Are there any two words that turn a website owner's blood colder than “Google penalty?”
I have some good news and some bad news about my public niche site.
The bad news is that I got hit with a Google penalty on March 9th. The good news is that I figured out what happened and the site recovered 100% of its rankings on March 12th!
When the penalty hit (and yes it was a penalty, not the “Google dance”), I had no idea why. However, after a few days of thinking everything through, I was able to narrow it down, take action, and see the penalty lifted.
I want to cover what happened here in detail to provide a big lesson learned for me, and hopefully to save you from making the same mistake.
What Happened to My Niche Site?
As shared in previous posts, my niche site (bestsurvivalknifeguide.com) was off to a great start…it was ranking in Google and making money. Then I wrote a post on March 7th about how to build links for niche sites and starting building a few links to my niche site.
I had made just 7 or 8 blog comments on relevant blogs and assigned my Virtual Assistant to start submitting my site to a few web directories.
Then on March 9th my site dropped in Google to position 237…what?!
My heart sank. This is not good.
Why Was My Site Penalized By Google?
At first, I thought maybe it was just the Google dance (new sites tend to bounce up and down in Google when they are brand new).
However, after a day of dropped rankings, I could tell it was an actual Google penalty for 2 reasons:
- When I searched for my site “brand” name: – best survival knife guide – (without quotes) in Google, my site was not on the first couple of pages.
- The page ranking at position 237 was not my homepage, but a subpage.
And so knowing this was a Google penalty, I immediately thought it must be related to the links that I had just started building. The timing seemed to indicate that as soon as I started building links, my site got hit.
However, this assumption turned out to be false. As I explain later on.
I immediately asked my VA to stop building any more directory links. In fact, I asked him to try and remove any links that he had built.
I figured that if I could remove the links and start fresh again, my rankings should come back.
However, with many of the directory links, this is not always possible. And to be honest, most of the directory links had not even been approved yet (some can take weeks to get approved).
What Caused the Google Penalty?
The more I thought about it, the less convinced I was that the links had anything to do with it at all.
You see, I followed the EXACT same link building technique on my last niche site. Including the EXACT same directories, and that site is sitting happily at #1 in Google right now.
I was not out building spammy links, but just a handful of genuine blog comments and a few web directory links. Just a few means just a few, not hundreds or thousands.
So, I started to compare what I had done with my survival knife site and my previous niche sites or blogs I have built that are ranking well in Google.
The theme is the same as other sites I've built.
I know that changing themes can sometimes impact SEO, but this theme is a quality theme that I designed. The quality content is there. The keyword research is there.
Then it hit me. The ONE thing that I had done different with this niche site than any other site I've built, is the use of Amazon Associate links! All of my sites have always utilized Google Adsense, so I'm comfortable with that process and really know the ins and outs there.
However, Amazon is a new beast for me.
So, I took a look at my site and how I was using the Amazon affiliate links. The more I looked, the more I figured this must indeed be the issue.
You see in my ambition to provide an awesome site (which I think I have) , I created a massive comparison chart for about 50 different survival knives. To make money, I had inserted my Amazon affiliate link on EACH of these knife listings not once..but TWICE! (Once on the name of the knife, and once on the pictures of the knives).
So just with that chart alone, I had about 100 Amazon affiliate links on my home page!
This is what caused the penalty and resulting traffic drop.. And I can prove it.
How I Removed the Google Penalty
At about noon on March 12th I decided to remove all the Amazon affiliate links from my homepage. I figured Google was penalizing me for having too much advertising on my page.
I should also point out that all of these links were “cloaked” affiliate links. So they were redirects, rather than direct affiliate links. This means cloaking for SEO purposes doesn't work.
So, at noon, all the links were gone. I checked my niche site again at about 9pm again. All my rankings had returned!!
So, within about 8 or 9 hours Google had removed the penalty it had placed, once I removed my affiliate links…woo-hoo!!
Here's a quick recap of my Google rankings over the past several days to show you exactly what happened:
- March 7th – 25
- March 8th – 24
- The infamous March 9th – 237 (Google penalty…ouch!)
- March 10th – 246
- March 11th – 225
- At noon on March 12th – 230
- March 12th @ 9pm – 26 (Penalty removed…yipee!)
- March 13th – 25 (back in business 🙂 )
Lesson Learned: Too many affiliate links will penalize your site
Yes, I know this should seem obvious. And yes, I now realize that 100 amazon links on my homepage was overkill.
However, I'm learning this whole Amazon associates thing as I go here. Again my expertise is keyword research and Google Adsense; so I'm making a few “newbie” mistakes apparently for all to see. 🙂
But hopefully my mistake here will help prevent YOU from making a similar mistake.
Can I Use Amazon Links Now?
I am just happy to have my site back (as you can imagine). I'm going to just focus on ranking my site over the next month or so.
However, as it sits now, it won't be making much money because I've removed most of the affiliate links.
So, can I put affiliate links back on the site?
I don't think affiliate links by themselves are bad. However, when you have a massive number like I did, they are bad.
Having way too many affiliate links is asking for a penalty just as surely as having unnatural links, bad links, or obvious keyword stuffing.
So, I may have to get creative in how to monetize this site because my original plan with a huge buyers matrix is not working. (Well actually it was working great, but Google didn't like all the affiliate links).
I'll be thinking of the best way forward for monetizing this site over the coming weeks.
However, here are a few options I thought of:
- Option 1: I could remove the comparison matrix completely, and just have a few affiliate links for the actual knife reviews I did on the homepage. I don't like this idea because the comparison matrix is really what makes my site stand out, and I put a lot of time into it.
- Option 2: I could remove the comparison matrix from the homepage, and just LINK to it on a subpage. So, the user would have to click a link to be taken to the comparison matrix on another page. I could make this page no-index/no-follow so that Google doesn't rank that page. Then I likely could add back all my affiliate links without having it penalize the rest of my site.
- Option 3: I could decrease the size of the matrix to 10 or 20 knives and only use 1 affiliate link on each knife. I suspect there is some magic number I could find here for amount of content vs. number of affiliate links to prevent from getting a penalty. Perhaps I could even keep the matrix as is if I only had one affiliate link on each.
- Option 4: I could write reviews on every knife on the list, and then have the comparison matrix link to the reviews; rather than affiliate links. The review pages would obviously then have a couple of affiliate links.
- Option 5: I could give up on Amazon, and go with other monetization methods.
Don't Load an E-Book with Amazon Affiliate Links!
Important Update: Previously, I thought I could put the matrix into an ebook (along with some other reviews), and go for the opt-in to start collecting emails. Then I could put all the affiliate links I want in the ebook. I could also monetize the list through email offers.
This plan has been scrapped, because I have been notified in the comments and by email from others helping me out that using Amazon Affiliate links in an ebook or in an email is against their Terms of Service.
So, I will NOT be doing this. Please see Rule #6 on this page of Amazon for reference.)
There are likely several other options that I could consider as well. If you have any additional ideas, I'm all ears.
The Future of My Niche Site
I'm still very excited about the future of this niche site. My in-depth keyword research, has proven to be accurate. There is a great market for survival knives. In fact, between March 1st and March 9th, the site made me $42.69!
And what's interesting is that I made $0 from March 10th to March 12th. This is the time my site was not ranking anywhere in Google, but all my affiliate links were still in place.
Just goes to show that most of the purchases have been made by people that are not readers of this blog. Most of the money has come from a few knife sales; which is pretty cool!
However, I don't expect to make much more the rest of this month; which is just fine.
Developing a solid plan for moving forward is my top priority.
Rank the site even higher in Google. That's my overall focus. As I do, there are clearly several options that I choose from to monetize this site.
So, stick around…I'm sure there will be more interesting developments down the road.
SEO & Affiliate Links
With my bad experience mentioned above, it's easy to wonder whether affiliate links have a negative impact on SEO. It's obvious that the answer can be yes.
But are affiliate links always hurting your rankings? (If you have other SEO questions, you can read how SEO works and how to optimize your site).
The short answer is that as long as you don't impact user experience from Google's perspective, then affiliate links are fine.
Google has confirmed that affiliate links don't hurt your SEO… in most cases. This is backed up by the fact the Google penalty removal was so fast once changes were made.
Affiliate links do hurt your SEO when Google thinks that your links are making your website worse for users. If you're just linking without reason and without adding additional content that benefits users, then your site is going to be taking a plunge.
This link to content ratio holds true for any type of link; affiliate or no.
You want to make sure that every link does add real value to your user and that you aren't stuffing your content.
Google doesn't mind if these links are monetized so long as your users get a real benefit out of it.
But how much is too much?
How Many Affiliate Links Should I Have Per Page & Per Post?
It depends (and trust me, I hate hearing that answer too).
The big thing is that you'll want to make sure that your users are getting the best experience possible on your website.
Google's whole mission is to provide users with attractive, helpful results on every search. If you can keep your page relevant to users while staying attractive, then add affiliate links. No worries.
On Niche Pursuits, I tell my writers to worry more about links per word. That gives a definite metric that my writers can measure against.
Each writer has their own style, but about 1 link per 100-200 words seems to work fine for me as long as the links are relevant.
This can change with a future Google algorithm update, so always stay up on the most recent guidelines. However, this is a great beginning rule of thumb.
Keep in mind the key is that all affiliate links still need to be relevant.
When you just add affiliate links without being helpful to the reader, then it doesn't matter how many words you have. The correct number of irrelevant links is always 0.
Should I NoFollow Amazon Affiliate Links?
Yes. As per Google's policies, all affiliate links should be nofollowed.
Amazon's SiteStripe does not nofollow links by default, so you'll have to go into the text editor of WordPress to do this. There are some plugins that will nofollow links for you, but I couldn't find any that were still working with the current version of WordPress at time of writing.
To nofollow a link, add rel= “nofollow” in the text editor of WordPress. Classic editor or Gutenberg will look the same:
Thanks to Amy Lynn Andrews for the picture 🙂
This may seem like a pain at first, but it will become second nature quickly. This isn't even advanced SEO strategy. It's following Google's very clear rules to avoid unnecessary penalties.
And that feeling of your heart dropping into your stomach that comes with it.
Caught In A Google Penalty? Undo It!
I've already proven that you can undo Google penalties. If you've got one, you'll want to make sure you're following Google's best practices with your SEO optimization. Many times you can undo a Google penalty by fixing what's wrong with your site.
If you're reading this post, one of the first places I would look at is your affiliate links. Google doesn't have a problem with them.
But you don't want to overdo your linking. I learned that lesson the hard way.
Also, if you have any thoughts or questions, please leave a comment below. I look forward to the discussion with other website owners.