slippery for SEO. Their impact ranges from negligible to dangerous.
This issue could have been worsened if the two sites had swapped links – that is, if FaithCard linked to AM Stores, and AM Stores linked to FaithCard in a reciprocal way. Reciprocal linking is a shady area and needs to be entered into with extreme caution – i.e., as naturally as possible. No footer link swaps.
Solution: In this case, the solution would be to have the partner site remove the footer link to FaithCard. Obviously, FaithCard will now have to deal with the fallout of the penalty, but one of the best ways to swiftly and conclusively deal with it is to have an actual link removal rather than a simple domain disavowal.
2. Affiliate Programs
Affiliate linking can either help SEO or it can kill it. It all depends on how you implement it. Rand Fishkin once called affiliate links “a nasty gray area and a frustrating one for many SEOs/webmasters/sites over the years.”
It’s true, and it leaves many SEOs scratching their heads to how exactly to deal with affiliate links.
The Problem Explained: Online affiliate relationships are big business. For the most part, they’re spam free. Companies can engage in affiliate relationships without fear of penalization.
But if a company goes into affiliate linking willy-nilly, they can get bit.
Example: In my client’s case, they put together an in-house affiliate program pretty quickly and rolled it out without a very clear explanation to their affiliate partners.
Their business — we’ll call it “ZoomZoomPic” — did brisk sales in the stock photography business. Their affiliate program was designed to help existing customers gain some income while also growing their subscriptions.
When it rolled out, however, the existing customers weren’t told how to implement the affiliate link successfully. Many of these customers, amateur photographers, added sitewide links to ZoomZoomPic’s homepage. These weren’t affiliate links, though. They were just generic homepage links.
You might think that ZoomZoomPic would benefit from all these links, even if they weren’t strictly affiliate links. In actuality, however, it hurt them.
ZoomZoomPic’s affiliate clientele of amateur photographers did not have high-authority sites. In fact, all the links from these sites looked more like junk links.
With the sudden buildup of harmful links, ZoomZoomPic got hit with a major penalty, which crushed their business. Instead of growing through the affiliate program, they got sunk by it.
Solution: ZoomZoomPic engaged in typical link remediation, but they had to be really careful how they asked for removals.
Most of these harmful links came from their existing customers. What’s more, these customers were excited, because they thought that by linking back to ZoomZoomPic, they would be cashing in on some affiliate money.
ZoomZoomPic was honest about the situation, but they still had some negative backlash after requesting the link removals from their existing customers.
The safest way to conduct affiliate linking is through the following methods:
- Use a trusted affiliate relationship provider to conduct 100% of the affiliate program rollout. This option is best if you or your development team do not have the skill or experience required to create an affiliate program from scratch.
- Create a dedicated landing page for large affiliate providers. If you have relationships with major organizations, go ahead and created a dedicated landing page for them specifically. This helps them while also protecting your site.
- Test all affiliate links from time to time. To maintain site integrity, it’s best to go through each affiliate link and make sure it’s functioning properly. If you find any broken links, be sure to create a permanent redirect.
3. Influencer Outreach
Influencer outreach is a powerful SEO strategy, and many times it works just fine. Basically, you find the major influencers in a given niche, reach out to them with a request, and get link juice, audience exposure, and other major benefits.
I recommend Eric Enge’s article on the topic. Even after we’ve been rocked by several search engine algorithm updates, influencer outreach still benefits the receiving sites.
The problem explained: Influencer outreach is great. But yes, the silver lining is fronted by a cumulonimbus cloud.
If the influencer outreach targets a low-authority niche, the backlinks could compromise the site. Although the influencers are “influential,” the link value from their sites will not enhance your site’s SEO. On the contrary, it could ruin it.
Example: My client’s website, “Superstellar Designs” created inexpensive, ready-to-wear jewelry for tween girls.
They decided to conduct an influencer outreach. Based on their market research and personas, the most valuable source of influencers was in the mommy blog market. Moms with influential blogs were pitched to blog about Superstellar Designs (or tween jewelry in general), and get free Superstellar swag in return.
Superstellar’s influencer outreach seemed successful. They pitched thousands of mom blogs and got an overwhelming response. But the success was short-lived. Rather than exercise discretion over influencers, they invited influencers of all varieties to join in the party.
That’s where things went south. Here are some problems that occurred:
- Some mom blogs went overboard with links, creating as many as 15-20 exact match anchor text links in the same article.
- Many mom blogs keyword-stuffed the articles, thinking it would attract more traffic.
- Many of the mom blogs were very ad-heavy, and under penalty themselves.
- Many of the mom blogs were very low authority and the backlinks devalued Superstellar’s site.
Solution: Superstellar had a lot of cleanup to do, and they ended up quietly disavowing the links from all the blogs that they had pitched.
If you run an influencer outreach campaign, pick your targets carefully. If you have no choice but to pitch a niche that is characteristically low-authority and spammy, then I recommend the following:
- Ask influencers to use nofollow links. Provide the code for them to copy/paste into their blog articles for this purpose.
- Create a specific landing page for the influencer outreach. Use a service such as Unbounce to direct users to a specific page that is designed for the outreach campaign. The upside of this is that you can customize the landing page to the niche, and even conduct A/B testing to boot.
4. Guest Blogging Niche
If you do it right, guest blogging is awesome. However, guest blogging is not without its dangers.
I’m going to discuss one of those dangers, but it might not be what you expect. Like point three above, this danger involves the niche in which you guest blog, not simply the fact that you are guest blogging.
The Problem Explained: Earlier this year, the SEO world blew up when Google’s head of webspam, Matt Cutts, announced that guest blogging was largely “done” as a link building tactic, explaining that it had become increasingly spammy over the years.
He didn’t outright condemn the practice, however, noting that there “are still many good reasons to do some guest blogging” and that he wasn’t referring to “high-quality multi-author blogs.”
And so, we all stood back up, dusted off our jackets, and went on guest blogging with purpose and caution. We became selective with our guest blogging opportunities, limiting ourselves to high authority sites that would provide some benefit beyond a link for SEO (e.g. traffic, brand exposure, etc.).
Unfortunately, some of us didn’t realize that it wasn’t just about the sites themselves – it was also about the niche we were guest blogging in.
The niche I find myself in is completely legitimate. I’m guest blogging on high-authority sites with impeccable editorial standards and extremely high authority.
But some of my clients weren’t so fortunate.
Example: I worked with an individual who ran one of Europe’s most successful online casino sites. He faced problems prior to the guest blogging fiasco in 2012 when things really spiraled out of control for online gambling and casino sites.
The poker niche is not known for its adherence to ethical, white hat SEO standards. That’s why a lot of the black hat forums are given to discussing nefarious methods of ranking gambling sites.
Thankfully, there are legit ways for gambling sites to rank. The approach taken by my site, “MoneyManCasino,” was not a very effective way. He chose to guest blog on all the gambling sites he could find.
Unfortunately, those sites were spammy, penalized, and downright dangerous. The bio linkbacks he received from the guest blog spots were sending dangerous link juice to his site, which eventuated in a penalty clampdown on his site.
Solution: Obviously, the general solution is to be careful where you guest blog. Although guest blogging lives on and still carries SEO value, it does have sharp edges.
In my experience, the most dangerous side effect of guest blogging has to do with the neighborhood in which you do your guest blogging. If you choose your neighborhood carefully and wisely, you shouldn’t have a problem.