Have you suddenly seen your Google rankings plummet for no discernible reason? Did you put it down to yet another unannounced algorithm update? The true reason may be more sinister and it could also be messing with your analytics. The good news is you can do something about it.
So there we were riding high with page one rankings for a number of (admittedly very specific) key phrases when, mere days later, we seemed to have slipped off the bottom of the page.
Further investigation revealed the site had disappeared completely for most key words and even a search on our brand only yielded one result.
I could only assume Google was penalising the site for what it perceived as black hat Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) activity. Yet we work hard at only using best practice techniques and providing content that is, I hope, entertaining and informative.
I consulted a few SEO specialists and found no one had a reasonable explanation. So I investigated myself and discovered an undercover world with which anyone with a website should be familiar.
Spam links can kill your site
Links into your site have always had a positive impact on your Google ranking, so much so that an industry developed around building numerous sites that simply linked to others. This practice, known as Link Farming, became so destructive and pervasive, Google introduced a quality check on links, so links on reputable sites (such as the BBC) carried more weight. It’s a system not dissimilar to they way in which academic papers are ranked.
More recently, Google has started penalising any site that has bad backlinks to the extent that your site can even be removed completely from the SERP (search engine results page). Link farming is considered a ‘black hat SEO technique’ and will be punished.
So have I been involved in generating bad links for my site? Not knowingly. And as I do my own SEO I should know.
TIP – If you buy in SEO support be sure your provider isn’t using black hat techniques to boost your site. You will pay for it in the longer term. Treat any SEO provider that offers immediate results with a degree of scepticism.
Check your referral traffic
I’d been surprised for some time that our site was receiving quite so much traffic, magnificent though of course it is, and a glance at my Google Analytics was revelatory.
Most of my traffic was coming from Russia, looking at my Referral traffic (go to Acquisition > Channels > Referrals) and I found a number of links to my site I did not recognise:
WARNING: DO NOT VISIT THESE SITES. Some are known to have viruses and malware.
One of these links was sending more than 800 ‘visitors’ to my site. These are all bad links, or referral spam, established by site owners who hope that at least a proportion of those sites they link to will link back and so boost their sites or pick up some piece of malware.
So our site was being penalised because of a bunch of dodgy overseas links that we don’t want and never asked for. Not only that, our analytics were meaningless because of the volume of artificial traffic and their associated high bounce rates.
In all likelihood, if you check your analytics now you’ll almost certainly find your site is being hit in the same way.
Fortunately there is something you can do about it.
How to deal with bad or spam links
A quick search online presented a suggestion that you contact any site owner who has linked to your site without your permission and, where it is not a site you want to be associated with, ask them to remove it.
My advice is not to waste your time. The kind of sites listed above are doing this on a mass scale and even if they were minded to cooperate they wouldn’t have time. In truth the people behind these sites are not the kind of people you want to be communicating with.
Instead, I recommend you contact Google directly and ask them to ‘disavow’ the backlinks to your site. This is a process that means Google will stop taking these specific links into account when ranking your site.
Google advises great caution when doing this to avoid removing positive links, but I found it quite an easy process to identify the bad links and submit my request.
To see Google’s advice on this subject click here http://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/2648487
I have no proof that the bad links were the definite cause of our site disappearing from Google. All I can say is that having disavowed a large number of links our site are now appearing as I would expect.
Bad links continue to appear from time to time, so this appears to be a process I will need to repeat.
Can I stop bad links making my Google Analytics meaningless?
At face value the referrals for this site would suggest we have a massive untapped market in Russia to exploit but our site is so repulsive people can’t get past the home page.
Before we relocate to Moscow and sack our web designers however, is there a way to look at the data with the dodgy traffic from spam links removed?
Fortunately there are ways to filter out bad traffic and so get useful results. There is quite a debate on econsultancy at the moment about the best solution. At the moment it seems to be this one at Analytics Edge.
However, as this is a moving target you might wish to keep up to speed with the debate here: Econsultancy
This article refers to Google exclusively but bad links can also impact the results of other search engines. I’ll provide an update to this blog if and when I can dig out more on this.