By Attorney Michael Ehline – Was it really Panda that tanked your rankings? Maybe not. Every lawyer I know with a website always braces for the next, vague, ambiguous and terrifying public Google updates. We know that Google likes to time these public algorithms so they are released simultaneously in blocks, or closely together, so that spammers and website owners won’t really know what update it was that actually hurt their rankings. So although we know that Panda 4.1 is rolling out this week, we also know that Google also released an even more potentially damaging algorithm than the notorious Panda, or even Penguin around the same time. As reported by Barry Schwartz:
Bill Lambert posted a comment on this blog saying there is a “massive private blog network update going on.” He added this is a “complete slaughter fest.” (Read More.)
As lawyers on the move, particularly solo practitioners, we all want that edge that is going to rank our site upwards in the SERPS. Many of us clamor to hire Findlaw, or some other network of legal websites. Some of us scramble to try and get our link on the same sites as our competitors, under the assumption that we will also rank as well as the site we are trying to emulate. Some lawyers who were really hurt back in 2012, were those with what we will call “glaringly obvious” Blog networks (“GOBN”) pointing to their money site.
Blog Networks of legal websites have been around forever. In the old days, we had popular sites like NAPIL, and Findlaw, who would entice you in to adding your NAP (Name, Address and Phone Number), and other data for “free” to their sites. Soon Findlaw, for example, realized the tremendous power of a few backlinks from their sites in ranking a well off lawyer’s business site. Needless to say, it appears that there are no more “free profile listings” on Findlaw for lawyers like us anymore.
Just a few weeks back, many of us received a mass e mail that NAPIL needs money to pay for servers, etc., and that our free listings will now be invoiced a large sum of money for our “free” listings. First, I want to overcome this absurd line of thinking that data aggregators like the above, are doing you any favors by giving you a free listing. To do this properly, I will categorize the various types of blog networks out there, and show you how Google and your competitors identify and exploit them.
The Paid Legal Blog Network
The evolution of the free listing on virtually any legal website start up blog network is in the following three steps:
- Offer a Free Listing to populate the new site site;
- Offer Featured – Paid – Listings Above the Fold once site looks more substantial;
- Eliminate Free Listings and Delete Free Accounts.
Mind you that sites like Findlaw, for example originally were interactive sites that provided data from the courts, like recent legislation, and even allowed guys like me to list our firms for free as part of their early lawyer database. At some point, Findlaw became the only real player on the www for lawyer data, and the company was sold. The parent company started selling SEO services and Firmsites and provided strong links from itself, to its paid clients. At one point it was even alleged to have been directly selling links. In any event, the sites that it builds generally all link back to the FL site from the sites that it builds. Many of these Firmsites also engage in their own linkbuilding. This means that FL benefits from each one of those sites, only making it more powerful, thus allowing them to charge you even more money due to the inherent linking power of a link from Findlaw. Heck, they may just even decide to convert all your links to rel=no follow, except from your paid profile, for example, and not even tell you.
In any event, often, these sites issue badges that link back to them, such as AVVO profiles. Some of these paid networks have become so powerful money-wise, that they start acquiring other powerful legal websites. A recent example would be Findlaw’s parent company’s purchasing of Superlawyers. Like the Borg, they seem to gobble up every authority site there is, link them back and forth to eachother, and monetize them accordingly. Of course this means hiring commissioned salespeople, and highly paid outside corporate types into the factor. So far this formula looks pretty bad to me if you are an attorney trying to run a feast or famine practice, and you are now a “partner” with a static website that you built to a large degree. In fact, it is not uncommon for lawyers to choose between PPC, or a powerful, linked up Firmsite when considering their advertising budget.
So here is the deal, in many cases, the site itself is populating itself with your data, and public court data, in order to gain power and web presence. Often you spent a great deal of time and effort creating some of the data. Your taxes already paid for the free data. More importantly, the sites themselves actually made money off of you and probably still are. For example. What about an unclaimed listing on a site like AVVO? The data is there. It is your data, probably from a state bar listing. Are you getting this? There is value to your name, likeness, image, trademarks, etc. Am I the only attorney who thinks that I should be getting a royalty check?
The good news so far, at least with sites like Findlaw, in addition to their backlinks, the sites in their interlinking do follow network all do tend to have great content, when compared to the average site. But many lawyers recently began having tremendous issues with Google in the fall of 2014 in their rankings (in addition to the terror of Panda and Penguin.) Now there are reports from the SEO industry that signify that private blog networks are being manually penalized by Google. These blog networks are blog websites that are usually connected from one to another under one network with one company generally owning and operating the network. Of course, it stands to reason that Google, with its vote based system of ranking, would penalize sites that link to a root, even if those sites do not link to eachother. Some have said that even these powerful blog networks are not doing much to rank sites anymore, and that in fact your site may be ranking in spite of these links, due to your other web marketing efforts. I don’t buy it. I know in my heart, that one link from a PR6 or PR7 page on FL will blast me to page one of Google in short order.
Strategies Used In The Past To Manipulate Google Included this basic three pronged strategy:
- Promoting the other blogs on the network. This is also a prospect to increase advertising revenue (Many of us lawyers see these advertizements all the time for example: “Get Your Link on 50 PR2 and 5 PR9 sites”.)
- Links are sold to websites in order to boost Google PageRank and to improve the search engine optimization.
- Dominating search engine results pages (SERPs) for a set of keywords and manipulating the choice for searches by users.
The webmaster or manager of the site receiving manual penalties by Google for their websites having backlinks on a network are become targets themselves. The reason they are targeted is due to participation with bad link building practices. The site owner may not have done this purposely, but rather hired an SEO professional who participates in black or grey hat methods either in the past or currently and put the sites in jeopardy. Google doesn’t seem to really care in most cases.
How to Identify a Private Legal Blog Network
Today with Google penalizing private blog networks (PNB) for certain practices it is essential know how to avoid having links to your website placed on these blogs. The ways to identify these blog networks include:
Too Substantially Similar Blog Content and Theme
We have all heard that we want to be on contextually related sites. Yes, that is true. But not too contextually related so as to offer not differentiating value from site to site. Many lawyers back in the good old days, would buy lots of domains, stuff them with keywords and link them all back and forth. In 2012, the most glaring of these networks got hammered due to the terrible, obviously manipulative content. Varying degrees of light, or thin content on a blog is still not all that uncommon to find, especially on a private blog network and this is one way to identify a network. As the filters get better, they appear to be shifting to glaring similarities between sites A and B and penalizing both sites accordingly. The content and structure is often the same from one blog to the next.
This may be caused by using a template and then rewording the blog post in order to have it appear unique, but actually it is not new, or evergreen content. In some cases networks that do have similar content are not being malicious, and do have good intentions generally in areas such as entertainment, sports and travel. The problem is that within the network, there is often the same content, and if the bloggers are selling links, unknowingly, your website could end up on one of the similar content blogs, and create a handshake. Whether that is the networks intention they could be penalized, and that is not good for the website owner having associated links. Later, we will go into some of the various types of tools out there for this research.
Google Issuing warnings About Content with Little or No Value Backlinks
Google Webmaster Tools, for many of these personalized network blogs have a warning with the manual penalty due to having content on the blogs with little or no value. This is sometimes referred to as thin content, which is not informative or unique having no original graphics, video or photos. In many cases the content may be automatically generated and placed on the blogs or the site owner uses overseas content providers or guest bloggers providing low grade content. The low quality content can come from various sites offering services, but that do not employ the content providers. Google outlines what they consider content with no value. Don’t think your safe if you did not get a warning. If Google thinks you are a really good SEO, they won’t say anything. They will let you think it is Panda, or something else, as you die on the vine. Get it? In any event, some experts say now is the time to dump those links from these big paid sites and devote your time to social media and lawyer outreach in the various legal communities.
Below is an example of the warnings some attorneys are getting:
C-Class IP Blogs Providing Backlinks
There is an easy way to identify private blog networks by looking at the c-class of the IPs for each of the blogs within the network. The numbers of an IP address is separated by decimals and the c-class is found in the third set of numbers. Each of the blogs will have similarities in their IPs, which will then identify them as being part of a private blog network. While one of these blogs might link to your website there is no chance all of them will also link. So even if all these blogs do not link to eachother, they all link to you, which is statistically a fat chance.
Multiple Links Built by SEO Professional or Link Builder within Small Time Frame
Link spikes are scary. If you get a large spike, Google could decide to filter the value of those links, or even push you down in order to punish you. The website owner who has an SEO professional or link builder secure a lot of links within a short period of time caution should be used in use of these links. This is one reason why I teach lawyers in the Circle of Legal Trust to monitor their link velocity. Doing a task of this type of blasting quickly, will trigger a signal that the links were probably garnered on a private blog network, and that is not a good thing. This could be a matter of six or a dozen links within a week that might raise a red flag, to check out where they came from and if it is within thirty days and fifty or a hundred links it should send up a giant red flag. It is time to question what the strategy was used to find these links from the SEO expert or link builder. You had better believe that Google’s anti Spam team is going to check the fingerprint of all the sites, and try and build an algo to filter your site when these same patterns are picked up in future iterations.
Exchanging Cash, Goods or Services
When an SEO person asks for an additional payment for securing what they term valuable backlinks or they want to trade the website owner’s services or goods in place of cash this should be a red flag. Sponsored listings, and links sold just to have your banner in the footer, are also a sign that the link is contrived. This is one of the scams often used with private blog networks. When checking the links, if they are residing on a private blog network, rather than becoming upset, go to work removing bad backlinks and repair any damage that has been created or that could happen. The next step is to find a new and reputable SEO professional to bring your site up to the standard you had planned. If you cannot get them removed, disavow them. In fact, disavow them anyways. Make sure Google knows you want no part of this non sense.
What Tools Can Help Me Spot a Blog Network
Well first of all, there are basic tools to help you find most of your links, including Google Webmaster Tools, Ahrefs, Majestic, and a few others. Unfortunately, there is one tool out there that gives you an idea of what Google is seeing. In fact, it appears to have been developed by a former Google employee. This tool is called Netcomber, but it is extremely expensive to use if you want all the data. As you will quickly see, many people seem like they could be part of a blog network, if these use shared hosting. This is because a lot of sites that link back and forth to eacother on the same server will raise a flag. If other data also matches, like web owners and admins, you could be set for extermination. There are other signals to find your fingerprint as well. The evidence gathering techniques used by Google actually could boggle even a seasoned trial attorney’s mind.
You could use this data to drop spam report bombs on your competitors, and to also get of the servers the black sites are on. One thing is certain, getting your own private server and making your site SSL secure is a good signal to Google that you have a securer site than some your competitors are on. So the takeaway from all of this, is that your recent loss of lawyer rankings may have less or nothing to do with Panda 4.1, and more to do with the the types of sites linking to you. Even if the content is great on those other interlinking sites, Google still does not, or may not consider it to be a vote under their current configuration on Hummingbird. Think about it.
Posts by Michael Ehline
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