Google’s Link Graph Is Broken

Every now and then, the mighty hand of Google reaches out and jerks the collective chain of SEOs. Google reminds us that they are king. We can run tests, blast links and not do SEO but none of it matters . We have no power over the future of search.

Today’s reminder came courtesy of inbound marketing company Moz. Google has listed one of their community blog posts as an example of an unnatural link in a recent Google Webmaster Tools message.

You can debate whether or not the link is a violation of Google’s Guidelines but that’s a pointless endeavor.

Here’s how Google defines an ‘unnatural link’Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results

This is hilariously and intentionally broad. If you know anything about search algorithms, it’s impossible to link to another website without understanding that a link may influence that site’s ranking on Google.

As I have said many times, there is no way to easily determine if a link is good or bad. It’s all relative. Put 100 SEOs in a room and show them that link and you’ll get 100 different opinions.

The more interesting thing about Rand’s post, to me, is that this is another great example of how Google has lost control of the link graph.

Before Google was big enough to use cash to influence Washington, they grew a search company based on the principle of the link graph. The link graph was a wonderful way to determine trust and authority on any topic. PageRank was their biggest asset and what made them great.

Now? Google is doing some cool stuff with hardware and software but the link graph that powers the algorithm is a disaster.

Maybe it isn’t a big deal now that Google controls so much of the web’s traffic (which means they control much of the world’s commerce), but Google’s biggest strength is now one of their biggest weaknesses. The algorithm does not work well and even if Google tweaked it, they have ran the natural link graph into the ground by over-policing links the past few years.

It’s frustrating to see Google send an inaccurate and useless notice of unnatural links to a Webmaster. It’s frustrating to see a quality site like Moz listed.

But getting too caught up in if this particular link was good or bad shifts the focus away from Google and back to editors and SEOs.

The bigger issue is that the link graph is ruined and Google doesn’t seem to be fixing it.

Only bad SEOs ignore rankings


SEOs can’t really agree on anything.

Link building is good. Link building is worthless
Matt Cutts is the devil. Matt Cutts is a saint.
Pages should be 300 words long. Pages should be 1000 words long.
SEO is dead. SEO will never die.

It takes a special type of infighting to argue whether or not your entire industry is alive or dead.

One of the classic disagreements that SEO have is about rankings. Some people say rankings are meaningless and shouldn’t be measured. Others check them multiple times per day and rely on them as a KPI.

To the anti-rankings crowd, rankings represent a short-sighted way of measuring marketing’s impact. Nobody has ever paid a bill with a “ranking” and they are only a small step in a much bigger process.

The pro-ranking people use it to directly measure how well their SEO and link building campaigns are working. Higher rankings mean something is working and is worth trying again.

I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about which side of the fence I’ve been on until recently. The anti-rankings movement seems to have gained traction as the “The best way to do marketing is to not do marketing” crowd grows.

Poke around on Twitteror in forums and you’ll see the inbound crowd say things like “ still care about rankings? That’s your first mistake. Rankings are worthless in 2014”

This is harsh but true:

If you work in SEO and don’t care about rankings, you are probably terrible at your job.

Sure, revenue is more important than page one rankings. Yes, brand awareness is important. But so many of the numbers that really matter including the cash that pays the bills can be tied back to rankings. Saying rankings don’t matter in SEO is like saying hits don’t matter in baseball because runs win the game.

If you want to make more money, you’ll be hard pressed to find higher ROI than you’ll find from an SEO campaign. For your SEO campaign to work, you’ll need some traffic. Good luck achieving that without ranking on page 1 in Google.

I get it. Focusing only on rankings is idiotic. Rankings do not correlate with overall business growth nearly as well as other numbers. But search traffic doesn’t magically appear to your site. You have to be able to be found.

Rankings matter because traffic matters. And with traffic comes sales and revenue and profit and all of those other metrics that are most important.

P.S. – If you don’t think rankings matter, here’s a little growth hack that will help keep your efforts focused on brand building instead of meaningless.

User-agent: Googlebot
Disallow: /

Do The Hard Things

Lazy marketing is easy.

Lazy marketing is going through the same marketing process for every project, every site.

Lazy marketing is reading what worked for another site and thinking it will work for your site.

Lazy marketing is recycling old ideas, praying they’ll work again.

Lazy marketing is doing what is familiar.

Lazy marketing is publishing a blog post and crossing your fingers that people will actually read it.

Lazy marketing is only measuring what is easily measurable.

Lazy marketing treats website visitors like…visitors.

Lazy marketing is bad marketing.

The best marketers are those who are willing to do the hard things. It’s hard to create a 10,000 word piece of content that drives 1000s of prospective customers to your site. It’s hard to write awesome content about moving companies. It’s hard to earn links. It’s hard to work with a crappy CMS. It’s hard to learn a new JavaScript library when creating an interactive graphic. It’s hard to spend 12 hours going through a 20,000 line Excel file of links.

Good marketing is digging deep to measure true indicators of success.

Good marketing is viewing the “Publish” button as only the first step.

Good marketing is taking the extra 3 hours to write an industry-leading piece instead of another boring blog post.

Good marketing is challenging yourself and your clients to experiment and push new boundaries.

Good marketing treats website visitors like real people.

If you ever start to think that marketing is easy, you are doing something wrong.

Lazy marketing is easy. Good marketing is hard.

Bookmarklet: Make Google (not provided)

It’s probably sour grapes, but not a day goes by without my missing organic keyword data in Google Analytics. (not provided) went from being less than 10% of search queries to being 100% and perhaps soon the entire web. Ick.

For a fun reminder of our long lost keyword data I made a bookmarklet that will replace any instance of “Google” on a web page with “(not provided).”

It’s a useless tool but at least I learned how to make a bookmarklet.

Drag this onto your bookmarks to use:

Google = (not provided)

Tactical negative SEO strategies


Since links each harm you as much as they can help you nowadays, I’ve been thinking almost as much about negative SEO as I have been thinking about positive SEO. Link building is not only a tactic to grow a business online, you can also harm businesses using links.

I’ve never targeted another site with negative SEO because I’ve been too busy working on growing and improving the marketing presence for clients, but I wouldn’t be surprised if negative SEO was offered as a service by a lot of industry providers in a few years. There have been reports of negative SEO not working very well, but when you hear about sites getting taken down for a single bad link it definitely proves the theory of negative SEO to be true.

Google is not only analyzing links in 2014, they are trying to decipher the intent of links. Intent is a hard thing to figure out algorithmically. Heck, intent is hard to figure out period. Google is trying, though, and that means that lots of people are going to get caught in the crossfire.

I find the idea of negative SEO fascinating and have been jotting down a few tactical strategies that you could employ right now to get another site penalized. Please note that I don’t recommend doing any of these and haven’t actually tried them…this is more of a brainstorming exercise on SEO theory. I wouldn’t be surprised if some SEOs have already experimented with a lot of these. Continue reading

Revisiting Rap Genius: Why link spam is more effective than ever

One of the most effective marketing tactics right now is to get your website penalized by Google. Land in the penalty box and write a blog post about it. Pitch it to the tech and marketing blogs. You might never have to worry about link building again if you are sensational enough.

I can think of a few examples of this off of the top of my head but there’s no greater instance of link penalties leading to a stronger business than RapGenius. RapGenius went from a niche, VC-backed lyrics site to being one of the most talked about sites on the entire web for a solid week.

It only took a few emails and a couple of days for their penalty to go away and for search traffic to bounce back.

I just checked rankings for the exact keywords they were caught building links for and rankings have never been better:

Justin Bieber Heartbreaker Lyrics – 3
Justin Bieber All That Matters Lyrics -2
Justin Bieber Hold Tight Lyrics – 2
Justin Bieber Recovery Lyrics – 3
Justin Bieber Bad Day Lyrics – 2
Justin Bieber All Bad Lyrics – 2
Justin Bieber PYD Lyrics – 2
Justin Bieber Roller Coaster Lyrics – 3
Justin Bieber Change Me Lyrics – 3
Justin Bieber Confident Lyrics – 2
Justin Bieber Memphis Lyrics – 2
Justin Bieber One Life Lyrics – 3

Yep…they are either in position 2 or 3 for every last keyword. The rest of their rankings? Better than ever (via SEMRush):


You could say that Google penalizing RapGenius was probably the best bit of marketing that has ever happened to them. They got free links and press from:

Search Engine Land
NY Times
The Motley Fool
Wall Street Journal

Their brand got an insane amount of free exposure:

I could go on and on but what’s the point. They are now a DA of 76 and have gotten more brand awareness than any traditional PR or marketing campaign could have ever earned.

Rap Genius wasn’t able to manipulate the search results the exact way they planned with their poorly planned Bieber outreach campaign, but the SEO impact they got from sending those emails has been far greater than that of classic link building tactic.

I’m wondering when some enterprising website will intentionally get their site penalized and then go public with it (Ask Inbound: OMG! we got penalized plz help). I’m not sure if anybody has tried it, but it should work if you execute it properly. It’s easy enough to get penalized when it only takes one borderline outbound link on your site.

Everybody keeps saying SEO is going to turn into PR, but they don’t mention you will be pitching your penalized site to major news publications. Obvious, outdated link schemes still work like a charm, just in a different way than they used to.

Want more readers? Start asking why


Content is now a commodity. You can buy well-written blog posts, articles and copy for pennies from people on Craigslist, oDesk, etc. Like any commodity, it’s much harder to differentiate yourself using content than it was a few years ago.

Think about Netflix for a second. When they first launched their streaming service, it was mind-blowing. Virtually any television show or movie was available at your fingertips. It was impressive.

Now? With technology making it easier than ever to be 2nd to market, there is only a short period of distinct advantage for early movers. On-demand television and movie programming is now commonplace. Amazon, Comcast, Verizon, NBC and others offer similar services. They all basically do the same thing. On-demand video streaming for the masses used to be unique. Now it’s a mass-produced standard service that is uniform no matter where you get it from.

Online content has followed a similar path. 10 years ago, a company could stand out from the pack because they had unique and informative content on their website. Now 95% of websites are identical when it comes to the amount and type of content they are producing.

Writing content for your website is a nice first step, but if you really want to succeed you have to ask yourself why over and over again.

Why should somebody turn to your content over your competitors?
Why should you read my SEO blog instead of one of the 250,000,000 others that exist?
Why is your time better spent reading my blog than doing anything else?

Having a blog used to place you on a stage in front of a packed auditorium. It still gets you on the stage, but now you have 1,000 other people next to you, screaming at the top of their lungs. If you want readers, you better be prepared to tell them why they should care about what you have to say.

There’s no perfect answer to why but here are some that are on the right track:

– We are willing to take more risks. Be bold and take a stance with your content. Most blog posts are so bland and vanilla nowadays…if you write something with passion that might ruffle a few feathers, you are probably doing something right. I’ve always thought that the perfect blog post is one that 50% of people love and 50% of people hate. Make content that gets people talking.

– We are more transparent. Personal stories and experiences blow hearsay out of the water. Put yourself out there and let others learn from your mistakes. Let people peek behind the curtain. Tell people how you do something instead of telling them how they should do something.

– We look at things from a different perspective. FiveThirtyEight is a good example of this. They are writing about the same topics as every other publication (gender wage gap, for instance) but they are doing it from an analytical perspective.

– We are skeptical. After years of reading SEO blogs that publish recycled thoughts on a daily basis, this is one answer that hits close to home. Don’t rely on others truths. Go out and explore everything for yourself, then talk about it. If somebody says social signals push rankings like crazy, go out and see for yourself. Break away from the echo chamber.

To build something truly great you must ask yourself why over and over again.

Linking Policy: Please do not link to my website

Linking Policy – Updated 3/25/2014

Dear website visitor,

In order to maintain good status in all search engines, I kindly request that you follow the following procedures when linking to this site. Any inbound link to that violates these guidelines gets you added to ye olde disavow.txt (don’t worry, Google doesn’t really use that data).

I. Do not link to this site from a guest post
All guest posts are bad and this website does not condone guest posting. Clearly, no guest post should ever include a link because that would be spam.

II. Do not link to this site using unnatural anchor text
Please only use one of the following when selecting anchor text for a link to

– “website”
– “web page”
– “homepage”
– “Trevin Shirey”

Any other anchor text, especially descriptive anchor text like marketing, SEO, blog, etc. is a clear act of spam and will not be tolerated. Users appreciate vague, non-descriptive anchor text and anybody who users anything else is a spammer.

III. Do not link to this site from a a comments section, sidebar or in a forum
Remember when everybody used to find cool blogs through blogrolls? Now they are only used for spam. Remember when people used to interact in comments sections? Google+ is a much better option. And forums are overrun with spammers (expect for Google Webmaster Support Forum!)

IV. Please use rel=”nofollow” for all links pointing to this site
Google prohibits people exchanging money, posts, goods, services, free products, ideas, favors, brainwaves, oxygen, etc for links that pass PageRank. Just to be safe, let’s use a little common sense and avoid any problems by adding this simple tag.

V. Do not link to this site unless you are blogging about Trevin Shirey
Links from unrelated websites are always spam. For instance, if you write about social networking and post this content on a marketing blog, that is a violation. Please only link to my site if you entire website is devoted to….me (Trevin Shirey).

VI. Do not link to me using any of the following methods, regardless of what I create/share/post (via)

Paid links? Spam.
Reciprocal links? Spam.
Blog comments? Spam.
Forum profile links? Spam.
Integrated newspaper ads? Spam.
Article databases? Spam.
Designed by credit links? Spam.
Press releases? Spam.
Web 2.0 profile & social links? Spam.
Web directories? Spam.
Widgets? Spam.
Infographics? Spam.

VII. Do not link to this site unless the linking page is over 1,500 words
Quality content is not possible unless you reach a certain word count….let’s say 1,500 words. That should be enough.

If you have trouble with this policy, here is a handy phrase to remember: P.A.N.D.A – Please Always Numerically Describe All

VIII. Actually, it’s probably best that you do not link to me at all
It’s hard to find a type of link that I can’t prove isn’t some form of link spam. Today’s white hat is tomorrow’s black hat. Please do not link to my website at all.

And don’t worry…just in case your site is part of a guest blogging community, I won’t be linking to you either.



Just kidding.

MyBlogGuest was white hat before it was black hat

The SEO world that Google has created is a funny place.

Today’s black hat tactics were yesterday’s white hat tactics. Today’s SEO was yesterday’s traditional marketing. Funny world.

Take MyBlogGuest, for instance. Before it was a “link network” full of evil black hat gangstas and mean link builders, it was a safe haven full of quality content and white hat link building content marketing.

Fair or unfair, you are still accountable for the links you built five years ago. Better think hard about what is “white hat” today because it probably won’t be in 2017 and Penguin 6 won’t be very kind or gentle.


From founder Ann Smarty,¬†MyBlogGuest¬†provides a platform for those seeking to write and receive guest posts. The service is relatively simple, but potentially quite powerful….I’ll be surprised if some Silicon Valley style startups don’t pop up to copy this model.

Search Engine Land:

Well-known SEO consultant and search writer Ann Smarty recently launched a new project that many white hat SEOs have welcomed with open arms: My Blog Guest. The project helps SEOs find guest-blogging opportunities, and site owners to find bloggers to write for them.

Link Assistant

Whether you’re an active guest blogger or just starting out you should certainly stop by at MyBlogGuest, a guest blogging community run by Ann Smarty, one of the brightest folks in the SEO industry. The idea behind the site is pretty simple: to give guest bloggers and blog owners seeking quality content a platform where they can connect, trade posts, share their expertise and help each other promote their guest posts and blogs…

Me, in 2011

Guest blogging rules…MyBlogGuest is going to work forever.