Another link network has been thoroughly de-indexed by Google’s anti-spam team. This time it was the blackhat mainstay Anglo Rank, which was one of the larger “ranking services” that has managed thus far to stay under the surface. Matt Cutts has recently felt it safe to Tweet about a few of the particulars, which gives some insight into Google’s approach.
Another One Bites the Dust
Anglo Rank was a link network so-named for its high percentage of English content. It relied on a number of sites with high rank and low OBL, or outbound links. Theoretically, this made their sites ideal sources of backlinks for the webmasters investing in the service.
Sites with high OBL values are generally regarded as less valuable by Google’s algorithm and are more likely to trigger manual investigation in the instance of suspicious linking behavior. Sites with primarily English content also look better to Google’s spiders as when pointed toward an English-language site this looks more like natural discussion and reference to the linked page. Low OBL and primarily English web content were major advantages over contemporary competing networks.
In addition to low OBL and primarily English content, Anglo Rank relied on full-fledged “authority websites” for its links. This distinguished it from many of its competitors who relied primarily on blogs. Blog networks were preferred previously because blogs are generally easier to automate and queue up with dubious “content” to link from. Blogs were much easier to root out for two big reasons.
The first was OBL. Blog networks tended to carry two to three links per blog post. When Google caught on, they started reducing the link counts. By the time OBL count was fully rooted out and penalized as it is with the current Google update the damage was done and the blogs were too late to salvage.
The second reason was structure. Blog networks tended to utilize the same few designs over and over again. There are only so many page variants that can be produced on the same blog architecture before it becomes painfully obvious what’s going on even to a blind algorithm.
Overcoming the weaknesses of the blog network and OBL hit empowered Anglo Rank on its release. It allowed for very quick results. Review copies often reported seeing rank jumps in 24-48 hours. Occasionally they even offered up sites as sacrificial lambs to verify these results to their peers. This is not something you do with a site you can’t afford to lose; it can be bad news for blackhats to have the URL to a potential-competitor’s functional, successful site. The willingness of Anglo Rank users to put their sites at risk to provide testimonials is a testament to their short-lived success.
Anglo Rank boasted “absolutely no footprints linking the websites together“. Footprint is the crossover of links in a network. If many sites all have links from the same sources it’s a natural red flag for search engine algorithms that value inbound links. Between 2010 and 2012, network footprinting was Google’s primary detection heuristic to root out link networks; the more successful backlinking networks were those that had solutions that suppressed their footprints, often requiring them to restrict information to their subscribers to prevent them from accidentally outing the network.
If Anglo Rank had nothing linking their sites together, did Google need to develop a new technique to determine which links stemmed from their blackhat workings? Not remotely. Matt Cutts is the head of Google’s anti-spam team, and this is far from his first rodeo dealing with high-secrecy “underground” networks. Cutts is the public face of Google’s anti-spam efforts, and his name is known among blackhats and marketers with a mix of equal parts reverence and resentment. He felt no shame about calling Anglo Rank out directly on their strongest marketing claim.
On December 6th, Matt Cutts tweeted:
“There are absolutely NO footprints linking the websites together” Oh, Anglo Rank.
Footprint is exactly what allowed Google to spot Anglo Rank’s illicit links and begin the de-indexing process. Few if any of the links in their network remain valuable. Google’s spam team has a history of identifying link sources by host and clearing them out with extreme prejudice. Once a server has been marked for blackhat spam, there’s no redemption unless hosting changes hands entirely, and the same applies to domains. This makes the hit to Anglo Rank devastating as it takes the teeth out of the infrastructure they’ve spent their time developing. It’s the same pattern we’ve seen in the past with similar services like BuildMyRank.
The habit of explicit, self-styled blackhats is generally to scurry back into the woodwork and link their wounds after a major hit like this. The operators of Anglo Rank have yet to do so, maintaining a presence on the forum they’ve pushed the brunt of their marketing through. Their response to complaints has been less-than-cordial and borderline-mocking. Given the blackhat subculture it is likely they’ll cleanly get away with this. Users are reporting their penalty notices with the predicted measures of profanity only to be met with:
“Thank you for the update but what was you expecting that you gonna be still ranking for 10 years ehhh?”
Outside the blackhat subculture this would leave you with a lot of chargebacks and a bad Better Business Bureau hit. There’s very little their customers can do about it in this context.
What Happens Now?
Google’s last PR update hit a lot of spam-reliant marketers harder than ever. We’re beginning to see a change in how blackhat solutions are marketed; they no longer pretend by omission that their services are for long-term use. The penalties being reported and complained about seem to be harsher as well.
Link networks are going out of style for a lot of reasons. There are few ways to adapt outside of the box they’ve trapped themselves in. Through 2012 blackhat link networks could play “cat and mouse” with Cutts and his team but there is now little that will prevent Google from locking onto their footprints and doling out the necessary penalties. Because these networks are underground and as distributed as they are, eliminating the tainted links to a site is all-but-impossible even when the proprietors of a service are willing to assist. This makes recovering a site that has been penalized for blackhat linking a difficult proposition as demonstrating a restoration of compliance is, in effect, impossible. As more people come to realize that utilizing these services effectively ties the lifespan of their site to the lifespan of the link network their popularity will only decrease.
This consistent history of even the most underground networks getting nailed is causing many would-be subscribers to shy away from putting link network services to use even on their rapid-fire fly-by-night projects. Link sales as a whole are not yet dead, of course, but this style of tiered network can’t last under Google’s withering fire of penalties and manual spam actions. As time wears on we’ll likely see an increase in individualized links being used on authority pages with legitimately-useful content. We’re not yet seeing marketers being boxed into exclusively whitehat tactics yet, but the momentum is there.