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6 Common Hreflang Tag Mistakes Sabotaging Your International SEO



6 Common Hreflang Tag Mistakes Sabotaging Your International SEO

Correct hreflang tags are critical to international SEO success if you run your business across multiple domains targeting different languages or regions.

When hreflang tags are missing, or incorrectly used, you hurt your SEO.

I first experienced this frustration many years ago when managing the SEO of a client’s eight Shopify stores.

Without the correct hreflang tags, I saw how these stores were cannibalizing each other’s SEO efforts in their respective local markets.

Since then, I’ve evaluated the hreflang tags of hundreds of ecommerce stores and have come to identify six common mistakes being made repeatedly.

And let’s be clear. This isn’t a problem unique to Shopify.

If you run multi-regional stores from any ecommerce platform, you may be making any one of these mistakes.

Without the correct directive, Google won’t know the best version is to show to a user based on their location.

Shopify does, however, present a unique issue as there is no way to link the various products, collections, pages, and articles together across multi-stores to produce accurate hreflang tags unless you are using the custom hreflang tags Shopify app.

Some stores create workarounds for their hreflang tags by using redirects to their translated versions of the URLs.

This can be difficult to manage and lead to broken redirect chains for a poor user experience.

Let’s not forget to mention the negative impact on your SEO.

Why Are Hreflang Tags Crucial For International SEO?

A hreflang tag is a bit of code to signal to search engines which version of your store to show to a user based on their language and geographical location.

When you run multiple ecommerce accounts under the same brand, you can customize URLs for the native language.

This is recommended for SEO best practice, as you can better target native language keywords in your URLs and optimize a page accordingly.

With correct hreflang tag implementation, your store will send signals to Google to index and show the appropriate version based on a user’s location and/or language.

Improvements in user experience and minimizing source code conflicts have a flow-on effect on SEO.

For example, with the correct version showing to the user, you may be more likely to attract links for your geo-targeted page. This can help reduce bounce rates and improve conversions.

What Does A Correct Hreflang Tag Look Like?

Before we jump into the common mistakes, let’s look at the benefits of getting your hrelflang tags right.

Say you own a shoe store, which we’ll call “Good Shoe Shop.”

You’re currently managing two domains; one to target U.S. customers (a .com domain), and one to target German customers (a .de domain).

It makes sense to show the .com version of the website to users based in the U.S., and the .de version of the store, which you have translated into German, to users in Germany.

In addition, you’ve translated the German store and used customized German language URLs to target keywords in the native language.

Great SEO work!

The correct hreflang tags for a ‘Shoe’ collection page would look like this for the .com store:

<link rel="alternate" href="" hreflang="x-default">
<link rel="alternate" href="" hreflang="en" />
<link rel="alternate" href="" hreflang="de" />

These hreflang tags tell Google when a customer is based in Germany, to show the .de version of your store.

The “x-default” attribute signals to Google to show this default version when a user’s location or language isn’t specified or targeted in the hreflang tag.

Without these hreflang tags, users in Germany may be served the .com version simply because it ranks better for certain English keywords.

As a result, they would be shown USD pricing, U.S. shipping information, and no custom language translations on the page.

Can you imagine the difference in the customer’s experience?

This ability to have the correct version of your store showing to a customer based on their location is why hreflang tags are important for your international SEO.

Here are the six most common hreflang tag mistakes we’ve come across causing stores to repel customers and lose sales.

1. No Custom URL Translations

If you run multiple domains, it’s important to show your store to the user in their native language and to have custom URL translations.

It’s up to you whether you make these translations manually or utilize a translation app.

What’s important here is how you manage these translations in your hreflang tags.

Here’s an example from Toby Wagons.

Even though Toby Wagons utilizes hreflang tags, they are all in English.

Screenshot from, May 2022

This may not appear to be a big deal at face value, however, how many French customers, in France, are using English search queries, like “Spare Parts” as opposed to French search queries?

What does this mean for the French store’s local SEO?

Isn’t it quite likely the .com store will outrank the French store for English keywords when you would prefer the .fr domain to rank highly in France?

By not using customized, native language URLs, you are missing out on valuable SEO juice.

This better serves your local customers while targeting more relevant keywords for that region.
As an example, Toby Wagons use “pièces de rechange” as the collection name for “Spare Part” in their French store.

SEO best practices would have you replicate this in the URL to target these keywords and provide a more consistent and geographically relevant user experience.

<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr" href="" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="en" href="" />
<link rel="alternate" hreflang="fr" href="" />

Each individual store should utilize custom URLs, translated for the local language.

These translated URLs should then be used in the hreflang tags.

2. No Cross-Referencing Between Stores

Large, multinational brands like Allbirds are not infallible.

They have several stores, catering to different geo-regions like Australia, Canada, China, Japan, etc.

Allbirds multiple regionsScreenshot from, May 2022

They don’t, however, cross-reference their other stores in the hreflang tags.

Allbirds - no cross-referencing of hreflang tagsScreenshot from, May 2022

The consequence?

These stores aren’t passing valuable SEO juice between stores.

3. Incorrectly Mapping URLs

In the case of Kids Ride Shotgun, they use hreflang tags between their eight domains.

They are, however, incorrectly mapped.

Kids Ride Shotgun - hreflang tagsScreenshot from, May 2022

When navigating to a collection page, the hreflang tag points to each store’s homepage, rather than the equivalent collection page for that store.

This is telling search engines the homepage is the most relevant version of that page for all pages.

From an SEO point of view, this is grossly wrong.

Each collection page should be mapped to the corresponding collection page in the other stores.

Likewise, each product page should have an equivalent product page to map to in the hreflang tags.

4. Incorrect Use Of Hreflang Tag Domains

It’s vitally important you use the correct version of your domain in the hreflang tags.

For example, Vovox has two domains on two separate Shopify accounts:

Their hreflang tags do not use the public versions of the domains but rather, the Shopify admin domains.

VOVOX - incorrect hreflang tagScreenshot from, May 2022

This is no doubt causing confusion and potentially impacting their SEO.

Always use the public domain address in your hreflang tags.

They also do not use customized URLs. The .com version of the store uses the .ch translations.

For example:

English URLs should be used in the English store and mapped in the hreflang tags to the other languages.

5. Hreflang Tags Point To A Redirect

Just like with any internal link on your website, SEO best practices call for using the correct version of the link rather than a 301 redirect.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with redirects; they exist for a purpose, to communicate with search engines that a URL has moved.

If a correct or new version of the URL exists, then it’s best practice to use the correct destination link when internally linking to pages on your site.

This saves page load time and provides a clearer directive for search engines.

In this example, redirected URLs have been used in the hreflang tags.

Even though we are on the .com site, the URL used in the hreflang tag is using the German version of the collection page.

While looking at other collection pages, I found many hreflang tag URLs end up as 404 errors.

They’ve tried to work around this with 301 redirects.

This is a clumsy way to manage hreflang tags between different stores and can cause all sorts of broken links. 301s may also weaken your PageRank if used incorrectly.



Klitmøller Collection - wrong hreflang tagsScreenshot from, May 2022
Klitmoller Collective - redirect hreflang tagScreenshot from, May 2022

6. Hreflang Tags Point To 404 Pages

While this last point is not a direct hreflang mistake, it’s an SEO mistake that comes about due to hreflang limitations in Shopify or in the case of other platforms, where a non-existent link has been used.

The problem is when a store has an hreflang tag that points to another store’s equivalent page but it lands with a 404 error.

This happens because the URL is often translated into the native language but the hreflang tag uses the same English version.

Below is an example from Luvele.

When I viewed the hreflang tags on a .com collection page, the .de version of that collection took me straight to a 404 page.

Luvele - 404 hreflang tagScreenshot from, May 2022

The hreflang tags are using English URLs for both the .com and .de versions, even though they have a German version of the page

<link rel="alternate" href="" hreflang="en-au" />
<link rel="alternate" href="" hreflang="en-de" />

The correct hreflang tag should point to the German translation of the collection page.

<link rel="alternate" href="" hreflang="en-de" />

You can begin to imagine the number of 404 errors that are occurring when you multiply this across how many stores you manage, and the number of collection and product pages!

Other Considerations And SEO Best Practices For Hreflang Tags

Use Self-Referencing Hreflang Tag

Without a self-referencing hreflang tag, the attributes may be ignored or misinterpreted.

This can cause clashes with other source code.

The page in reference needs to include a self-referencing hreflang tag.

Avoid Mixing Canonical Tags And Hreflang Tags

A canonical tag signals to search engines which version of a URL (where the content is the same) to the index to avoid duplicate content.

On the other hand, a hreflang tag is a signal to search engines to show the correct version of a URL based on a user’s language or region (and where the content may slightly differ to compensate for translation differences or region/language-specific information).

This can easily be muddled when you start cross-referencing canonical tags in the hreflang tags between stores.

Canonical tags should only be used within a single version of your store.

You can avoid sending confusing signals to Google by only using the same URL being self-referenced in the hreflang tag attributes.

Use Correct Region And Language Attributes

Be mindful of using the correct country and language code attributes.

Double-check the ISO 639-1 format for language codes to ensure you are using the correct one. For targeting a specific region, you will need to use the ISO 3166-1 Alpha 2 format.

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How To Uncover Traffic Declines In Google Search Console And How To Fix Them




How To Uncover Traffic Declines In Google Search Console And How To Fix Them

Google Search Console is an essential tool that offers critical insights into your website’s performance in Google search results.

Occasionally, you might observe a sudden decline in organic traffic, and it’s crucial to understand the potential causes behind this drop. The data stored within Google Search Console (GSC) can be vital in troubleshooting and understanding what has happened to your website.

Before troubleshooting GSC traffic declines, it’s important to understand first what Google says about assessing traffic graphs in GSC and how it reports on different metrics.

Understanding Google Search Console Metrics

Google’s documentation on debugging Search traffic drops is relatively comprehensive (compared to the guidance given in other areas) and can, for the most part, help prevent any immediate or unnecessary panic should there be a change in data.

Despite this, I often find that Search Console data is misunderstood by both clients and those in the first few years of SEO and learning the craft.

Image from Google Search Central, May 2024

Even with these definitions, if your clicks and impressions graphs begin to resemble any of the above graph examples, there can be wider meanings.

Search Central description  It could also be a sign that…
Large drop from an algorithmic update, site-wide security, or spam issue This could also signal a serious technical issue, such as accidentally deploying a noindex onto a URL or returning the incorrect status code – I’ve seen it before where the URL renders content but returns a 410.
Seasonality You will know your seasonality better than anyone, but if this graph looks inverse it could be a sign that during peak search times, Google is rotating the search engine results pages (SERPs) and choosing not to rank your site highly. This could be because, during peak search periods, there is a slight intent shift in the queries’ dominant interpretation.
Technical issues across your site, changing interests This type of graph could also represent seasonality (both as a gradual decline or increase).
Reporting glitch ¯_(ツ)_/¯ This graph can represent intermittent technical issues as well as reporting glitches. Similar to the alternate reasons for graphs like Seasonality, it could represent a short-term shift in the SERPs and what meets the needs of an adjusted dominant interpretation of a query.

Clicks & Impressions

Google filters Click and Impression data in Google Search Console through a combination of technical methods and policies designed to ensure the accuracy, reliability, and integrity of the reported data.

Reasons for this include:

  • Spam and bot filtering.
  • Duplicate data removal.
  • User privacy/protection.
  • Removing “invalid activities.”
  • Data aggregation and sampling.

One of the main reasons I’ve seen GSC change the numbers showing the UI and API is down to the setting of thresholds.

Google may set thresholds for including data in reports to prevent skewed metrics due to very low-frequency queries or impressions. For example, data for queries that result in very few impressions might be excluded from reports to maintain the statistical reliability of the metrics.

Average Position

Google Search Console produces the Average Position metric by calculating the average ranking of a website’s URLs for a specific query or set of queries over a defined period of time.

Each time a URL appears in the search results for a query, its position is recorded. For instance, if a URL appears in the 3rd position for one query and in the 7th position for another query, these positions are logged separately.

As we enter the era of AI Overviews, John Mueller has confirmed via Slack conversations that appearing in a generative snapshot will affect the average position of the query and/or URL in the Search Console UI.

1718702762 996 How To Uncover Traffic Declines In Google Search Console AndSource: John Mueller via The SEO Community Slack channel

I don’t rely on the average position metric in GSC for rank tracking, but it can be useful in trying to debug whether or not Google is having issues establishing a single dominant page for specific queries.

Understanding how the tool compiles data allows you to better diagnose the reasons as to why, and correlate data with other events such as Google updates or development deployments.

Google Updates

A Google broad core algorithm update is a significant change to Google’s search algorithm intended to improve the relevance and quality of search results.

These updates do not target specific sites or types of content but alter specific systems that make up the “core” to an extent it is noteworthy for Google to announce that an update is happening.

Google makes updates to the various individual systems all the time, so the lack of a Google announcement does not disqualify a Google update from being the cause of a change in traffic.

For example, the website in the below screenshot saw a decline from the March 2023 core update but then recovered in the November 2023 core update.

GSC: the website saw a decline from the March 2023 core updateScreenshot by author from Google Search Console, May 2024

The following screenshot shows another example of a traffic decline correlating with a Google update, and it also shows that recovery doesn’t always occur with future updates.

traffic decline correlating with a Google updateScreenshot by author from Google Search Console, May 2024

This site is predominantly informational content supporting a handful of marketing landing pages (a traditional SaaS model) and has seen a steady decline correlating with the September 2023 helpful content update.

How To Fix This

Websites negatively impacted by a broad core update can’t fix specific issues to recover.

Webmasters should focus on providing the best possible content and improving overall site quality.

Recovery, however, may occur when the next broad core update is rolled out if the site has improved in quality and relevance or Google adjusts specific systems and signal weightings back in the favour of your site.

In SEO terminology, we also refer to these traffic changes as an algorithmic penalty, which can take time to recover from.

SERP Layout Updates

Given the launch of AI Overviews, I feel many SEO professionals will conduct this type of analysis in the coming months.

In addition to AI Overviews, Google can choose to include a number of different SERP features ranging from:

  • Shopping results.
  • Map Packs.
  • X (Twitter) carousels.
  • People Also Ask accordions.
  • Featured snippets.
  • Video thumbnails.

All of these not only detract and distract users from the traditional organic results, but they also cause pixel shifts.

From our testing of SGE/AI Overviews, we see traditional results being pushed down anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 pixels.

When this happens you’re not likely to see third-party rank tracking tools show a decrease, but you will see clicks decline in GSC.

The impact of SERP features on your traffic depends on two things:

  • The type of feature introduced.
  • Whether your users predominantly use mobile or desktop.

Generally, SERP features are more impactful to mobile traffic as they greatly increase scroll depth, and the user screen is much smaller.

You can establish your dominant traffic source by looking at the device breakdown in Google Search Console:

Device by users: clicks and impressionsImage from author’s website, May 2024

You can then compare the two graphs in the UI, or by exporting data via the API with it broken down by devices.

How To Fix This

When Google introduces new SERP features, you can adjust your content and site to become “more eligible” for them.

Some are driven by structured data, and others are determined by Google systems after processing your content.

If Google has introduced a feature that results in more zero-click searches for a particular query, you need to first quantify the traffic loss and then adjust your strategy to become more visible for similar and associated queries that still feature in your target audience’s overall search journey.

Seasonality Traffic Changes

Seasonality in demand refers to predictable fluctuations in consumer interest and purchasing behavior that occur at specific times of the year, influenced by factors such as holidays, weather changes, and cultural events.

Notably, a lot of ecommerce businesses will see peaks in the run-up to Christmas and Thanksgiving, whilst travel companies will see seasonality peaks at different times of the year depending on the destinations and vacation types they cater to.

The below screenshot is atypical of a business that has a seasonal peak in the run-up to Christmas.

seasonal peaks as measured in GSCScreenshot by author from Google Search Console, May 2024

You will see these trends in the Performance Report section and likely see users and sessions mirrored in other analytics platforms.

During a seasonal peak, Google may choose to alter the SERPs in terms of which websites are ranked and which SERP features appear. This occurs when the increase in search demand also brings with it a change in user intent, thus changing the dominant interpretation of the query.

In the travel sector, the shift is often from a research objective to a commercial objective. Out-of-season searchers are predominantly researching destinations or looking for deals, and when it is time to book, they’re using the same search queries but looking to book.

As a result, webpages with a value proposition that caters more to the informational intent are either “demoted” in rankings or swapped out in favor of webpages that (in Google’s eyes) better cater to users in satisfying the commercial intent.

How To Fix This

There is no direct fix for traffic increases and decreases caused by seasonality.

However, you can adjust your overall SEO strategy to accommodate this and work to create visibility for the website outside of peak times by creating content to meet the needs and intent of users who may have a more research and information-gathering intent.

Penalties & Manual Actions

A Google penalty is a punitive action taken against a website by Google, reducing its search rankings or removing it from search results, typically due to violations of Google’s guidelines.

As well as receiving a notification in GSC, you’ll typically see a sharp decrease in traffic, akin to the graph below:

Google traffic decline from penaltyScreenshot by author from Google Search Console, May 2024

Whether or not the penalty is partial or sitewide will depend on how bad the traffic decline is, and also the type (or reason) as to why you received a penalty in the first place will determine what efforts are required and how long it will take to recover.

Changes In PPC Strategies

A common issue I encounter working with organizations is a disconnect in understanding that, sometimes, altering a PPC campaign can affect organic traffic.

An example of this is brand. If you start running a paid search campaign on your brand, you can often expect to see a decrease in branded clicks and CTR. As most organizations have separate vendors for this, it isn’t often communicated that this will be the case.

The Search results performance report in GSC can help you identify whether or not you have cannibalization between your SEO and PPC. From this report, you can correlate branded and non-branded traffic drops with the changelog from those in command of the PPC campaign.

How To Fix This

Ensuring that all stakeholders understand why there have been changes to organic traffic, and that the traffic (and user) isn’t lost, it is now being attributed to Paid.

Understanding if this is the “right decision” or not requires a conversation with those managing the PPC campaigns, and if they are performing and providing a strong ROAS, then the organic traffic loss needs to be acknowledged and accepted.

Recovering Site Traffic

Recovering from Google updates can take time.

Recently, John Mueller has said that sometimes, to recover, you need to wait for another update cycle.

However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be active in trying to improve your website and better align with what Google wants to reward and relying on Google reversing previous signal weighting changes.

It’s critical that you start doing all the right things as soon as possible. The earlier that you identify and begin to solve problems, the earlier that you open up the potential for recovery. The time it takes to recover depends on what caused the drop in the first place, and there might be multiple factors to account for. Building a better website for your audience that provides them with better experiences and better service is always the right thing to do.

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Barriers To Audience Buy-In




Barriers to audience buy-in with lead generation

This is an excerpt from the B2B Lead Generation ebook, which draws on SEJ’s internal expertise in delivering leads across multiple media types.

People are driven by a mix of desires, wants, needs, experiences, and external pressures.

It can take time to get it right and convince a person to become a lead, let alone a paying customer.

Here are some nuances of logic and psychology that could be impacting your ability to connect with audiences and build strong leads.

1. Poor Negotiations & The Endowment Effect

Every potential customer you encounter values their own effort and information. And due to something called the endowment effect, they value that time and data much more than you do.

In contrast, the same psychological effect means you value what you offer in exchange for peoples’ information more than they will.

If the value of what you’re offering fails to match the value of what consumers are giving you in exchange (read: their time and information), the conversions will be weak.

The solution? You can increase the perceived value of the thing you’re offering, or reduce the value of what the user “pays” for the thing you offer.

Want an exclusive peek into tactics we use when developing our own lead gen campaigns? Check out our upcoming webinar.

Humans evaluate rewards in multiple dimensions, including the reward amount, the time until the reward is received, and the certainty of the reward.

The more time before a reward occurs, and the less certain its ultimate value, the harder you have to work to get someone to engage.

Offering value upfront – even if you’re presenting something else soon after, like a live event, ebook, or demo – can help entice immediate action as well as convince leads of the long-term value of their investment.

It can even act as a prime for the next step in the lead gen nurturing process, hinting at even more value to come and increasing the effectiveness of the rest of your lead generation strategy.

It’s another reason why inbound content is a critical support for lead generation content. The short-term rewards of highly useful ungated content help prepare audiences for longer-term benefits offered down the line.

3. Abandonment & The Funnel Myth

Every lead generation journey is carefully planned, but if you designed it with a funnel in mind, you could be losing many qualified leads.

That’s because the imagery of a funnel might suggest that all leads engage with your brand or offer in the same way, but this simply isn’t true – particularly for products or services with high values.

Instead, these journeys are more abstract. Leads tend to move back and forth between stages depending on their circumstances. They might change their minds, encounter organizational roadblocks, switch channels, or their needs might suddenly change.

Instead of limiting journeys to audience segments, consider optimizing for paths and situations, too.

Optimizing for specific situations and encounters creates multiple opportunities to capture a lead while they’re in certain mindsets. Every opportunity is a way to engage with varying “costs” for time and data, and align your key performance indicators (KPIs) to match.

Situational journeys also create unique opportunities to learn about the various audience segments, including what they’re most interested in, which offers to grab their attention, and which aspects of your brand, product, or service they’re most concerned about.

4. Under-Pricing

Free trials and discounts can be eye-catching, but they don’t always work to your benefit.

Brands often think consumers will always choose the product with the lowest possible price. That isn’t always the case.

Consumers work within something referred to as the “zone of acceptability,” which is the price range they feel is acceptable for a purchasing decision.

If your brand falls outside that range, you’ll likely get the leads – but they could fail to buy in later. The initial offer might be attractive, but the lower perception of value could work against you when it comes time to try and close the sale.

Several elements play into whether consumers are sensitive to pricing discounts. The overall cost of a purchase matters, for example.

Higher-priced purchases, such as SaaS or real estate, can be extremely sensitive to pricing discounts. They can lead to your audience perceiving the product as lower-value, or make it seem like you’re struggling. A price-quality relationship is easy to see in many places in our lives. If you select the absolute lowest price for an airline ticket, do you expect your journey to be timely and comfortable?

It’s difficult to offer specific advice on these points. To find ideal price points and discounts, you need good feedback systems from both customers and leads – and you need data about how other audiences interact. But there’s value in not being the cheapest option.

Get more tips on how we, here at SEJ, create holistic content campaigns to drive leads in this exclusive webinar.

5. Lead Roles & Information

In every large purchasing decision, there are multiple roles in the process. These include:

  • User: The person who ultimately uses the product or service.
  • Buyer: The person who makes the purchase, but may or may not know anything about the actual product or service being purchased.
  • Decider: The person who determines whether to make the purchase.
  • Influencer: The person who provides opinions and thoughts on the product or service, and influences perceptions of it.
  • Gatekeeper: The person who gathers and holds information about the product or service.

Sometimes, different people play these roles, and other times, one person may hold more than one of these roles. However, the needs of each role must be met at the right time. If you fail to meet their needs, you’ll see your conversions turn cold at a higher rate early in the process.

The only way to avoid this complication is to understand who it is you’re attracting when you capture the lead, and make the right information available at the right time during the conversion process.

6. Understand Why People Don’t Sign Up

Many businesses put significant effort into lead nurturing and understanding the qualities of potential customers who fill out lead forms.

But what about the ones who don’t fill out those forms?

Understanding these values and the traits that drive purchasing decisions is paramount.

Your own proprietary and customer data, like your analytics, client data, and lead interactions, makes an excellent starting place, but don’t make the mistake of basing your decisions solely on the data you have collected about the leads you have.

This information creates a picture based solely on people already interacting with you. It doesn’t include information about the audience you’ve failed to capture so far.

Don’t fall for survivorship bias, which occurs when you only look at data from people who have passed your selection filters.

This is especially critical for lead generation because there are groups of people you don’t want to become leads. But you need to make sure you’re attracting as many ideal leads as possible while filtering out those that are suboptimal. You need information about the people who aren’t converting to ensure your filters are working as intended.

Gather information from the segment of your target audience that uses a competitor’s products, and pair them with psychographic tools and frameworks like “values and lifestyle surveys” (VALS) to gather insights and inform decisions.

In a digital world of tough competition and even more demands on every dollar, your lead generation needs to be precise.

Understanding what drives your target audience before you capture the lead and ensuring every detail is crafted with the final conversion in mind will help you capture more leads and sales, and leave your brand the clear market winner.

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Google Answers Question About Toxic Link Sabotage




Gary Illyes answers a question about how to notify Google about toxic link sabotage

Google’s Gary Illyes answered a question about how to notify Google that someone is poisoning their backlink profile with “toxic links” which is a problem that many people have been talking about for at least fifteen years.

Question About Alerting Google To Toxic Links

Gary narrated the question:

“Someone’s asking, how to alert Google of sabotage via toxic links?”

And this is Gary’s answer:

I know what I would do: I’d ignore those links.

Generally Google is really, REALLY good at ignoring links that are irrelevant to the site they’re pointing at. If you feel like it, you can always disavow those “toxic” links, or file a spam report.

Disavow Links If You Feel Like It

Gary linked to Google’s explainer about disavowing links where it’s explained that the disavow tool is for a site owner to tell Google about links that they are responsible for in some way, like paid links or some other link scheme.

This is what it advises:

“If you have a manual action against your site for unnatural links to your site, or if you think you’re about to get such a manual action (because of paid links or other link schemes that violate our quality guidelines), you should try to remove the links from the other site to your site. If you can’t remove those links yourself, or get them removed, then you should disavow the URLs of the questionable pages or domains that link to your website.”

Google suggests that a link disavow is only necessary when two conditions are met:

  1. “You have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site,
  2. The links have caused a manual action, or likely will cause a manual action, on your site.”

Both of the above conditions must be met in order to file a valid link disavow tool.

Origin Of The Phrase Toxic Links

As Google became better at penalizing sites for low quality links and paid links, some in the highly competitive gambling industry started creating low quality links to sabotage their competitors. The practice was called negative SEO.

The phrase toxic link is something that was never heard of until after the Penguin link updates in 2012 which required penalized sites to remove all the paid and low quality links they created and then disavow the rest. An industry grew around disavowing links and it was that industry that invented the phrase Toxic Links for use in their marketing.

Confirmation That Google Is Able To Ignore Links

I have shared this anecdote before and I’ll share it here again. Someone I knew contacted me and said that their site lost rankings from negative SEO links. I took a look and their site had a ton of really nasty looking links. So out of curiosity (and because I knew that the site was this person’s main income), I emailed someone at Google Mountain View headquarters about it. That person checked it and replied that the site didn’t lose rankings because of the links. They lost rankings because of a Panda update related content issue.

That was around 2012 and it showed me how good Google was at ignoring links. Now, if Google was that good at ignoring really bad links back then, they’re probably better at it now, twelve years later now that they have the spam brain AI.

Listen to the question and answer at the 8:22 minute mark:

Featured Image by Shutterstock/New Africa

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