Stop Ghost Spam in Google Analytics with One Filter

Posted by CarloSeo

The spam in Google Analytics (GA) is becoming a serious issue. Due to a deluge of referral spam from social buttons, adult sites, and many, many other sources, people are starting to become overwhelmed by all the filters they are setting up to manage the useless data they are receiving.

The good news is, there is no need to panic. In this post, I’m going to focus on the most common mistakes people make when fighting spam in GA, and explain an efficient way to prevent it.

But first, let’s make sure we understand how spam works. A couple of months ago, Jared Gardner wrote an excellent article explaining what referral spam is, including its intended purpose. He also pointed out some great examples of referral spam.

Types of spam

The spam in Google Analytics can be categorized by two types: ghosts and crawlers.

Ghosts

The vast majority of spam is this type. They are called ghosts because they never access your site. It is important to keep this in mind, as it’s key to creating a more efficient solution for managing spam.

As unusual as it sounds, this type of spam doesn’t have any interaction with your site at all. You may wonder how that is possible since one of the main purposes of GA is to track visits to our sites.

They do it by using the Measurement Protocol, which allows people to send data directly to Google Analytics’ servers. Using this method, and probably randomly generated tracking codes (UA-XXXXX-1) as well, the spammers leave a “visit” with fake data, without even knowing who they are hitting.

Crawlers

This type of spam, the opposite to ghost spam, does access your site. As the name implies, these spam bots crawl your pages, ignoring rules like those found in robots.txt that are supposed to stop them from reading your site. When they exit your site, they leave a record on your reports that appears similar to a legitimate visit.

Crawlers are harder to identify because they know their targets and use real data. But it is also true that new ones seldom appear. So if you detect a referral in your analytics that looks suspicious, researching it on Google or checking it against this list might help you answer the question of whether or not it is spammy.

Most common mistakes made when dealing with spam in GA

I’ve been following this issue closely for the last few months. According to the comments people have made on my articles and conversations I’ve found in discussion forums, there are primarily three mistakes people make when dealing with spam in Google Analytics.

Mistake #1. Blocking ghost spam from the .htaccess file

One of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to block Ghost Spam from the .htaccess file.

For those who are not familiar with this file, one of its main functions is to allow/block access to your site. Now we know that ghosts never reach your site, so adding them here won’t have any effect and will only add useless lines to your .htaccess file.

Ghost spam usually shows up for a few days and then disappears. As a result, sometimes people think that they successfully blocked it from here when really it’s just a coincidence of timing.

Then when the spammers later return, they get worried because the solution is not working anymore, and they think the spammer somehow bypassed the barriers they set up.

The truth is, the .htaccess file can only effectively block crawlers such as buttons-for-website.com and a few others since these access your site. Most of the spam can’t be blocked using this method, so there is no other option than using filters to exclude them.

Mistake #2. Using the referral exclusion list to stop spam

Another error is trying to use the referral exclusion list to stop the spam. The name may confuse you, but this list is not intended to exclude referrals in the way we want to for the spam. It has other purposes.

For example, when a customer buys something, sometimes they get redirected to a third-party page for payment. After making a payment, they’re redirected back to you website, and GA records that as a new referral. It is appropriate to use referral exclusion list to prevent this from happening.

If you try to use the referral exclusion list to manage spam, however, the referral part will be stripped since there is no preexisting record. As a result, a direct visit will be recorded, and you will have a bigger problem than the one you started with since. You will still have spam, and direct visits are harder to track.

Mistake #3. Worrying that bounce rate changes will affect rankings

When people see that the bounce rate changes drastically because of the spam, they start worrying about the impact that it will have on their rankings in the SERPs.

bounce.png

This is another mistake commonly made. With or without spam, Google doesn’t take into consideration Google Analytics metrics as a ranking factor. Here is an explanation about this from Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s web spam team.

And if you think about it, Cutts’ explanation makes sense; because although many people have GA, not everyone uses it.

Assuming your site has been hacked

Another common concern when people see strange landing pages coming from spam on their reports is that they have been hacked.

landing page

The page that the spam shows on the reports doesn’t exist, and if you try to open it, you will get a 404 page. Your site hasn’t been compromised.

But you have to make sure the page doesn’t exist. Because there are cases (not spam) where some sites have a security breach and get injected with pages full of bad keywords to defame the website.

What should you worry about?

Now that we’ve discarded security issues and their effects on rankings, the only thing left to worry about is your data. The fake trail that the spam leaves behind pollutes your reports.

It might have greater or lesser impact depending on your site traffic, but everyone is susceptible to the spam.

Small and midsize sites are the most easily impacted – not only because a big part of their traffic can be spam, but also because usually these sites are self-managed and sometimes don’t have the support of an analyst or a webmaster.

Big sites with a lot of traffic can also be impacted by spam, and although the impact can be insignificant, invalid traffic means inaccurate reports no matter the size of the website. As an analyst, you should be able to explain what’s going on in even in the most granular reports.

You only need one filter to deal with ghost spam

Usually it is recommended to add the referral to an exclusion filter after it is spotted. Although this is useful for a quick action against the spam, it has three big disadvantages.

  • Making filters every week for every new spam detected is tedious and time-consuming, especially if you manage many sites. Plus, by the time you apply the filter, and it starts working, you already have some affected data.
  • Some of the spammers use direct visits along with the referrals.
  • These direct hits won’t be stopped by the filter so even if you are excluding the referral you will sill be receiving invalid traffic, which explains why some people have seen an unusual spike in direct traffic.

Luckily, there is a good way to prevent all these problems. Most of the spam (ghost) works by hitting GA’s random tracking-IDs, meaning the offender doesn’t really know who is the target, and for that reason either the hostname is not set or it uses a fake one. (See report below)

Ghost-Spam.png

You can see that they use some weird names or don’t even bother to set one. Although there are some known names in the list, these can be easily added by the spammer.

On the other hand, valid traffic will always use a real hostname. In most of the cases, this will be the domain. But it also can also result from paid services, translation services, or any other place where you’ve inserted GA tracking code.

Valid-Referral.png

Based on this, we can make a filter that will include only hits that use real hostnames. This will automatically exclude all hits from ghost spam, whether it shows up as a referral, keyword, or pageview; or even as a direct visit.

To create this filter, you will need to find the report of hostnames. Here’s how:

  1. Go to the Reporting tab in GA
  2. Click on Audience in the lefthand panel
  3. Expand Technology and select Network
  4. At the top of the report, click on Hostname

Valid-list

You will see a list of all hostnames, including the ones that the spam uses. Make a list of all the valid hostnames you find, as follows:

  • yourmaindomain.com
  • blog.yourmaindomain.com
  • es.yourmaindomain.com
  • payingservice.com
  • translatetool.com
  • anotheruseddomain.com

For small to medium sites, this list of hostnames will likely consist of the main domain and a couple of subdomains. After you are sure you got all of them, create a regular expression similar to this one:

yourmaindomain\.com|anotheruseddomain\.com|payingservice\.com|translatetool\.com

You don’t need to put all of your subdomains in the regular expression. The main domain will match all of them. If you don’t have a view set up without filters, create one now.

Then create a Custom Filter.

Make sure you select INCLUDE, then select “Hostname” on the filter field, and copy your expression into the Filter Pattern box.

filter

You might want to verify the filter before saving to check that everything is okay. Once you’re ready, set it to save, and apply the filter to all the views you want (except the view without filters).

This single filter will get rid of future occurrences of ghost spam that use invalid hostnames, and it doesn’t require much maintenance. But it’s important that every time you add your tracking code to any service, you add it to the end of the filter.

Now you should only need to take care of the crawler spam. Since crawlers access your site, you can block them by adding these lines to the .htaccess file:

## STOP REFERRER SPAM 
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} semalt\.com [NC,OR] 
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} buttons-for-website\.com [NC] 
RewriteRule .* - [F]

It is important to note that this file is very sensitive, and misplacing a single character it it can bring down your entire site. Therefore, make sure you create a backup copy of your .htaccess file prior to editing it.

If you don’t feel comfortable messing around with your .htaccess file, you can alternatively make an expression with all the crawlers, then and add it to an exclude filter by Campaign Source.

Implement these combined solutions, and you will worry much less about spam contaminating your analytics data. This will have the added benefit of freeing up more time for you to spend actually analyze your valid data.

After stopping spam, you can also get clean reports from the historical data by using the same expressions in an Advance Segment to exclude all the spam.

Bonus resources to help you manage spam

If you still need more information to help you understand and deal with the spam on your GA reports, you can read my main article on the subject here: http://www.ohow.co/what-is-referrer-spam-how-stop-it-guide/.

Additional information on how to stop spam can be found at these URLs:

In closing, I am eager to hear your ideas on this serious issue. Please share them in the comments below.

(Editor’s Note: All images featured in this post were created by the author.)

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

The Meta Referrer Tag: An Advancement for SEO and the Internet

Posted by Cyrus-Shepard

The movement to make the Internet more secure through HTTPS brings several useful advancements for webmasters. In addition to security improvements, HTTPS promises future technological advances and potential SEO benefits for marketers.

HTTPS in search results is rising. Recent MozCast data from Dr. Pete shows nearly 20% of first page Google results are now HTTPS.

Sadly, HTTPS also has its downsides.

Marketers run into their first challenge when they switch regular HTTP sites over to HTTPS. Technically challenging, the switch typically involves routing your site through a series of 301 redirects. Historically, these types of redirects are associated with a loss of link equity (thought to be around 15%) which can lead to a loss in rankings. This can offset any SEO advantage that Google claims switching.

Ross Hudgens perfectly summed it up in this tweet:

Many SEOs have anecdotally shared stories of HTTPS sites performing well in Google search results (and our soon-to-be-published Ranking Factors data seems to support this.) However, the short term effect of a large migration can be hard to take. When Moz recently switched to HTTPS to provide better security to our logged-in users, we saw an 8-9% dip in our organic search traffic.

Problem number two is the subject of this post. It involves the loss of referral data. Typically, when one site sends traffic to another, information is sent that identifies the originating site as the source of traffic. This invaluable data allows people to see where their traffic is coming from, and helps spread the flow of information across the web.

SEOs have long used referrer data for a number of beneficial purposes. Oftentimes, people will link back or check out the site sending traffic when they see the referrer in their analytics data. Spammers know this works, as evidenced by the recent increase in referrer spam:

This process stops when traffic flows from an HTTPS site to a non-secure HTTP site. In this case, no referrer data is sent. Webmasters can’t know where their traffic is coming from.

Here’s how referral data to my personal site looked when Moz switched to HTTPS. I lost all visibility into where my traffic came from.

Its (not provided) all over again!

Enter the meta referrer tag

While we can’t solve the ranking challenges imposed by switching a site to HTTPS, we can solve the loss of referral data, and it’s actually super-simple.

Almost completely unknown to most marketers, the relatively new meta referrer tag (it’s actually been around for a few years) was designed to help out in these situations.

Better yet, the tag allows you to control how your referrer information is passed.

The meta referrer tag works with most browsers to pass referrer information in a manner defined by the user. Traffic remains encrypted and all the benefits of using HTTPS remain in place, but now you can pass referrer data to all websites, even those that use HTTP.

How to use the meta referrer tag

What follows are extremely simplified instructions for using the meta referrer tag. For more in-depth understanding, we highly recommend referring to the W3C working draft of the spec.

The meta referrer tag is placed in the <head> section of your HTML, and references one of five states, which control how browsers send referrer information from your site. The five states are:

  1. None: Never pass referral data
    <meta name="referrer" content="none">
    
  2. None When Downgrade: Sends referrer information to secure HTTPS sites, but not insecure HTTP sites
    <meta name="referrer" content="none-when-downgrade">
    
  3. Origin Only: Sends the scheme, host, and port (basically, the subdomain) stripped of the full URL as a referrer, i.e. https://moz.com/example.html would simply send https://moz.com
    <meta name="referrer" content="origin">
    

  4. Origin When Cross-Origin: Sends the full URL as the referrer when the target has the same scheme, host, and port (i.e. subdomain) regardless if it’s HTTP or HTTPS, while sending origin-only referral information to external sites. (note: There is a typo in the official spec. Future versions should be “origin-when-cross-origin”)
    <meta name="referrer" content="origin-when-crossorigin">
    
  5. Unsafe URL: Always passes the URL string as a referrer. Note if you have any sensitive information contained in your URL, this isn’t the safest option. By default, URL fragments, username, and password are automatically stripped out.
    <meta name="referrer" content="unsafe-url">
    

The meta referrer tag in action

By clicking the link below, you can get a sense of how the meta referrer tag works.

Check Referrer

Boom!

We’ve set the meta referrer tag for Moz to “origin”, which means when we link out to another site, we pass our scheme, host, and port. The end result is you see http://moz.com as the referrer, stripped of the full URL path (/meta-referrer-tag).

My personal site typically receives several visits per day from Moz. Here’s what my analytics data looked like before and after we implemented the meta referrer tag.

For simplicity and security, most sites may want to implement the “origin” state, but there are drawbacks.

One negative side effect was that as soon as we implemented the meta referrer tag, our AdRoll analytics, which we use for retargeting, stopped working. It turns out that AdRoll uses our referrer information for analytics, but the meta referrer tag “origin” state meant that the only URL they ever saw reported was https://moz.com.

Conclusion

We love the meta referrer tag because it keeps information flowing on the Internet. It’s the way the web is supposed to work!

It helps marketers and webmasters see exactly where their traffic is coming from. It encourages engagement, communication, and even linking, which can lead to improvements in SEO.

Useful links:

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

How Much Has Link Building Changed in Recent Years?

Posted by Paddy_Moogan

I get asked this question a lot. It’s mainly asked by people who are considering buying my link building book and want to know whether it’s still up to date. This is understandable given that the first edition was published in February 2013 and our industry has a deserved reputation for always changing.

I find myself giving the same answer, even though I’ve been asked it probably dozens of times in the last two years—”not that much”. I don’t think this is solely due to the book itself standing the test of time, although I’ll happily take a bit of credit for that 🙂 I think it’s more a sign of our industry as a whole not changing as much as we’d like to think.

I started to question myself and if I was right and honestly, it’s one of the reasons it has taken me over two years to release the second edition of the book.

So I posed this question to a group of friends not so long ago, some via email and some via a Facebook group. I was expecting to be called out by many of them because my position was that in reality, it hasn’t actually changed that much. The thing is, many of them agreed and the conversations ended with a pretty long thread with lots of insights. In this post, I’d like to share some of them, share what my position is and talk about what actually has changed.

My personal view

Link building hasn’t changed as much we think it has.

The core principles of link building haven’t changed. The signals around link building have changed, but mainly around new machine learning developments that have indirectly affected what we do. One thing that has definitely changed is the mindset of SEOs (and now clients) towards link building.

I think the last big change to link building came in April 2012 when Penguin rolled out. This genuinely did change our industry and put to bed a few techniques that should never have worked so well in the first place.

Since then, we’ve seen some things change, but the core principles haven’t changed if you want to build a business that will be around for years to come and not run the risk of being hit by a link related Google update. For me, these principles are quite simple:

  • You need to deserve links – either an asset you create or your product
  • You need to put this asset in front of a relevant audience who have the ability to share it
  • You need consistency – one new asset every year is unlikely to cut it
  • Anything that scales is at risk

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into all of this and I’ll talk about how this relates to link building.

The typical mindset for building links has changed

I think that most SEOs are coming round to the idea that you can’t get away with building low quality links any more, not if you want to build a sustainable, long-term business. Spammy link building still works in the short-term and I think it always will, but it’s much harder than it used to be to sustain websites that are built on spam. The approach is more “churn and burn” and spammers are happy to churn through lots of domains and just make a small profit on each one before moving onto another.

For everyone else, it’s all about the long-term and not putting client websites at risk.

This has led to many SEOs embracing different forms of link building and generally starting to use content as an asset when it comes to attracting links. A big part of me feels that it was actually Penguin in 2012 that drove the rise of content marketing amongst SEOs, but that’s a post for another day…! For today though, this goes some way towards explain the trend we see below.

Slowly but surely, I’m seeing clients come to my company already knowing that low quality link building isn’t what they want. It’s taken a few years after Penguin for it to filter down to client / business owner level, but it’s definitely happening. This is a good thing but unfortunately, the main reason for this is that most of them have been burnt in the past by SEO companies who have built low quality links without giving thought to building good quality ones too.

I have no doubt that it’s this change in mindset which has led to trends like this:

The thing is, I don’t think this was by choice.

Let’s be honest. A lot of us used the kind of link building tactics that Google no longer like because they worked. I don’t think many SEOs were under the illusion that it was genuinely high quality stuff, but it worked and it was far less risky to do than it is today. Unless you were super-spammy, the low-quality links just worked.

Fast forward to a post-Penguin world, things are far more risky. For me, it’s because of this that we see the trends like the above. As an industry, we had the easiest link building methods taken away from us and we’re left with fewer options. One of the main options is content marketing which, if you do it right, can lead to good quality links and importantly, the types of links you won’t be removing in the future. Get it wrong and you’ll lose budget and lose the trust if your boss or client in the power of content when it comes to link building.

There are still plenty of other methods to build links and sometimes we can forget this. Just look at this epic list from Jon Cooper. Even with this many tactics still available to us, it’s hard work. Way harder than it used to be.

My summary here is that as an industry, our mindset has shifted but it certainly wasn’t a voluntary shift. If the tactics that Penguin targeted still worked today, we’d still be using them.

A few other opinions…

I definitely think too many people want the next easy win. As someone surfing the edge of what Google is bringing our way, here’s my general take—SEO, in broad strokes, is changing a lot, *but* any given change is more and more niche and impacts fewer people. What we’re seeing isn’t radical, sweeping changes that impact everyone, but a sort of modularization of SEO, where we each have to be aware of what impacts our given industries, verticals, etc.”

Dr. Pete

 

I don’t feel that techniques for acquiring links have changed that much. You can either earn them through content and outreach or you can just buy them. What has changed is the awareness of “link building” outside of the SEO community. This makes link building / content marketing much harder when pitching to journalists and even more difficult when pitching to bloggers.

“Link building has to be more integrated with other channels and struggles to work in its own environment unless supported by brand, PR and social. Having other channels supporting your link development efforts also creates greater search signals and more opportunity to reach a bigger audience which will drive a greater ROI.

Carl Hendy

 

SEO has grown up in terms of more mature staff and SEOs becoming more ingrained into businesses so there is a smarter (less pressure) approach. At the same time, SEO has become more integrated into marketing and has made marketing teams and decision makers more intelligent in strategies and not pushing for the quick win. I’m also seeing that companies who used to rely on SEO and building links have gone through IPOs and the need to build 1000s of links per quarter has rightly reduced.

Danny Denhard

Signals that surround link building have changed

There is no question about this one in my mind. I actually wrote about this last year in my previous blog post where I talked about signals such as anchor text and deep links changing over time.

Many of the people I asked felt the same, here are some quotes from them, split out by the types of signal.

Domain level link metrics

I think domain level links have become increasingly important compared with page level factors, i.e. you can get a whole site ranking well off the back of one insanely strong page, even with sub-optimal PageRank flow from that page to the rest of the site.

Phil Nottingham

I’d agree with Phil here and this is what I was getting at in my previous post on how I feel “deep links” will matter less over time. It’s not just about domain level links here, it’s just as much about the additional signals available for Google to use (more on that later).

Anchor text

I’ve never liked anchor text as a link signal. I mean, who actually uses exact match commercial keywords as anchor text on the web?

SEOs. 🙂

Sure there will be natural links like this, but honestly, I struggle with the idea that it took Google so long to start turning down the dial on commercial anchor text as a ranking signal. They are starting to turn it down though, slowly but surely. Don’t get me wrong, it still matters and it still works. But like pure link spam, the barrier is a lot more lower now in terms what of constitutes too much.

Rand feels that they matter more than we’d expect and I’d mostly agree with this statement:

Exact match anchor text links still have more power than you’d expect—I think Google still hasn’t perfectly sorted what is “brand” or “branded query” from generics (i.e. they want to start ranking a new startup like meldhome.com for “Meld” if the site/brand gets popular, but they can’t quite tell the difference between that and https://moz.com/learn/seo/redirection getting a few manipulative links that say “redirect”)

Rand Fishkin

What I do struggle with though, is that Google still haven’t figured this out and that short-term, commercial anchor text spam is still so effective. Even for a short burst of time.

I don’t think link building as a concept has changed loads—but I think links as a signal have, mainly because of filters and penalties but I don’t see anywhere near the same level of impact from coverage anymore, even against 18 months ago.

Paul Rogers

New signals have been introduced

It isn’t just about established signals changing though, there are new signals too and I personally feel that this is where we’ve seen the most change in Google algorithms in recent years—going all the way back to Panda in 2011.

With Panda, we saw a new level of machine learning where it almost felt like Google had found a way of incorporating human reaction / feelings into their algorithms. They could then run this against a website and answer questions like the ones included in this post. Things such as:

  • “Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?”
  • “Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?”
  • “Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?”

It is a touch scary that Google was able to run machine learning against answers to questions like this and write an algorithm to predict the answers for any given page on the web. They have though and this was four years ago now.

Since then, they’ve made various moves to utilize machine learning and AI to build out new products and improve their search results. For me, this was one of the biggest and went pretty unnoticed by our industry. Well, until Hummingbird came along I feel pretty sure that we have Ray Kurzweil to thank for at least some of that.

There seems to be more weight on theme/topic related to sites, though it’s hard to tell if this is mostly link based or more user/usage data based. Google is doing a good job of ranking sites and pages that don’t earn the most links but do provide the most relevant/best answer. I have a feeling they use some combination of signals to say “people who perform searches like this seem to eventually wind up on this website—let’s rank it.” One of my favorite examples is the Audubon Society ranking for all sorts of birding-related searches with very poor keyword targeting, not great links, etc. I think user behavior patterns are stronger in the algo than they’ve ever been.

– Rand Fishkin

Leading on from what Rand has said, it’s becoming more and more common to see search results that just don’t make sense if you look at the link metrics—but are a good result.

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning advanced has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Edit: since drafting this post, Tom Anthony released this excellent blog post on his views on the future of search and the shift to data-driven results. I’d recommend reading that as it approaches this whole area from a different perspective and I feel that an off-shoot of what Tom is talking about is the impact on link building.

You may be asking at this point, what does machine learning have to do with link building?

Everything. Because as strong as links are as a ranking signal, Google want more signals and user signals are far, far harder to manipulate than established link signals. Yes it can be done—I’ve seen it happen. There have even been a few public tests done. But it’s very hard to scale and I’d venture a guess that only the top 1% of spammers are capable of doing it, let alone maintaining it for a long period of time. When I think about the process for manipulation here, I actually think we go a step beyond spammers towards hackers and more cut and dry illegal activity.

For link building, this means that traditional methods of manipulating signals are going to become less and less effective as these user signals become stronger. For us as link builders, it means we can’t keep searching for that silver bullet or the next method of scaling link building just for an easy win. The fact is that scalable link building is always going to be at risk from penalization from Google—I don’t really want to live a life where I’m always worried about my clients being hit by the next update. Even if Google doesn’t catch up with a certain method, machine learning and user data mean that these methods may naturally become less effective and cost efficient over time.

There are of course other things such as social signals that have come into play. I certainly don’t feel like these are a strong ranking factor yet, but with deals like this one between Google and Twitter being signed, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ever-growing dataset is used at some point in organic results. The one advantage that Twitter has over Google is it’s breaking news freshness. Twitter is still way quicker at breaking news than Google is—140 characters in a tweet is far quicker than Google News! Google know this which is why I feel they’ve pulled this partnership back into existence after a couple of years apart.

There is another important point to remember here and it’s nicely summarised by Dr. Pete:

At the same time, as new signals are introduced, these are layers not replacements. People hear social signals or user signals or authorship and want it to be the link-killer, because they already fucked up link-building, but these are just layers on top of on-page and links and all of the other layers. As each layer is added, it can verify the layers that came before it and what you need isn’t the magic signal but a combination of signals that generally matches what Google expects to see from real, strong entities. So, links still matter, but they matter in concert with other things, which basically means it’s getting more complicated and, frankly, a bit harder. Of course, on one wants to hear that.”

– Dr. Pete

The core principles have not changed

This is the crux of everything for me. With all the changes listed above, the key is that the core principles around link building haven’t changed. I could even argue that Penguin didn’t change the core principles because the techniques that Penguin targeted should never have worked in the first place. I won’t argue this too much though because even Google advised website owners to build directory links at one time.

You need an asset

You need to give someone a reason to link to you. Many won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart! One of the most effective ways to do this is to develop a content asset and use this as your reason to make people care. Once you’ve made someone care, they’re more likely to share the content or link to it from somewhere.

You need to promote that asset to the right audience

I really dislike the stance that some marketers take when it comes to content promotion—build great content and links will come.

No. Sorry but for the vast majority of us, that’s simply not true. The exceptions are people that sky dive from space or have huge existing audiences to leverage.

You simply have to spend time promoting your content or your asset for it to get shares and links. It is hard work and sometimes you can spend a long time on it and get little return, but it’s important to keep working at until you’re at a point where you have two things:

  • A big enough audience where you can almost guarantee at least some traffic to your new content along with some shares
  • Enough strong relationships with relevant websites who you can speak to when new content is published and stand a good chance of them linking to it

Getting to this point is hard—but that’s kind of the point. There are various hacks you can use along the way but it will take time to get right.

You need consistency

Leading on from the previous point. It takes time and hard work to get links to your content—the types of links that stand the test of time and you’re not going to be removing in 12 months time anyway! This means that you need to keep pushing content out and getting better each and every time. This isn’t to say you should just churn content out for the sake of it, far from it. I am saying that with each piece of content you create, you will learn to do at least one thing better the next time. Try to give yourself the leverage to do this.

Anything scalable is at risk

Scalable link building is exactly what Google has been trying to crack down on for the last few years. Penguin was the biggest move and hit some of the most scalable tactics we had at our disposal. When you scale something, you often lose some level of quality, which is exactly what Google doesn’t want when it comes to links. If you’re still relying on tactics that could fall into the scalable category, I think you need to be very careful and just look at the trend in the types of links Google has been penalizing to understand why.

The part Google plays in this

To finish up, I want to briefly talk about the part that Google plays in all of this and shaping the future they want for the web.

I’ve always tried to steer clear of arguments involving the idea that Google is actively pushing FUD into the community. I’ve preferred to concentrate more on things I can actually influence and change with my clients rather than what Google is telling us all to do.

However, for the purposes of this post, I want to talk about it.

General paranoia has increased. My bet is there are some companies out there carrying out zero specific linkbuilding activity through worry.

Dan Barker

Dan’s point is a very fair one and just a day or two after reading this in an email, I came across a page related to a client’s target audience that said:

“We are not publishing guest posts on SITE NAME any more. All previous guest posts are now deleted. For more information, see www.mattcutts.com/blog/guest-blogging/“.

I’ve reworded this as to not reveal the name of the site, but you get the point.

This is silly. Honestly, so silly. They are a good site, publish good content, and had good editorial standards. Yet they have ignored all of their own policies, hard work, and objectives to follow a blog post from Matt. I’m 100% confident that it wasn’t sites like this one that Matt was talking about in this blog post.

This is, of course, from the publishers’ angle rather than the link builders’ angle, but it does go to show the effect that statements from Google can have. Google know this so it does make sense for them to push out messages that make their jobs easier and suit their own objectives—why wouldn’t they? In a similar way, what did they do when they were struggling to classify at scale which links are bad vs. good and they didn’t have a big enough web spam team? They got us to do it for them 🙂

I’m mostly joking here, but you see the point.

The most recent infamous mobilegeddon update, discussed here by Dr. Pete is another example of Google pushing out messages that ultimately scared a lot of people into action. Although to be fair, I think that despite the apparent small impact so far, the broad message from Google is a very serious one.

Because of this, I think we need to remember that Google does have their own agenda and many shareholders to keep happy. I’m not in the camp of believing everything that Google puts out is FUD, but I’m much more sensitive and questioning of the messages now than I’ve ever been.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts in the comments.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Understanding and Applying Moz’s Spam Score Metric – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

This week, Moz released a new feature that we call Spam Score, which helps you analyze your link profile and weed out the spam (check out the blog post for more info). There have been some fantastic conversations about how it works and how it should (and shouldn’t) be used, and we wanted to clarify a few things to help you all make the best use of the tool.

In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand offers more detail on how the score is calculated, just what those spam flags are, and how we hope you’ll benefit from using it.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. 

Click on the image above to open a high resolution version in a new tab!

Video transcription

Howdy Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week, we’re going to chat a little bit about Moz’s Spam Score. Now I don’t typically like to do Whiteboard Fridays specifically about a Moz project, especially when it’s something that’s in our toolset. But I’m making an exception because there have been so many questions and so much discussion around Spam Score and because I hope the methodology, the way we calculate things, the look at correlation and causation, when it comes to web spam, can be useful for everyone in the Moz community and everyone in the SEO community in addition to being helpful for understanding this specific tool and metric.

The 17-flag scoring system

I want to start by describing the 17 flag system. As you might know, Spam Score is shown as a score from 0 to 17. You either fire a flag or you don’t. Those 17 flags you can see a list of them on the blog post, and we’ll show that in there. Essentially, those flags correlate to the percentage of sites that we found with that count of flags, not those specific flags, just any count of those flags that were penalized or banned by Google. I’ll show you a little bit more in the methodology.

Basically, what this means is for sites that had 0 spam flags, none of the 17 flags that we had fired, that actually meant that 99.5% of those sites were not penalized or banned, on average, in our analysis and 0.5% were. At 3 flags, 4.2% of those sites, that’s actually still a huge number. That’s probably in the millions of domains or subdomains that Google has potentially still banned. All the way down here with 11 flags, it’s 87.3% that we did find banned. That seems pretty risky or penalized. It seems pretty risky. But 12.7% of those is still a very big number, again probably in the hundreds of thousands of unique websites that are not banned but still have these flags.

If you’re looking at a specific subdomain and you’re saying, “Hey, gosh, this only has 3 flags or 4 flags on it, but it’s clearly been penalized by Google, Moz’s score must be wrong,” no, that’s pretty comfortable. That should fit right into those kinds of numbers. Same thing down here. If you see a site that is not penalized but has a number of flags, that’s potentially an indication that you’re in that percentage of sites that we found not to be penalized.

So this is an indication of percentile risk, not a “this is absolutely spam” or “this is absolutely not spam.” The only caveat is anything with, I think, more than 13 flags, we found 100% of those to have been penalized or banned. Maybe you’ll find an odd outlier or two. Probably you won’t.

Correlation ≠ causation

Correlation is not causation. This is something we repeat all the time here at Moz and in the SEO community. We do a lot of correlation studies around these things. I think people understand those very well in the fields of social media and in marketing in general. Certainly in psychology and electoral voting and election polling results, people understand those correlations. But for some reason in SEO we sometimes get hung up on this.

I want to be clear. Spam flags and the count of spam flags correlates with sites we saw Google penalize. That doesn’t mean that any of the flags or combinations of flags actually cause the penalty. It could be that the things that are flags are not actually connected to the reasons Google might penalize something at all. Those could be totally disconnected.

We are not trying to say with the 17 flags these are causes for concern or you need to fix these. We are merely saying this feature existed on this website when we crawled it, or it had this feature, maybe it still has this feature. Therefore, we saw this count of these features that correlates to this percentile number, so we’re giving you that number. That’s all that the score intends to say. That’s all it’s trying to show. It’s trying to be very transparent about that. It’s not trying to say you need to fix these.

A lot of flags and features that are measured are perfectly fine things to have on a website, like no social accounts or email links. That’s a totally reasonable thing to have, but it is a flag because we saw it correlate. A number in your domain name, I think it’s fine if you want to have a number in your domain name. There’s plenty of good domains that have a numerical character in them. That’s cool.

TLD extension that happens to be used by lots of spammers, like a .info or a .cc or a number of other ones, that’s also totally reasonable. Just because lots of spammers happen to use those TLD extensions doesn’t mean you are necessarily spam because you use one.

Or low link diversity. Maybe you’re a relatively new site. Maybe your niche is very small, so the number of folks who point to your site tends to be small, and lots of the sites that organically naturally link to you editorially happen to link to you from many of their pages, and there’s not a ton of them. That will lead to low link diversity, which is a flag, but it isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. It might still nudge you to try and get some more links because that will probably help you, but that doesn’t mean you are spammy. It just means you fired a flag that correlated with a spam percentile.

The methodology we use

The methodology that we use, for those who are curious — and I do think this is a methodology that might be interesting to potentially apply in other places — is we brainstormed a large list of potential flags, a huge number. We cut that down to the ones we could actually do, because there were some that were just unfeasible for our technology team, our engineering team to do.

Then, we got a huge list, many hundreds of thousands of sites that were penalized or banned. When we say banned or penalized, what we mean is they didn’t rank on page one for either their own domain name or their own brand name, the thing between the
www and the .com or .net or .info or whatever it was. If you didn’t rank for either your full domain name, www and the .com or Moz, that would mean we said, “Hey, you’re penalized or banned.”

Now you might say, “Hey, Rand, there are probably some sites that don’t rank on page one for their own brand name or their own domain name, but aren’t actually penalized or banned.” I agree. That’s a very small number. Statistically speaking, it probably is not going to be impactful on this data set. Therefore, we didn’t have to control for that. We ended up not controlling for that.

Then we found which of the features that we ideated, brainstormed, actually correlated with the penalties and bans, and we created the 17 flags that you see in the product today. There are lots things that I thought were going to correlate, for example spammy-looking anchor text or poison keywords on the page, like Viagra, Cialis, Texas Hold’em online, pornography. Those things, not all of them anyway turned out to correlate well, and so they didn’t make it into the 17 flags list. I hope over time we’ll add more flags. That’s how things worked out.

How to apply the Spam Score metric

When you’re applying Spam Score, I think there are a few important things to think about. Just like domain authority, or page authority, or a metric from Majestic, or a metric from Google, or any other kind of metric that you might come up with, you should add it to your toolbox and to your metrics where you find it useful. I think playing around with spam, experimenting with it is a great thing. If you don’t find it useful, just ignore it. It doesn’t actually hurt your website. It’s not like this information goes to Google or anything like that. They have way more sophisticated stuff to figure out things on their end.

Do not just disavow everything with seven or more flags, or eight or more flags, or nine or more flags. I think that we use the color coding to indicate 0% to 10% of these flag counts were penalized or banned, 10% to 50% were penalized or banned, or 50% or above were penalized or banned. That’s why you see the green, orange, red. But you should use the count and line that up with the percentile. We do show that inside the tool as well.

Don’t just take everything and disavow it all. That can get you into serious trouble. Remember what happened with Cyrus. Cyrus Shepard, Moz’s head of content and SEO, he disavowed all the backlinks to its site. It took more than a year for him to rank for anything again. Google almost treated it like he was banned, not completely, but they seriously took away all of his link power and didn’t let him back in, even though he changed the disavow file and all that.

Be very careful submitting disavow files. You can hurt yourself tremendously. The reason we offer it in disavow format is because many of the folks in our customer testing said that’s how they wanted it so they could copy and paste, so they could easily review, so they could get it in that format and put it into their already existing disavow file. But you should not do that. You’ll see a bunch of warnings if you try and generate a disavow file. You even have to edit your disavow file before you can submit it to Google, because we want to be that careful that you don’t go and submit.

You should expect the Spam Score accuracy. If you’re doing spam investigation, you’re probably looking at spammier sites. If you’re looking at a random hundred sites, you should expect that the flags would correlate with the percentages. If I look at a random hundred 4 flag Spam Score sites, 7.5% of those I would expect on average to be penalized or banned. If you are therefore seeing sites that don’t fit those, they probably fit into the percentiles that were not penalized, or up here were penalized, down here weren’t penalized, that kind of thing.

Hopefully, you find Spam Score useful and interesting and you add it to your toolbox. We would love to hear from you on iterations and ideas that you’ve got for what we can do in the future, where else you’d like to see it, and where you’re finding it useful/not useful. That would be great.

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this edition of Whiteboard Friday and will join us again next week. Thanks so much. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

ADDITION FROM RAND: I also urge folks to check out Marie Haynes’ excellent Start-to-Finish Guide to Using Google’s Disavow Tool. We’re going to update the feature to link to that as well.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Hiring for SEO: How to Find and Hire Someone with Little or No Experience

Posted by RuthBurrReedy

SEO is a seller’s market. The supply of people with SEO experience is currently no match for the demand for search engine marketing services, as anyone who has spent months searching for the right SEO candidate can tell you. Even in a big city with a booming tech scene (like Seattle, LA, New York, or Austin), experienced SEOs are thin on the ground. In a local market where the economy is less tech-driven (like, say, Oklahoma City, where I work), finding an experienced SEO (even one with just a year or two of experience) is like finding a unicorn.

You’re hired. (Photo via 
Pixabay)

If you’re looking for an in-house SEO or someone to run your whole program, you may have no choice but to hold out for a hero (and think about relocating someone). If you’re an SEO trying to grow a team of digital marketers at an agency or to expand a large in-house team, sometimes your best bet is to hire someone with no digital marketing experience but a lot of potential and train them. 

However, you can’t plug just anyone into an SEO role, train them up right and have them be fantastic (or enjoy their job); there are definite skills, talents and personality traits that contribute to success in digital marketing.

Most advice on hiring SEOs is geared toward making sure they know their stuff and aren’t spammers. That’s not really applicable to hiring at the trainee level, though. So how can you tell whether someone is right for a job they’ve never done? At BigWing, we’ve had a lot of success hiring smart young people and turning them into digital marketers, and there are a few things we look for in a candidate.

Are they an aggressive, independent learner?

Successful SEOs spend a ton of time on continued learning—reading blogs, attending conferences and webinars, discussing and testing new techniques—and a lot of that learning happens outside of normal work hours. The right candidate should be someone who loves learning and has the ability to independently drive their ongoing education.

Ask job candidates about another situation where they’ve had to quickly pick up a new skill. What did they do to learn it? How did that go? If it’s never come up for them, ask what they might do in that situation.

Interview prep is something I always look for in a candidate, since it shows they’re actually interested in the job. Ask what they’ve done to prep for the interview. Did they take a look at your company website? Maybe do some Googling to find other informational resources on what digital marketing entails? What did they learn? Where did they learn it? How did they find it?

Give your candidates some homework before the interview. Have them read the 
Beginner’s Guide to SEO, maybe Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, or the demo modules at Distilled U. How much of it did they retain? More importantly, what did they learn? Which brings us to:

Do they have a small understanding of what SEO is and why we do it?

I’ve seen a lot of people get excited about learning SEO, do OK for a year or two, and then crash and burn. The number one cause of SEO flame-out or burn-out, in my experience, is an inability to pivot from old tactics to new ones. This failure often stems from a fundamental lack of understanding of what SEO is (marketing, connecting websites that have stuff with people who want that stuff) and what it is not (any single SEO tactic).

It can be frustrating when the methods you originally learned on, or that used to work so well, dry up and blow away (I’m looking at you, siloing and PageRank sculpting). If you’re focused on what tricks and tactics can get you ranking #1, instead of on how you’re using digital techniques to market to and connect with potential customers, sooner or later the rug’s going to get pulled out from under you.

Ask your candidates: what did they retain from their research? Are they totally focused on the search engine, or have they thought about how visits can turn into revenue? Do they seem more interested in being a hacker, or a marketer? Some people really fall in love with the idea that they could manipulate search engines to do what they want; I look for people who are more in love with the idea of using the Internet as a tool to connect businesses with their customers, since ultimately your SEO client is going to want revenue, not just rankings.

Another trait I look for in the interview process is empathy. Can they articulate why a business might want to invest in search? Ask them to imagine some fears or concerns a small business owner might have when starting up an Internet marketing program. This is especially important for agency work, where communicating success requires an understanding of your client’s goals and concerns.

Can they write?

Photo via 
Pixabay

Even if you’re looking to grow someone into a technical SEO, not a content creator, SEO involves writing well. You’re going to have to be able to create on-page elements that not only communicate topical relevance to search engines but also appeal to users.

This should go without saying, but in my experience definitely doesn’t: their resume should be free of typos and grammatical errors. Not only is this an indicator of their ability to write while unsupervised, it’s also an indicator of their attention to detail and how seriously they’re taking the position.

Any kind of writing experience is a major plus for me when looking at a resume, but isn’t necessarily a requirement. It’s helpful to get some idea of what they’re capable of, though. Ask for a writing sample, and better yet, look for a writing sample in the wild online. Have they blogged before?
You’ll almost certainly be exchanging emails with a candidate before an interview—pay attention to how they communicate via email. Is it hard to tell what they’re talking about? Good writing isn’t just about grammar; it’s about communicating ideas.

I like to give candidates a scenario like “A client saw traffic to their website decline because of an error we failed to detect. We found and corrected the error, but their traffic numbers are still down for the month,” and have them compose a pretend email to the client about what happened. This is a great way to test both their written communication skills and their empathy for the client. Are you going to have to proofread their client emails before they go out? That sounds tedious.

How are their critical thinking and data analysis skills?

A brand-new digital marketer probably won’t have any experience with analytics tools like Google Analytics, and that’s OK—you can teach them how to use those. What’s harder to teach is an ability to think critically and to use data to make decisions.

Have your candidates ever been in a situation where they needed to use data to figure out what to do next? What about tell a story, back up a claim or change someone’s mind? Recent college grads should all have recent experience with this, regardless of their major—critical thinking and data analysis are what college is all about.
How comfortable are they in Microsoft Excel? They don’t have to love it, but if they absolutely loathe it, SEO probably isn’t for them. Would it make them miserable to spend most of a day in a spreadsheet (not every day, but fairly regularly)?

Are they a citizen of the web?

Even if they’ve never heard of SEO, a new employee is going to have an easier time learning it if they’re already pretty net savvy. An active web presence also indicates a general interest in the the Internet, which is one indicator of whether they’ll have long-term interest in digital marketing as a field. Do some recon: are they active on social media? Have they ever blogged? What comes up when you Google them?

Prior experience

Different applicants will have different backgrounds, and you’ll have the best idea of what skills someone will need to bring to the table to fill the role you need. When I’m reading a resume, I take experience in any of these areas as a good sign:

  • Marketing 
  • Advertising 
  • Public relations 
  • APIs (using them, creating apps with them, what have you) 
  • Web development or coding of any kind 
  • Web design 
  • Copywriting

Your mileage may vary

Photo via 
Knowyourmeme

Very few candidates are going to excel in all of the areas outlined above, and everyone you talk to is going to be stronger in some areas than others. Since digital marketing can include a wide variety of different tasks, keep in mind the things you’d actually like the person to do on the job; for example, written communication becomes somewhat less important in a non-client-facing role. At the very least, look for a smart, driven person who is excited about digital marketing as a career opportunity (not just as a next paycheck).

Hiring inexperienced people has its risks: the person you hire may not actually turn out to be any good at SEO. They may have more trouble learning it than you anticipated, and once they start doing it, they may decide that SEO just isn’t what they want to do long-term.

On the other hand, hiring and training someone who’s a great fit for your company culture and who is excited about learning often results in a better employee than hiring someone with experience who doesn’t really mesh well with your team. Plus, teaching someone SEO is a great way to make sure they don’t have any bad habits that could put your clients at risk. Best of all, you have the opportunity to unlock a whole career for someone and watch them grow into a world-class marketer—and that’s a great feeling.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

The Future of Link Building

Posted by Paddy_Moogan

Building the types of links that help grow your online business and organic search traffic is getting harder. It used to be fairly straightforward, back before Google worked out how to treat links with different levels of quality and trust. However, the fact that it’s getting harder doesn’t mean that it’s dead.

What does the future hold?

I’m going to talk about links, but the truth is, the future isn’t really about the links. It is far bigger than that.

Quick sidenote: I’m aware that doing a blog post about the future of link building the week of a likely Penguin update could leave me with egg on my face! But we’ll see what happens.

Links will always be a ranking factor in some form or another. I can see the dials being turned down or off on certain aspects of links (more on that below) but I think they will always be there. Google is always looking for more data, more signals, more indicators of whether or not a certain page is a good result for a user at a certain moment in time. They will find them too, as we can see from
patents such as this. A natural consequence is that other signals may be diluted or even replaced as Google becomes smarter and understands the web and users a lot better.

What this means for the future is that the links valued by Google will be the ones you get as a result of having a great product and great marketing. Essentially, links will be symptomatic of amazing marketing. Hat tip to
Jess Champion who I’ve borrowed this term from.

This isn’t easy, but it shouldn’t be. That’s the point.

To go a bit further, I think we also need to think about the bigger picture. In the grand scheme of things, there are so many more signals that Google can use which, as marketers, we need to understand and use to our advantage. Google is changing and we can’t bury our heads in the sand and ignore what is going on.

A quick side note on spammy links

My background is a spammy one so I can’t help but address this quickly. Spam will continue to work for short-term hits and churn and burn websites. I’ve talked before about 
my position on this so I won’t go into too much more detail here. I will say though that those people who are in the top 1% of spammers will continue to make money, but even for them, it will be hard to maintain over a long period of time.

Let’s move onto some more of the detail around my view of the future by first looking at the past and present.

What we’ve seen in the past

Google didn’t understand links.

The fundamental issue that Google had for a long, long time was that they didn’t understand enough about links. They didn’t understand things such as:

  • How much to trust a link
  • Whether a link was truly editorially given or not
  • Whether a link was paid for or not
  • If a link was genuinely high quality (PageRank isn’t perfect)
  • How relevant a link was

Whilst they still have work to do on all of these, they have gotten much better in recent years. At one time, a link was a link and it was pretty much a case of whoever had the most links, won. I think that for a long time, Google was trying very hard to understand links and find which ones were high quality, but there was so much noise that it was very difficult. I think that eventually they realised that they had to attack the problem from a different angle and 
Penguin came along. So instead of focusing on finding the “good” signals of links, they focused on finding the “bad” signals and started to take action on them. This didn’t fix everything, but it did enough to shock our industry into moving away from certain tactics and therefore, has probably helped reduce a lot of the noise that Google was seeing.

What we’re seeing right now

Google is understanding more about language.

Google is getting better at understanding everything.
Hummingbird was just the start of what Google hopes to achieve on this front and it stands to reason that the same kind of technology that helps the following query work, will also help Google understand links better.

Not many people in the search industry said much when
Google hired this guy back in 2012. We can be pretty sure that it’s partly down to his work that we’re seeing the type of understanding of language that we are. His work has only just begun, though, and I think we’ll see more queries like the one above that just shouldn’t work, but they do. I also think we’ll see more instances of Googlers not knowing why something ranks where it does.

Google is understanding more about people.

I talk about this a little more below but to quickly summarise here, Google is learning more about us all the time. It can seem creepy, but the fact is that Google wants as much data as possible from us so that they can serve more relevant search results—and advertising of course. They are understanding more that the keywords we type into Google may not actually be what we want to find, nor are those keywords enough to find what we really want. Google needs more context.

Tom Anthony has
talked about this extensively so I won’t go into loads more detail. But to bring it back to link building, it is important to be aware of this because it means that there are more and more signals that could mean the dial on links gets turned down a bit more.

Some predictions about the future

I want to make a few things more concrete about my view of the future for link building, so let’s look at a few specifics.

1. Anchor text will matter less and less

Anchor text as a ranking signal was always something that works well in theory but not in reality. Even in my early days of link building, I couldn’t understand why Google put so much weight behind this one signal. My main reason for this view was that using exact match keywords in a link was not natural for most webmasters. I’d go as far as to say the only people who used it were SEOs!

I’m don’t think we’re at a point yet where anchor text as a ranking signal is dead and it will take some more time for Google to turn down the dial. But we definitely are at a point where you can get hurt pretty badly if you have too much commercial anchor text in your link profile. It just isn’t natural.

In the future, Google won’t need this signal. They will be much better at understanding the content of a page and importantly, the context of a page.

2. Deep linking will matter less and less

I was on the fence about this one for a long time but the more I think about it, the more I can see this happening. I’ll explain my view here by using an example.

Let’s imagine you’re an eCommerce website and you sell laptops. Obviously each laptop you sell will have its own product page and if you sell different types, you’ll probably have category pages too. With a products like laptops, chances are that other retailers sell the same ones with the same specifications and probably have very similar looking pages to yours. How does Google know which one to rank better than others?

Links to these product pages can work fine but in my opinion, is a bit of a crude way of working it out. I think that Google will get better at understanding the subtle differences in queries from users which will naturally mean that deep links to these laptop pages will be one of many signals they can use.

Take these queries:


“laptop reviews”

Context: I want to buy a laptop but I don’t know which one.


“asus laptop reviews”

Context: I like the sound of Asus, I want to read more about their laptops.


“sony laptop reviews”

Context: I also like the sound of Sony, I want to read more about their laptops.


“sony vs asus laptop”

Context: I’m confused, they both sound the same so I want a direct comparison to help me decide.


“asus laptop”

Context: I want an Asus laptop.

You can see how the mindset of the user has changed over time and we can easily imagine how the search results will have changed to reflect this. Google already understand this. There are other signals coming into play here too though, what about these bits of additional information that Google can gather about us:

  • Location: I’m on a bus in London, I may not want to buy a £1,000 laptop right now but I’ll happily research them.
  • Device: I’m on my iPhone 6, I may not want to input credit card details into it and I worry that the website I’m using won’t work well on a small screen.
  • Search history: I’ve searched for laptops before and visited several retailers, but I keep going back to the same one as I’ve ordered from them before.

These are just a few that are easy for us to imagine Google using. There are loads more that Google could look at, not to mention signals from the retailers themselves such as secure websites, user feedback, 3rd party reviews, trust signals etc.

When you start adding all of these signals together, it’s pretty easy to see why links to a specific product page may not be the strongest signal for Google to use when determining rankings.

Smaller companies will be able to compete more.

One of the things I loved about SEO when I first got into it was the fact that organic search felt like a level playing field. I knew that with the right work, I could beat massive companies in the search results and not have to spend a fortune doing it. Suffice to say, things have changed quite a bit now and there are some industries where you stand pretty much zero chance of competing unless you have a very big budget to spend and a great product.

I think we will see a shift back in the other direction and smaller companies with fewer links will be able to rank for certain types of queries with a certain type of context. As explained above, context is key and allows Google to serve up search results that meet the context of the user. This means that massive brands are not always going to be the right answer for users and Google have to get better at understanding this. Whether a company is classified as a “brand” or not can be subjective. My local craft beer shop in London is the only one in the world and if you were to ask 100 people if they’d heard of it, they’d all probably say no. But it’s a brand to me because I love their products, their staff are knowledgeable and helpful, their marketing is cool and I’d always recommend them.

Sometimes, showing the website of this shop above bigger brands in search results is the right thing to do for a user. Google need lots of additional signals beyond “branding” and links in order to do this but I think they will get them.

What all of this means for us

Predicting the future is hard, knowing what to do about it is pretty hard too! But here are some things that I think we should be doing.

  1. Ask really hard questions
    Marketing is hard. If you or your client wants to compete and win customers, then you need to be prepared to ask really hard questions about the company. Here are just a few that I’ve found difficult when talking to clients:

    • Why does the company exist? (A good answer has nothing to do with making money)
    • Why do you deserve to rank well in Google?
    • What makes you different to your competitors?
    • If you disappeared from Google tomorrow, would anyone notice?
    • Why do you deserve to be linked to?
    • What value do you provide for users?

    The answers to these won’t always give you that silver bullet, but they can provoke conversations that make the client look inwardly and at why they should deserve links and customers. These questions are hard to answer, but again, that’s the point.

  2. Stop looking for scalable link building tactics

    Seriously, just stop. Anything that can be scaled tends to lose quality and anything that scales is likely to be targeted by the Google webspam team at some point. A
    recent piece of content we did at Distilled has so far generated links from over 700 root domains—we did NOT send 700 outreach emails! This piece took on a life of its own and generated those links after some promotion by us, but at no point did we worry about scaling outreach for it.

  3. Start focusing on doing marketing that users love

    I’m not talking necessarily about you doing the next
    Volvo ad or to be the next Old Spice guy. If you can then great, but these are out of reach for most of us.That doesn’t mean you can’t do marketing that people love. I often look at companies like Brewdog and Hawksmoor who do great marketing around their products but in a way that has personality and appeal. They don’t have to spend millions of dollars on celebrities or TV advertising because they have a great product and a fun marketing message. They have value to add which is the key, they don’t need to worry about link building because they get them naturally by doing cool stuff.

    Whilst I know that “doing cool stuff” isn’t particularly actionable, I still think it’s fair to say that marketing needs to be loved. In order to do marketing that people love, you need to have some fun and focus on adding value.

  4. Don’t bury your head in the sand

    The worst thing you can do is ignore the trends and changes taking place. Google is changing, user expectations and behaviours are changing, our industry is changing. As an industry, we’ve adapted very well over the last few years. We have to keep doing this if we’re going to survive.

    Going back to link building, you need to accept that this stuff is really hard and building the types of links that Google value is hard.

In summary

Links aren’t going anywhere. But the world is changing and we have to focus on what truly matters: marketing great products and building a loyal audience. 

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