Building a Business on Borrowed Ground

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In March, Search Engine Roundtable ran a piece about a link buying discussion happening on Twitter. At the time a lot of the discussion centered on using a public forum to discuss tactics that Google is penalizing. And while we are often drawn to having these discussions around mistakes, I feel there is a more interesting issue raised, which Vitaliy, aka Vince, brought to my attention.

There tends to be a lot of animosity directed at Google any time there is an algorithm update or penalty issue. And while there is some legitimacy to critiques of Google’s vague language and what sometimes seems like selective enforcement of penalties, that doesn’t change the fact that the house gets to make the rules and we’re choosing to play the game. If you build a business that is heavily dependent on another business, especially one that you don’t have a partnership with, like Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc., then you have to accept the lack of control you have over your revenue. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t build a business in this manner as many have, but it is a precarious position to put yourself into, and you should remain flexible, think about how to mitigate change, and be ready to change your business model in an instant.

Here is Vitaliy’s explanation of what happened, why they were initially slow to change their business model as Google began to more frequently penalize sites, and some of the frustrations that come with trying to get out of Google penalties.

As you probably know, I was caught red-handed while trying to have paid links renewed. Consequently, the issue was noticed by Matt Cutts and we were punished by Google with a terrible penalty. . I’m going to shed some light in this article to what exactly happened and why it happened in the first place. Hopefully, this article will help you get to the bottom of the issue. Before we go any further I should point out that we totally lost traffic because of the penalty and our SEO metrics deteriorated like crazy.

Thing is, WebDesign.org used to sell text links alongside with participating in affiliate campaigns. You can say that the company was built around this approach. About 50% of total revenue was generated by selling all sorts of ads, such as text links, banner ads, etc. Before Google drastically changed their politics as for selling text links, it was OK both for Google and us. Most of our text links were sold for long terms. When Google started literally penalizing for paid links, we could not possibly just remove all our paid links because that would just be really unfair to our customers. Other than that, the money that we used to receive for selling text links was used for our employees’ salary. So, we put the money to good use. That was another reason why we could not just drastically change our business model. As a matter of fact, we did start switching over to affiliate revenues back in the day, but it was taking a lot of time and efforts. At the time of the writing, we no longer sell links on WebDesign.org.

Once Barry sort of reported on me on his blog and Matt Cutts noticed that, we got a Google manual penalty message in our Google Webmaster Tools account (Unnatural links from your site). The description was pretty standard,”Google detected a pattern of unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative outbound links on pages on this site. This may be the result of selling links that pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.” Since it happened right after I was busted on Twitter, it goes without saying that the penalty was well-grounded. Kudos to Google, actually.

What we did first is set rel=”nofollow” to all our paid links both on the homepage and separate posts with paid text links. Having that done, we put together a reconsideration request  and submitted it to Google. The request contained explanations of what we did and listed the actual links we had nofollowed. We got a reply from Google in about two weeks. The answer was discouraging. They stated that we still violate Google’s quality guidelines. With that info in mind, we took the plunge and nofollowed all our outbound links, including natural ones. Without further ado, we composed another reconsideration request stating that all our outbound links are nofollow now and submitted it to Google on the same day. Within just a few days, we got a quick reply from Google. They still did not believe  that we follow their guidelines. And here’s why I think it happened.

We asked our developers to programmatically nofollow all outbound links. They did so but with the help of JavaScript. We checked it with Chrome using the SEOquake plugin. The plugin actually showed that all our outbound links are nofollowed. As it turns out, you should not believe this plugin without double-checking with JavaScript disabled or in a text-based browser, such as seo-browser.com. Since our programmers set rel=”nofollow” with the help of JavaScript, it looked that outbound links are nofollowed only on browsers that support JavaScript. Unfortunately, Google does not understand that sort of JavaScript. I assume that when we sent our second reconsideration request, Google guys just ran some kind of a tool that doesn’t support JavaScript on our site and the tool showed that our outbound links are still “dofollow” ones.

Having figured out why Google did not revoke the penalty, we asked our tech guys to do the same (nofollow links) but without JavaScript so that Google believe us this time around.  We got a solution within 24 hours. Now nofollowing was implemented by means of PHP. Then we submitted another reconsideration request and now we’re waiting to see what happens next. Hopefully, it’ll work out this time because we lost both SEO metrics and traffic as a result of the penalty.

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions

 

While those of us at SEO.com don’t necessarily share the same opinions of Vitaliy, we feel there is a lot to be gained from seeing what can motivate decisions that lead to penalties. I’ve seen several other instances of companies act in ways that have led to penalties or jeopardize their stability by relying too much on factors outside of their control. Whether a business relies on someone else’s API, or your traffic acquisition comes predominantly from a single source, you have to think about what can happen, which is difficult to do as we’re conditioned by our success to keep on keepin’ on.

With the core of our business as SEO, we’ve been in the position of being heavily reliant on Google. We were always in a state of constant adaptation to get results for our clients in the ever changing search landscape. And, as with most SEO companies, this has meant expanding into offering a wide range of digital marketing services in order to get the best results and diversify revenue channels.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about businesses that are reliant on other businesses.

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