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Penguin and trackbacks
diberry




msg:4563881
 6:20 pm on Apr 11, 2013 (gmt 0)

I have just figured out at least part of why one of my sites got Penguinized last April.

Brief history: Last April, one of my sites lost 80% of its Google traffic. I came here to find out what had happened, and read about this thing called Penguin, which targeted "aggressive spammers." I couldn't believe this, because I don't even have the skills to aggressively spam. I never did link building. I have never gotten an unnatural link notice. No one who looked at the site could quite figure out why I had been Penguinized.

One thing we all noticed was that the most disastrously hit page had a lot of links out. It had ranked highly in Google for years, suggesting they initially considered it a quality, curated resource page and not a link farm. Besides, I had other pages with a lot of backlinks that came through Penguin just fine. What was it about this one?

Today I looked through my WMT links in a different way than I have before and it hit me: my site is Wordpress, so by default these pages that link out so much acquire a lot of trackbacks. The linky pages that passed through Penguin without a problem also got a lot of genuine backlinks, mainly through social media. The linky page that tanked had a link profile of about 80% trackbacks last April 24. (Now it's more like 95% because so many blogs have removed their links to it in the wake of Penguin and all this link FUD.)

This suggests to me that one aspect of Penguin is specifically to devalue trackbacks, or to penalize pages that have a high ratio of trackbacks to backlinks. And that actually makes sense of the whole mess. Trackbacks ARE a tactic of spammers, even though my intention was not spamming. I was just using Wordpress' default settings.

But it also makes sense as a metric of user response. Imagine a page that has hardly any backlinks other than trackbacks, and one that has a mix of trackbacks and backlinks - which would you assume users prefer? And you'd be right - the page Google devalued never should have ranked at #1, IMO. (I never contested the devaluing of the site, I just couldn't understand specifically what had triggered it, and wanted to so I wouldn't make the same mistakes again, whatever they were.)

I have no idea what to do for the page now. I removed a lot of the links a while back, and the page fell much further. Should I remove it altogether? It would create some 404 landings if I did, but I guess I could redirect to a similar page. Or maybe I should republish it under a new URL entirely, in hopes Google would evaluate it anew and start fresh? Any ideas? Anyone have experience with anything similar?

Lessons learned:

--Limit the number of outbound links on pages (to what amount, I'm not sure), even when you think visitors might appreciate more
--Or, turn off trackbacks when publishing a page like that, just to be safe
--Or, don't link to blogs at all (but this is giving into link FUD)
--Or turn them off altogether - the only value they have is if the linked blogger sees them and really appreciates your site and decides to link out to it... which is so rare in these days of link FUD. And turning them off saves server resources.

I'm leaning toward turning them off, as they really don't provide any value I can think of.

 

aristotle




msg:4563977
 12:07 am on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

I removed a lot of the links a while back, and the page fell much further.

Wouldn't that indicate that the links were helping, not hurting?

Actually, common sense says that type of backlink shouldn't affect rankings at all. If they do, then there's a defect in the algorithm.

TheOptimizationIdiot




msg:4563986
 12:33 am on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Actually, common sense says that type of backlink shouldn't affect rankings at all.

We'll have to agree here.

If they do, then there's a defect in the algorithm.

And we'll have to agree here.

But, with the unnatural link notices and possible "penalties", it's fairly obvious Google thinks for some reason "unnatural links", which would include trackbacks, should count as a negative.

My opinion is if they just "ignored" (meaning essentially automatically nofollowed or dropped from the graph) links they thought weren't natural and let people know that's what they were doing linking would return to much more natural Internet-wide, but since they don't do that and rather seem to think they need to hand out penalties, my opinion is, linking on the Internet is completely skewed from what it would be if they could "just get it right" on their end.

Something about unintended consequences comes to mind here.

[edited by: TheOptimizationIdiot at 12:39 am (utc) on Apr 12, 2013]

diberry




msg:4563987
 12:35 am on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

No - sorry, I was unclear. I removed many of the outbound links from my page - I have no control over any of my backlinks at all because I didn't build them.*

And yeah, I had assumed trackbacks wouldn't affect me, but they are the only difference between my page that got whacked and my very similar pages that did not.

(*I suspect the page fell further because I made a number of changes around that time, including a new domain name for branding purposes. Let's actually just disregard that part of my post since it really isn't relevant.)

I think I'm going to get rid of the post for a while, so the trackbacks will land on 404s if the bots follow them. Eventually, I may post it again under a new URL and see if that gives it fresh life.

SEchecker




msg:4564042
 7:20 am on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

****--Limit the number of outbound links on pages (to what amount, I'm not sure), even when you think visitors might appreciate more***


I watched a video from MC explaining outboud links:
"Not more than 50 per page"
MC suggested

TheOptimizationIdiot




msg:4564044
 7:23 am on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Please cite the video source, I'd like to watch it. Thanks!

SEchecker




msg:4564051
 7:56 am on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

I came across this video quite some months ago and I do not remember the URL... sorry..

TheOptimizationIdiot




msg:4564054
 7:59 am on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

It's cool, I've watched what seems like 1000 of them myself, and just wanted a refresher on that one, but I totally understand not remembering where it is. Np. I'll try to find it and likely run across it a year from now lol

aristotle




msg:4564135
 11:26 am on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

No - sorry, I was unclear. I removed many of the outbound links from my page - I have no control over any of my backlinks at all because I didn't build them.*

I understood that you were referring to outbound links from your page. And I think they probably were helping your rankings. For years I've made it a practice, where feasible, to add a few outbound links to authoritive sites at the bottom of my articles, and I'm convinced that it does help rankings.

As for a maximum limit, such as 50, on the number of outbound links, I strongly doubt that "too many" can hurt you, as long as they as they don't point to spammy sites.

diberry




msg:4564223
 3:00 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

My page contained over 100 links, and was #1 for years in that condition, until Penguin. I can only assume that for years it was getting a "pass" on the huge number of links for some under 50 links, and it's been that way for a while (but again, there were lots of other changes, so the fact that it didn't bounce back may not mean anything).

Note that it may not be trackbacks per se, but no-follow links that are the problem. We've been talking about whether a preponderance of no-follow links could possibly hurt your site in another thread: [webmasterworld.com...] This inspired me to look at the backlinks in WMT for this page. They're almost exclusively no-follow (trackbacks) for that page. Other pages with over 50 links on my site have a higher ratio of follow backlinks, and have sailed through Penguin just fine.

It could be that Google is looking at no-follow links differently since Penguin. Maybe they used to have little effect on rankings, but with Penguin they decided a high ratio of no-follow links indicated spam. It IS a spammer tactic to leave silly comments and attempted trackbacks on CMS sites that create a no-follow link with those.

I have deleted that page for now, not knowing what else I can do. It doesn't get rid of the trackbacks, it just sends them to a 404. Many of the backlinks WMT lists for that page don't link to me at all anymore and haven't in years, so I know Google never forgets. I don't know if deleting the page will help, but I'm at a loss what else I can do.

aristotle




msg:4564248
 3:50 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Have you looked at the possibility of using the disavow tool to disavow them? However, it still doesn't make sense to me that penguin would hit you for trackback links anyway. That would be a major and obvious defect in the algorithm.

aristotle




msg:4564251
 3:56 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

btw, I don't think there is a 50 link limit on outlinks. Of course, if you have a lot of outlinks to bad neighborhoods and/or spammy sites, that could hurt you. But if the links point to legitimate sites, I strongly doubt that there is a limit of any kind at all built into the algorithm.

diberry




msg:4564261
 4:12 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Have you looked at the possibility of using the disavow tool to disavow them? However, it still doesn't make sense to me that penguin would hit you for trackback links anyway. That would be a major and obvious defect in the algorithm.


Disavow makes me nervous because the way they describe who should use it, it sounds confessional. I never set out to "spam" the algorithm. I only "built" the trackbacks in the sense that I used Wordpress the way it works by default.

Why doesn't it make sense that Penguin might look at a preponderance of no-follow links and a lack of follow links as an indicator of spam? Why would that be a flaw?

The thing is, there is nothing else to account for the Penguin slap on this site. I didn't build links. I didn't sell links. I don't know what all Penguin is looking for, but several people have looked at my site, certain they'd be able to see where I'd been "spamming", only to admit they just don't understand why Penguin hit this particular site. That exhaustion of other possibilities is what's led me to this theory. It wasn't my first stab at the problem, believe me. :)

aristotle




msg:4564273
 4:54 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Why doesn't it make sense that Penguin might look at a preponderance of no-follow links and a lack of follow links as an indicator of spam? Why would that be a flaw?

But I understood from your original post that most of those nofollow backlinks are trackbacks in this case.

TheOptimizationIdiot




msg:4564276
 4:59 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Disavow makes me nervous because the way they describe who should use it, it sounds confessional.

I know that's how many SEOs thought it was and presented it too, but if you watch the video on it, one of the reasons it was developed was the large amount of concern among webmasters about negative SEO, which wouldn't mean you "did anything" or are "confessing" to anything, it would mean "there's something wrong with some inbound links" and you have a way to "remotely nofollow" them.

Plus, when you receive a notice there's nothing to "confess". The algo already has you and they're giving you a way to clean things up by saying, "wow, you're right, those links shouldn't count, so just ignore them..."

I think it's pretty poor the way quite a few "SEOs" spread the FUD for Google on the disavow rather than exercising some simple reasoning and letting people know part of the reason it was introduced was to be able to help in negative SEO situations, and/or in a situation where you hire a SEO and they do something wrong without your knowledge, and/or in a situation where you actually built some spammy links...

It's not bad they give you a way to fix something, whether you did it initially or not, and there's really nothing to confess to if you receive an unnatural links notice, because you're already "had" by the algo.

diberry




msg:4564283
 5:19 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

But I understood from your original post that most of those nofollow backlinks are trackbacks in this case.


They all are. I'm just not sure the algo distinguishes trackbacks from other types of no-follow backlinks.

there's really nothing to confess to if you receive an unnatural links notice, because you're already "had" by the algo.


As I stated before, I have never received an unnatural links notice. Nor did I ever set out to build links or spam in any way. That's why I've been at such a loss this past year as to just what it is Penguin thinks I did wrong.

[edited by: diberry at 5:24 pm (utc) on Apr 12, 2013]

TheOptimizationIdiot




msg:4564284
 5:21 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Oh, I was just commenting slightly OT on the "confessing" to something part since that seems to be way "over blown" FUD. Wasn't talking about your specific situation directly.

diberry




msg:4564291
 5:26 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Gotcha. Okay, here's the deal.

If Penguin is all about backlinks, then it follows that it's something to do with my backlinks that I never intended as spam, but it's looking like spam to Penguin, right? So I look at the page most harmed to see what's unique about it from (a) all my other pages and (b) all my other sites which have never been penalized or received unnatural link notices either. All I can see is that I had close to 100 trackbacks on this post, all obviously with identical anchor text. That sure sounds spammy (unless you're aware that Wordpress would do this by default if you posted a page with over 100 links on it). Are you assuming Penguin included a "free pass" filter for trackbacks to Wordpress sites? Because I'm not. I think this could totally explain why, despite my totally cowardly white-hatted avoidance of any intentional spamming practices, Penguin pegged me as a spammer. And in a year, neither I nor anyone else has managed to come up with a better explanation than this one.

Robert_Charlton had one of the most compelling suggestions: that perhaps I wasn't actually penalized directly by Penguin, but that my BACKLINKS had been devalued because those people had been penalized by it. Well, it sure didn't look like many of my backlinkers had been hurt by Penguin, so that seemed to rule out his suggestion. But if Penguin included the concept that a really huge number of no-follow/trackback links to a single page = spam, which doesn't seem unreasonable to me, then this page would have been spam under its definition.

[edited by: diberry at 5:49 pm (utc) on Apr 12, 2013]

TheOptimizationIdiot




msg:4564292
 5:33 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

It's definitely an interesting theory and you have some good points. I actually keep going back and forth on trying to decide about it, so I'm not sure what my "official" opinion is yet lol

diberry




msg:4564300
 6:08 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Hehe, let me know when you decide.

And if you think disavow is worth doing, I'll take your word on that. The language on the page when you go to it seemed to indicate you should have had an unnatural link notice if you're going to use it, but whatever... it's not like they don't know if they've sent them to me or not.

TheOptimizationIdiot




msg:4564303
 6:17 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

Hehe, let me know when you decide.

Will do.

And if you think disavow is worth doing, I'll take your word on that.

I don't think I'd do one without a notice in your case, especially since it's only one page and the links are already mostly nofollowed. Can't see what it would do except "really nofollow" them lol

aristotle




msg:4564393
 11:35 pm on Apr 12, 2013 (gmt 0)

diberry --
You can talk about nofollow all you want, but essentially what you're arguing is that your page was demoted by Penguin because of trackbacks. I still say that defies common sense. You say that you can't find any other explanation -- Maybe that's because there definitely are some major flaws in Penguin which are causing false positives and undeserved demotions to a lot of sites without any apparent reason.

Edit -- Another thought -- By taking the page down, you eliminated links that you originally gave to other sites, hopefully because you thought they deserved them. In my opinion, what you should do is put the page back up, restore the old content, and forget about Google.

netmeg




msg:4564398
 12:01 am on Apr 13, 2013 (gmt 0)

Well, it sure didn't look like many of my backlinkers had been hurt by Penguin


But you can't really know that.

The problem I have with your theory is that it would have taken out a lot more WordPress sites than it did. Like maybe most of them, since trackbacks are enabled by default.

diberry




msg:4564408
 1:37 am on Apr 13, 2013 (gmt 0)

Maybe that's because there definitely are some major flaws in Penguin which are causing false positives and undeserved demotions to a lot of sites without any apparent reason.


That's true, but still *something* had to cause my site to be seen as a "false positive". And whatever the problem with that page, the other engines tanked it, too. It's nowhere to be found in any of them. While I totally respect your suggestion to put it back up and "forget Google", if it's toxic in all the engines it probably isn't helping the sites it links out to.

The problem I have with your theory is that it would have taken out a lot more WordPress sites than it did. Like maybe most of them, since trackbacks are enabled by default.


Actually, it would only affect those Wordpress sites that had pages with over 100 links on them. Just going by what I see and what my own sites contain, that's a pretty unusual occurrence.

diberry




msg:4565288
 4:41 pm on Apr 16, 2013 (gmt 0)

I decided to restore the post after all. Will see what happens.

TheOptimizationIdiot




msg:4565296
 4:53 pm on Apr 16, 2013 (gmt 0)

Interesting it tanked in more than one engine. Almost says something about the sites the links point to imo. Have you thought about noindexing it and/or nofollowing the links on it?

I don't like "aggressive nofollow" personally, meaning generally when I link if I don't think the link should be followed I don't add the link, but since the issue with the page is a more widespread drop than Penguin should account for (meaning other SEs are finding something "wrong" too -- maybe one of the linked resources "turned to the black hat side" or something?), so in your case I think I would likely nofollow the page to see what happens and if that didn't clear it up but I still thought it was a good resource for visitors although SEs don't like it, then I would probably noindex it.

diberry




msg:4565362
 6:55 pm on Apr 16, 2013 (gmt 0)

I carefully check all the links periodically, and at no point have I found anything "wrong" other than some of them becoming 404s over the years, at which point I replaced them with something else or removed them. Except one I removed about 10 months ago - the page looked fine, but on closer examination, the site overall looked like it was aggressively targeting a particular keyphrase. Everything currently on the page looks good - it's either from an established, respected site or a little blog that is not doing anything nefarious as far as I can tell.

I'm going to consider your advice, but I just discovered something else with this one. Last year, I changed the domain name for branding purposes, so many of this page's backlinks were redirected from the old site via 301s. Then I also changed the URL of the page, hoping for a completely fresh start. But at some point, the original URL (with the old domain) has started redirecting to the new URL for the page. This has to be a Wordpress thing, and it certainly wasn't happening when I first changed the URL, but it must be an update thing (don't ask - it's a very peculiar thing, but I can see how it's happening). So my original backlinks have been going through not one but two redirects, and I think it's possible the SE's would all react badly to that. So I've changed the URL back to its original one and it's now only going through one redirect. If the engines respond in a few weeks, cool, and if they continue to hate the page, I'll take your suggestions.

I really can't figure out anything ON the page for them to hate so much, and neither has anyone else who looked at it. It has to be an off-page issue, I think, so we'll see.

diberry




msg:4566475
 9:11 pm on Apr 19, 2013 (gmt 0)

Okay, so after fixing the redirect issue, at least the page is back in Google for its keyphrase. In the 600s, but at least it's there.

Of course, this only addresses part of all of what happened in response to changed I made AFTER Penguin, not the original Penguin issues. Am still waiting to see where it ends up and whether Bing puts it back in.

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