A few months ago website owner who has worked with us periodically in the past contacted us as a result of a ranking decline around the same time as a Penguin update, and we performed a small audit on his site.

A con man selling watches in a cheap plaid suit and sunglasses

Our investigation had revealed that his inbound link profile consisted primarily of paid links – most of which were from low quality websites with minimal or no relevance. Our recommendation at that time was to remove those paid links and work on expanding his profile with quality & relevance.

Just last week we received a notification from Google that this particular site had received a manual penalty due to unnatural linking. While the notification does not specifically state the source links of the “manual spam action” we remembered the paid link building tactics he was using which we discovered in the past audit.

Passing Along News of the Google Penalty
I forwarded the message from Google to the site owner letting him know what had happened. Initially I suspected that the paid linking had caught up with him. While it is possible that some of the paid links contributed to the problem, it turns out they are far from the primary issue.  A conversation with the site owner quickly revealed he had been using a cheap link building company for the past several months.  I suggested he contact them to get their input on the Google warning. He shared part of his conversation with me and I was completely shocked.

What the Cheap Link Builder Said
When the site owner reported the unnatural link penalty to the link building company his rep noted the penalty notice was not a problem and something to be expected. What?! Google formally told the site owner they have taken action against their site – this is a big problem if you ask me… and the rep told the client he should expect this? He can’t be serious? So using their link building services one can expect to have a warning and manual penalty sent by Google?  If this is commonplace should a respectable company not forewarn a client of this risk? It sounds to me like grounds for legal action.

But wait, sadly it gets worse! The rep went on to advise his client to remove his site from Google Webmaster Tools stating that having this account gives Google access to the client’s site. They suggested to continue building links as-is because stopping now would impact things negatively.

Remove the site from Webmaster Tools to remove Google’s access? Keep building more of these links? My head just hit the desk a few times… all of this is insanity and seems to be an attempt to compound the issue and fleece the client. By utilizing Google Webmaster Tools you are not giving Google access – quite the opposite. Google is giving YOU access to data that they already have. By deleting a Webmaster Tools profile you are not removing anything but your own access to the data Google is allowing you to view about your site. Google still has complete access to all this data – after all, it is their data. Removal from Webmaster Tools will not harm a websites ranking, just as having a profile will not directly help one either. Webmaster Tools only has an indirect impact on your rankings by providing you with valuable information. It is how the webmaster utilizes this information that has an impact on organic rankings.

Further review of the “work” conducted by the company showed that the link builder utilized automated methods for mass link submissions which included many thousands of blog comments a month; for your info comment links are a complete waste of time. Their techniques also included a great many article and press release submissions.  A closer look at some of the built links revealed a large number were from adult sites. It was becoming clearer to me this particular link service is what likely resulted in the penalty in the first place. The previous paid links may have contributed, but appeared less likely to have triggered Google’s curiosity in the first place. One report the site owner shared showed thousands of links generated in the last month; which in itself raises a flag. The content of the source URL’s raises another; I manually scanned a handful of these pages and found links such as porn, expired domains, non-existent sites, and sites in unreadable (to me) foreign languages on spammy sites. I did not find a single link that I would even classify as safe, let alone relevant.

What is the Site Owner to Do?
All of this is leaving the website owner in a tough spot – how can he clean up tens of thousands of links, and how can he determine which in the list are worth keeping (if any). Is his site irreparably damaged? Should he start over with a fresh domain? Will removing as many links as possible and then disavowing the bad links be enough to get things back on track if it is even affordable? It is a mess and the final answer & solution is not yet decided upon. There are a few options and they are being weighed. Starting over from scratch MAY be the most effective and least expensive option at this point, but that certainly comes with its own set of hurdles.

More on this Cheap Link Building Company
You probably want to know who this cheap link builder is. Well as much as I want to share the companies name with the world, I promised the website owner that I would not bring any names into this post and I will stick by that promise. That said I really wanted to know a bit more about this particular company so I contacted them as a prospective client. Before speaking with a rep my first impression was that they were a complete con. I no longer think that. I think they are a legally legitimate company performing  a very bad service that is harmful to their clients; if not now, then in the long run when their unnatural link profiles catch up with them. I even found no complaints about their service and that the owner (who appears also to be the rep in this case) is highly regarded on a prominent search marketing forum; I am still speechless after that discovery. From all outward appearances I get the impression they truly believe their link building methods are safe but it is hard to believe anyone who claims to be an expert in the link building field could be so daft!

Simply put, building thousands of automated links per month (at approximately $0.10/link) for just a few dollars is never a good idea, no matter how pretty it has been packaged. There are legitimate and good link building services, but I can promise you that the good ones will not get you thousands of good links a month for less than $100. The best of the best will get you a small fraction of that at a significantly higher cost; read up on Eric Ward’s premium link building practices (he practically invented it in the 90s). Heck, link building in itself is not as powerful as what really works and that is utilizing a proper content strategy to build links naturally from great content.

My recommendations to anyone out there building links with a vendor  is to work closely with them and ensure that they are following the “rules” and playing safe. Look at the actual links they have built and verify you are happy with each and every one and question those you are not.

So how can this situation be avoided? The first thing is to not hire link building companies offering “too good to be true” results. Here are some quick thoughts on this subject:

  • Price will always reflect quality of product. I have seen prices from decent link builders starting as low as $15/link and up to the $300+ range. This type of work ads up fast and that is because it requires manually requesting links from reputable sites and working hard to maximize your chances of success. This is NOT easy work.
  • Read up on link building best practices from highly respected search industry web sites like Search Engine Roundtable, Search Engine Land and Search Engine Guide so you know what is and isn’t appropriate.
  • Inspect and visit each and every link the company creates for your campaign. Check for relevance and signs of SPAM. Ensure that you are happy with the links procured, and if not, address the issue with your link builder.
  • Religiously monitor your Google Webmaster Tools account. This situation was only caught due to an email from Google. Fortunately for this site owner we happened to still have an active account for his site so it was caught by us even though he is not an active client. Had his Google Webmaster Tools account not been active, there is no telling how long the bad links would have continued piling up.

Be safe everyone.