Ever since Google released its Penguin algorithm, website owners have been swimming in murky and dangerous waters. It is no longer enough to get lots of good quality links pointing to your site. you also have to avoid the naval mines* lying in ambush – links from sites that Google considers to be toxic. Consider this article to be your minesweeper.
Once upon a time, not that long ago… ah, but this is not a fairy tale we are telling. Just two years ago, in fact, the main task of most SEO specialists was building links. That was never all there was to SEO, but it certainly was the most labour-intensive and the most never-ending task. I think Tom Shivers puts it best when he wrote:
“I’ve been a SEO consultant for over a decade and although I am sound with technical SEO the majority of my expertise and emphasis has been on gaining natural links.”
Most readers know the story well enough. The lovely princess and the handsome price… Oh, no, that’s not it. This is the tale of the weary link-builders who would look for shortcuts and systems and automation and ways to build thousands of backlinks to their websites or their client websites. This was never a very good idea, but Google rewarded them handsomely for doing so despite tut-tutting them for it.
What a difference two years make.
Having noticed the ravaged landscape of the Internet, Google has decided to align its actions more closely with its words, unleashing its “Penguin” algorithm, a hungry beast that is shredding webmaster’s little empires across the Internet.
The Penguin has turned the SEO world quite literally upside down. Just two years ago, the main task of most SEO specialists was building links. Now the main task of most SEO specialists is unbuilding links or at least defending against disreputable backlinks.
A couple years ago, any link was a good link. Even the most hoity-toity, holier-than-thou SEO practitioner paid no attention when a spammy site linked to their site.
Now, even people who once paid no attention to SEO at all are running around in a panic that the wrong kinds of sites might link to theirs, lest the Penguin get wind of it.
Instead of people coming up with tools to help webmasters build lots of quick and easy backlinks, savvy entrepreneurs are now coming up with tools to monitor their backlinks. I recently reviewed a really neat subscription software that does just that: Monitor Backlinks. This service also gives you some really neat metrics to help decide if each backlink is worthwhile or not, or dangerous or not. And you can keep tabs on your competition with it, too.
Five metrics to evaluate your backlinks
This blog post describes five metrics you can use to easily identify the worthwhile backlinks and the dangerous backlinks you might have or you might have the opportunity to acquire, so that you can avoid building a questionable backlink profile.
For those of you with some spare change and python-tight schedules, Monitor Backlinks is a quick way to identify troublesome backlinks. For those of you who misplaced your cash flow but have some spare time on your hands, there are free tools available.
Metric #1: Design
This is very simple. Take a look at the site. If the design is exceedingly poor, it is unlikely to attract good traffic or good backlinks. Chances are that the site sucks.
Free tool: Eyeballs
It’s not for nothing this is commonly called “the eyeball test”.
What to look for
Look for obvious signs that the site is not being maintained. Check if the pages are filled with ads. Check if there are tons of outbound links. Look for images that are not scaled properly. Check for real contact information. A site that posts telephone number and mailing address are much more likely to be in Google’s good books than a more secretive website.
Metric #2: PageRank
This is at the same time a no-brainer and somewhat of a red herring. A no-brainer because this is the only public metric of a site’s value that Google displays. It is somewhat of a red herring because it is often inaccurate and out of date, and is often relied upon far to heavily just because it is such an each measurement to check.
Free tool: Google toolbar
This is probably just plain obvious.
What to look for
Look for very high or very low PageRank. If a home page has zero PageRank, it is either a very new website or one that really has no presences on the Internet (or there is a glitch in the toolbar data). If you are really pressed for time you might want to pass it by.
If a home page has really high PageRank, like 5 or more, chances are that the site is a steal. But remember that there are often inaccuracies in the toolbar, so never take PageRank at face value. If a site has high PageRank but doesn’t pass the eyeball test, I’d trust the eyeball test more. In fact, I would never even look at the PageRank of a site that totally fails the eyeball test.
Look also for page-specific PageRank. This can be useful if the home page has a high PageRank and you have the option of being linked from an internal page with low PageRank or one with medium PageRank. Choose the better page.
Metric #3: Traffic
One great way to quickly determine if a website makes a good backlink is based on traffic. Google has a lot of data on which websites send traffic from their links. A website that gets no traffic, sends no traffic. So low-traffic counts could be a sign that the site has little respect from Google.
Free tool: Alexa
Anybody who has been around on the Internet for a while knows about Alexa, a website that measures traffic trends for any significant website. Of course, this might be of little use if the site is new or has very little traffic.
What to look for
There are two things to look for. The first is the overall traffic levels compared to other similar websites. BIG emphasis on “compared to other similar websites”. You cannot compare a website about fish tanks with a website about free clip-art. Alexa will tend to draw much more data from one niche than from another; this is the weak point about Alexa.
Similarly, you cannot compare a website that runs a forum for fish owners with a fish-related blog or with a website selling fish tank supplies. They might be the same niche, but they will draw different levels of traffic by their different functions.
The second thing to look for is the trend. Alexa offers really cool trend graphs so you can see if traffic has been growing or falling over the past year.
Growing is good. Falling is bad. But don’t worry too much if traffic has been gently falling over the long run. That is unlikely to reflect badly on the site.
However, if traffic has suddenly plunged, that could be a sign that Google has penalized it. If you are in a rush, you might just want to steer wide of that website and avoid getting a backlink from them. If you have time to kill, you can always try comparing the timing of the drops in traffic with the timing of Penguin updates.
Still, even if there is no direct correlation in timing, something drastic has happened. It could be the end of an ad campaign or the break-up of a partnership or some other Google penalty. Whatever it is, it is probably not worth your investment in time to figure it out.
Metric #4: Backlinks
What better way to assess the quality of a potential backlink site than by looking at its own backlinks? A website with lots of strong, credible backlinks is one that is very likely to get the stamp of approval from Google. A website with lots of spammy looking backlinks is quite likely to be in or to be headed for the doghouse …er…the penguinhouse.
Free tool: BacklinkWatch
This is not the only free tool to check backlinks with; but I find it useful.
What to look for:
You could spend hours analyzing the backlinks of every site or page offering you a backlink. Let’s not. There are a few things to look for that don’t require deep analysis.
First, check for simple link diversity. If a website has 1200 backlinks and it looks like 900 of them are coming from a single domain, or even from just three or four domains, that could be a big concern.
Of course, it also depends where the other 300 links are coming from. If several of them are coming from recognized authority websites like CNN or Forbes or webMD, the site might be well worth getting a link from. So the second thing to watch for are well-known websites that likely convey authority.
The third thing to look for are really spammy looking websites. I don’t mean to click-through each backlink, but you can easily tell if there are a lot of cheap-ugg-shoes-for-sale.com type of domains linking in. Or if a large number of inbound links come from directories or forum profiles or article directories. Nothing wrong with having some of these in a link profile. Something very wrong with having oodles of them.
Metric #5: Social signals
You might have heard that the search engines are valuing “social signals” of late. It’s true.
Free tool: ShareTalley
This tool will give you a quick count of social mentions across a broad range of social sites. It does not look at the domain, just at individual pages.
What to look for:
First, I would look at the linking page to see what social profile it has. A good social profile will show mentions across several services. I have found that if a page is promoted in any of the big six social sites (Twitter, FaceBook, Google Plus, Pinterest, StumbleUpon and LinkedIn), it will naturally pick up mentions in other places, especially Delicious and Pocket. If there are 100 or more tweets and no mentions in any of the smaller services, that is a red flag that the page might have been promoted artificially, such as by buying tweets or FaceBook likes (not good).
Next, I would look at the home page and check its mentions. That can sometimes also give an idea of the website’s social profile. But be aware that a content page that is actually of interest to people might get shared more than a home page.
We come to the end of our fairy tale. This is where the prince and the princess kiss and ride off into the sunset. They can do this because the Penguin is off in the next county hunting down people who didn’t bring their eyeballs and their other tools with them.
* If this imagery reminds you of a certain Monty Python skit, I take no responsibility for the consequences.
Illustration credit: A big thank you to Aires C. Bautista.