By attorney Michael P. Ehline: Some lawyers have said their websites made a dramatic plunge down or amazingly went up in SERPS after Google’s new algorithm change years ago. Back 2000s mid-2000s, there was a new rank-modifying spam filter patent. Were you a lawyer who lost organic rank and freaked out with this then-new Google algorithm update affecting your search results almost always with a ranking drop? The SEO community wasn’t saying much about it, so I reached out to Bill Slawski. He is a lawyer and SEO virtuoso who deciphers patents used by search engines.
Back then, the SEO community referred to this new algo as Panda and Penguin after seeing their search results fall under the then version of Google Search Console (Google Webmaster Tools) and Google Analytics. This may have been due to Google analyzing what the website owner or their marketing company is doing in SEO work on their sites and determining whether they should give them a plus or minus.
A little background. This was a very widespread, common practice, and still is, that when Google did a dance and dropped your search traffic in the search results, the webmaster would modify the copy on or off the page to try and get your ranking back. Google decided this was an unnatural attempt to boost rankings. Since it is not white hat SEO, Google had to find a new approach.
Next Question – Why Does Rank Modifying Spamming Violate Google Quality Guidelines?
First, a little history. For years, it has been known that posting to blog networks was a great way to rank your site. Many of these networks were/are owned by the same individuals and were not that easy to spot with whois info, hosts, etc. Most of these sophisticated networks linked back to the leading legal site with the exact match anchors.
When a place lost rank, the lawyer network owner(s) could add more precise match anchors to the KW; they lost ranking but jumped back up in the search results. People used to report this unethical behavior, especially when they saw a competitor get a link spike for all the same terms. This type of spamming was more about using anchor text in your links to get an artificial boost.
Another less obvious but effective technique was keyword stuffing words and terms into web pages that dropped during Google algorithm updates that lowered search results for a particular term. Let’s get into Penguin and Panda a bit.
Enter Penguin/Panda Web Pages
Around 2012, or prior, Google decided that too many exact match anchors, link spikes, etc., were not natural and were probably spam. The evidence shows Google started blowing lawyer blogs and websites out of the SERPs. Matt Cutts, Google’s then-SEO liaison, even preached that if you could go back and remove those links and make changes to your site, you could lose the penalty. Yes, it was called a “penalty.”
Heck, they even sent emails to many suspected spammers in their then version of Google Search Console. Naturally, legit sites also fell. But in the malaise, many spammers tried to remove these “too many exact match” links, just as they would modify copy on a page after a bad Google algorithm update for their search results.
Google Search Console and Rank Modification Tracking
All along, Google tracks rank-modifying spamming activity, including activity on your site, such as cloaking, tiny letters, keyword stuffing, and who knows what else. (Modernly, we know that Google’s algorithm sent pro-republican emails to spam intended for its republican users in the last election.)
We know that Google has been accused of being far-left and supporting far-left causes. So an intelligent lawyer knows an algorithm smart enough to know your political leanings and communications it likely detests, is ALSO smart enough to see things with your website that it also detests, right?
The bottom line is that Google knows if you are paying for guest posts, and most people selling links use Google Docs and Google mail in pursuit of these search results. So it’s no wonder people engaged in guest post spamming just got hammered organically in December 2023 on Google Search. How did you fare in the last Google Algorithm update? If you fell, be honest. Did you buy guest posts or other unnatural links? Are you still paying your in-house SEO people? Or did they tell you podcasting is the way to go this time? Maybe they are pushing you to increase your PPC bids? Lol!
I mention this only because rank-modifying spamming is not just modifying copy on a given page, and it can also be looking out how SEO companies are modifying internal links. There will be no unnatural link warning in most cases. Google Search might even be tracking how you are swapping out old exact match anchors on blog networks you paid for at that black hat forum to get a boost in the search engines.
Google Rank Brain and Self Awareness As a Ranking Factor?
There is a new ranking factor in town. Now we have a super-intelligent youngster. We call him AI, and Google may call him “Rank Brain,” is it a “they” or a “her?” Trust me, although Google Seach Console does not display all your external backlinks, it sees them.
And Google probably also sees their original email, metadata, and the keystrokes of your original link or “guest post” transaction and purchase of these links on Paypal, etc. Google has probably become self-aware, and its artificial intelligence probably has its own personality by now. It knows when you are keyword stuffing.
It knows how to monitor and enforce any Google patent, likely in real-time. Your Google ranking got a lot more complicated, especially if you came to California from Florida or New York City with a carpetbag of money years ago and thought your Google rankings would last! Maybe it’s time to come up with another radio jingle because Google’s search results don’t always come with an unnatural link warning or notifications of problems.
Core Web Vitals could be perfect, and you still won’t know everything unless you truly understand the search engine and its push towards paid services for decent search engine rankings.
Google is Watching Your Link-Building Strategies
Even if you use a new server, unless you erase everything, including the Mac Address of your computer, you will probably be tracked and “rank modified.” Google likely uses its people to track down these “paid guest post” link networks, not just what’s already baked into its algorithm as ranking factors. But I can spot them just by looking. Let’s get back on track here and see how Google may treat your response to a ranking drop in the search results.
Video Highlighting What Matt Cutts Said About Links Google No Longer Trusts
So was Cutts playing with us to trigger a response with the search engines and you? The answer is pretty simple in a trained attorney like me and the search company’s mind. They want to track the reaction of the site that received a penalty (they say it is an “algorithmic change,” but it is a penalty to you) and then decide if the website should be punished MORE. This isn’t paranoia or delusions! Even internal links play a role in your Google ranking drop or gain, and if timed improperly, you could see your ranking modified for months until Google unleashes the Kraken of your true Google rankings.
It is the Google patent that was granted on August 14, 2012, which in part reads:
“20. A device, comprising:a memory to store a first rank associated with a document; and a processor to: retrieve the first rank; dynamically compute a second rank associated with the document; select a rank transition function that represents a transition, over a period of time, from the first rank to the second rank; compute, based on the rank transition function, a sequence including a plurality of transition ranks over the period of the time; detect, during the period of time, changes to one or more ranking factors associated with the document; compare the sequence to the detected changes to the one or more ranking factors; identify a signal of rank-modifying spam based on comparing the sequence to the detected changes to the one or more ranking factors; determine whether the signal of rank-modifying spam satisfies a threshold associated with a positive identification of the rank-modifying spamming; and reduce, when the signal of rank-modifying spam satisfies the threshold, a rank score associated with the document.
21. The device of claim 20, where the processor is further to: inject, when the signal of rank-modifying spam does not satisfy the threshold, noise into the rank transition function during the period of time; detect one or more additional changes to one or more ranking factors associated with the document, the one or more additional changes occurring after injection of the noise; and update the signal of rank-modifying spam based on the detected one or more additional changes.
22. The device of claim 21, where the processor is further to: adjust, when the signal of rank-modifying spam does not satisfy the threshold, the rank of the document; detect an additional change to one or more ranking factors, associated with the document, the additional changes occurring after adjustment of the rank of the document and update the signal of rank-modifying spam based on the detected additional change.
23. The device of claim 20, where the processor, when reducing the ranking score associated with the document, is further to: assign a negative ranking score to the document.
24. A non-transitory computer-readable memory device comprising:one or more instructions which, when executed by one or more devices, cause the one or more devices to detect a change in a ranking factor associated with a document, where the change causes a rank, for the document, to transition from a first rank to a second rank; one or more instructions which, when executed by the one or more devices, cause the one or more devices to identify a rank transition function, where the rank transition function defines how an estimated rank, for the document, changes from the first rank to the second rank over a transition period associated with the transition from first rank to the second rank; one or more instructions which, when executed by the one or more devices, cause the one or more devices to calculate, based on the rank transition function, a sequence of estimated ranks, associated with the document, during the transition period, and one or more instructions which, when executed by the one or more devices, cause the one or more devices to compare the detected change in the ranking factor to the sequence of estimated ranks, associated with the document, during the transition period; one or more instructions which, when executed by the one or more devices, cause the one or more devices to designate the document as being subjected to rank-modifying spam based on a comparison of the detected change and the sequence of estimated ranks; and one or more instructions which, when executed by the one or more devices, cause the one or more devices to reduce the rank for the document in response to designating the document as being subjected to the rank-modifying spam.”
What Exactly Does This Mean in a Language the Website Owner Can Understand?
Although they had the means to use the technology in the patent, they wanted to set up a trigger to see how good/bad it worked and then adjust accordingly.
So here is a checklist:
- First, if you have met the threshold associated with black-hat activities, then Google will classify the site owner as a potential black hatter. (This could be why many site owners had to start over from scratch back in 2012 to get back even some of their search rankings)
- The next thing that will happen is your website’s position will go up or down in the SERPS; to do this, they will add “noise” to the ranking calculation. (This is typically when you see a flurry of new external exact match anchors and major rewrites of reduced rank of on-page copy at the target site.)
- After the lawyers’ website goes up or down in the SERPS, they will wait a while before checking to see how the webmaster reacts to increasing or removing the black-hat methods. Additional changes will be detected, not just spammy backlinks or outbound links to commercial paid sites.
- When they determine the site is not above board and you are using black-hat methods, after this, the website will be regulated in the SERPS, though the document rank will be reduced before and during a Google Dance.
The entire patent can be read at: http://www.google.com/patents/US8244722. Since Google ranking drop patents are a very new idea, you must be careful with your relevant pages to avoid offending Google’s algorithm. This is a place to start reading. As one can see, Google wants to know if you or someone you hired is trying to dilute links, etc. For example, Google wants to know why a website or blog has a wide variety of articles that all link to commercial websites. It intends to use user data you created and that of its spam team and third-party reviewers to create a footprint about you, your vendors, and your site’s ranking.
Then, Google AI can make a subjective decision about whether your search result is or is not due to a black hat technique. If it is, expect a rankings drop. Even if you follow Google’s guidelines, your SEO companies may find you guilty by association. What worked once for your authoritative pages, even with relevant content, may not work after the next Google update. If further spammer-initiated changes are made at your site, even title tags or minor links to the link profile, they could be deemed unnatural.
Black Hat SEO Is Now a Bad Word Equated to “Hitler”
Remember, for anyone doing deliberate SEO, even if it’s just to get referral traffic, Google will determine if they are a black hatter and kill their SERP rankings. This is why SEO is now a “bad word.” However, I believe the Penguin/Panda scare was a tool to trigger action in black hatters. The more recent Helpful Content Update and Link Spam Update have already had their desired effect on many personal injury law websites. And as I said years ago, many innocent sites will be and are getting screwed.
The Unintended Consequences – Punishing Innocent Victims – Negative SEO
But the unintended consequences are that I, for example, had been hit with thousands of forum and directory links about months before the damning Penguin in April of 2012. So I immediately started sending “intent to sue” emails and DMCA Takedown Notices, as much of the content had been scraped from my sites, paying and doing everything I could to get rid of these.
Mind you, these were exact match anchors like: “accident attorney,” “car accident attorney,” “personal injury attorney,” and so on. These are all terms I already had ranked well for and did not need more. The links spike is unlike any in the history of my site. So clearly, Penguin thinks a link spike is unnatural, assumes you, the lawyer, did it, and punished your results.
Negative SEO is Getting Even More Sophisticated
Now, the negative SEO is getting even more sophisticated. Now, hackers are using malicious code to 302 redirect pages of PR-0 (PageRank zero as opposed to 3 or 6) Worpdress sites that are unrelated to my site. You see, redirects also signal a potential black hat to Google.
Unsavory criminals are also using malicious code to deindex whole websites that may link to your site, and when the code is removed and the site recovers, Google sees, guess what? Yep, a vast LINK SPIKE back to your site from all the places linked to yours.
But Wait, Matt Cutts Says Don’t Worry Unless You Participated in Black or Grey Hat SEO
I’m afraid I have to disagree with this video. If you are a lawyer who ranks well, you are a target, and since Google has now affirmed that your site can get blasted by having a specific footprint, all a competitor has to do is recreate that footprint on or to your site. It would not be that hard to gather your MAC address, IP range, and email passwords to create a clone of you and rank modify you into oblivion for the right hacker.
The Last “Jarring” and “Jolting” Penguin Update
Matt Cutts told a group of SEO people they would not want to see the next Penguin update and then said that the following several Google algorithm updates would be “jarring and jolting” for webmasters and SEO people. Everyone now knows Cutts was right, and many have experienced the jolt and never wanted to feel this way because of an update.
Your SEO companies, all of the websites you own, and if you work on sites for clients, it is being spied on by the search engine powers who are taking notes. Then there are the effects of all this. Google is fighting spammers, so in this circumstance, Google can appear like a champion to stockholders, etc. In reality, the patent was just approved but was pending until that time. So Google has probably been using the algo since 2005. The difference is the warning emails sent to suspected spammers.
This is probably what Google used to “trigger action.” Of course, that action could be you removing links the way I did, or you black hatters just logging in and removing or changing relations (no following, making them branded, exact partial match, etc.) But white hatters attacked with link spikes from negative SEO would do the same. And, of course, ranking did start to improve, so it must have worked, right?
Well, maybe not. The first step was for Google to change its policy and negative SEO, and instead of being neutral and discounting the links, as it used to do, they now allowed it to punish the sending and receiving sites. Modernly, Google says it no longer punishes exact match anchors in external links under Penguin. But I believe that Google anchors sites down that keep buying links in hopes of ranking particular pages higher. Now, we have advances in AI and a more fluid algorithm that has incorporated search engine goals, including search intent in real-time.
At Least One Trusted SEO Expert Says, No Way – This is REALLY About Reducing Spam
I had a little counterpoint at Bill Slawski’s blog (a patriot from the great State of Virginia). He came to the defense of Google, stating:
Chances are extremely good that making changes that improve the quality of web pages, such as adding breadcrumb navigation, adding improved titles and meta descriptions and heading, adding fresh content, removing overoptimized links, and so on are likely to not go through a process like this. I also sincerely doubt that the purpose of a patent like this is to increase ad spend on Google. It’s to stop people from manipulating search results, and I think it’s a very good idea. (Source.)
Enter the Spike In Google Adwords Sales
The other side of this is once your lawyers are used to being able to monetize traffic by being at the top of the organic SERPS, then your site is gone, and then the choice is to consider using AdWords or the paid local search products. The loss you feel is another attorney’s gain. They will take your place at the top of the SERPs and, like you, start relying on the income from traffic. It will only be a few months until Google finds something wrong with their website, and they will drop SERPs in Google Analytics as you did. Then their choice, like yours, will be down to using AdWords or other paid products, including TikTok. And when the FTC doesn’t do anything about it, you are left to read articles on Search Engine Land and remember the “happy times.”
- SEO legal website professionals, what happens with them, primarily working on client’s sites?
One of the problems is that when the website owner using their SEO firm sees their rank dropping in the SERPS, they will most likely fire the firm. Then they will take the money they were spending on SEO and use it for AdWords. Google will not see this as a bad thing, putting the poor SEO professional out of work, but as justice.
It appears that Google’s point of view is that SEO professionals are cheating Google by using so-called “free” places to reach the top of the organic SERPS instead of buying AdWords, as everyone should. So the idea is probably to create an environment of fear, uncertainty, and doubt and force users into PPC. Do you trust SEO companies? Our attorney group only has a handful it will recommend as a closely guarded secret.
Problem – Most PPC Calls Are ‘Garbage’
Our internal polling of members shows that:
- Most lawyers who tried PPC got clobbered.
- The ones who hired SEO people to run it got calls for cases they didn’t want.
- Universally, everyone complained about being forced to bid on negative keywords.
Of course, many of us who cannot afford $50.00 to $80.00 a click for a term like “personal injury attorney” have to make a choice.
Is Click Fraud a Thing?
And, of course, there is always the problem of click fraud, which is REAL, according to many of our members and others we have interviewed. My experience using Statcounter, etc., was that competing firms were constantly clicking my ads and using up my daily bids and many used foreign, cloaked IP addresses, apparently set up to exhaust my daily bids for click recommendations.
Most of the calls I got were from people “shopping” or who had already called every organic listing on page one of the Google Rankings. Apparently, many people ignore PPC when they use search engines to find an answer or a professional like a doctor or a lawyer. I want to see the organic results, which seem to be further and further down the search queries with the recent Google updates.
With PPC, I had to spend my entire day tracking the clicks and where they came from and then try and convince Google to reverse those charges. Plus, I had to pay for BS, and negative keywords are automatically forced to bid on unless you spend your days removing them from Google’s list and trying not to list a keyword you DO want to bid on accidentally. So it’s a trick and a very expensive one.
Google will make more profit because of all this and the legitimate sites. Well, who cares? Organically optimized websites were not paying anyways. Right? Google no longer says to “do no evil.”
In the days of Panda and Penguin, Google inadvertently forced up PPC, lowering excellent sites from the first page. The effect was it had been propping up thin, poorly linked sites in organic sites like Yelp! or Wikipedia for searches like “injury attorney.” We saw that the ranked legal sites were typically crusty old domains with few backlinks. I discovered that many of them are part of a very well-coordinated SEO blog network. Instead of exact match, they use anchor terms like “view personal injury attorney blog,” etc. These are just some of my observations as an attorney who spends his time looking and direct and circumstantial evidence. Ultimately, copying both on and off the page became huge. But then, SEOs got wise to using AI to generate lots of “quality” pages, clogging up Google servers again.
Now Google has to find another way to prevent people from manipulating search results, and it went for link spam in its last public update of 2022. Sites linking to you that are manipulating search results mean you lost big in your Search Console and Google Analytics.
What Does This Mean to Most Attorneys
Stop using SEO companies unless you are running the show. Join a group like the Circle of Legal Trust, optimize your sites properly, STOP paying for guest posts, and comply with the Google quality guidelines here. Don’t participate in link schemes and err on the site minimalist. Build your authorship signals. There has to be a better way than backlinks, anyways.
Other Lawyer-Webmaster Tips: Fix your title tag problems, and don’t overuse meta tags. Check core vitals and speed up your site as needed. Add super unique, compelling copy and fresh content. Do not use old-school link building using a non-focused blog network. Try and get direct traffic using Youtube and other social media. Be careful with too many outbound commercial links, as it could flag you as a “link exchanger.”
After all, one thing is sure: Google has admitted that “negative SEO,” as well as “positive SEO,” works. And tomorrow’s positive SEO could easily be considered a “violation.” Your only other chance is to get a pass and get allowed by Google. I guess you would have to be a good friend of an insider for that to occur. In any event, I wish all you attorneys are trying to rank good luck! In my case, I am going to try to get a job at Google. If you can’t beat em, join them!
Michael Ehline is an appellate attorney and personal injury attorney with an emphasis on legal and historical research, and also president of the Circle of Legal Trust. He follows Google updates and investigations patents and changes to the Google algorithm updates on behalf of the legal community.