A cautionary tale for other bloggers about how Google crushed my website for something I did not do. This is a long story about a behind-the-scenes nightmare involving my site, so I understand if folks who come here for TV ratings and other sports media news are not interested.
Up to last May, Sports Media Watch was having its best run since I started the site in 2006. Then on May 16 of last year, I received notification from Google that Google Webmaster Tools “detected unnatural links” on SMW. “Specifically,” the message read, “look for possibly artificial or unnatural links on your site pointing to other sites that could be intended to manipulate PageRank.”
The only thing I could think of were some Text Link Ads I had in the sidebar, which I used to generate a few extra bucks each month. I quickly took those down and submitted a reconsideration request. No dice. Now, they said SMW violated their quality guidelines.
As this was happening, I did not notice a dramatic fall off in my traffic. Since I could not think of anything else that would run afoul of Google’s rules, I figured the penalty was mild enough to just ignore. My unique vistors dropped only 3% in June, and the 59% and 26% declines in July and August, respectively, could be explained away by the lack of the Olympics. But the site did not recover. My uniques declined 54% in September, 52% in October, 58% in November, 60% in December, and a whopping 82% in January (thanks to Sochi, February-to-date uniques are down only 14%). When even the Olympics did not result in any recovery for the site, I knew I could not ignore Google’s penalty any longer.
If the Text Link Ads were not the problem, then what exactly had I done? Was it because of the sports TV schedules I posted on the site? I did start to get a little paranoid, especially since Google now provides its own sports schedule data. But that never made any sense – even if Google were corrupt enough to take out the competition, why would they go after my small site? It had to be something else.
I started sniffing around last week and discovered that Google had numerous crawl errors trying to reach nonexistent pages on SMW. The pages pointed to a PHPBB2 message board – pretty strange, considering that SMW has never had a message board. Pasting the link for one of the nonexistent pages into Google brought back a handful of spam sites (example here from Google’s Webmaster Tools), not exactly the types of places you want sending you backlinks. If you have enough backlinks from spam sites, Google assumes that is the result of you having purchased said links to improve PageRank – basically what they accused me of last May. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why spam sites were linking to pages that never existed on SMW. I certainly wasn’t involved in any link schemes.
By the way, one of the problems when you’re in this kind of predicament is that nobody will actually believe you. I knew I wasn’t purchasing backlinks from spammers, but then again why else was this happening? I tried to find other people with the same problem, but all I found were people on Google product forums assuming that any penalized website must have been flouting the rules (and often, their assumptions were delivered in as nasty a fashion as possible). After all, everyone knows companies like Google are incapable of error.
My situation was getting increasingly desperate. The backlinks seemed to be the cause of the Google penalty, but I had no idea where they came from, who was responsible, or how I could get rid of them. Without those answers, my site was destined for permanent purgatory. Eight years of hard work down the drain. Eventually, the amount of money generated from SMW would not be enough to justify the amount of time spent working on posts. As late as Thursday night, I was of the opinion that I was screwed. And then it hit me.
My Sports Media Watch began in 2006. But my Sports Media Watch was not the first on the web. A year earlier, another website named Sports Media Watch was launched by a Matthew Gaventa, using the sportsmediawatch.com domain. The last published post was in April 2006, but it still occupied sportsmediawatch.com until the domain expired in 2010. In the meantime, I ran my site on Blogger. I was not aware of Gaventa’s site when I named mine Sports Media Watch, but I found out within the first few months. Readers who have been with me since the beginning may remember that I briefly renamed it “The Sports Media Blog” — but with Gaventa’s site not updating, I figured it was safe to change it back to SMW. When the sportsmediawatch.com domain became available, I snapped it up as quickly as possible and eventually moved my site over.
Between 2006 and 2010, Gaventa’s Sports Media Watch had little if any new content. It was basically a ghost town, except in one area. Gaventa’s site had forums with the same PHPBB2 address that I saw in Google’s crawl errors and on the spam sites. While the rest of Gaventa’s site lay untouched, his forums were bustling with activity, having been overrun with spam and adult links (examples here, here, here and here; some NSFW language). Even though Gaventa’s SMW is long gone, those forums are still receiving backlinks from spam websites — only now the links point to my site. Since I have never had forums, the links only point to 404 pages, but that looks sufficiently suspect to Google. So because the previous site became a spam paradise, I am now being penalized for backlinks generated from years before I began using the domain.
I did not know about the state of Gaventa’s forums when I bought the sportsmediawatch.com domain — I only visited his site a handful of times. Moreover, it never would have occurred to me that long-dead material from Gaventa’s SMW would affect my site.
I have explained this to Google, and we’ll see if they lift the penalties on SMW. In the absence of that, it is unclear what future the site has. One of the options webmasters have in this scenario is to contact the spam websites and ask them to remove the links (the assumption is that the webmaster struck a deal with the spam sites in the first place). But we’re talking dozens and dozens of obvious spam websites here – not only are they unlikely to respond to an e-mail, but even just going to their sites to get the contact info would likely risk a virus or two. In the absence of that, I could ‘disavow’ the links, but again we’re talking dozens (and more by the day) — and Google gets upset if you don’t try hard enough to remove the links yourself. Other than that, I could always move to a brand new domain and try to build back up my site’s reputation from scratch, which is just as unappetizing a prospect as one imagines.
I think the general attitude, at least within the Google forum community, is that any site that runs afoul of Google must have earned it. Anyone who dares to suggest they have been falsely accused is clearly lying, or has skeletons in their own closet, or simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about. However, SMW surely is not the first or last site that has been unfairly penalized. I am fortunate to have loyal readers and colleagues who continue to visit the site, and because of that SMW has remained afloat despite the massive declines in visits. Right now, it is doing about as well as prior to April 2012. For other sites, however, Google’s judge, jury and executioner system is far more damaging.
I am also lucky that SMW is a hobby; anyone using their website as their primary means of livelihood would be in much worse shape. And I am very lucky that I can demonstrate my lack of involvement in the spam links, thanks to numerous screenshots from the Internet Archive (and thank goodness for the Internet Archive).
I would like to briefly mention that Google has a virtual monopoly on the Internet search business – an untenable situation considering that online searching is the primary means by which people find independent websites. NBA.com or CNN.com probably do not need Google search traffic, but you can be sure that every sports blog outside of Deadspin needs that traffic to survive. As a result, Google is in a position where it can decide which sites live and which ones die –- and if you think they made a mistake, then you must be mistaken.
Google’s penalties severely damaged my site, and all because a site previously using the domain was overrun with spam. Had I not had the hunch to check the old sportsmediawatch.com, I may never have realized this was the problem. The lack of adequate communication from Google, the assumption of guilt, and the uncertainty of getting any resolution have made this experience even more unpleasant than it needed to be. Here’s hoping things turn around.