About a month ago, you might remember there was an entertaining exchange that took place on Twitter between WebDesign.org and T-Mobile. The subject of the discussion? Link renewal.
That conversation ended with this inevitable response from Matt Cutts, head of Google's spam team:
-- Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) March 20, 2014
Nothing like a stern look of disapproval directly from Matt Cutts to get your heart racing, am I right?
As entertaining as this whole thing might be to us from the outside, there are real people involved, and real jobs at stake. I got a chance to talk to Vince about the incident. Here's what he had to say.
Do you sell links on other websites or just WebDesign.Org?
As a matter of fact, we stopped selling links as of now. We used to do it on WebDesign.org because it was an important income stream back in the day. Admittedly, it took us a while to get rid of that approach. Now we participate in affiliate campaigns instead of selling links or doing anything else that violates Google guidelines.
Can you clarify why you were asking T-mobile to renew their paid link? I'm still a little confused here. Did this policy against paid links just change now?
That's right. At that point, we were finishing up with that business model. At this particular moment, we are not selling any links.
Does the company you work for know or care that you're selling links on their website?
Yes, it was a part of the business model. We decided to move away from selling links some time ago, but we just could not do it momentarily because most of our links were long-term ones. Other than that, lots of our employees depended on that income stream. We just could not immediately remove those links and fire people because we would not be able to obtain funds for their salaries.
I'm just wondering if you realized that this was against Google's terms of service back when you were doing this. It seems like a lot of companies still don't realize this.
Well, I did realize that but we just were not able to find a way to quickly switch over to other income streams.
How long have you been selling links on your websites?
We did it from time to time for a few years. I joined the company just three years ago. That's the timespan I'm sure about. With that in mind, I can't really say if it happened before I started working at WebDesign.org.
In this current SEO climate, do you still receive a lot of requests for paid links?
We do get a few requests of that kind once in a while. It goes without saying that we don't accept such proposals any more. Speaking of which, a T-mobile representative replied via email, though I tried to reach them on the phone as well. His reply was as follows,"I do not know who you are, but wanted to be clear T-Mobile does not buy links nor does it engage in any practices associated with it." So, it sounds like they aren't using this method anymore.
Were the requests sent to you directly or did you use a network?
We usually get them via our contact form. We don't take part in any networks of that sort.
So did you guys set out to make money by selling links, or did this get started when buyers started approaching you to sell them?
Since I'm not with the company from the getgo. I'm not really sure, but it was already happening when I joined WebDesign.org. It looks that it was happening both ways.
I'm not going to ask for any specifics, but about how much were the buyers spending on these links? I can imagine that if the prices were high enough, it could be hard to turn down, especially if you didn't realize the potential consequences.
Actually, prices ranged pretty dramatically. About $50k of all our income was coming from links and banners. And yes, it was extremely difficult to turn them down because it allowed us to pay salaries and improve our site even further. As a matter of fact, it was kind of OK to sell links back in the day. Well, at least Google did not penalize for that.
[I'd just like to interject for our readers here and say that it has always been against Google's guidelines, and that sites have been receiving manual penalties for this kind of behavior for as long as the practice has existed. Unfortunately, a lot of people are unaware of this, or even that the restrictions existed in the first place. This is what can happen when your employees aren't educated about SEO. Be warned.]
Are you worried about any negative consequences from selling links?
Sure, it's pretty obvious that it can't just go away with no dent. Actually, we already started getting the negative consequences you mentioned. For example, we drastically lost both traffic (over 70%) and SEO metrics. For one, PR dropped from 6 to 7.
Has the website received any manual penalties since Matt Cutts made an angry face at you on Twitter?
Yes, we got a manual penalty message from Google. So, now we're currently doing our best to have it revoked. Hopefully, Google will soon see that we don't violate their guidelines and put us back on track.
So did this just happen now, or were you penalized before the Twitter incident?
We were penalized specifically after the Twitter incident. Basically, in a matter of a few days we lost our traffic, SEO metrics, etc.
What kind of penalty did they hit you with? Was it a site-wide penalty or a targeted action?
It was a site-wide penalty. We lost rankings not only for our major keywords but also the long tail.
I have to ask, in the meantime, what are you doing to get traffic from sites other than Google, and how's it working so far?
Though Matt Cutts recommends sticking a fork in guest blogging for SEO purposes, it's still OK to do that for driving traffic. You can just add a nofollow link to your guest post. It gives you no SEO value but people still can click it and land on your site. Sure thing, now it makes sense to guest blog on high trafficked sites only.
What do you think your business model is going to like now, post-penalty?
It goes without saying that we're going to go the affiliate route along with our own product creation. It does require more effort, but it's a future proof model that is definitely here to stay.
There are a few things we can learn from this interview:
- Up until the whole thing went public, both sites were getting away with everything pretty much unscathed. That's not a recommendation to buy or sell links (far from it), but it is a reminder that Google's algorithm isn't omniscient.
- There are real jobs and income at stake when you choose to embrace a business model that goes against Google's terms of service. It's not easy to change directions once you start down that path, and you probably won't put any real effort into changing until you get hit.
- We tend to think of link buying as the thing to avoid (and it is), but it's often the link sellers who receive the harshest punishments from Google. The same goes for networks like Build My Rank or My Blog Guest.
I wish Vince and WebDesign.org all the best for the future. There site is completely legit as far as the content is concerned. They just made some bad decisions. Decisions that are going to cost them a lot of money.
Let this be a reminder. You're never entitled to search traffic.