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How Google’s Link Spam Update Actually Worked

Corey Batt

The holiday season was chock-full of SEO updates from Google, with the 2022 Link Spam Update rolling out just a week after December’s Helpful Content Update. 

Starting on December 14th, the Link Spam Update was projected to take two weeks to roll out, but it would actually take a total of 29 days to complete – finishing on January 12th, 2023. 

What was the purpose of the update?

Google wants to crack down on link-building schemes such as spamming links, buying links, and syndicating content in bulk. 

To do so, they implemented SpamBrain, Google’s AI-powered spam prevention system. It works by ‘neutralizing’ the effect of low-quality spam links, which means whatever effect they had on a website’s rankings is now negated. 

Neutralizing is different from penalizing, as the Spam Update does not involve penalizations for spam links; it only ‘turns them off.’

That’s actually good news for the affected websites, as there won’t be any lingering penalties affecting your SEO once spammy links are neutralized. 

While plenty of websites are reporting noticeable dips in traffic and rankings, the solution is rather simple. By focusing on honest, white-hat SEO link-building techniques, you’ll be able to recover your lost authority.

Yet, that’s easier said than done if you aren’t familiar with the most effective link–building techniques (or if you don’t have a top-tier link-building agency working for you). 

To make sure you aren’t affected by the Link Spam Update, stay tuned to learn everything you need to know about improving your link-building profile. 

A Breakdown of the December 2022 Link Spam Update

To say the announcement of the Link Spam Update was abrupt would be an understatement, as it took the SEO world by complete surprise. 

On December 14th, just 9 days after the Helpful Content Update rollout, Google Search Central tweeted the announcement for the Link Spam Update. That meant that for a few weeks, two updates were happening at once. 

The update had one goal in mind, and that was to neutralize the impact of spammy links via the SpamBrain AI. 

It’s essential to note that the update doesn’t involve any manual penalties. Instead, Google is only interested in negating the effect spammy links have on SEO profiles. That means any links bought from websites will no longer impact your site authority, rankings, and search engine. 

Google’s AI has become extremely accurate at detecting which links were bought from websites and which were earned on merit. 

The Link Spam Update concluded rolling out on January 12th, 2023 – so many site owners will have to modify their link-building strategies to stay visible on Google. 

As with other Google updates, they predicted the most significant effects to take place a few days after the announcement.

Sure enough, as soon as December 15th (one day following Google’s tweet), site owners began to see the update’s impact. As SEO expert Carchesio Luca mentions in this tweet, 90% of the websites he manages saw noticeable dips in rankings & traffic. 

BONUS: FREE Guide on How to Acquire High-Quality Links​

The Update’s Impact On Our Clients 

At Authority Builders Co., we were eager to see how our clients would fare after the update’s announcement. 

Thanks to our stringent link-building quality standards, a majority of our clients (83%) saw no impact whatsoever and remained on their current trend. 

That’s a testament to the strength of the backlink profiles that we build – as they’re entirely free of spam and poor link-building techniques. 

13.3% of clients actually saw a positive impact after the announcement:

Only 3.7% of our clients reported a negative trend due to the update.

However, in all the cases that reported a negative trend, they were due to links that we didn’t build for them (they were likely leftovers from previous link-building campaigns). 

So if you’ve noticed a drop in traffic or rankings due to the Link Spam Update, it’s a clear sign that you need to replace your now devalued spam links with quality links – like the kind that we can build for you with our ABC+ package

What is Google SpamBrain?

While it technically launched in 2018, the AI-powered spam prevention system known as SpamBrain didn’t share its name publicly until April 2022. 

The AI has received many updates and expansions since its release, and it’s now more effective than ever. In particular, Google tweaked SpamBrain not just to detect spam outright but also to detect sites that sell links, buy links, and pass outgoing links. 

Why is Google cracking down on these sites?

It’s because websites that sell backlinks go against the search engine’s core philosophy of ranking content based on quality, trustworthiness, accuracy, and user relevancy. 

That’s why buying links for the sole purpose of artificially manipulating search engine rankings qualify as spam to Google. 

The update also marks the first time Google used the SpamBrain AI to detect link spam in particular. 

However, this isn’t the first time Google has made use of SpamBrain, nor is it the first spam update that we’ve seen so far – as one took place in the fall of 2021. During that year, SpamBrain made the following improvements in thwarting search spam: 

  • 70% reduction in hacked spam sites
  • 75% reduction in ‘gibberish’ spam on hosted platforms
  • Identification of spam sites rose by 6x 
  • 99% spam-free searches 

 

As you can see, Google has been refining its SpamBrain AI for quite some time, and targeting link spam is the next step in its evolution. 

While buying backlinks was always frowned upon, it’s a widely used practice by many site owners and SEOs, especially for bolstering a new website’s growth in the beginning. Yet, now that SpamBrain is cracking down on link spam in all its forms, it’s likely the practice of buying links will disappear entirely.

BONUS: FREE Guide on How to Acquire High-Quality Links​

How Do You Know if the Update Affected You?

If you own a website, you’re probably wondering how you can tell if the Link Spam Update had any impact on your SEO profile. 

If so, the onus is on you, as Google won’t provide any notification or manual action. Instead, you’ll need to pay attention to your analytics to see if there are any drops in traffic, rankings, or authority. 

As a rule of thumb, if you engage in any link tactics online, it’s fair to say that you’ve seen an impact from the update. 

The tweets we linked to previously show that many site owners saw an immediate impact as soon as the day after the announcement. 

Once again, the good news is that no website was penalized during the update. We know we’ve stated this before, but it bears repeating. That means there won’t be any outstanding penalties holding you back in the months to come, enabling you to hit the ground running with recovering your site’s authority & rankings. 

What if you have thousands of spammy links pointing to your site that you had no hand in building?

In that scenario, the update shouldn’t affect you. 

That’s because Google is only concerned with neutralizing spam links that site owners intentionally built. So if there are spammy links pointing at your site, you won’t receive any punishment for them – as they’ll neither help you nor hurt you. 

That should make you breathe a sigh of relief, as you won’t have to dig through your backlink profile, disavowing every fishy link you find.

Tips if You’ve Been Affected by the Update 

Did you wake up on the morning of December 15th to discover significant drops in your search engine rankings?

If so, now you know that the Link Spam Update was the culprit.

While taking hits to your SEO profile is never fun, it’s crucial not to panic and take any drastic action before you decide how to fix it. 

If you’re dealing with the consequences of the update, here are some recommendations for what to do next. 

Use Google Search Console to check your backlink profile 

First, you should bring up Google Search Console (GSC) to take a long, hard look at your backlinks to discover which are spammy. 

While lots of SEOs like to use third-party tools like Ahrefs and SEMrush to keep track of their backlinks, you should entirely rely on GSC here. 

Why is that?

It’s because many spam websites that sell backlinks exclude third-party platforms like Ahrefs from crawling their sites. As such, spam links and purchased backlinks often won’t show up on Ahrefs or SEMrush, which is why you need to use Google Search Console & Google Analytics

Remember, these spammy links aren’t actively harming your SEO profile; they’re simply negated, which means it’s like they aren’t even there. 

Yet, you should still dig through your backlink profile to find any links that qualify as spam to save yourself from building similar backlinks in the future. 

Check your previous rankings and use them as a benchmark

Use GSC to see what your rankings were like prior to December 14th to get a gauge of what ‘normal’ was like for you before the update. 

That way, you’ll know precisely what you lost in terms of traffic, authority, and rankings – which will serve as a benchmark for your goals going forward. 

Naturally, your first goal should be to get your backlink profile to where it was before. After that, you can focus on taking your SEO profile to the next level. 

For the time being, you can’t recover your site’s authority if you don’t know where you stood before the update affected you. 

Analyze your competitors 

The Link Spam Update wasn’t for any specific niche; it was the same across the internet. As such, all your competitors received the same treatment you did. If they had any spam links falsely bolstering their SEO, those effects are now null. 

You can use this fact to your advantage if you can find a competitor that continues to thrive despite the update. 

Once you do, take a look at their backlink profile to see what they’re doing right. Along the way, it may be that you discover a new way of acquiring quality backlinks, and you may find some links you want to target for yourself. 

Consult link-building professionals 

Once you’ve got a hold on how hard you’ve been hit, it’s time to consider hiring link-building professionals to help you recover your rankings. 

Link building is complicated and time-consuming even when there aren’t major updates going on, which is why hiring a link-building agency is a good idea. 

The best part?

If you go with a reputable & talented agency, they’ll engage in white hat link-building tactics only, which means you’ll never have to worry about spammy links hurting your SEO profile. 

With a trusted link-building agency working around the clock to build high-quality & authoritative backlinks, your team can focus on more important matters while your rankings, traffic, and authority rise. 

That’s a win-win scenario for you, as you’ll improve your backlink profile while your team will have plenty of free time to focus on growing & scaling your business. 

Poor Link-Building Practices to Avoid Like the Plague 

You may be wondering which link-building practices are acceptable and which are not in the eyes of Google. 

That’s why we’re here to pinpoint the black hat link-building techniques that Google frowns upon, which will make it easier to adjust your strategies accordingly. 

Here’s a look at the top link-building tactics that you should abandon in lieu of the Link Spam Update. 

Bulk spam link building 

Have you ever read a blog post where nearly every other word is a hyperlink to some unrelated page or product?

That’s link spamming, and it’s a commonplace practice for site owners a bit too eager to increase their number of external backlinks to boost their SERP rankings. 

This tactic is easy for Google’s SpamBrain AI to weed out, as it can see that hundreds of links are coming from the same website. These types of posts typically come from low-quality ‘guest post’ farm sites. 

These websites only exist to provide spammy guest posts so site owners can accumulate some easy backlinks. 

Google is staunchly against this practice because it’s a way for low-quality websites to rise through the search rankings, even though their content doesn’t deserve it. 

Ideally, a guest blog post can lead to a backlink, but the post should be relevant and valuable to its target audience. Low-quality blogs produced to snag backlinks are exactly the opposite. The copy for these posts is often spun, incredibly thin, duplicated, and stuffed full of keywords in an attempt to game the system. 

Whenever low-grade articles like these achieve top-ranking spots on Google, it hurts their user experience and reputation. 

Google has been cracking down on this type of link spamming for years now, and the Link Spam Update is likely the final nail in the coffin. So if you’re going to write guest posts as part of your link-building strategy, ensure that you’re creating relevant, high-quality content. 

Deviously using 301 redirects 

301 redirects are handy for directing traffic from one page to another, and they let search engines know that the page in question has moved. 

Yet, black hat SEOs have a more dubious use for 301 redirects. 

Instead of using them honestly to redirect broken links or expired pages, they use them to hide their spammy, low-quality web pages from Google search results. 

For instance, if a site owner is engaging in the shady low-quality guest posting behavior mentioned above, they may choose to ‘mask’ those pages with redirects while maintaining their effects on SEO. 

Typically, a site owner will redirect a spammy page to another, more relevant web page on their site to cover their tracks. As a result, they were able to retain the value of the spammy page while masking any negative signals to Google. 

However, the recent Link Spam Update and the advancements to Google’s SpamBrain AI are putting an end to this nefarious practice, so it’s best to steer clear. 

Paying for low-quality backlinks 

Buying lots of spammy links have long been considered a black hat SEO practice, no matter how tempting (because link building is very  hard to do).

But those who buy obvious “guest post” links from untrusted vendors are seeing that these links are no longer providing the authority they once had. 

We still recommend outsourcing your link building when possible, but always choose a trusted vendor who has the resources and relationships to secure the most high-quality links.

Foreign language spam sites

Another trick black hat SEOs like to pull off is acquiring backlinks from foreign language spam sites. 

These websites only exist to pass off outgoing links to other sites, and they often use foreign languages to mask their true intention. 

Does that mean that every website written in a foreign language is spam?

Not at all. 

A backlink from a reputable foreign language site with a high domain authority score will carry just as much clout as one written in English. 

Unfortunately, some SEOs don’t realize this, which leads to them disavowing every outbound link they receive from foreign-language websites. You definitely shouldn’t do that, as you may end up getting rid of superb backlinks that are doing a lot for your backlink profile

As a result, you should only be on the lookout for foreign sites that have thin content, low domain authority scores, and spam-style posts. As a rule of thumb, check the DA score for every foreign language website that you think could provide a quality backlink. 

Spamming blog & forum comment sections 

When done tastefully, blog and forum comment sections can be valuable backlink sources for any website. 

To do it right, you should only link to one of your web pages when the post or another comment calls for it. As an example, let’s say that you check out the comment section on a forum post related to your niche. 

The OP has a problem that you know one of your products can solve, which is why you leave a helpful comment and a hyperlink to your product page. 

That’s an instance where including a backlink in a blog or forum comment is completely acceptable. 

As with other tactics, it becomes a problem when taken to the extreme. Black hat SEOs will leave multiple comments linking to their web pages, sometimes consecutively. You’ve seen this in practice if you’ve ever noticed YouTube comments that repeatedly link to the same page over and over – often replying to themselves with more links. 

The Link Spam Update is specifically targeting this type of link spam, so it’s soon to become a thing of the past. If you plan on using comment sections to bolster your backlink profile, you must do so with caution and in moderation. 

UGC (user-generated content) spam 

Another link-building tactic under fire by Google’s new update is UGC spam. 

What’s that?

UGC refers to user-generated content on third-party websites, like forums, social media platforms, and guestbooks. 

For instance, anyone can create a profile on a forum and create posts. Link spammers often create profiles on forums and social media apps to post links to their content in their profiles and in posts. 

UGC spam is where site owners go wild with posting links to their content with the sole goal of artificially boosting their backlink profile. It’s very similar to the comment spam mentioned above, but with one key difference. 

UGC spammers often make efforts to hide their UGC so as not to draw attention to their links. 

In particular, they like to color their hyperlinks black instead of blue to make them blend in with the rest of the text. They can also remove the underline that appears whenever users ‘hover’ over the link. 

This is a very sneaky tactic as the spammers are attempting to flood third-party websites with link spam while covering their tracks. 

Site owners that allow user-generated content need to pay special attention to the hyperlinks users post, as spam can lead to a manual action penalty from Google. 

However, the SpamBrain AI can now detect UGC not marked as UGC, so that this tactic won’t work anymore.

BONUS: FREE Guide on How to Acquire High-Quality Links​

Final Takeaways: How Google’s Link Spam Update Actually Worked 

While Google’s Link Spam Update in December was certainly abrupt, the good news is that it didn’t involve any penalties or manual actions. 

It’s certainly a shame that so many websites saw drops in rankings & traffic, but they’ll be able to recover by engaging in reputable link-building practices. 

The time is now to gravitate away from black hat link-building techniques like paying for backlinks. 

Want to know the absolute best way to recover your website’s authority, traffic, and rankings?

Your best bet is to outsource your link-building to us at Authority Builders Co. We boast extremely stringent quality standards for our backlinks, so you’ll never have to worry about any of the issues mentioned in this post. 

If you’ve been affected by Google’s most recent update, we’d love to help you recover your authority and grow it beyond where you were before – so don’t wait to check out our packages today.