Anatomy of a Google Filter/Penalty (or how not to do nofollow PR sculpting)

May 15, 2008 – 10:42 pm

OK, so after a long break, I’m trying to get back on track with posting. Had a great time in South Africa (owe an apology to Viperchill for not giving him a call, family business was crazy mate, but I get there about once a year so maybe next time?), had a great time in Eilat on my Marine Microbiology course and now it is time to get back to business.

It seems like Google are applying their penalties all over the place. Instead of manually punishing sites, they came up with all these red flags that can send your site into the depths of -60 / -300 / -950 penalty/filter. The penalties are site specific and it is very interesting to find out what triggers them and when they are lifted.

So, I know it sounds weird, but when one of our customers recently got hit with a severe loss of positions in Google SERPs, a part of me was obviously upset with the disturbance, but another part of me was excited due to the fact that I can analyze the change in locations and try and figure out what would cause this particular filter to be applied. At the beginning I was really flabbergasted by the weird nature of the filter, so I turned to several of my SEO friends for advice and opinion, but nothing could really replace the bricks and mortar approach of doing one change at the time while monitoring the locations. So to cut the long story short, I’m going to give a very concise list of the actions that led to the penalty and the reaction we got from SERPS:

  1. Customer decides to change the focus of his site to a different, but similar product. That move involves change in on-page optimization, so I am thinking, since there are changes about to be done on the site, why not throw in nofollowing of the majority of navigation links, according to the recipe – link love flows from homepage to all the inner pages and from inner pages only to homepage and pages I want ranked.
  2. Locations for the new keyphrase begin to change – on www.google.com, as seen from Israel, the site climbs from #53 to #26 and then to #8. On www.google.com as seen from the US (by using the gl=US argument) the site plunges to the neighborhood of #300, fluctuating from #283 to #345. The same is true for every other keyword that was introduced to the on-page optimization and is not represented in the anchor text of the existing links. The old keyword holds first page position on Google seen from any country.
  3. I remove the nofollow from the site navigation. After about a week, the site climbs to the area of #100 for all the new keywords on US Google. The Israel Google location is moving between #6 and #8. The old keywords are slowly slipping down but are still holding first page locations on both Googles.
  4. I tweak a few links from our sites + get a link from a relevant PR4 site using the new keyword as the anchor text. After about two weeks, the site is at first page locations for all the new keywords, while slipping to the second page for the old keyword.

The whole incident is summarized in a graph representing change in locations over time:

It is important to notice that when i refer to Israel Google, I do not mean www.google.co.il. It is the good old www.google.com but seen from the Israeli IP address. Similarly, US Google is www.google.com with the ?gl=US argument in the URL or www.google.com seen through a US proxy.

So what happened ? There are several things here that require attention:

  • This was definitely a filter and not an overall site punishment. Furthermore, it appears to be automatic and not manual.
  • The filter seems to be triggered by a combination of the implementation of nofollow and a significant difference between the on-page and off-page optimization.
  • The filter is keyword sensitive
  • The filter is country specific! This observations is in accordance to what quite a few other webmasters/SEOs were seeing in other niches. The big question is whether these filters are applied only on Google US as a rule or there is some kind of other input which will define the country on whose results it is implemented. I can think of Webmaster Tools localization, Analytics data or even Google toolbar data as examples of such possible input.

This is not the first time that nofollow has been nominated as a red flag for Google. Eric Lander has written about it on SEJ and there is a discussion on the Sphinn thread. I know that there is a big question about whether nofollowing your navigational links could serve as a signal for Google to punish you, however I don’t think that the nofollowing by itself was what has caused the penalty in this case. I think it was a combination of signals that caused the infamous red flag to be risen above the customer’s site

This is all very interesting as an observation, however without actual implications to my everyday SEO work, it would not be worth much:

1. If you are changing on-page optimization, do it gradually and hand-in-hand with addition of the incoming links targeting the new keyphrases.

2. Do not implement nofollow PageRank sculpting abruptly or at the same time when you are doing other big changes on your website (for example, I wouldn’t try doing it close to a hosting move)

3. Before you optimize your site, try and define where is your target audience going to search from. Then monitor locations on www.google.com as it is seen from each of your target countries. This task can be somewhat automatized by using Google Global Firefox extension.

Anyone else seen similar thing happen ?

PS. on unrelated note, does anyone know how to remove the Sphinn button code from Feedburner RSS ? It is driving me crazy!

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  1. 73 Responses to “Anatomy of a Google Filter/Penalty (or how not to do nofollow PR sculpting)”

  2. This article is great. I mean, I do not know much about SEO, but I am learning every day a bit more about it. Thanks.

    By lenen on Oct 15, 2008

  3. Interesting post and thanks for sharing.
    Perhaps it is difficult but right to predict anything for Google but it is a very difficult to learn. I can say all SEO-strategies change from site to site and blog to blog.

    By Autoverzekering on Nov 16, 2008

  4. Its an interesting point you make but I’ve seen little evidence of dropping exactly 30, 300 or 950 places for any of the sites I’ve worked on

    By uk links directory on Nov 20, 2008

  5. This is very a interesting article. I have been testing out the whole PR sculpting concept and I think it does work if implemented properly.

    I don’t think that what you encountered was much more than a slight over optimization penalty for doing so much at once though, which you noted later in your article. It could have also been just a reindexing of the old backlinks, and the changed content that took a while to readjust in the index.

    Either way, I do believe in the different default penalties you noted that are issued to websites offending the rules. I am sure that at this point they actually switch some on manually depending on the severity.

    By wvo conversion on Dec 3, 2008

  6. GOOD 🙂
    thanks!

    By Transportadora on Feb 12, 2009

  7. In addition to post, the free utility synonymbase.com for selection keywords and as similar(wow!) keywords 😉 Search over 200 million keys.

    By mike on Mar 8, 2009

  8. I can not understand what is no-follow.

    By Peter on Mar 15, 2009

  9. Nofollow is a thing i slapped on your spammy links, Peter.

    By Neyne on Mar 15, 2009

  10. Is it possible to ask Google for explanation why you get a penalty?

    By lenen bkr a2 on Apr 2, 2009

  11. I realy Like This articel I didn’t ever was realy atracted too it but now I see what its all about I am Getting More And More Intresterd in it, and The Articel it self is very good formulated and got Lots of falluw information,
    thanks for it I will keep on chekking this blog.

    By Kinderstoelen on Apr 25, 2009

  12. First of all thank you for this article, it was a interesting read with good up to date data. Defiantly don’t agree on every point, pointed out, I’m not sure if the reason of the penalty was the switch and change of focus on product. Should be interesting information to get feedback on. I’ve been trying different SEO strategies on various sites with all heights of PRs, but can’t say I ever changed a focus. Looking forward hearing feedback, with best regards,

    Doorlopend Krediet

    By Doorlopend Krediet on Apr 25, 2009

  13. Duplicate content has become the big area of misinformation with everyone concerned that they have hit a “duplicate content filter”, or been penalized for duplicate content. Chances are you haven’t been banned or penalized unless you really have very little unique content on your entire site. For this reason, I’d thought I’d dig a little bit further into dupe content and remedies so I have a reference document for later.

    By forex online essentials on May 14, 2009

  14. Interesting post, although it’s a bit old 🙂

    I’ve seen this happening a couple of times to my site when I didn’t change anything about it… The only reason I can think of is that I got an extra backlink which in Google’s opinion came from a bad neighbourhood or something…

    I sometimes think you should stop optimizing once your ranking is good, and only start with it when your falling down. A small step in optimizing can break your rankings…

    By Santhos Webdesign on Jul 22, 2009

  15. I disagree. Optimisation should be continuous and Google would not punish you with drops in rankings for receiving a couple of links from bad networks. At the end of the day, they realise that you will more than likely not have control over such links – else SEO firms could sabotage each others’ campaigns!

    The graph within the article is an interesting one, and does well to provide an insight into the workings of the Google algorithm. Unfortunately, even though you monitored the changes you made to the site in terms of SEO, there may have been contributing factors for the sudden drops/improvements, behind the scene.

    I’ve seen some similar positional fluctuations for one of my projects, and at times I think it’s most probably due to minor changes in the algorithm. It is important to remember that whilst we only really hear about major changes to the algorithm, Google makes hundreds of amends each year – and any one of them could disagree with your site, resulting in significant positional changes.

    By Zulu Digital on Jul 22, 2009

  16. @santhos – that is an interesting approach (discontinuous optimization) although i agree with Zulu that it cannot be one link that did it for you

    @Zulu – were your changes country and keyword specific ? Since the post was written, I’ve seen at least two more cases with the exact same filtering applied (country + keyword specific). In both cases the reason for the filter was keyword abuse in the anchor text of the sitewide link pointing to homepage. After seeing this, I went back to this post and it looks to me like what happened was that slapping nofollow on so many links increased the amount of link juice going through the over-optimized link pointing to homepage, thus triggering the overoptimization filter. As you can see from the dates in the chart, all of this happened at the end of 2007-beginning of 2008, supposedly before Google killed the whole on-site nofollow sculpting. Obviously, I cannot prove this, but it fits the scenario better than the initial red flag story i thought it was.

    By Neyne on Jul 22, 2009

  17. interesting article and evidence. not sure what conclusions i can draw but i will definitely keep it in mind about making on page changes slowly, i think i’ve seen a fall at times because of that too. since i don’t use the no-follow at all, that hasn’t been a factor.
    thanks again

    By michaelj72 on Jul 22, 2009

  18. I am reading this post with interest, I have spent many hours gathering related links and creating unique content, with the end user in mind. Our site had held a page one rank one position for many key word searches for at least two years. The site has just received a -60 penalty/filter. I have removed new content added within the last month, hoping that the site will regain its original positioning, which it hasn’t as yet. The front page is holding pr2 at present. http://www.sdccleaning.co.uk

    Regards

    Spencer

    By Spencer Davies on Aug 2, 2009

  19. An interesting follow up would be to see how far you can go, before you get a penalty.

    By Vanessa on Jan 25, 2010

  20. Good post! Unfortunately, Matt Cutts has recently admitted that PageRank sculpting has become useless. The algorhythm doesn’t work that way anymore. Nofollow is only useful fcr blog comments nowadays actually.

    By eRage webdesign on Jun 12, 2010

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