Google and the Dangers of Link Networks: Anglo RankIt’s sometimes easy to think of Google as a bit of a sleeping giant: a titan, to be sure, but even so, it seems a fairly faceless and unknowable entity most of the time.

For the average Internet user, Google is an always-there tool for doing research about literally anything. For marketers, Google is a set of more-or-less automated tools to use for marketing purposes.

Every once in a while, though, Google stirs and reminds us that it’s not only far less passive than perhaps we’d like to think, but also has honest-to-God human beings at the helm. The most recent example is a tweet from Google’s Matt Cutts in reference to a story that, if you haven’t heard of yet, you soon will.

Said Cutts: “‘There are absolutely NO footprints linking the websites together.’ Oh, Anglo Rank.”

The story the tweet refers to is likely to have far-reaching consequences for a number of websites. Let’s get to the bottom of it.

What’s Anglo Rank, and What Did They Do Wrong?

Anglo Rank is/was a service that provided paid links. Their website boasts of having “worked long and hard” to hand-pick quality sites with authoritative and curated content. The goal was to create networks of links, all in service of boosting the Google rankings of their clients. They’re hardly the only company that offers such services, but it’s generally considered poor practice, particularly by Google, to buy or sell low-quality links in the name of search engine optimization. This was the reason Anglo Rank was put on Google’s radar as a potential spam network.

The Anglo Rank website also features the now-famous claim quoted by Cutts in his tweet: it suggests that, thanks to their use of purportedly private networks, there was nothing actually linking Anglo Rank’s clients together: no “footprints,” as it were. Google’s anti-spam procedures eventually targeted Anglo Rank, its dubious link networks, and questionable SEO techniques.

Anglo Rank’s owner, who goes by Bluematter on the BlackHatWorld forums, insisted shortly after the story broke that the problem was isolated to only a few of Anglo Rank’s link sites, and as a result the majority of their customers would not be affected (read: penalized by Google). As the story has unfolded further, the reality of the situation seems just a little bit different from what Anglo Rank originally claimed.

So What’s the Real Story?

Several Anglo Rank clients have reported that they have received notifications in their Google Webmaster Tools consoles, indicating that they had received link penalties. Cutts’ tweet outing Anglo Rank as a spam network, while accurate, would seem to have been somewhat premature, with many of Anglo Rank’s clients still unaware of the situation as the notifications rolled out to all of the affected sites.

Despite very clearly worded guarantees on Anglo Rank’s FAQ page, assuaging clients’ fears that buying backlinks is considered a “blackhat” technique under Google’s definitions, Anglo Rank leadership has been changing its story regularly since the news broke. Despite supposedly “insuring the safety” of their clients, Anglo Rank now claims that their clients should have known the risks from the beginning.

In their own words, Anglo Rank is “not concerned about bringing more business in” right now, and is focusing their efforts on “sorting out” their affected clients. Where they actually go from here is still a subject of debate.

Also up for debate: how it was that Google’s anti-spam team was tipped off about Anglo Rank’s practices in the first place. There are a number of popular theories, including a particularly funny one that points out that people involved with Anglo Rank had been using Gmail addresses as payment accounts for their link-buying transactions. Frankly, that seems like an unnecessary and borderline foolish risk to take.

Regardless, the damage is done. While the dust settles, it’s worth taking a look at the SEO lessons that the Anglo Rank debacle has stirred up.

A House of Cards?

Probably the best metaphor for describing shady link networks is to compare them to a house of cards. While links are hugely important for building and maintaining a strong site ranking, link networks represent not just lazy corner-cutting, but also a potentially dangerous way to increase your number of links across the web.

The process is actually quite simple, which should be reason enough to doubt it: by dealing with a company like Anglo Rank, you could, literally overnight, have hundreds of links for the keyword you need to rank for.

To be clear: a link network is not an inherently bad thing. Plenty of websites out there are parts of a network: you may very well see badges displayed that identify a particular website as (for example) a “proud member of the Gannett network.”

However, you might also come across a page that lists dozens of other sites as partners. This is a good indication that the website in question might be part of a less-than-reputable network.

Just like Anglo Rank, the owners of these networks will swear up and down that the sites don’t have any footprints linking them, but even a cursory examination will prove this to be false. Other evidence can include: similar templates used on many websites, the same Google AdSense number, and the same IP address across many different sites.

So what are the consequences of doing business with one of these link networks? Quite simply, your website could potentially be deindexed and your links devalued. As a result, taking part in a link network is not unlike building your SEO strategy on a house of cards. If one linked website gets penalized, the rest of them could fall as well. The monetary losses that follow Google penalization could prove significant, leaving the affected sites struggling to regain the lost ground.

Too Good to Be True

The bottom line is this: if something seems too good to be true, it almost always is. Doing business with a link network might seem like a quick and convenient way to make some money, but the risk just isn’t worth the gain. You’ll have to exercise your own judgment when it comes to deciding whether a network is “good” or “bad,” or if it constitutes an acceptable risk.

At the end of the day, though, there’s really no substitute for simply putting in the hard work and improving your site rank the honest way.