An Open Letter to Matt Cutts, Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, et al.

Stay Calm

Why would I write an open letter to people I don’t know, have never met and will probably never share a beer with? How about this: because they need to hear this… not because it comes from me, but because it is coming from from a large portion of Google’s user base.

Call it hate-mail or call it whining, if you like, but it’s neither. Maybe it’s tough love, maybe its venting… or maybe it’s a wake-up call. However each of you decide to categorize it, recognize the fact that it is coming from a hell of a lot of people, each of whom holds a small portion of your company’s future in their hands.


At 5:20 pm PST, 3-20-14, I received a sitewide manual penalty for outbound links in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines on one of my sites, Google’s Spam Team decided that this site is guilty of “unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative outbound links” that “may be the result of selling links that pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

Webmaster Tools - Manual Actions - http___docsheldon.com__2014-03-21_00-31-58

Really, guys? This says something about your team’s process. For instance, it tells me that “manual action” is nothing more manual than a human clicking on “partial” or “sitewide” to initiate a penalty after an algorithm has flagged the site – no human review deemed necessary.

Not an earth-shattering conclusion, but amazingly, I’ve actually seen several people say that a manual action was only taken after a manual analysis of a site. Bet you’d LOVE to have that kind of manpower available, huh?

But, taking a walk into Fantasyland for a moment, let’s see what such a manual analysis WOULD have found…

  • A Sept. 2011 post about a video that had recently been published on MyBlogGuest, with a link to the site and the YouTube video embedded. No payment, no other consideration… just something that I thought might be valuable to some of my readers.
  • A couple of comments from the owner of MBG, with the attendant links back to her site.
  • A couple of announcement posts of blogging contests in which I was either participating or sponsoring elsewhere, one of which also included MBG as a sponsor.
  • An acknowledgement page dedicated to the 40-some participants of my ebook, which also included links to their sites and social profiles. (One was Ian Lurie, of… was HE the evidence of my sin?)
  • ZERO guest posts linking to MBG.
  • ZERO guest posts acquired at MBG.
  • ZERO links that any reasonable person would consider to be “unnatural, artificial, deceptive or manipulative”.

What else would it have found?

  • An admission in that Sept. 2011 post that, at that time, I was a moderator at MBG. OMG! The Smoking Gun?
  • A page entitled “Guest Blogs” where I lay out some rather stringent conditions under which I might consider publishing a guest post, along with advice on making any post more readable, regardless of where it’s published. (I have published a total of five guest posts on my site since September, 2010, out of a total of 111 posts, none of which came from MBG.)

A Theory

While hardly an epiphany, a person is naturally led to believe that the recent penalty isn’t so much about MBG as it is about that business model.

Now I’ve said, long ago, that requiring followed links was unwise and a poor business move on MBG’s part. Common sense told me that it couldn’t end well. But that doesn’t change the fact that technically, MBG wasn’t in violation of any published Webmaster Guideline. They received no payment for those links. There was no link exchange or other consideration involved.

keep-calm-and-don-t-poke-thThen there’s that January thing, where Ann Smarty thumbed her nose at Google. While it’s never a wise thing to poke the bear, I now find myself more able to understand how she might have been driven to stamp her foot a bit when she heard everyone predicting that her business was what you were talking about sticking a fork in, Matt. Yeah, today, especially, I can better understand that.

A lot of people think that you and your team went after Ann and MBG because of that poking. I don’t, however. I imagine that axe was already about to fall when you tweeted about an impending hit on a big blog network. MBG was already the target, long before Ann said anything.

So one has to wonder why Google would go after a business as a “blog network”, when it isn’t really a network, for inbound links for which they received no consideration, that was supposedly in violation of guidelines that didn’t come close to describing what that business was doing.

I have a theory… one that I think is well-founded. I think MBG is simply a large enough target to make a good “example” of. I think that by hitting not only that network-that-isn’t-really-a-network, but also people that had ever linked to them, had a profile on that site or published a post they had acquired there, enough FUD would be generated to effectively destroy not only MBG, but their business model.

As a corollary to that theory, I think that Google knows that in doing so, they’re hurting a lot of innocent sites, and has made a conscious decision that those are “acceptable losses”. It’s easy to consider them acceptable, provided the losses aren’t yours, aren’t they, guys? Is a scorched-earth approach really the one you want to employ?

Don’t get me wrong… I’m not whining about my lost organic traffic. I’m fortunate, in that the vast majority of my business comes from client referrals. I don’t need Google, in that regard.

Unfortunately, all my clients don’t enjoy that luxury, though. So I have to be concerned with how they may be affected if one day, your team lumps them into the “acceptable losses” category. And as the owner of a site that got tossed with the bath water, I also have to wonder how many others out there may be similarly trashed, whose livelihood depends on the income their site generates through their organic visibility.

And of course, as someone that makes their living online, I also wonder if all those folks will be as capable of correcting whatever it is that Google incorrectly sees as “manipulative” in the few hours it took me. And I have to wonder if the several weeks of delay it takes Google to even process a reconsideration request will be economically recoverable for them.

Webmaster Tools - Messages for - http___docsheldon.com__2014-03-21_15-24-49

By extension, I have to wonder to what extent Google has forsaken the “Don’t be evil” mantra of its IP prospectus. Is that no longer expedient? Are acceptable losses no longer just accepted, but actually embraced, if they amplify the FUD?

I’ll posit something for your consideration, guys… you are NOT too big to fail! You may be too big for others to destroy, but as a business, you can destroy yourselves quite handily. And although it may be very difficult to see it from your perspective, you would do well to take an objective look at a few basic facts:

  • The billions you rake in come from us!
  • Most failed societies, governments and businesses destroyed themselves from within, by losing perspective.
  • We all got along quite well before Google!
  • The way things are going, we might get along even better without Google.

79 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Matt Cutts, Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, et al.

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  2. Abelard says:

    Doc, I’d like to share a similar experience.

    We were also penalized manually on the 20th, interestingly.

    We’ve been online for 15 years and have over 2M users. On the 20th, Google knocked us *completely* out of the index for “unnatural incoming links.”

    I looked through the “recent links” of Webmaster Tools and found a ton of spammy incoming links that we had nothing to do with. I believe some third-party (probably a competitor) is targeting us.

    This is obviously pretty concerning to me. I submitted a disavow file with all of the spam links I could find, but have heard nothing back from G.

    So, is this the future? The easiest way to get high rankings is to spam all your competitors into oblivion?

    I understand Google’s motivation, but this is just a fundamentally unfair way of handing things.

    1. No warning
    2. Guilt assumed
    3. An ambiguous timeline for review (could be days, weeks, months)?
    4. An ambiguous penalty (onus is on me to sift through tens of thousands of links trying to figure out what G is unhappy about)
    5. A complete site penalty for a site that they *know* is legit. Even searches for our company name aren’t showing up.

    I get the sense this may be a Google “Reign of Terror.” Everyone is a suspect.

    • Doc Sheldon says:

      Sorry to hear that, Abelard. You say you submitted a disavow list, but you don’t indicate whether you first went through the process of trying to contact webmasters and get links removed or nofollowed… with 1,000s of links, I know how daunting that can be – I’ve had to do it. But with a manual inbound link penalty, if you didn’t do so, I can almost assure you that your reconsideration request will be rejected.

      • Abelard says:

        No, I’ve just disavowed.

        There are hundreds and hundreds of completely spammy links (e.g., chinese blog comments with random words — looks like a bot was used). It just seemed so unlikely I’d make any headway on them, and anyway, as far as I can tell new links are still being generated.

        I’m going to end up having a team of ppl working to remove spam links :/

        • Doc Sheldon says:

          One of my clients is in a similar situation, Abelard. He’s updating his disavow file weekly. But he had no penalty… just what could be negative SEO. It’s sometimes difficult to spot negative SEO with any certainty, because of the vast number of scraper sites out there – once you get on their “list”, it begins to seem like a perpetual thing. Good luck!

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  4. Googler says:

    At the end of the SEO war, Google wants all Small and Established websites to opt for paid listing i.e PPC, so that they can make hefty money and fill their treasure box. These kind of stunts are not going to help instead they bring a negative impact of the Google brand but not among general users who are not aware of SEO stuffs. So ultimately it isn’t going to hurt them if we webmasters whine or hate Google.

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  8. James Johnson says:

    Seems to me that someone with a marketing degree needs to be put into the Web Spam group at Google. Too many PHD types running things. I understand why Google is doing what they are doing (and it isn’t completely a bad thing), but they have taken it way too far. If I write a post and I make reference to something like WordPress or Concrete5 and I link to a page with that anchor text that is about those topics that is just a good user experience. To have to write “click here” for fear of a penalty tells me that Google has taken things too far and gotten too intrusive. Even worse when the anchor text isn’t even a keyword.

  9. Igor says:

    Doc, you had it coming and I’m happy for you. You were one of the perpetual trolls bashing anyone that said bad things about Google and saying you knew how to do it right.

    I hope your SS check is enough

  10. Hi,

    i am curious to see Google´s answer, at the end, nobody is free from errors.
    I imagine that Search Quality team is very busy and as some repressive states in this world, it could be some members are getting paranoic?

    Greetings from Hamburg, Germany.

  11. Its so funny that after coming across this incident from one of my Twitter connections, I actually spent more than 3 hours reading all about this. I even looked through Google Webmaster rules (I read them for the first time). But I was not really getting how Google understood that one particular link was “unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative outbound links”. Did they get into Doc’s brain to understand that? Or is it a personal attack on MBG? Btw, I have added my website link to my name for this comment (slightly scared though! Google Gods! Please don’t get offended)

  12. I was hesitant to put my URL in the website box… not sure if I want a penalized site linking to me, haha…

    In all seriousness, I agree with everything you’re saying 100%. It’s tough to swallow, but you’re right. As I read this, I was trying to imagine Matt Cutts responding to certain points you were making; and I just don’t see how he could explain some points you made.

    You did mention that it’s taking them weeks to review reconsideration requests. I would have agreed with you 3 weeks ago, but a couple weeks back, I had one that only took 4 days before the penalty was lifted. My mind was blown.

    Thanks for the great post, and I seriously hope we hear a response from Matt.

    • Hi, Philip-actually, the “several weeks” I referred to is what is in their acknowledgment of receipt of my recon. request. For my clients, I’ve been typically seeing 1-2 weeks.
      And don’t worry… The Meld hasn’t been penalised.

      Of course, Google could decide to take their ‘guilt by association’ gambit to a new level. 😉

  13. You got it right, for sure. Google’s never going to have an algorithmic way of keeping spammers at by. They rely heavily (and always will) on fear-mongering.

  14. 100% agree with this. Google quite often seems to choose sites to make an example of – remember Rap Genius? The thing is, this often backfires for Google, as I’m sure this example will too. Google ends up looking weak and childish for these PR stunts – did they need to penalise MBG and every site associated with it – no! I’ve been seeing quite a few cases like yours from talking to SEOs and it’s ridiculous that one link can burn an entire site, yet we’ve got sites ranking at number 1 with atrocious links!

  15. I feel this might have come as a straight out attack on MBG but knowing how google goes about its business, in a few weeks time they will change something else or knock another network/site/method and this will “blow over”. We are helpless.

  16. I find it fascinating that “Vince Wilks” tweet to T-mobile that he was trying to collect payment on “paid link” on his site and nothing happened to his site. The site is a PR6 with some rather shady links pointing to the site. A manual review of would easily be enough to get it booted out of the SERPs. I wouldn’t take (much of a) look to discover outbound links violating Google’s TOS. I think Google forgot the role that SEO’s playing in getting people to use Google in the first place. We were the grass-roots effort to help spread the message of Google. Now they no longer need, nor respect us. Its time to move on and away. Lets stop buying Google products, stop wearing their glass and stop inviting them to our conferences. Lets stop trying to push people out of the way to get a moment to talk to Cutts personally. I have had it with the propaganda from Google, the fear and scare tactics. Cutts said he wants to crush our spirits, let’s see how well that plays out while we move to a different search engine.

  17. Sage Lewis says:

    I’ve never posted at MBG. Is there an editorial review process as to what gets published and what doesn’t?

    • Hello, Sage –
      Yes, Ann and her staff review the quality of incoming posts before making them available to publishers for use on their own blogs. Then, each publisher can go back and forth with the author if there are any other edits desired.

  18. A good friend of mine said recently, “Google, having owned and controlled such a large market share in terms of search, is slowly shifting towards an ever receding set of rules, which will eventually result in them experiencing the same fate as other big companies have made in the past – most notably, Microsoft.

    Acknowledging bad links has been quite possibly, one of the worst things they’ve done. Instead of punishing, they should improve their ability to reward, because at the moment, they’re doing a pretty lousy job.

    • My impression is that the penalty process seems to be aimed at making publishers toe the line and assure the quality of links so that Google doesn’t have to. Many would argue that Google prefers that mode, simply because they’re unable to really determine which links are bad and which aren’t (while all the evil, spammy publishers out there surely know which links are bad, right?)
      There was a point when I understood that philosophy, just as I understood that there would inevitably be a few innocents caught in the net. But It’s a slippery slope, and the number of innocents hurt is not only increasing, it has seemingly become just a part of the enemy body count, no longer even considered collateral damage.

  19. From Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, Basic Principles:

    “Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”

    I’d not only feel “comfortable” explaining to a Google employee, I’d be amazed to get the opportunity to do so. Maybe those questions need to be adjusted a little? Being helpful to your users and being something you would do even if there were no search engines obviously carry no weight. In fact, I’d remind the management at Google that links were THE way to navigate the Web, LONG before Google was even dreamed of.

  20. Love this…. “Don’t get me wrong… I’m not whining about my lost organic traffic. I’m fortunate, in that the vast majority of my business comes from client referrals. I don’t need Google, in that regard.”

    As I said to Terry yesterday… “Google is just one of many channels for client acquisition” (at least for us). If you do good work your business will continue to grow (maybe not as fast) but it will still grow.

    • Yep… While I do, by necessity, chase organic listings for my clients, I have NEVER bothered with it for my own business, and we’ve grown ten-fold over the last few years. For all I get out of Google, I might as well be looking for a legacy version of AltaVista!

  21. What Google ignores, is that all the billions of dollars they earn, are thanks to people like us, who created websites and content…and help them run Adwords and Adsense.

    A pathetic way to treat your “partners”, and and an obvious sign of monopoly. What’s next? Penalize Facebook for being a business threat to Google?

    • The entire dialogue between Cutts and seo’s has been an empty farce from day one. As for Google as a larger entity? What have you all been smoking?

      I’ve never been able to understand how “industry THOUGHT LEADERS” could have ever felt differently much less, the trend the past several years of experts laying out latest algo nuance.

      It’s game where 99% is simply in your mind people.

  22. I am exhausted over posting about how screwed up, unjust and just wrong the MBG penalty really was. I’m tired of holier-than-thou uh, people (being polite here) who have their heads so far up their own arses that they cannot see the truth.

    Of course I agree with you Doc. I am a current mod at MBG and proud to say so. Google’s well-known and lavishly painted FUD is ridiculous. It seems to only get worse and worse. Do as Google says, or ELSE.

    The shotgun penalties they so happily slap websites with are so vague it is laughable. Here’s a list of things that could be the reasons why we gave you a penalty. But wait, there’s more! These may not be the only reasons we gave you a penalty, but we’re not going to tell you what those other reasons could be either!

    Matt Cutts’ obvious unleashed attack on MBG is petty, vindictive and hardly professional by any stretch. Indeed, “Let’s make an example of MBG! That’ll teach ’em!” Good grief, as IF the so-called example will eradicate spammy guest blogging.

    Spammy guest blogging occurred (and will continue to occur) long before MBG existed. Whether MBG existed or not, it will continue to happen. So, how could this penalty vs MBG be anything BUT vindictive and petty?

    And a PR stunt, of course. Nothing more than a fear mongering tactic to make folks afraid of guest posting. Nothing surprises me about the lengths Google will go to enforce their monopoly anymore. How sad is that?

    All I can do is shake my head.

  23. I SO empathize with everything you’re all talking about and find the whole issue of the Google gods thinking they’re the master ruler of everything Internet; in fact, it’s the very people they’re tossing under the bus that made them the big SE super star, is it not? So why do we keep cow-towing to their idiotic whims?

    Why are they and only they the one’s to determine what is good or what isn’t good? What works for one, may not work for another and what is enjoyable to one may not be enjoyable to another. What we do on our own paid for, personal web space should be NONE of their business.

    Read that whole story you linked to, also – fascinating and uber creepy, but sure makes a point about this monster Google has turned into.

    Sorry, too long, I know. Over and out with many thanks for speaking out.

    • For the record, I have no problem with Google trying to keep their search results clean of garbage… and I know there’s plenty of garbage around. I also recognise that Google is a business, and publicly traded, to boot, so they have a responsibility to make money. But they’ve lost touch with reality. They either don’t care what collateral damage they cause or they don’t believe they’re causing any… I’m not sure which of those possibilities is of greater concern. But they need to realise what they’re doing and stop it!

  24. Good stuff Doc, and I totally agree with you. The thing is people take it to heart way too much when Google takes away their page rank. They took mine away for two years and I literally didn’t care because I felt it was over valued and my blog did just as well without it, though I own up to not ever being serious about making money off it. And I lost that rank over a legitimate post they didn’t like that I know they never read. Oh well…

    So it’s a horrible process Google is using, but the world won’t end.

  25. You are so correct about this. MBG wasn’t doing anything wrong. Ann is the biggest advocate of guest blogging the right way by adding extreme value and usefulness to readers. She truly practices what she preaches and has instilled these values in the MBG community (and also in their guidelines).

    and that’s exactly what MBG IS – a community. Not a blog network.Not a service. A community of guest bloggers.

    This WAS a PR stunt by Google and nothing else. Google wanted make an example of someone in order to instill fear into the SEO world. What better target for their PR stunt than the best and most well known guest blogging community on the internet? It’s because of Ann’s popularity. Ann has done too good of a job marketing and building a community. So she is the innocent one (and her community) that gets to be made an example of.

    And it’s very sad that Google is ok with innocent casualties just so they can send their PR message.

    And this makes it clear that Google does not care who gets hurt, so long as they accomplish their goals. It’s not about doing the right thing or the best search results. That bird has flown the coop long ago.

    Thanks again for writing this post. I am also working on a blog posts response.Stay tuned.

  26. Steve says:

    This is the first time I think that we have seen this level of scorched earth from Google. Obviously we can’t know exactly what happened and what their internal discussion was as to how to deal with this. But from the outside is certainly ‘looks’ as though the discussion went something like this –

    If anyone has ever linked to MBG at any time in the past, give them a full manual review. If you see anything at all that doesn’t seem legit, no matter how Hawaiian, slap it with a manual penalty.

    It’s a terribly evil thing to do, but it does get their message across loud and clear.

    At some point though, they are going to have to stop playing this rumor, hinting and implication game and actually start telling people exactly what they want. And when they decide to change the rules, they will need to be proactive in letting people know that both the rules have changed and we will no longer count this particular technique going forward.

    • I don’t think there was any manual review, Steve… how about “If anyone has ever linked to MBG at any time in the past, give them a sitewide manual penalty”?

      • Not sure why would anyone link to MBG. That site is/was a rendezvous point for so called SEO experts and fake bloggers.
        I even called it out in my post from December
        Pretty much a shithole that deserved to get penalized. It should have been included back in the days when BMR was penalized.
        But yeah, Google employees like to cut the corners and include all the sites connected with the mother ship (in this case the mother ship is MBG).

        • I suppose one could also say that among the “rendezvous sites for so called SEO experts and fake bloggers” could be found sites like Search Engine Land, Moz and Webmaster World… but that wouldn’t necessarily be true, either. And comparing BMR and MBG isn’t even as close as apples and oranges.

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