2013: The latest manipulation based strategy that will ping you to the top of the SERPs (for a while) [UPDATED!]
Disclaimer: this is something I noticed yesterday (Jan 10th) – I have not had time to do a proper analysis to absolutely confirm this beyond all doubt.
Every once in a while someone figures out a new way to manipulate search rankings and makes a load of money from doing it, then Google figure out the loophole, close it, everybody gets banned and there is much gnashing of teeth on the Webmaster Forums. I feel we are about to see another bubble burst.
So the other day I was just cruising through the SERPs and I saw a result that grabbed my attention. It was a typical black-hat sounding website – “guaranteed rankings in 4 weeks or money back”, etc. I checked out the site – really nice design, so it certainly looked legit.
There was the usual spam line up:
- Social bookmarking
- EDU links
- Directory Submission
- Drip feeding
- Web 2.0
- High PR Blogs
- Article Marketing (shudder)
- Link Wheels
So in short “how to get banned from Google 101”. Except this site wasn’t banned- it was ranked very highly for some mega short tail stuff. Not only that, they have testimonials from real websites, and those websites are still ranking very highly for their core terms. Plus, they have been there for 6 months and survived all the Google Panda and Penguin onslaughts.
What on earth is going on? I took a look at their backlinks, and I noticed something very odd. A good 75% of their links were nofollowed. A good 75% of their client links were nofollowed.
Before we get to it, we need to do some back story stuff.
The ‘Nofollow’ Attribute
Conventional wisdom dictates that a link that has the ‘rel=nofollow’ attribute assigned to it should pass no value back to that site. The ‘nofollow’ attribute was introduced to allow webmasters to stop passing PageRank to third party sites if, for example, they were selling banner advertising. As Google don’t like paid links that pass PageRank, this allows people to sell banner ads without getting busted for algorithm manipulation. Equally, people will ‘nofollow’ their blog comments to stop passing PageRank on to third parties that shove links in the comments, etc.
So this led to an immediate flurry of speculation concerning using ‘nofollow’ to ‘sculpt’ PageRank. People would “nofollow” their internal links with the hope that they could, by cutting off the supply of PageRank to less important pages, send more of it to pages they wanted to rank.
Fast forward and Google have rectified this loophole by (as far as I can see) down-ranking sites that ‘nofollow’ internal links. I don’t know any more than that – I don’t work for Google. The reality will be more sophisticated than my understanding of it, but take it from me, you don’t want to do this to your internal links today. It won’t end well.
So what is the status of ‘nofollow’ today? Matt Cutts has said that such links definitely don’t pass PageRank. So this we know. I have no reason to doubt him on that as of yet, as I have not seen any site increase its toolbar PageRank from nofollowed links. However, the notion that Google doesn’t crawl nofollowed links is wrong, as is the idea that nofollowed links don’t pass anchor text. It gets said a fair bit, but it’s still wrong. They might not always follow or pass value, but they sometimes do.
This can be tested pretty easily. You create a blog somewhere. Plonk something on it, and then create a ‘nofollow’ link to it using a silly anchor text term such as ‘iwonderifanchortextwillpassvianofollow’. Don’t create any other links to it at all. You can bet that within a few weeks of creating nofollow links to it with the same anchor text it will appear in search results for your nonsense term. You won’t know which links did the trick but some of them will work if you do enough.
My silly blog in question will be linked to internally by WordPress.com so will get indexed almost by default, but if it doesn’t start to rank for that term in the coming weeks I shall eat my hat.*
To quote from Jill Whalen (who has been doing SEO for far longer than I):
[quote style=”boxed”]Too many are nofollowing all links, or some links without having a clue as to what they’re doing. Google has spent tons of time and energy in learning how to graph links in terms of their popularity and authority. There’s no way they would simply ignore all that data becuase a bunch of dopes stuck an attribute on their outgoing (or internal) links for “SEO purposes”![/quote]
You can follow this discussion over at Sphinn.
So if Google appear to pass anchor text for ‘nofollow’ links, that allows for a curious situation. The Google Webmaster Guidelines are very clear on what you CANNOT do:
- Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
- Excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”)
- Linking to web spammers or unrelated sites with the intent to manipulate PageRank
- Building partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
- Using automated programs or services to create links to your site
So essentially, you can buy all the links you want as long as they are nofollowed – and some of those nofollowed links will pass value that can help your rankings.
Well, not quite. I’ve not tested enough, nor gathered enough info to prove this is true for definite. But it does seem that this quirk of the Google algorithm and its relationship with ‘nofollow’ is a big enough crack for the crowbar of brute force link manipulation to pry open.
To quote from Google’s Matt Cutts:
[quote style=”boxed”]“Over the years, I’ve seen a few corner cases where a nofollow link did pass anchortext, normally due to bugs in indexing that we then fixed.”[/quote]
I have recently seen a lot more than ‘a few corner cases’! Whilst it is unlikely that something as simple as “build as many nofollow links as possible” is going to get you to number one for your chosen keyword (I think getting to #1 for a single keyword is actually a pretty dumb thing to do in terms of results, risk and effort anyway) it certainly seems true that:
- A ‘nofollow’ link can get you some anchor text value
- You can simply splash cash and buy as many ‘nofollow’ links as you want without breaking the Webmaster Guidelines
- Previous link value pooling schemes such as link pyramids etc will still work with ‘nofollow’ links, they will just provide very little PageRank / anchor text as less of the links will count
- As you aren’t breaking the rules, you will survive
- Smash out enough links and you will eventually see results.
Therefore you could build something like the infamous ‘Build My Rank’ link value consolidation network, and get it up and running, and sell and buy links from within it, all whilst staying on the right side of the Google Webmaster Guidelines.
I previously defined White Hat SEO as “anything that gets results without breaking search providers guidelines”. I want to add one caveat: it also includes “not doing stuff that is blatantly going to be included in the list of things you can’t do in the near future” which is why Passion Digital will not be embarking on any forays into this area any time soon – however, ‘Churn and Burn’ affiliate webmasters might take note and get what they can out of this free lunch before the food gets cold.
I’ll probably email Danny Sullivan & Matt Cutts to see if I’m just barking up the wrong tree. If they get back to me (which I highly doubt) I’ll add any details here.
Two further examples:
This is a pretty decent case study. It’s not perfect – there is content that is at least partially related to the keywords used- but its an intriguing result nonetheless:
Whilst difficult to ascertain the full method etc, yet another case of nofollow links seeming to work:
Thanks to those who commented below for sending these in.
So the site I was looking at seem to have been filtered from the SERPs. They no longer even rank for their brand terms. I was discussing the issue with a few people in private – certainly nobody from Google. So, either they were lucky to have lasted, or someone from Google noticed? I have no idea. However, it is likely that I will be eating my hat* in the near future. We’ll have to see if the other sites I discovered maintain their position. Either way, I won’t be naming names or URLs in this post.
I also emailed Danny Sullivan (who clearly knows his stuff) and he very much doubts that ‘nofollow’ links will work in this way – although Matt Cutts had seen ‘nofollow’ links send some anchor text, Danny said that these were on extremely rare occasions that shouldn’t scale in the way described in this article.
So there you have it. Whilst people have certainly been doing it, they are getting in trouble for it. No surprise there! Probably worth bleaching the last bit of grey from your hat.**
*by hat I mean 'cake'. ** this time I really meant 'hat'. Don't put bleach in your cake. You'll only do it once.
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