We've been busy recently working for a range of clients, all of which have one thing in common; their sites have been hit by Google. The hit in each case has not been one where you get a warning message in your inbox advising you of a manual penalty, but a more sinister algorithmic penalty that is characterised by a gradual loss of rankings and a long slow decline in organic traffic.
With each of these client sites the one thing that we can say with a degree of certainty is that in every case the problem has been backlinks.
For many years prevailing SEO wisdom has been that you need backlinks to rank and many firms, including some very well known ones, succumbed to temptation and spent a lot of money buying links. In many cases however they simply engaged an SEO firm who convinced the client that they 'knew what they were doing' and that 'it works for all our other clients'. Links were bought not built properly and today this is crippling their sites.
These firms now find themselves with a backlink profile which is the product of years of link building and the issues are deep rooted and endemic.
With the recent work most of the clients had not succumbed to massive link buying sprees so the profiles were relatively clear and in one case two other SEO firms had looked, unsuccessfully, for the correct solution.
We had a slight advantage in that we could look across a range of clients and because of that we could spot patterns which would not otherwise be obvious to a site owner. The more we looked at these sites the more a pattern began to emerge. The trouble seems to have started for each site around the time of the Google update of May 9th 2013.
Irrespective of the number of backlinks to a site, the issue was the mix of anchor text that we found. In fact in one of the profiles we found that the over optimised anchor text was all coming from sites that the client actually owned so we changed it overnight and from that point the site started to recover. In all the other cases however the problem was embedded far deeper and nothing short of a long term link cleaning and removal exercise would do.
In every case what we found was an overuse of heavily optimised anchor text, on what some are now calling the 'money keywords'. Essentially a 'money keyword' is one which describes what you are selling (and most likely the keyword for which you want to rank) as opposed to something more natural such as your brand name, or 'click here'.
As an example take a look at this breakdown of backlinks for a site we found randomly ranking for 'Loans in Singapore'. A single page site, not an obvious brand name, ranking on page one for a hard keyword.
The question is how does a site with so little content rank above major international brands?
The answer is simple.
Not a single link was to the brand under which they advertise; the one that appears on the header of the site, in the Title tags and in the url. Everything was about the keywords for which they wished to rank.
The sharper eyed amongst you will also have noticed 'Burberry' sneaking in there as well and clearly this is nothing to do with finance. This is another 'black hat' tactic and hints at a murky past for this site.
The appearance of 'Burberry', 'Cialis' and 'Viagra' in the longer list of backlinks are instant giveaways that this site has been subjected to the worst kind of 'black hat' SEO. Old spammy domains which have had millions of spam links created have been 301 transferred to this new domain meaning that the weight of the backlinks goes with it. This site could rank for many things, none of which are to do with its backlink profile.
Luckily Google is alive to this kind of manipulation now and we firmly expect this site to have disappeared in the very near future.
Professional link building, and therefore link clean up, is all about the details and knowing where to start. So if you've been hit by Google then take a good look at your anchor text and the answer may well be simpler than you think.
This article first appeared in an unabridged form on the Aqueous Digital website