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Looks Like Google Used Analytics to Impose Penalties

 12:49 am on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Just as a warning for fellow webmasters - I've been doing SEO on a number of sites for about five years. The only thing I do on any of them that violates Google's guidelines is that many of them have paid backlinks - no black hat, etc.

Recently the vast majority of my sites appear to have been manually penalized so that they don't show up for any search but the domain name.

That's Google's right to do that, but I wanted to warn everyone about something I consider scummy in the extreme: someone from Google used the private data from my Analytics account to find all my sites and visit each one to impose penalties on them.

How do I know this? Most of them are registered privately, so my name's not on them. A lot of them have the same copyright text on them, so you could find them by searching for that. But there are several that are registered privately and don't have that text or much content - one doesn't even have any links to it and was just a test domain with a paragraph and an affiliate link (no Adsense, no way to find it).

But right before the penalty was imposed, someone from Mountain View visited each and every one of my domains that have Analytics.

The only thing all these domains have in common is that they were on Analytics. I can't complain if Google wants to penalize me - that's their site. But the traffic data they collect from MY sites is supposed to be something private - something they claim they only use in the aggregate. Now they're apparently accessing that private data without my consent and using it to review my sites.

If you're a Webmaster, this is important to know - if you're doing anything at all that could result in an SEO penalty, Google can and apparently will review your Analytics account to find other domains you own. They could well be using your data for whatever other purposes they want to - and they don't appear to have any scruples about your own rights to the traffic data or your own privacy considerations.



 2:17 am on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Did all the penalized sites used paid backlinks? In other words, nothing was penalized just because you worked on it?


 2:57 am on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

kneukm03 Gogle is a register so the register data isn't hidden.
is that many of them have paid backlinks
About as black as it can get in their eyes. Buying links is the best way to get your sites wacked. It is great till ya get caught and then it's over. You were either sent in by a competitior or something triggered a manual review.

 3:13 am on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Tedster: Yes, they penalized only ones with paid backlinks, and a couple did not get penalties. So it wasn't "penalize everything from this guy" - but it was "review every site this guy has."

Bwnbwn: We'll have to agree to disagree on whether it's "as black as it can get" (I can think of dozens of things worse, and in the five years I've been doing this I've never seen a penalty like this for link buying unless you're doing something like thousands of rotating links, etc.).

As to the domain registrar issue - that would be an even bigger deal if true. I don't think I'm allowed to post the links, but it violates ICANN's policies for a registrar to use the data to do that. It would be a worse breach of privacy for them to go grab information about me from a third party when they're not allowed to:

"The purpose of the gTLD Whois service is to provide information sufficient to contact a responsible party for a particular gTLD domain name who can resolve, or reliably pass on data to a party who can resolve, issues related to the configuration of the records associated with the domain name within a DNS nameserver."


 12:35 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

I'm not 100% convinced that you've eliminated all other possibilities, but yeah, that's pretty low if true.

However, regarding the "black as it can get" question, I think the reason Google has a bigger problem with paid links than with other, even spammier tactics is that the other tactics tend to be easier to spot algorithmically. Paid links break their algo in a way that's very difficult to detect and fight, so when they do find it they slap it as hard as possible to serve as a deterrant to others.


 12:52 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Yep, I've heard this as well. AdSense and Webmaster Tools are the other ways that they use to manually penalize all your sites. I frequent some less-than-pure white hat sites (not black hat though) and this kind of thing happens a fair amount.

I once seen a case where someone had around 30 sites - some had AdSense and Analytics, most were in Webmaster Tools and then only a small fraction (say 4-5) were in neither Analytics, AdSense or GWT.

All their sites apart from the 4-5 got a manual penalty.

To me it's pretty clear that they've been doing this for a while.

It's fairly low of Google, but I guess their argument would be "if they use gray/black hat tactics on one site, they might use it on them all". (This is something I disagree with though since it is a very poor argument and hides the fact that you might be tracking a website as a favour to a friend etc)

kneukm03 Gogle is a register so the register data isn't hidden.

Then Google and ICANN are massively breaking the law and we'll shortly see dozens of people jailed in a massive FTC raid.

In-short, this is a 'classic' myth which isn't true.

Google are an ICANN accredited domain name registrar, yes. But all this means is that they can register domains directly and not have to go through other companies.

ICANN and the various TLD/ccTLD registrars don't share people's personal data around each ICANN accredited domain name registrar. You really think that when someone registers a domain at (say) GoDaddy, GoDaddy then e-mail that information to every other registrar out there? ;-) Even if they only shared it with (say) Google, they'd still be in breach of criminal law (data protection laws etc)

It only takes 6 figure of capital to become ICANN accredited and trust me, if they suddenly shared *everyone's* data with every ICANN accredited registrar (which would be highly illegal and break hundreds of data protection laws Worldwide), there'd be a whole lot more ICANN accredited registrars... especially marketing and mailing companies harvesting people's private information ;-)

So yep, the short answer is that this is a complete myth. Google being a registrar means nothing other than them being able to register domains directly and at wholesale prices.

And this aside, Google couldn't ban on WHOIS information anyway since WHOIS information can easily be faked. ICANN require that it's kept valid, but they don't enforce this regulation.

If Google did ban sites on WHOIS, all you'd have to do is register a domain, change it's WHOIS information to match your competitors, use every black hat tactic around on your domain, then report it to Google. Bang, your competitors are banned too.

In-short, I hope you can see why this isn't the case ;-)


 4:28 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

There's more to this story than paid links. Otherwise as others have said I could take out a debit card in a competitors name and buy links then report myself and viola.

I do think they use usage records and that's within their rights.


 4:57 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

If you used the same broker to arrange the link purchases, that can also be a method that Google leverages. Many services leave a kind of footprint that Google can discover eventually.

For example, just a few weeks ago on Twitter, Matt Cutts called out one well known link selling service. He made it very clear that Google was going to take action in their case.


 5:26 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Just FYI, they don't need to check your analytics data fort his. All they need is the code.


 5:47 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Will someone remind me why buying/selling links is a sin?

Oh, now I remember, it's because Google was founded more than a decade ago on the premise that backlinks are an important method to analyze in determining PageRank. Fair enough for 1998.

So over 10 years later a gazillion webmasters have worked hard to create valuable sites that generate steady traffic, and to help finance those efforts, would like to sell links/listings to other webmasters who want to get a footing in very competitive markets.

Sorry, can't be compensated that way. Why? Because the Gods at Google STILL utilize as a core principal that backlinks are an essential determining factor in a site's importance.

Jeez, here's a really wild idea for Google's consideration: Get over it, and focus on the hundreds of other parts of your algo that we hear you work so hard to fine tune. If people want to buy or sell links, so what ~ ignore it entirely and the problem goes away, like a smoke ring on a windy day. Pooffff....



 5:59 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

@Reno agreed. Getting rid of mirrors and duplicate sites will do more to clean things than hammering links. Devaluate the links.

@Tedster the problem with that approach is I can go buy a throwaway debit card, use a fake name and buy links on bad sites for my competitors. How would google ever know? That's why I think they should silently devalue the sites first eliminating the link value then the pr of the seller.

The old rule applies, does it add value? We had a sale come through today from a high ranking good directory in our niche. The costs per year are high, but in reality that cost just brought us more sales than the equivalent amount spent on adwords which seems to be all one click wonders. It's a good directory but it still scares me to think someone at google may hit us because we bring in sales through a well respected directory.
99.9% of our biggest competitors had text links everywhere on sites with no relevance and they rank first second third on those terms with 500k plus clicks a month. I have no shot ever of outranking them naturally. How can they justify hitting some and not others? Devalue the links not the sites. I could see a pretty big cause for litigation if a penalty was imposed that hurt a business when it was someone else buying the links.


 5:59 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Google can not see the private data behind a protected domain unless the domain was registered with them and since they don't register domains for the public, it's not possible.

I have confirmed this with my registrar in the past.

I have also had the experience of Google using analytics data to penalize sites I owned and also confirmed to my satisfaction that it was indeed the analytics data that was used.

That is why I stopped using Google Analytics a long time ago and now use Piwik instead.


 5:59 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Will someone remind me why buying/selling links is a sin?

It is not a sin by itself. Only if done in an attempt to game search results.

If site A sells a link to site B and makes it a nofollow link. All is well in the world. But site B gets upset, they want a do-follow link. Why? What does it matter? The follow parameter does not affect the users who see and click on it. Site B wants it so it can get the "link juice" to help it rank better. Hence they want to game the search results by using money to buy better rankings. That helps no one but the owner of the site trying to game the results.

If you are not happy with the over 10 year old site with 1998 technology, then don't use them. You don't have to follow their guidelines. Sell as many links as you want, buy as many as you want. No one is stopping you. Sure you won't get any G traffic, but if you don't believe in what they are trying to do, then I'm sure you don't want their FREE handouts they are giving you.

Google (and Yahoo/Bing) are all trying to keep the playing field fair.


 6:18 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Site B wants it so it can get the "link juice" to help it rank better.

Or maybe they want to establish traffic from visitors who may buy their products or support their services ~ not the worst idea on earth.

If you are not happy with the over 10 year old site with 1998 technology, then don't use them.

And if I don't want to pollute the air I don't have to drive a car, but it doesn't make a lot of sense if you want to get around. Same is true of Google ~ they essentially own the world of search in 2010, so we ignore them at our peril. I try to follow their guidelines even though I think in regards to this one issue they are antiquated. BTW, I'm not saying to remove the power of links from the algo, I'm saying that if they know which links are paid, then by definition they can ignore those specific links and reward those that are purely organic. A paid link would have no + value and no - value ~ it would have no value at all. So if a website owner wanted to get traffic from a link somewhere that would be helpful, they could do so without the fear of the hammer coming down. And Google would not see such links as "an attempt to game search results". In fact, they wouldn't see them all, because they'd have no value.



 6:25 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Or maybe they want to establish traffic from visitors who may buy their products

That happens whether the link is dofollow or nofollow. Placing a nofollow attribute on a paid link makes no difference with regard to clicks and traffic.

if they know which links are paid, then by definition they can ignore those specific links

Yes, exactly. This is what Yahoo used to do.

Another word of caution for any would-be link buyers - know what you're buying. There are services that will place your links onto hacked site networks via parasite hosting, and they may not tell you that up front. This kind of link can generate a big boost, but when discovered, the Google penalty can be severe. Parasite hosting is not just a ranking trick, it's illegal.


 7:12 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Placing a nofollow attribute on a paid link makes no difference with regard to clicks and traffic

Agreed, but it's out of your control ~ you pay your money and depend on the other siteowner to add the "nofollow". If they don't do that, you can be hurt and it's not your fault when you expected this other person to use nofollow.



 8:08 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

If they tell you it will be nofollowed and it isn't, that's breach of contract. Ask up front if it isn't already explicit. In my experience, the usual link buyer does want to influence their rankings. Otherwise they would be buying ads through a regular ad network.


 8:59 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

the usual link buyer does want to influence their rankings

And again I agree, but that's a problem that Google itself has created ~ if paid links are assigned zero value, then there is nothing to gain as far as PR goes.

To my eyes there are 2 problems with Google's continued reliance on backlinks and their insistence on penalties:

[1] People will be hesitant to purchase backlinks if they even think that it might hurt them with Google. Thus, it impacts the income for anyone who has built a successful site and wouldn't mind making a little extra money by offering paid link opportunities;

[2] With reference to scotsonline posting above, there are valuable directories out there ~ some of which pre-date nofollow ~ that do offer the opportunity for more targetted visitors, but many siteowners will avoid them because they don't want to take the slightest chance of incurring Google's wrath. There again, it hurts the pocketbook when you limit your exposure to potentially paying visitors, because you're afraid of how Google might react.

And BTW, what are AdWords if not "paid links". Yes, I know that Google does not give a site any extra juice for having AW (nor do they penalize a site for not having it). But if you're thinking about promoting your biz and want to buy traffic, AND you're concerned about how Google will react, then in all likelihood you will avoid buying backlinks from a regular site and instead will mostly (if not exclusively) turn to AW to spend your money. That uncertainty is a nice little situation for Google, not so good for the rest of us.



 9:17 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

While I feel for you kneukm03, especially if your earnings from websites paid the bills and fed any children.

That being said you can't blame Google here, for paid links or for finding your sites.

If somoene knows your analytics code, or knows about ONE of your sites, they can find every site you've ever owned that used analytics and they wouldn't need access to "Google private data" to find them.

You're publicly publishing your analytics and adsense code with every webpage.


 10:28 pm on Oct 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Slightly off topic, but...

As a user, if I am viewing a site, I would like to know which links on there are paid for placement and which aren't. That's just me. I mean, as a user of google search, I would be upset if they made paid adwords ads indistiguishable (spelling) from the organic listings. (I know that in the past it was easier to tell adwords from organic listings, and that it has become harder to distinguish over the years).

Same thing if I went to someone's site; I would be more inclined to click on a link if it was based on merit rather than on pay, so I would appreciate knowing that.

Just my two centavos.


 12:10 am on Oct 25, 2010 (gmt 0)

If they searched for the code somehow (all the visits show up as direct) I still would warn everyone who's doing anything Google even mildly dislikes to never put more than one site on Analytics again (or really any single account for anything, or anything else common between sites).

One other word of warning: I looked back at some of these sites and there are several with penalties that only have links from directories (i.e., 5-6 paid directory links total, no other links). All of those got whacked as well. Although the directories themselves don't seem to have any problems. I think just a couple days ago I saw a thread where people were talking about how they were using that as standard SEO - if directories are considered black hat now such that your sites get banned, a lot of people are going to be in trouble.

These are all static HTML sites. The only other possibility for a penalty I've considered is that they look terrible given I have zero programming skills - maybe someone decided they were all spam without reading them.


 12:10 am on Oct 25, 2010 (gmt 0)

Tedster, I can't find Matt's tweet calling out the link broker. You have a link to it?


 12:30 am on Oct 25, 2010 (gmt 0)


...followed by a P.S.



 8:33 am on Oct 25, 2010 (gmt 0)

if directories are considered black hat now such that your sites get banned, a lot of people are going to be in trouble

Agreed, but I think you've been unlucky. About 80-90% of the top sites in every market I look into are using these directory links. If Google really wanted to stop that all they'd need to do was to go through the lists at the biggest aggregator sites for 'SEO-friendly' directories and privately (or publicly) kill their ability to help you rank. They could wipe out the whole industry in a few months with a crackdown and a few posts by Matt Cutts.

They've not done that, that's why these links still work - not as good as they used to a few year ago, but they still work in the mix.


 10:59 am on Oct 25, 2010 (gmt 0)

Not wanting to destroy the "perfectly rational, perfect knowledge" view of the world, but Google is acheiving precisely the effect it wants WRT paid links.

Here's the facts:
1) It is not algorithmically easy to detect every type of of paid link, in every context, by every sales method, for every intended result. It is not possible to differentiate the same.

2) Google uses PR and PR-like data for the significant portion of its ranking formula.

3) Paid links DO distort Googles core product

So, what is G to do? Having determined a link is paid, or a site is a link trader, whats the next step? Ignore the link, add a virtual "nofollow"? Most people here say "yes", so why not?

Well, there are a lot of reasons, but let's look at the main two, both relating to suppressing Paid Link proliferation

1) Pure FUD
Paid links "as black as it can get". Brilliant! Scare everyone into NOT EVEN TRYING. A massive proportion of webmasters, siteowners and SEOs will not touch a paid link. And the best thing is that if EVEN ONE of those three groups are scared of the paid link, it wont happen. I can just imagine the slogan
Fear, uncertainty and doubt- suppressing paid links since 1998

2) Balance of Risk
If paid links MAY give you a boost, and MAY do nothing, then you FORCE a market to exist. There is no "risk" per se, just an ROI calculation. OTOH, the perception of disproportionate downside means the risk of damage must be taken into account. So, instead of paying money that you can afford to lose(an investment), you are putting your entire livelihood on the line. That's a different category of proposition.

Apologies for being Off Topic for the thread, but the "just ignore paid links" proposition comes up regularly, and I can't think of it as anything other than a non-starter


 12:57 pm on Oct 25, 2010 (gmt 0)

I think google largely does ignore paid links. That's all they should do for two reasons:

1. They don't enforce the policy evenly or close to it. In every industry there are top SERPS results bought and paid for. Selectively enforcing the policy....if company x is a big advertiser and buys links and is reported by company y and nothing is done...yet company w buys links on the same site as company x but IS penalized...? You are forced to buy links to stay competitive and then penalized when others are not? The best bet is to silently devalue those links entirely.

2. How do they know how links are acquired? What if a competitor bought them? What if they were acquired via barter or legitimate referrals even though other links may be paid on the site? How can I stop a website from linking back to me without my consent? I leave a bad review for a site somewhere and that owner sticks a footer link on his site to me with the header "paid link.". I talk to a site about advertising who knows they are being penalized and I decide the roi isn't there and they post a link to a key niche on the site to hurt me? I think you're living in a dreamland if you don't think organized negative advertising is or would become the next SEO if google brought the hammer down on links.

Better for everyone if they are just devalued.

One last thing. Lack of information can force businesses into buying links. I've seen it among friends sites this year. When index pages drop 70% for no reason with no errors or paid links what does a small business person do when all of his competitors are buying links clearly getting traffic and pages indexed? A systemic problem you see reported is the number of indexed pages dropping then rising and it happens to everyone but google never explains it.

Anyway part of the problem with google is lack of enforcement whether we talk about paid links, google merchant guidelines, adsense, regular seo (thousands of top ranked sites have products listed dozens of times for keyword effect) etc.


 1:22 pm on Oct 25, 2010 (gmt 0)

I agree- a paid link penalty is stunningly rare. Devaluation is much, much more common- but Google never talks about that as an option. Why would they?

Again, the paid link situation is working as planned. A lot of people with online presence do not buy because of FUD.

It is not so much Google selectively punishes the link trade- it's more that its hard to spot a lot of links, and its even harder to determine the type of transaction that took place.

If Google cannot even spot every paid link, it certanly does not know who bought it, or to what end. Cracking down on paid links is therefore not an option- you have to supress the trade. That means random draconian punishment full of sound and fury, against a backdrop of silent devaluation.

High profile sites are almost bulletproof in terms of paid link penalties, whereas small, young sites are vunerable. The reason is twofold- scare the newbies, and protect the big boys from malicious link campaigns. However, just because a big site has paid links pointing at it, doesn't mean its getting value from them.


 2:01 pm on Oct 25, 2010 (gmt 0)

Shaddows, I think google is more consistent than we think. They have to be as there are too many potential legal issues if they were ever caught not penalizing a big advertiser for having a link while penalizing a non advertiser for the same link. When you have as much power as they do an even hand is important.

IMO no follow makes it easier but it's all irrelevant. A meaningful article about a business on a major site should influence the rankings if it's legitimate even if it's no follow. Likewise a list of sites approved by xyz association that is no follow should also carry weight, a donor list to a major cause etc. Even if no follow. At the same time a group of useless footer links that nobody reads, or links buried elsewhere should carry no more weight than a major news story being run in the classified section right next to the yard sale announcements.

I think google does a better job of this than we give credit. I'm all for devaluing the paid links while slapping the selling site with a few pr points to deter/devalue the selling in the first place.

This post talked about analytics being used against the person. Google knows all. They are a data company. Every page they've ever pulled is likely stored somewhere and you can bet they can connect the dots with their products. There's always more to the story and I'm sure that's true here too. I doubt this was just about buying links, it was likely the manner and method.


 2:23 pm on Oct 25, 2010 (gmt 0)

A lot of people with online presence do not buy because of FUD...

I'd put this ending on that sentence:

"...and therefore they turn to AdWords, which they know will never incur a Google penalty."

Google's responsibility as a corporation is to return a profit for its shareholders, so the FUD strategy from a business POV is both cheap and incredibly effective. The latest financial statement speaks for itself:

Google reported revenues [webmasterworld.com]

As Shaddows said: "Google is acheiving precisely the effect it wants WRT paid links"

Yep, no argument there.



 2:53 pm on Oct 25, 2010 (gmt 0)

Pure FUD hu well take a good read.

In kneukm03 post I assume he was doing it for SE placement so in effect he was trying do it for a gain. We have no idea what his link profile looks like, age of his sites, or terms he was ranking for so maybe he had no real links other than purchased links. If that were the case his site really may not be under a penality but rather his site is such that it doesn't qualify for a search term under his desired keywords and is under a filter. I kinda doubt it is a penality since his site does show up for domain name and he may not have really looked far enough for in a search term to see he maybe at 300-900 position. I know when under a filter what he describes was the effect I encountered.

Buying links to trick the system is pure black plain and simple. Not a scare tatic by Google at all since it has been a big topic for 8 years now. Do it for gain and you get caught it is pay the piper plain and simple.

Nothing wrong with buying links for traffic and follow the best plain of having them no followed.

If you read Google Analytics Terms of Use [google.com...] you will see the data that is sent to them from your sites is actually their right to use, mine, and review. Since it is their software stored on their servers accessed through their panel when installing you agree to this so it should be of no suprise this information can be used in their discovery.

This 54 message thread spans 2 pages: 54 ( [1] 2 > >
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