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February 6, 2011

Google (and Bing) Love Anchor Text Link Spam

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While many bloggers and the media are calling Google’s search results out lately, most of the focus has been on the somewhat low-quality pages that show up for informational long-tail searches. My concern for Google’s search results is different, however. As I touched upon in the last newsletter, I’m tired of Google (and Bing) returning sites that use anchor text link spam to get on the first page of results.

For those who don’t know what anchor text is, here’s a quick explanation:

Anchor text is the words in the clickable part of any link. For instance, when someone links to my site, they typically use either my name or my company name in the anchor text, which looks like this:

Jill Whalen is an SEO consultant.

Or…

Visit ‘High Rankings for SEO consulting.

But those links are not all that valuable in SEO terms. What would be better (for search engines) is for the links to be more like these:

Jill Whalen is an SEO consultant.

Visit High Rankings for SEO consulting.

…with the keywords that people might type into Google (or Bing) as the clickable anchor text link.

Search engines assign a lot of weight to the words that are in that clickable link. It does make sense because you’re telling both people and search engines what they’ll get when they click the link.

The problem is that it’s not a natural way for people to link unless they know a bit about how search engines work. It’s more natural to link using the company name, even through links that just say “click here” or “more information.”

Part of what I do as an SEO consultant is to train clients to think like a search engine. I teach clients to link more descriptively on their own sites via “internal” links as well as linking to other “external” sites. But to get honest-to-goodness natural links – that is, links from others
just because they really like you or your company – it’s unlikely that the link will have the best anchor text for search engines. And yet, natural links are exactly what Google claims to value. It’s what their PageRank algorithm was originally based on.

But today, natural links and true citations are nearly useless in helping search engines show the best sites for the search query at hand.

For instance, this past Sunday I was quoted in a Washington Post story about Google’s less-than-stellar search results.

I spoke with the reporter for quite some time and also emailed him numerous examples of how some companies easily manipulate Google. He was kind enough to mention me and my company (on page 2) in the article, which was great — but there was no link. I don’t know if it is the Washington Post’s policy not to link, or if they just don’t think about it, or if they have never been taught to link. It seems to me that a mention in the Washington Post in this context provides me and my company some credibility, because the WP is a mainstream news outlet. Yet any credibility I may have gained with the people reading the article is completely lost on Google because there’s not only no descriptive anchor text link, there’s no link at all!

Instead, the links that Google (and Bing) end up valuing the most are those where people control the anchor text. Unfortunately, when anchor text can be controlled, it often means that the link:

* was purchased
* was traded for
* was added to a site that is controlled by the owner
* was added to a site in a network controlled by multiple stakeholders (like a link farm)
* was added into an article or bio of an article and posted to an article directory or similar site
* was used in a blog comment
* was part of a forum signature
* was obtained naturally, but the linker had to be asked to edit the anchor text.

Only the last one of those is truly in line with what search engines want to value, and even that one is sketchy because it becomes somewhat unnatural by virtue of requesting different anchor text.

May the Biggest Spammer Win

Most reasonable people would agree that it doesn’t make sense that the companies who own or take part in a network of interlinked websites should rank higher than those who don’t. And why should the websites that have people “writing” boatloads of blog comments outrank their competitors who have no desire to spam others’ blogs? If you’re commenting because you’ll possibly get some link value rather than because you feel the need to add to the conversation, it adds unnecessary clutter and should be considered spam by the search engines (in my opinion). I wouldn’t be surprised if 90% of blog and forum comments fall into that category, as do most articles submitted to article directories.

Here’s the Rub

All of the above types of links still count very highly in Google (and Bing). While links and their anchor text are by no means the only ranking factor for how sites show up in the search engines, they are a very large one at the moment. And surprisingly, neither the relevance nor the quality of those links appears to play as big a role as search engines would like you to believe.

You can take any product search query (both highly competitive and somewhat competitive) and review the backlinks of the sites that show up in Google’s (or Bing’s) top 10 to 20 results and see what I’m talking about.

Random Example

Let’s look at the search query “baby furniture,” which I just randomly thought of as I was writing this. I’m not going to call out any of the sites by name, and your results may differ slightly from mine, but you should get the picture.

The first site to show up in Google is a big brand, which makes sense. In fact, I wasn’t even going to check the backlinks because I figured they likely deserve to be there based on their brand. But then I noticed it’s just a random catalog page from their site. So I looked at their backlinks, and sure enough, there are 357 links pointing to that one page, most from completely irrelevant sites. Some are even hacked sites and porn sites. But they’ve got keyword-rich anchors that Google (and Bing) love. Many of the links are in blog comments and others in “partner site” areas (paid links). Wonderful.

Let’s check the #2 site that shows up in Google (which for me was the #1 site in Bing). Looks like there’s a whole network of interlinked baby-related sites that use keyword-rich anchor text links to get all the various sites to rank well for those words. While it’s possible that all those sites have different owners and they really just want to recommend (using juicy anchor text) all those other baby product sites, it sure smells fishy to me! At least in this case they seem to be on relevant sites, unlike the big-brand one above.

The #3 site that I see on Google is also a big brand, and it looks as if many of their links are purchased from mommy blogger-type sites, based on my random clickthroughs of their backlinks. While they at least seem relevant, most are anything but natural. I would consider them akin to ads, aka paid links. Nothing wrong with them purchasing ads on relevant sites, but it’s Google’s job not to count paid links, and yet they do.

The #4 site is owned by a big brand, but is separate from the brand’s main website. It looks as if this one may not be spamming…yay! They seem to do well based on links from their parent company site and actual recommendations from other sites. I am basing that assertion on the fact that the links are mainly the website name, not a keyword phrase. So Google may have gotten that one right! (That site doesn’t show up in Bing’s top 10 for me, however.)

Spammers Rule – Google (and Bing) Drool

I think I’ll end my backlink checking here because it upsets me to see how easy it is for link spammers to get pages ranked for highly competitive phrases. Remember, this was just ONE random phrase I checked. I have no clients in the baby furniture space or anything like that. You can type in any type of product search for yourself and see similar results. Seriously, I’d be shocked if you could find a Page 1 general product SERP in Google (or Bing) where most of the sites WEREN’T link spamming their way there.

The conundrum for Google (and Bing), as I mentioned in my Google Sucks article, is not that the pages or websites that show up in the results for these searches are necessarily bad or irrelevant. Those top 4 results for baby furniture all seem like good choices at first glance — which is what makes it so sickening that someone felt the need to link spam on their behalf. On the other hand, can we fault them for using techniques that work?

My Question Is, Why?

Why would Google (and Bing) allow companies who spam to show up anywhere in their search results, never mind in the top slots? I can spot the spam quickly and easily in just a few minutes; surely with Google’s fancy tools they could do the same. Are there really not enough sites that don’t link spam that are worthy?

I’m not saying that the search engines should penalize the sites in question. That would leave things open to rogue competitors who might spam on their behalf. But why doesn’t Google stop counting the spammy links? And why not stop counting anchor text so heavily, since it’s nearly always contrived? I have a feeling that Matt Cutts from Google may tell me that they aren’t counting those links already, but I just don’t believe it. In most of the results I looked at, there were not enough other factors to explain the Page 1 rankings.

I’ll leave you with one additional thought…

If Google doesn’t want to (or doesn’t know how to) not count spammy links, perhaps this is an opportunity for Bing to set itself apart and become the better search engine. I can’t help but think that completely discounting unnatural links and anchor text could only be a good thing for the search engine that eventually implements it.


Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Services Company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen.

29 Responses to “Google (and Bing) Love Anchor Text Link Spam

    avatar Golan says:

    So what you’re saying is that all those spammy links work?
    Anyone can do that, buying lots of spammy links, myself I’m avoiding that as I would like only credible links to my website but that’s the way it works?

    avatar Kahelu says:

    I totally agree, however, if search engine would not count those links, which links would they count? SEO consultant would simply change their tactics… and instruct their clients according to those new link rules.
    How can we ever get a fair search?

    The problem here is that you have to join in as you do not seem to get ranked without these links whether your site is good or not!

    What else must you do if your content is good and really on the topic, with all on page SEO in order, yet you cannot rank for it?

    We little internet marketers also need our little place in the sun.

    I completely agree with this article, I spend lots of time instructing customers in forging links specifically for search engines.

    For me there is simply no reason to take into account the anchor text. A human would use the comany name, or most like “click here” as anchor text, so to me it’s clear that if a different text is there, it’s innatural.

    This anchor text rule is what is making all the sites full of spammy-looking clickable words that simply should not be there.

    avatar Steve Grist says:

    Hi Jill,

    That was a good read, but I did have to laugh when I reached the end and found the link back to your site using the anchor “SEO SERVICES COMPANY” or were you just being ironic? ;-)

    avatar JohnH says:

    One of the best things Google could do to combat link spam is get rid of PageRank all together. It would cripple the paid link markets overnight:)

    Thanks for a thought provoking article.

    avatar Loosen says:

    Ok Jill, so do you have an alternate factor as powerful as citation? Or what steps do you think they should take to curb this? How should they determine a spam link as spam? What about the innocent site owners? What if they die in crossfire? How should the SEs compensate them?

    i totally agree with you … i think that google made a huge mistake when it decided to use backlinks as part of its ranking algorithm … a site should be assessed on its own merits me thinks … surely google is smart enough to do it that way and to determine when a site is using keyword stuffing which some people have done to manipulate the rankings … i really hope google will read your article and act accordingly

    cheers

    serge

    avatar Lisa Pecunia says:

    Jill,

    I often tell my clients that they need to think like Google when they are working on their SEO.

    Presumably, Google’s number one priority should be to serve up relevant results for their searchers, right? Isn’t that the whole “Don’t Be Evil” thing?

    The thing is, Google is a business, and they are in business to make money. Fortunately for us they’ve managed to come up with some amazingly useful stuff in order to make their money.

    But the seemingly illogical decisions that Google makes in their search algorithms really always seem to come down to making sure that Google continues to make money.

    Cynical perhaps, but it seems to bear out time and time again.

    Good post though, I enjoyed it. Thanks.

    Lisa

    avatar SoFla Web Studio says:

    I guess the SEO companies are getting better a figuring out how to manipulate the SERPs (Search Engine Ranking Positions).
    Once a change is made to the algorithms to change this and remove the spammy links (which I imagine is not an easy change). The “SEO Consultants” will get right back to work and try to figure out how to manipulate it again.
    It is never ending.
    Hopefully, Bing or some other new startup (blekko?) may provide more relevant results in the future. But once they become the dominant Search Engine, the spammers will target them more aggressively to game their system too.

    avatar Martin Roy says:

    Are you saying its a bad thing to put “Flea Market Map” link text to a page that has a flea market map?

    I thought link text was good for search engines.

    Martin roy
    http://www.thefleamarkets.com

    Interesting content and discussion,
    The other side of this it is also in googles interest to have some bad links. Remember their key revenue comes from Adwords. So as your web ranking drops because of this – all you need to do is spend more money with adwords to get more traffic.
    Logical enough if you are in the ad serving business.

    Having said that Google to be fair do have a hard time. The need the links to have some intelligent information in them so they know what they are, but this leaves them exposed to spammers and content scrapers alike. Its easy to scrape high ranking content, stick loads of google ads on it and make some cash. Then exploit links at the same time.

    Good article, and interesting SEO’ing.
    Cheers
    Damian Scattergood
    STAR Translation
    http://www.star-ts.com

    If anything, this problem – caused by link factories and cheap link building services – has become worse in the last 2-3 years despite Matt Cutt’s increased efforts. Building low cost attractive mini-sites for SEO purposes also works incredibly well.

    avatar Stefan says:

    Here is my personal stand point.I DO NOT use a Google or Bing for more than a year already.It is counter productive for someone sifting through the “search results” that are for the most part completely irrelevant to the something you are looking for.I’m with you,Jill!

    avatar Jill Whalen says:

    Thanks all for the great comments. I’m glad you liked the article!

    I’ll try to answer some of the questions and provide my own comments as well:

    @Golan yes, sadly, it does seem that at this moment some spammy links (if you have enough of them) do seem to work to help a page rank well in Google (and Bing).

    @Kahelu it’s true that SEO has been a “cat and mouse” game since the early days. At least the way that the tricky SEOs do things. Professional SEOs don’t need to resort to tricks, however. But even they are confused in that respect now since it seems that the tricks work so well.

    @Hendrika van Aardt you can, in fact, rank without the tricks. But there’s certainly more work involved, and more work means more money. But in the long term, you’re still better off with professional SEO that makes your site be the best it can be for both search engines and users.

    @Siti Web Bologna yes, completely agree. I’d love to see what would happen if Google (and Bing) put a little less value on the words in anchors.

    @Steve Grist well I may not like the fact that anchor text is weighted so heavily, but since it is, I’m certainly going to try to control mine the few chances I get!

    @seo analysis report, not sure I agree. Using backward links is a key part of Google’s algorithm, and for the most part it does work. My beef is more with the anchor text than the links themselves.

    @Lisa Pecunia, agree. That was what my last article here, “Google’s Results Suck All the Way to the Bank” was all about, in fact.

    @SoFla Web Studio, I don’t see Bing as any great savior to search results. They’re as bad if not worse than Google. And Blekko, to me, seems a bit too complicated for the avg. user. My hope is that Google gets on the ball and just fixes things. I guess it’s easier said than done, however!

    @Martin Roy not saying that at all. In fact, that’s exactly what you ARE supposed to do.

    @Damian Scattergood, agree. See my aforementioned “Google Sucks” article.

    @Liliana Holloway, yes. I’m not sure how much effort Mr. Cutts has put into this lately, however.

    Also, I wanted to let you all know that if you see any particularly egregious web spam meant to trick search engines, please report it to me at http://www.ratoutyourcompetitor.com My plan is to collect enough evidence and get it to Matt Cutts then sit back and see if anything is done about it. If nothing, then we know he/Google doesn’t care, or that it’s really not spam, but just our imagination!

    Thanks!

    Jill

    avatar sherry says:

    Jill,

    You are not implying by chance that those sites got top rankings because of the spammy backlinks?

    If you are, do you have any evidence for that claim?

    avatar Emily from Video Avatar says:

    I observed this lately, every time I search for something Google does not give th best results I need. It seems like the top sites that give best info is not on the first page list. I hope they can do something about this.

    avatar Rebecca says:

    Jill, well written, clear and consice article and exactly what I’ve been thinking. Its fascinating to see what Google/Bing see as ‘valuable’ results for their searchers based on anchor text. But other than pay their costs for advertising, what options are there except to play their games?

    avatar Jill Whalen says:

    @sherry If you can point out other reasons for the rankings I’d love to see them.

    avatar Greg Lindahl says:

    Jill, check out the search

    cure for headaches

    on Blekko. We auto-fire the /health slashtag, and the results are spam-free. That’s one example of a blekko feature that don’t require directly using any slashtags.

    — greg

    This un-natural linking advantage will be sooner or later removed by all the SE’s as there has been too much of spamming, spammers are pretty smart and they find a loop hole in all the algorithms

    avatar Andre Morris says:

    I agree with your comments 100%. I have personally watched sites gain #1 spots in heavily contested categories this way. Why outrank the competition simply because you can manufacture a giant farm of low quality pages containing 5-8 spammy anchor text links at the bottom?

    Unfortunately, it’s just a case of someone exploiting the system. As with any other exploit, I don’t think they should change the code to combat this. I can definitely see where anchor text is important, in many cases it does serve as a valid way for Google to tell what a site should rank for. What Google should do is keep a watchful eye for SPAM reports and punish link-wheel owners who exploit this bug to their favor.

    avatar David Lin says:

    Hi Jill,

    From my research, the new ranking algorithm for Google(may be Bing) is not just about the anchor text link, it is all about “links from social media sites”. Search engines LOVE links from social media sites regardless they are spamming links or not. As long as your web site URL has been mentioned in the social media sites such as blog, bookmarking, MicroBlog sites, you likely will get a good ranking.

    avatar Alec nelson says:

    This really annoys me because I have to compete with other sites that are using this type of spam as seo. I guess the only thing that makes me happy is that they are probably paying way too much for these links.

    avatar Leah says:

    Did everyone miss Google’s algorithm change (11-20-10)that stopped giving any PR weight to all the spam links you refer to. It was really weird, your entire post was like reading the Google blog reporting all the changes because you pretty much nailed them all on the head. (Except it was never written that plain on Google’s Official Blog) Navigational, footer, gutter, comments-blog and forum registration links are all worthless. Contextual links from within content are what counts – just like you said. You can link to your own blogs and websites too and out to high PR sites like WIKI for relevancy. Natural inbound links come from content and they link to whatever page you have relevant information for their readers to follow and benefit from – not just random linking for no reason by overseas helpers – privately negotiated links are okay – link builders may want to think about turning into content builders instead. The latest major algorithm change was 1-28-11 gets rid of low quality scraped content sites from appearing anywhere in the search results. Backlinks won’t help scraped content because the links will never be seen anyway. Only the originals will be included in search results and PR. Every page has to have unique title, heading & descriptions or it gets ignored, every page has to link directly to the home page to be counted. It’s all just common sense which what you already know – your post is full of common sense. Why this information isn’t being talked about is anyone’s guess. Time will tell. Leah

    avatar sherry says:

    Blekko results for “cure for headaches” are terrible. There is no cures in the top 4 results, and result 3 even doesn’t show.

    Google, on the other hand, provides an article with a dozen of possible cures right below the fold.

    Hmmmmm….

    avatar Teresa White says:

    “was added to a site that is controlled by the owner”

    can you explain that a bit more please. I do not have money for developers or consultants so I am doing my own SEO, why is adding links to my site a bad thing?

    Thanks, I am grateful for any tips or knowledge

    avatar anonymous says:

    Spam is mostly not a problem for me, because I don’t publish my email, and I am careful with the services I register for.

    The only spam I get is from Site Pro News. Lots of it.

    I am not a registered user of this site. I have not given my details, and I am not stupid enough to click any unsubscribe links.

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