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Old school tricks do not work anymore. Penguin hit the link network!
E-commerce and site builder sites better pay attention. This could be their site. Volusion.com employs many of the same link building strategies as their competition, but they went too far. They built thousands of sitewide footer links on domains they hosted - creating their very own link network. Google is not happy.
In this thorough and extremely instructive case study, Arda Mendes investigates what could have caused their penalty, and what actually did hurt them. Even if your site isn't in this sector, if your clients are linking back to you from their footer, our next case study could be about you.
We look forward to your feedback and always appreciate you sharing the work of our Certified LRT Professionals.
- Enjoy & Learn!
Christoph C. Cemper
Table of Contents
- 1. Introduction
- 2. About the Sector
- 3. Volusion.com’s SEO Visibility
- 4. Volusion.com – Loser Keywords
- 5. Keyword Ratios
- 6. Sitewide Links
- 7. Weak Links
- 8. Deeplinks
- 9. Did Off-Topic Links Cause the Penalty?
- 10. Did Poor Link Diversification Cause the Penalty?
- 11. Did Advertorial Links Cause The Penalty?
- 12. Did Toxic Links Cause the Penalty?
- 13. Did Unnatural Link Velocity Cause the Penalty?
- 14. Conclusion
- 14.1. Have too many exact match anchor texts been the reason for the penalty?
- 14.2. Did too many sitewide links cause the drop?
- 14.3. Did weak links cause the drop?
- 14.4. Did an unnatural deep-link ratio cause the drop?
- 14.5. Did off-topic links cause the drop?
- 14.6. Did poor link diversification cause the drop?
- 14.7. Did advertorial links cause the drop?
- 14.8. Did suspicious links cause the drop?
- 14.9. Did the an unnatural link velocity cause the drop?
- 15. What Should Volusion.com Do?
- 16. Epilogue
Today we will discuss the decrease of volusion.com’s search visibility after the release of Penguin 2.1. We will discover the reasons of the loss as well as the consequences for volusion.com. In this research, there will be a detailed analysis of volusion.com’s backlinks, an examination of sector shareholders, and how 2.1 negatively affected volusion.com’s performance.
2. About the Sector
“Online store builder” companies provide e-commerce software and usually host customers’ online stores at their own servers. Volusion.com is one of the most important service providers in the sector. Knowing the companies that are active in the “online store builder” sector is important before starting the analysis. Below you find some of the biggest “online store builders” and volusion.com’s strongest competitors:
- Shopify (80,000+ active Online Stores)
- Bigcommerce (49,000+ active Online Stores)
- Weebly eCommerce (30,000+ active Online Stores)
3. Volusion.com’s SEO Visibility
We are going to use Searchmetrics to check Penguin 2.1’s (released on October 4, 2013) negative impact on volusion.com’s search visibility. Searchmetrics calculates a website’s SEO visibility based on keyword rankings and other metrics. Volusion.com’s search visibility drops occurred on 26th of May 2013 – 4 days after the Penguin 2.0 rollout, and on the 6th of October 2013 – 2 days after the Penguin 2.1. rollout. In this analysis we are going to discover the reasons why volusion.com got hit by Penguin 2.1.
4. Volusion.com – Loser Keywords
With Searchmetrics, we will detect which keywords went down in their positions: Here we can clearly see that volusion.com lost rankings for keywords that are significant in this sector. Now let’s examine their position history. Charts of keyword position history show ranking history of the words. We will take a look at ranking values of these words before and after the Penguin update.
4.1. Position History - Keyword #1: E-commerce Solutions
4.2. Position History - Keyword #2: Shopping Cart Software
4.3. Position History - Keyword #3: Free Live Chat
So it is time to answer the vital question, “Why has Volusion lost its ranking?”
5. Keyword Ratios
First, we will look at the website’s backlinks by using the “Quick Backlink Tool” (QBL). Enter the domain you want to analyze and activate the sitewide links filter. After the report is finished, we will sort the link’s anchor texts by count. To see the other keywords, we export data as XSLX. In the excel sheet, we are looking for our loser keyword “ecommerce solutions”. Now we take a look at the anchor text ratio for some of the dropped keywords:
- Shopping Cart Software: 3.8%
- Free live chat software: 2.2%
- E-commerce solutions: 0.1%
To see whether these percentages are too high for this sector or not, we need to compare these ratios with the competitors’ ratios by using the “Competitive Landscape Analyzer Tool” (CLA). We are going to do a CLA for each keyword listed above. To find the competitors for the keywords listed above, we simply use the “find competing pages” option. After entering our keyword and selecting the right search engine, language and country, we are ready to find our competitors. Since there are some unrelated websites - like “godaddy” and “paypal” - that manipulate results to appear in the online store builder sector and aren’t actually competitors, we will delete them and add true competitors from the online store builder sector. We will analyze the “Domain Backlinks” because we want to dive deep. We will also use the "Link Boost" function to analyze more backlinks. Activating the sitewide links filter will provide us with more accurate results and aid us in analyzing many more domains. After the report has been created, we need to classify the anchor texts. For proper and reliable data, we should categorize 80-90% of all keywords. After categorizing keywords, we are ready to interpret the graph.
5.1. Keyword #1: E-commerce Solutions
While volusion.com pays more attention to trademark awareness, it can manage only an average Compound ratio. When considering the Money keyword ratio, volusion.com falls behind its competitors’ ratios. We are going to analyze two more keywords, “free live chat software” and “shopping cart software”. To analyze them, we need to follow the same steps we followed to analyze the keyword “e-commerce solutions”.
5.2. Keyword #2: Shopping Cart Software
5.3. Keyword #3: Free Live Chat Software
Considering the anchor text ratios for the keywords “shopping cart software” and “free live chat software”, results clearly show that too many exact match anchor texts are not the reason why volusion.com got hit by Penguin 2.1. Nevertheless, its anchor text ratios are very unnatural, as their Brand ratio is very high compared to its competitors. This should be looked at in detail. To better understand the backlink strategy of volusion.com, we continue to analyze volusion.com’s backlink profile.
6. Sitewide Links
An easy way to analyze the sitewide links is to use the “Juice Tool”. We are going to switch it to “Detail Analysis” mode. Enter the domains you would like to analyze and select “Link Ratio Metrics” to analyze sitewide ratios. The “Link Boost” function will provide more backlinks. The result page that we examine shows the website’s sitewide ratios (SWR). Let’s have a look at the table above:
Sidewide Links: ~ 1,044 links/domain
Sitewide Links: ~ 571 links/domain
Sitewide Links: ~ 224 links/ domain
Sitewide Links: ~ 38 links / domain
The gap of sitewide links between these sites is noticeable. We are going to make a detailed analysis of this issue.
6.1. Sitewide links - Deep Dive
In the previous chapter we could see that volusion.com has too many sitewide links, as well as far more Brand links than its competitors. So we can assume that most of its sitewide links are Brand ones. Let’s test this assumption by going back to the QBL report we ran and sorting all anchor texts by count.
Anchor Text #1: Volusion 56.2% of volusion.com’s backlinks have the anchor text “volusion”. By clicking on the keyword, the report shows us all backlinks having the anchor text “volusion”. Finally we found what we were looking for: many sitewide links to volusion.com from an e-commerce website having the anchor text “volusion”. Let’s look at them in detail:
6.1.1. Sitewide Links from shop.chess.co.uk
First of all, the website is related to chess and chess games –an off-topic website. It seems that volusion.com built the website for shop.chess.co.uk and placed a link as a signature in the footer. It seems that this has been the major link building tactic for volusion.com – placing footer sitewide links on all client websites. Let’s see if this tactic has been used not only for Brand links but also for Compound and Money.
Anchor Text #2: Volusion Ecommerce When we look at the filtered results, we can clearly see sitewide links for this keyword as well.
6.1.2. Sitewide Links from legacyfamilytreestore.com
As in the previous example, this website is also “powered by volusion.com”. Anchor Text #3: Shopping Cart Software For this keyword, there are also some sitewide links.
6.1.3. Sitewide Links from financall.com
As you can predict, there is one footer link. Where is the link? According to the screenshot above, there is no link in the footer. In such cases, we should look at the page source. Looking at the page source, we can see that the link to volusion.com is in the same color as the background of the site, so that’s why the link isn’t clearly identifiable. That is an old school trick. It has been used for several years as a link building technique, but it does not work anymore and Google doesn’t like it! By examining volusion.com’s backlinks, we can see that most of them are in the footer from off-topic websites. As a company policy, volusion.com placed footer links with Money, Brand and Compound anchor texts on their clients’ websites. This policy brings lots of off-topic and spammy backlinks which can cause a penalty, as happened in the case of godaddy.com in 2011 (see https://yoast.com/godaddy-link-building/). So, did volusion.com’s sitewide links create a penalty due to the Penguin 2.1? Absolutely!
7. Weak Links
Now we are going to check the link profiles of volusion.com and its competitors with the “Quick Domain Compare” (QDC) tool. The QDC report will help us get a quick overview of Power*Trust ratios for all domains. Then we are going to compare the Power*Trust ratio of volusion.com and its competitors for several keywords with the help of the CLA reports we created before. We simply start the Quick Domain Compare and enter the domains we would like to analyze. The screenshot shows us Power, Trust and Power*Trust values. Volusion.com and its competitors were analyzed. Volusion.com seems to have a powerful backlink profile compared to its rivals. The CEMPER Power™ is the perfect metric that succeeds Google PageRank™. The CEMPER Power™ metric has a similar algorithm – it simply evaluates the strength of a website based on quantity and power of links. The CEMPER Trust™ metric helps you evaluate the quality of a link. CEMPER Trust™ works with the same concept as the TrustRank patent and shows the trust of a page in Google. Credibility of a page is determined by calculating the "trust" value coming from trusted sites. CEMPER Power*Trust™ is the metric you need for examining the quality of your links. LinkResearchTools invented it after years of research and calculations. This extraordinary metric specifies the quality of a website, considering its strength and trustworthiness. Now let’s get back to our CLA charts:
Anchor Text #1: E-commerce Solutions Anchor Text #2: Shopping Cart Software Anchor Text #3: Free Live Chat Software When we compare the link profiles by Power*Trust, we realize that there is a highly unnatural distribution which could have had contributed to the website’s drop. In that case, it is not possible to say that volusion.com has been penalized due to its weak links, as most of its links aren’t weak (most of them have a high Power*Trust of 8 – 12).
After the weak links analysis in chapter 7, we are going to look at volusion.com’s deeplink ratios. Let’s use the CLA reports again. Startpage links commonly look more natural than deeplinks. But deeplink ratios always must be examined according to the sector. Let’s go back to the CLA report created before and click the “Deeplink Ratio” tab.
Anchor Text #1: E-commerce Solutions Anchor Text #2: Shopping Cart Software Anchor Text #3: Free Live Chat Software Here we can see that almost all links refer to the startpage! We can clearly see that volusion.com does not care about deeplinks. An unnatural deeplink ratio can not be the only trigger for a sharp drop. But this issue can become more meaningful when combined with other unnatural patterns such as off-topic sitewide links and link networks as shown in chapters #6 and #12. In my opinion, volusion.com’s deeplink ratio looks suspicious and unnatural. Did the deeplink ratio contributed to the penalty? Yes!
9. Did Off-Topic Links cause the Penalty?
It is a fact that volusion.com is using sitewide link building strategies. As I have shown in chapter 6, this policy brought lots of off-topic links! We will test this assumption by analyzing volusion.com’s backlinks by using the “Backlink Profiler” (BLP) tool to examine the themes of the linking sites. We enter the domain we’d like to analyze and activate “5x Link Boost”. This will bring up more backlinks. Further, activating “Basic SEO stats” is important to get the “Theme of the site”. After the report is applied, we click on the “Theme” tab. The result will show us the link profile for volusion.com sorted by “Theme”. After looking at the general link profile for volusion.com by theme of a domain, it is required to analyze each keyword in order to see sectorial imbalances. Having a natural link profile means that it is same or similar with the competitors’ link profile. If there are huge differences, it creates unnatural link profiles. Now we run a CLA! Click on the “Detail Analysis” tab. In this analysis, we select the “Theme of a Domain” option from the Basic SEO stats metrics. Anchor Text #1: E-Commerce Solutions Anchor Text #2: Shopping Cart Software Anchor Text #3: Free Live Chat Software Here we notice that the ratio of links from “shopping” websites is higher than the average. The same is for links from “Business / Economy” websites. So it seems volusion.com got caught by off-topic radar. Did off-topic links contribute to the penalty? Yes.
10. Did poor link diversification cause the penalty?
Natural backlink profiles must have link diversification. We are going to analyze the link diversification for volusion.com and its competitors by using the CLA. Therefore, we select the “Type of Site” option from the Basic SEO stats metrics. Here we can see that, within the online store builder sector, there is generally not a lot of link diversification. The screenshot shows us that volusion.com falls behind its competitors: Online store builder services have not many link variations because they usually place links in their clients’ templates. In my opinion, although volusion.com obtains fewer blog links than their rivals, poor link diversification didn’t contribute to the penalty. Now let’s also check the website’s link distribution by country by using the CLA: When we compare the links by countries, there is no unusual situation.
11. Did Advertorial Links Cause The Penalty?
Some of the links I’ve found show patterns of paid links. Google pays a lot attention to this matter. To see if we can find advertorial links, we’re going to run a BLP. Check the links location and then click the “Link Check” box. Only twenty “InContent” links are seen in the table. Mashable.com, which is an authority in digital, and NBCNews.com, which is an authority in its field as well, are two websites that are linking to volusion.com. When we look at the anchor text of the pages from which the InContent links are taken, it is clearly seen that most of the links have Brand anchor texts and therefore look quite natural. So, did paid links cause the penalty? No! However, I want to share something important with you. While volusion.com is getting some links from high authority websites, volusion.com should be careful not to let their article directory links be seen as a paid link strategy.
12. Did Toxic Links cause the penalty?
To analyze the toxic & suspicious backlinks of volusion.com properly, we are going to use the Link Detox Tool (DTOX). With this tool, we can determine which links are harmful to a website. We select the “don’t know” option because we don’t know whether volusion.com got any manual penalties or not. Further, we use the classic mode in order to check the existing backlinks. Also, we tell the tool to analyze both versions of the website - www and non-www. After the Link Detox report has been prepared, we have to classify at least 80% of all keywords. Here we need to classify if the keywords are either Brand, Compound, Money or others. This is the result of our Detox: When we look at the ratios, only 1% of volusion.com’s links are healthy, but 99% of them are suspicious. In that case, we should deeply examine these suspicious links and check the Detox rules.
12.1. Examining the suspicious links deeply
Let’s look at the “detox rules breakdown”. Rules of SUSP23, SUSP22, and SUSP9 are the first due to their percentage. Now we export these data and check the links one by one. First, we want to check if we can identify link networks in which volusion.com is participating. Therefore, we check links for which of the following Detox rules apply: According to Detox, 45,4% of volusion.com’s backlinks show the same footprints as other linking domains. As will be shown below, volusion.com hosts its customers’ online stores on their own servers. This means that volusion.com created its own link network. Secondly, we are going to look at the rules SUSP8 and SUSP9.
13.7% of volusion.com’s links have the same Class-C as other linking domains, and 17.3% have the same DNS as other domains. Volusion.com is hosting their clients on their own servers. After links that are located in the footer - as needed for the link building strategy - thousands and thousands of backlinks were taken through the same IP and DNS address. Next, we are going to analyze the rule SUSP31 known as “suspicious anchor text location”. As we have seen, volusion.com locates its links in the footer. Link Detox rated these links as suspicious (SUSP31). When we select one of the SUSP31 links and look at its “Neighborhood Domains”, the table is alarming. All these domains are hosted on the same IP address and DNS. All of them are linking to volusion.com. Volusion.com’s sitewide link strategy, and hosting its client websites on its own server, created a link network. Even if these links are not toxic, Google has punished the website because these links are part of a network.
12.2. Link Profiles of Volusion.com’s and its Competitors
Now we are going to do a “Competitive Link Detox” analysis to compare volusion.com’s link risk with the link risk of its competitors. Go to CDTOX and enter the domains you would like to analyze: CDTOX reports may take longer than other reports – this report took two days to be completed. At this point, you should be patient and wait for the report to be completed. After the report is completed, look at the sectorial balances in the “Detox” tab. Notice that volusion.com has only a few “healthy” links but a lot of suspicious ones. With CDTOX reports, we are able to see sectorial balances. Because some websites that are active in the online store builder sector have the same link building strategy, the numbers we have are almost the same. However, it is seen that volusion.com has more suspicious and fewer healthy links than its competitors. Since we are using sector averages, we can say that this situation negatively affects volusion.com. In the next step, we are going to look at the “Link Detox Rule” tab. When we were examining the Detox results, we noticed that SUSP22-24 rules had the biggest percentage. After the CDTOX report, we can see that volusion.com is over the average in SUSP22 and SUSP24 rules. We also examined the other rule sets: SUSP8-9. In SUSP8 rules, volusion.com is below the average. However, in SUSP9 rule, which detects the links on the same DNS, volusion.com has a higher percentage. The other rule set which we examined for volusion.com is SUSP31. This ratio is fine. The results of Detox and CDTOX have shown there are no toxic links for volusion.com or sector shareholders. However, due to their similar strategies, their percentage of suspicious links is high. After a detailed examination of the applied rules, volusion.com has a higher percentage of links with SUSP9 and SUSP22-24 rule sets than its sector average. With the link building strategy that is applied by competitors, volusion.com is caught with being higher than the sector average. Did suspicious links cause the penalty to volusion.com? Yes
13. Did Unnatural Link Velocity cause the Penalty?
A website’s link growth is also one of the things we should pay most attention to. Link velocity trends are vital for this case analysis. It’s high time to look at volusion.com’s link growth and its competitors. We add the sites that are sectorial shareholders when we create a Link Velocity report. Start the CLV, and then enter the domain and competitors. Let’s look at the Link Velocity of the last 24 months. Looking at the popularity of domains in 2013, it is possible to say that volusion.com has been progressing in direct proportion to its competitors. Can unnatural link growth cause the penalty? No!
We have examined why volusion.com is a Penguin 2.1 victim.
14.1. Were too many exact match anchor texts the reason for the penalty?
After the CLA analysis that compared volusion.com and its sectorial competitors, it is possible to see that the Money keyword ratio is lower than the total average. In that case, the ratio of using exact match anchor texts didn’t cause any penalty. No.
14.2. Did too many sitewide links cause the drop?
The analysis made via the Juice Tool showed us that volusion.com’s sitewide ratio is two times higher than Shopify.com - which is known as the most important site of the sector. Volusion.com places its signature link in the footer of some sites as a company policy. However, sometimes these links are placed using an “old school SEO trick”: They are in the same color as the background of the site. In that case, the sitewide link ratio had some negative effect on volusion.com! Yes.
14.3. Did weak links cause the drop?
By checking the Power*Trust ratios of volusion.com’s backlinks and its competitors, we found that volusion.com has far more strong links than its competitors. Although this can be seen as unnatural, weak links didn’t cause any penalty! No.
14.4. Did an unnatural deep-link ratio cause the drop?
When we analyzed the deeplink ratios, we clearly saw that volusion.com doesn’t pay attention to its subpages. Their sitewide link strategy focused all links to the startpage. Making subpages weaker than their competitors’ caused the penalty! Yes.
14.5. Did off-topic links cause the drop?
When we look at the sectorial balances, we realized that volusion.com has an inappropriate amount of off-topic links. This situation caused a penalty. Yes.
14.6. Did poor link diversification cause the drop?
According to CLA reports, link diversification of volusion.com seems to be within sector standards. Having a bit fewer links from blogs cannot have a high impact. Therefore, no, this issue didn’t contribute to the penalty.
14.7. Did advertorial links cause the drop?
When we examined InContent links, volusion.com’s links can be considered natural because they are from authority websites and have Brand anchor texts. This is crucial for natural link building. Considering the general building, advertorial links didn’t cause any penalty.
14.8. Did suspicious links cause the drop?
After the DTOX and CDTOX analyses, it is possible to say that volusion.com and its competitors don’t have many toxic links. However, their strategies represent a link network and are caught by the filter. After a detailed analysis, volusion.com is caught by their higher than average sectrorial values. It is penalized as link network. YES!
14.9. Did an unnatural link velocity cause the drop?
When we examined volusion.com’s link velocity trend based on domain popularity, we see that it is similar to its competitors and therefore couldn’t cause the penalty. NO!
15. What should Volusion.com do?
We can clearly see that volusion.com has a strong backlink profile according to the sectorial balances. Volusion.com is a victim of Penguin 2.1, mostly because of their own link network. To recover, they first should stop placing signature links in the footer. It should create natural and creative link building strategies. In addition, they need to pay attention to unnatural metrics such as the website’s backlinks’ Power*Trust ratios. Due to the applied strategy, volusion.com should get rid of its link network by offering better hosting to its clients. In the long term, when SEO strategies are determined, sectorial balances should be considered.
Considering the sectorial balances makes the analysis. Using it as a resource for another case isn’t appropriate. Sectorial balances should be considered for each site and each keyword and should be used as a guide by converting the data that is retrieved from analysis into information.
This case study was written by Arda Mendes, Head of Operations at SEOZEO, and proud user of LinkResearchTools and Link Detox.
A word from Christoph C. Cemper
This analysis was conducted and written by our new Certified LRT Professional, Arda Mendes.
Arda demonstrated his expertise by analyzing why Volusion disappeared in SERPs. He did a great job investigating the possible causes and focusing on the true causes of their penalty. Therefore, I’m very happy to certify Arda Mendes as the latest Certified LRT Professional by approving and publishing his research on our site.
Our goal is to provide our user community and clients with quality service and knowledge. Our Certified LRT Professionals are key to achieving this goal.
I look forward to his future work, and personally recommend working with Arda Mendes whenever you get the opportunity!
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