I’m not going to do the same post that every single SEO and agency seems to have done about the Interflora mess. Suffice to say that it looks like some bad work was done and, as a consequence, the company and, I suspect, their agency had to have some awkward conversations (although they were let out of the box pretty quickly). It’s a talking point, but as I say, rather than harp on about it, I’ve been having a bit of a think about how this situation and thousands of others like it came to pass, the mechanisms in place that caused it and where Google and the SEO industry can go to stop things like this happening to other clients.

Where We’ve Been

If we’re honest with ourselves for a minute, this whole “don’t pay for links that pass PageRank” thing is hardly new. It’s been in Google’s guidelines ever since they had guidelines and some of the conversations I’ve seen from the industry recently are talking about the sheer unfairness of it all. Rules are rules, no matter how stupid they may seem, and you can only expect to get away with breaking them for so long before you get caught.

That might seem holier-than-thou and, cards on the table, I’ve done some things in the past that violated guidelines. At one point in my career, I spent a lot of time writing articles and blog posts for directories and networks, but I suppose that’s part of the point.

When the guys behind Google decided to use links as a prominent ranking factor, the web wasn’t particularly advanced and I don’t think they quite anticipated the way the world was going to shift. Truth be told, I don’t think that they expected an entire industry to spring up based, to varying degrees, around manipulating their algorithm, finding holes in it and using it to make money. Any time there’s money to be made, people are going to find a way to exploit the system, either for short term gains or as a longer-term business model. Even in the digital world, human nature is always going to win out.

So when we have that kind of situation, where getting links with commercially-useful anchor text stands to make you more money, keep people in jobs and prop up an entire industry, should search engineers have been surprised that things like directories, article marketing, blog networks, pay-for-post providers and other manipulative ways of getting these links cropped up?

Enter The Monochrome Zoo

I think that’s largely what Panda and Penguin were for. Paid, manipulative and, frankly, crappy links worked and worked very well for many years and the people that were following the rules were finding it tough to compete. It’s all well and good working hard on getting “natural” links, but when someone with Xrumer and a credit card could outrank people doing good work, it made Google’s stance – and the stance of SEO’s that were working inside the line – tougher to defend.

Panda and Penguin were perhaps supposed to come along and clear up the mess that creating this link economy caused. We can argue back and forth about how well they worked, but it does show that Google finally started to take notice of what they’d created. Of course another, nastier industry cropped up in the wake of Penguin, but that’s another post entirely.

High Profile Penalties

Every time someone big gets hit, we see this kind of furore. People start wailing and gnashing their teeth about how unfair it is, that Google should have a better algorithm rather than burning a site for something that worked for years, or we get people celebrating in the streets that someone (someone other than their clients) got caught. Whether you’re black hat, white hat or, most likely, somewhere in the middle, we can all see a common trend here.

People will always break rules and, when there’s a pre-eminent commodity (links, in this case) in place, no one should be surprised when people look into ways to get more of that commodity by hook or by crook.

All the time links work, people are going to exchange money, goods or services to get them. As more and more people are becoming savvy around SEO and their own sites, more and more people are joining the link economy, and it’s tough to argue why they shouldn’t.

The Value of a Link

My SEO team’s link building is entirely outreach based and I’m pretty certain that we’re the only company in the area that doesn’t have a link budget. I can genuinely say, hand-on-heart that we have never paid money or provided items in exchange for a link since I’ve been here, but during the course of this outreach, I have noticed a definite shift in the way site owners behave. In the time since Penguin, more and more people have been saying to me that they want money in exchange for that link or, more comically, “You’re the first person that’s contacted me about my site in the last few months that wasn’t offering money for a link”.

The thing is, just because Google says you can’t do it in order to help your rankings, can you really blame people for wanting money? When a company that does not own the web, no matter how synonymous they may be with it, says that you can’t do something with your own property, that you can’t charge money for something that takes your time and stands to help someone else get paid, why should you listen? Whoever we are, whatever we do, as site owners, we’re all part of this link economy to varying degrees. This is something that Google created and, truthfully, I don’t think that penalties like this will stop people charging for their time or effort and I certainly don’t think it’s going to stop SEO’s with quotas and expectations to meet breaking out the credit card or developing ways to manipulate the algorithm.

Then there’s the fact that people are still taking shortcuts and, rather than doing the work properly, they’re still outsourcing their guest posts to countries where the labour’s cheaper (I’ve had a few funny/ awful posts sent this way myself) or just going in with “I’ll give you £100 for a link with this anchor text”. When this kind of work is the norm rather than the exception, I don’t think penalties should be a surprise, but it’s something that must be working right now.

Damaging the Commodity

The problem with SEO is that, as an industry, we have a habit of finding something that works and bashing away at it until Google figures out what’s going on and devalues it. We killed directories, for the most part. We killed article marketing, for the most part, we’re in the process of killing infographics and guest blogging, we’ve got newspapers slapped for advertorials (by “we”, I mean you lot, obviously :-)) how long until there’s nothing left? How much longer do we realistically have until there are really no “good” links left?

Perhaps that’s where Google are going with social signals from Google+, authorship markup, publisher markup etc, but the problem is that I’m struggling to see that working. All the time they’re not playing nicely with social networks that real people actively use, it’s not going to be particularly useful. If a Facebook ‘Like’ or a Tweet doesn’t really impact anything in Google, they’re limiting the signal and, again, it’s not like these things can’t be manipulated.

So Where Do We Go?

I’m the first to admit that, in this case, I don’t have all the answers. Whatever you think about these high-profile penalties and the link economy in general, the fact remains that we’re all involved. From the ultimate white hat SEO to the black hats to those that sit somewhere in the middle, we’re all a part of it. We’re all culpable in the way things are right now and Google are far from without blame.

Maybe we, as an industry, need to start doing the kinds of work we say we’re capable of and stop spending R&D time on finding shortcuts from forums instead of actually innovating on longer-term strategies, without still hammering anchor text and other methods to conform to outdated KPI’s and to stop working to the “stack it high, sell it whatever” business model that we inherited from six years ago.

Perhaps agencies need to spend more time educating clients, perhaps clients need to invest more time in understanding what really matters and doing what it takes to help us do the work we should be doing and, just perhaps, Google need to stop rewarding crap work for so long before wagging their finger from on high and punishing a handful of sites for something while letting this payday loans mess continue.

I don’t have the answers (for once), but I do know that things aren’t working the way anyone wants them to right now and I’m really hoping that, all the time we’re working with this diminishing commodity, a solution comes.

What Do You Think?

I know this post hasn’t been as actionable as others I’ve written, it’s more a brain dump, but I’d love to hear what you think. Is it still worth investing in gaming the algorithm or should SEO’s be finding more ways to work inside the line? Should Google just man up and stop caring about anchor text? Should we all just pack up link building and work on Google+? Leave me a comment and get a do-follow link for your trouble.

Thanks for reading.