Written by Patrick Hathaway on 05 February 2014
Many web design agencies like to leave their mark on client sites by making use of a footer credit link. We do it at Hit Reach, and with good reason - they act as a passive lead generation tool and allow us to get our name out there a bit more.
As long as you maintain good working relationships with your clients they don't seem to mind - in fact most are happy to endorse you and it makes no difference to them.
Footer Links For SEO
Anyone who knows anything about SEO understands the value of backlinks from other websites, and so, historically, many web agencies saw these footer credit links as a quick win - rapidly garnering thousands of links back to their site with very little effort.
From Google's perspective, this isn't really playing by the rules - you haven't 'earned' those links by producing great content, you've just logged into a site that you control and put them there yourself. As a result Google has dialed down the value that these links pass for SEO, so they certainly don't impact sites like they did several years ago.
But Can They Impact You Negatively?
The short answer is yes.
Footer Links Can Get You A Google Penalty
April 24th, 2012 saw the first release of a Google update known as Penguin, which targeted low-quality, spammy link building techniques. Websites that had a lot of spammy links lost rankings overnight, many have never recovered. The Penguin algorithm has been relaunched and refreshed several times, the last data refresh occurring on October 4th, 2013.
Penguin is a deliberate action from Google to punish site owners that have abused their Webmaster Guidelines by utilising manipulative link building practices - including sitewide links.
One of the main things that Penguin has impacted is links that use keywords in their anchor text. Rather than simply using the company name (as per screenshot above), some agencies have used footer links as an opportunity to pass 'relevance' signals to Google by using anchor text like 'Best Web Design Agency'. This is the sort of practice that can earn you a Penguin penalty.
Case Study: Design Junction
A web design agency based in Melbourne, Design Junction, approached us recently as they had noticed a drop-off in their rankings and traffic across a range of terms. After doing a quick analysis of their site, we suspected that the site had been hit by Penguin, and so advised a full penalty audit, which we then carried out for them.
To help analyse these situations early-on, we've developed a Website Penalty Indicator tool recently that helps give an initial overview to see if a website has been hit by a Google penalty. You can see how Design Junction's visibility drops coincide with the Penguin updates:
Once they had contracted us to perform the audit, we got access to their Google Analytics account and confirmed our suspicions - several large hits to organic traffic from Google, all of which aligned perfectly with Penguin updates or data refreshes.
What Caused The Penalty
Having gone through the backlink profile, we found the following:
- Major sitewide links from client footers
- Multiple Anchor blogroll links
- Multiple links in footer, Anchor Rich and Brand
- Manipulative split links
In short, they had a lot of footer and sitewide links that looked like this:
It is clear that Google's algorithm deemed a large portion of their links as spammy or manipulative, and since the large proportion of their link profile is made up of these types of links, the site got severely hit. Our analysis did reveal a few other problems to sort out, but the main tasks in terms of 'recovery' we advised were as follows:
- Remove ALL anchor rich links from client sites.
- Nofollow all but the home page links if possible – and make sure that the home page link is actually only a “Brand link”.
- Build up a range of high quality “branded” links to the sites. Ideally as many as possible to the home page and a few to each target page.
- Monitor results and changes and refresh the process – build more branded links to the site until some of the lost rankings start building up.
Since then we have helped them with both tasks, and we eagerly await the next Penguin update to see if these actions have been sufficient to affect a full or partial recovery.
Act Before It's Too Late
This sort of issue can affect anyone with an 'unnatural' backlink profile, as this case study of WPMU's penalty indicates. With each update, Google turn up the filters and target different methods of spammy linkbuilding, so don't rest on your laurels just because you've not been hit in the past.
Whilst we are confident with the steps taken by Design Junction, we have no real idea of the effectiveness of these 'recovery' actions until the Penguin algorithm updates. The last one we saw was October 4th, almost 5 months after the previous one - which is a long time to be surviving on reduced traffic, leads or sales.
Our advice? Treat you site as if it has suffered a penalty - try to remove or nofollow sitewide links and use exclusively branded anchor text for your footer credit links.
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