They say all’s fair in love and war — and some would argue the same for business too. Ethics and rules of engagement are a touchy subject in SEO circles. Most agencies endeavor to be “whitehat” and stick to Google’s prescribed guidelines: “Create great, easy-to-access content that people naturally want to link to.”
But then there are those who bend the rules to suit their own purposes with a “whatever makes me more money” approach — the “blackhats.” It’s a tempting (and potentially lucrative) proposition to break Google’s rules and fly under the radar.
For Blackhats, There’s Money to Be Made Cheating the System
For as much as Google’s PR wants the world to believe the search engine is infallible and capable of detecting any and all spam, the truth is that the metrics that matter can still be gamed by those willing to stoop to some rather ugly levels to do so. Bending the rules ranges from annoying but innocuous blog comment spam all the way to activities like hacking that could potentially wind webmasters up in jail if they were caught.
The risks, of course, are still huge — too big for most brands to roll the dice on. There’s the fear of exposure (like J.C. Penney after being outed for buying links) and the (perhaps even stronger) fear of lost revenues that come with being deindexed — or having the link networks you’ve bought get deindexed. In fact, a recent move saw Google taking down massive private blogging networks, impacting thousands of sites across the Web.
Recovery from manual and algorithmic penalties is expensive, difficult, and certainly not guaranteed. Most of the time it involves a lengthy process of contacting webmasters where spammy or irrelevant links are present and pleading with them to take them down.
The heavy risk, arduous cleanup process, and the fact that most businesses have a vested interest in not being slimy are all enough to keep most companies on the straight and narrow.
But What If There Were a Tactic So Sneaky, Even Google Couldn’t Detect It? And What If Your Competition Chose to Make Their War… Personal?
Ironically, it’s the fear of being penalized that has made this new tactic possible. The idea behind the emerging blackhat tactic is simple: Your competitor contacts webmasters and asks them to remove the links you’ve earned, set them to no-follow, or link to their domain instead under some sort of false pretense.
It’s “un-link-building” — undermining the legitimate work that brands have done to earn quality links and robbing those brands of the authority being passed by the link profile they’ve cultivated. The site that is losing the links plummets in the rankings, while their competitors eat up their real estate.
Now some might call this “negative SEO” instead of blackhat, and indeed, blackhats themselves are tired of every sketchy tactic being attributed to their name (they prefer to take credit only for the highly illegal stuff).
No matter what you call it, it’s not an idle or imagined threat, as documented by Alexander Kesler on YOUMoz. Some unscrupulous folks are even copying real link-removal emails and just swapping out the names, making this tactic even harder to spot if the webmaster isn’t paying attention.
Because it’s not algorithmic and involves taking something “off” the Internet, it’s much more difficult for Google to police this kind of sneaky underhandedness. To search engines, it looks like you’re losing links over time — and if your competitor is good at it, you can lose a whole lot at once.
What Does a Removal Email Look Like?
More or less, exactly like a legitimate request for removal. An example might look like so:
To Whom It May Concern,
Google has recently begun to penalize sites that have engaged in what it calls “linking schemes.” As such, we’re finding ourselves having to approach those who have linked to us and request that certain links given the “no-follow” attribute adhere to Google’s guidelines.
This is a pre-emptive measure, and while we certainly appreciate that you linked to us at all, we’d kindly request that the link on [X page] be made “no-follow” or removed.
We appreciate your help and cooperation. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask.
The message may vary, but the crux of it is always the same: a seemingly polite, courteous request for a link to be taken down or no-followed.
How Can I Protect My Business Against This?
Naturally, you’d like to not lose all your links. The trouble is this one is pretty hard to guard against.
The key to protecting your business is vigilance. Businesses often only take stock of the links they’re earning instead of trends in links over time.
That’s a mistake.
The unfortunate truth is that, whether through an unscrupulous competitor or any other number of factors (removed pages, website shutdowns, changes in design, etc.), your business is probably losing links on an ongoing basis.
One way to keep an eye on this is using Majestic SEO’s historic link index, where you can see a list of links past. You can sort these by value and export, then use a tool like Niel’s SEO Tools for Excel to get the status on whether or not they’re still live.
Richard Baxter from builtvisible has written an excellent post on this that requires a bit of coding and Niel’s tool as well.
And if you want a really old-school approach that’s a little more time consuming but easier to implement, keep a list of your best earned links and check in on them every so often to make sure they’re still live (or pay someone at Fiverr to do this since all they’ll need is your list and a few hours of time).
When you find a link has gone missing, follow up quickly and ask why it was taken down. If you find out someone is actively removing links, chances are they’re on the warpath with more than one site and you’ll need to gear up for response.
Of course, another simpler way to protect yourself is to be proactive.
Build Links That Would Be Nearly Impossible for Someone Else to Remove
The kinds of links we’re talking about here are links earned through relationships and personal connections, where the webmaster knows you or your business enough to raise his eyebrows when he gets a removal request.
This won’t work for every link you earn, but if you can establish rapport and recurring conversation with those who link to you, they’re more likely to catch these kinds of scams on their own.
It’s unfortunate that there are those out there who will do anything to make a buck, including cheating hardworking businesses out of the links they’ve rightfully earned. It might make your blood boil, but this kind of ugliness is neither new nor temporary in a world where niches are competitive and there’s money to be made.
Keep an eye out, and don’t let the bad guys win!