You could be running a 100% whitehat site and still receive a notification of unnatural links, thanks to ORM spam.
Show the good stuff, hide the bad stuff – that’s the basic principle of online reputation management (ORM). Search engine results are a big part of what ORM process involves and some companies will do anything to get a bad review out of search results.
One of the ‘traditional’ tactics is to find good reviews and references of a questionable term of name and attempt to boost them even higher in results. This in turn pushes any bad reviews further down the page and ultimately off to the second or third page of results.
Where’s the Spam?
Spam is created in form of links, often by creating fake user profiles on forums or through comment spam. The interesting part is that these links don’t point to the company’s website. They link to anyone who has mentioned them in either positive or neutral sentiment. This could be your website too if you happen to mention brands and names anywhere within your content. It’s hard to keep track of those things, specially if you run a blog.
Search engines don’t like links created to manipulate their rankings. Although they try to distinguish innocent websites from those who purposely breach search engine guidelines, your website may still be affected, even if you’re not spamming. Google may, for example, take granular action against your website if they detect unnatural links pointing to some of your pages, even if others created those links. In that situation, your website may not be affected for its most important keywords and pages. Instead the page with inorganic links and keywords associated with it may be affected. Likely you won’t even notice.
However, what if the spammed page is really important to you?
An example of this would be if you sell “Canon” products and a rogue ORM firm Canon hired to clean up bad reviews linked to your page from fake profiles. This could cause trouble.
What can you do?
In Google Webmaster Tools navigate to: Traffic > Links to your site > All linked pages and you will see a number of your pages in the list. Pay attention to a number of “Source domains” linking to each page. If a page has an abnormal amount of links, investigate it. If you find spam try to contact the company responsible for the spam and ask them to remove it. If that doesn’t work delete the page (if you can afford to do that) and recreate it on another URL. Do this without 301 redirection or canonicalisation as these will pass the manual action against that page over to the new URL. Ensure that any natural links pointing to that page are updated, do this with both internal links and those coming from other websites by contacting webmasters and asking for a link update.
In the following screenshot you can see one of our pages which received an abnormal amount of links (235 linking domains) in comparison to the rest of the site. What was suspicious is that all these links were pointing towards a pretty ordinary page. This type of deviation was certainly worth investigating.
On closer inspection we found that most links were coming from fake profiles, all using the same company name as anchor text. This link campaign was clearly designed to bring our page higher in Google’s results for that particular business name.
We also found similar links pointing to other victims of the same rouge online reputation management company and created a report. This report was forwarded to the firm who hired the ORM people. They were surprised, shocked and embarrassed as their company name is now also involved in web spam.
So an attempt to repair their reputation online backfires and turns into a deeper problem as their website was also linked from many of the spammy pages and they are now at risk of wearing a penalty from Google, not to mention the fact that their brand is now associated with forum spam.
This is just one way an innocent website can receive unnatural links. Stay vigilant, monitor your content’s inbound links through Google Webmaster Tools and be ready to take action when needed. Normally, more links you get the better, however if it starts to look too good to be true then it probably is.
In today’s hangout with John Mueller from Google we had the above scenario confirmed. John assures us that either case (404’ed page or link removal) will eventually stop showing links in Google Webmaster Tools and advises us to be patient while Google’s algorithm updates the link information.