What's all this about thin affiliates?
In a "leaked" document reportedly coming from Google, the big G gave guidelines to human spam-busters on how to classify affiliate sites as thin or not.
A "thin affiliate" is basically one that creates pages with the sole intention of ranking well and directing traffic to an affiliated merchant site, without adding anything unique to the World Wide Web.
It seems that the algorithms at Google HQ are no longer the only ranking factors involved in where your pages end up in the search results. Now, human beings are scouring the Internet looking for sites to penalise.
Some have called it a hoax, others have seen it as the end of affiliate marketing, but if you actually read this report, you will hopefully see what I see:
(a) Affiliate sites are here to stay
(b) If you do things right, you will end up with less competition from other affiliate marketers (since so many will ignore this report and continue to churn out thin sites created with little or no focus on the visitor).
This report was apparently given out to people chosen to work for "Google's spam department" as "Raters" - maybe they should be called ratters ;o).
That's right, Google apparently has hired people around the world to do web searches, look at the results in Google, and identify those sites that Google should penalize for Spam.
With Google doing such weird stuff lately, and some affiliate sites disappearing without trace, things are starting to make sense.
This "leaked" report details what the raters should look out for, what to label as spam, and what not to label as spam. I am sure that you agree, whether this document is real or not, it is certainly something we should all look at carefully.
Below, I have highlighted the main points of the report. I hope to show you exactly what you need to do to stay on the right side of these "Raters" and of course Google itself.
Before we begin, I just want to say that I don't think any of this is new. I think that what Google is trying to achieve here is what they have always tried to achieve - relevant quality results without spam. I think that Google's filters only go so far, and Google realise this. There is nothing as reliable as a human for determining quality, so hiring people to search out spam was the next logical step forward.
OK, let's look the main points.
(a) the first thing Google instructs its raters to do is read and learn the Google Webmaster Guidelines.
You can read the full guidelines here: http://www.google.com/webmasters/guidelines.html
Let's have a quick look and see what Google have to say about what makes a site good.
Summary of Google's Webmaster Guidelines:
Under the section Design and Content Guidelines, there are some useful tips on how you link the pages of your site together.
GOOGLE: "Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link."
This should make sense. If a page has no links to it, the search engines cannot find it. In addition, links pointing to pages help that page rank well (because of the influence of link text).
GOOGLE: "Offer a site map to your users with links that point to the important parts of your site. If the site map is larger than 100 or so links, you may want to break the site map into separate pages."
A sitemap is there to help users, but the search engines use them to find new pages. When you add a new page to your site, add a link on the sitemap, and the search engines will find it. If you want the spiders coming back to your sitemap frequently, consider adding an RSS feed to your sitemap. Last week I mentioned some software that makes adding a feed to your site very simple, so there is no excuse for not using the technology available to you.
GOOGLE: "Create a useful, information-rich site and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content."
Here we have a reference to content. Quality content is the way forward. Page generators that create 1000s of pages with no unique content are struggling to survive.
GOOGLE: "Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it."
An invitation to use primary and secondary keywords.
GOOGLE: "Try to use text instead of images to display important names, content, or links. The Google crawler doesn't recognize text contained in images."
GOOGLE: "Make sure that your TITLE and ALT tags are descriptive and accurate. "
Reading between the lines - don't stuff keywords. Write these tags naturally and with ALT tags, make sure they reflect the image (since these tags are used by blind visitors). The title tag is very important, so do use your primary keyword in the title. However, be careful with ALT tags. Keyword stuffing is likely to result in a penalty.
GOOGLE: "Check for broken links and correct HTML."
Do you have any broken links in your site? These can cause problems. Additionally, you should verify your HTML using a service like HTML Validator. They actually have a free version.
Invalid HTML could be affecting your rankings.
In the Technical Guidelines, there are a few good tips as well:
Speaks for itself really. A lot of new webmasters like to load their pages with fancy animations, scripts and eye-candy. Avoid them unless absolutely necessary.
Here is an interesting point:
GOOGLE: "Once your site is online, submit it to Google at http://www.google.com/addurl.html"
Many marketers including myself never submit sites at this URL. My advice here is to add a link from a page already in Google, and let Google find the site for itself. I don't think I have submitted a page at this URL for over 2 years, and my new sites get found within days, using this linking technique.
GOOGLE: "Submit your site to relevant directories such as the Open Directory Project and Yahoo!"
Since directories are highly valued by Google, try to get your site listed in them. These directories will provide a quick route to getting indexed, as well as provide valuable PR and link reputation for your site. The way Google probably sees directories listings is that if the site is there, it is quality (since places like DMoz are edited by humans).
If you don't read all of the Google guidelines, you should at least print out the Quality Guidelines - Basic principles section.
GOOGLE: "Make pages for users, not for search engines. Don't deceive your users, or present different content to search engines than you display to users."
Here is a clear warning to webmasters. Don't use tricks, and don't over-optimize your pages.
As I always say "if it makes you nervous, don't do it".
Google themselves say something very similar here:
GOOGLE: "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. Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?"
Another bomb-shell for many:
GOOGLE: "Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or "bad neighbourhoods" on the web as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links."
This is a clear indication that Google does not like reciprocal links. In addition, there is a warning there that linking to a penalised site can cause your own site to get penalised. A site that is carefully controlling their linking, will be able to spot bad sites, and avoid penalties. A site that links to all and sundry wont, and are therefore likely to get into trouble.
GOOGLE: "Don't use unauthorized computer programs to submit pages, check rankings, etc. Such programs consume computing resources and violate our terms of service. Google does not recommend the use of products such as WebPosition Gold that send automatic or programmatic queries to Google."
This guideline warns against software that automatically checks rankings or other automated tasks. If you are using a rank checker, make sure that software uses the Google API key (which Google introduced to help developers create Google-friendly software) which can then check Google safely. This API Key limits the number of automated queries the software can do, and keeps you within safe "Google limits".
The Quality Guidelines - Specific recommendations sections should act as your checklist of things not to do. Here is the list:
Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
Don't employ cloaking or sneaky redirects.
Don't send automated queries to Google.
Don't load pages with irrelevant words.
Don't create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.
Avoid "doorway" pages created just for search engines, or other "cookie cutter" approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content.
Keeping within Google's guidelines is so important if you want your site listed. I highly recommend you print out the entire set of guidelines and read them again and again until you are familiar with them.
OK, back to the Google raters.
Google have told their raters to pay particular attention to:
(b) "The distinction between pages designed for human viewers and those set up for search engine robots"
(c) "The specific enumerated manipulative techniques for which sites may be 'punished' by Google"
You can see a lot of pages in Google's index that have been setup purely for search engine robots, or pages that are designed to do nothing more than increase your rankings of other pages.
These are typically pages that hold no interest to human visitors, and are merely there to either manipulate your own rankings, or make revenue from Adsense (or affiliate programs).
Techniques here might include "hidden text", keyword stuffing, pages containing search engine results (like TE pages), pages that only contain RSS feeds and little else, cloaked pages and doorway pages.
If your page is not interesting for a visitor, and is only setup to get Adsense clicks, or boost rankings of other pages, then these are the pages Google considers spam.
Do this test:
Remove all income generating code from a page (Adsense, affiliate links etc).
Then ask yourself this:
"Is this page still of value to a human visitor?"
If you truthfully answer yes, then you are OK. If you answer no, then that page would be considered spam by a rater. Later in this course, we look at a more comprehensive checklist to see whether your pages are thin or not.