Why Natural News Was Blacklisted on Google

Natural News is crying foul over Google’s blacklisting of their domain. Being a veteran SEO (18+ years as an SEO) and a person who strongly believes in free speech and access to information, I was intrigued. Has Google really crossed the line into making judgements on real or fake news? Is Google now penalizing alternative news or sites that write negatively about Google? Or is Natural News simply misinformed about a penalty unrelated to their stances? Let’s take a look.

Search Engine Land Piece on Natural NewsI first noticed the blacklisting through Facebook friends posts and on Twitter. I noticed Barry wrote a piece over on Search Engine Land yesterday. Search Engine Land is a good place to start with any search-related controversy as they have writers like Barry who have been in the industry as long as I, as opposed to most other publications with writers that have no SEO expertise and no access to Google.

Natural News Banned on GoogleThe article points to this article about the Google ban over on the Natural News site. As Natural News sees it, this is a direct attack on free speech and an attack against them and their founder. They also say they had no messages from Google about the ban and they show a screenshot of their Google Search Console account showing they don’t have any malware warnings.

Search Engine Land was also able to get the following statement from Google:

‘We don’t comment on individual sites, but if we find that a site violates one or more of our Webmaster Guidelines we may take manual action against it. For webmasters who have questions about their own sites, our Webmaster team provides support through platforms such as the Webmaster Forums. Once a site has remedied the problem, the webmaster can submit the site for reconsideration.’

As usual, Google doesn’t provide much information about the ban which leads us to investigate it ourselves or rely on experts to chime in (or amateurs to draw quick conclusions). To date, no one has stepped up, which prompted me to take a look.

Before I get started, I do want to state that I believe Natural News should be in Google’s index. First, because I think they should have the freedom to post content that can be found, but also because I think it is important for both sides of an argument to have a voice so we can draw our own conclusions. With the consolidation of news outlets, their political bias has grown far too large, in my opinion. Much of the manipulation by major outlets was well documented in the primary and the DNC hacks/leaks. Independent news sites are important to maintaining one of the greatest gifts provided by the Internet: transparency.

So let’s set aside any arguments over fake news or politics and just look to see if Natural News is victim to actual Google guideline violations and doing things that have gotten many other sites banned in the past.

It is easy to confirm Natural News is, indeed, removed from Google’s index. They don’t show up for a search for their own name, nor a specific site: search:

We do know that Google has penalized “fake news” sites on the publisher ad display side, but we have no evidence Google has blacklisted a site for this reason (nor do I expect we would). Google has far more information to go off of than I do, but digging into the Natural News site I did see a lack of SEO expertise as many basic mistakes were being made.

But lack of expertise itself isn’t ban-worthy. Did Natural News do anything intentionally, or unintentionally to get itself banned? One of the first places to look is their backlinks. Were they buying links? That’s what got JC Penny banned. Quickly glancing at a couple backlink analysis tools, I don’t see any obvious link buying.

How about cloaking? Showing users one thing and Google another is what got BMW banned. Based off a couple quick checks, I don’t see them cloaking.

How about keyword stuffing or non-visible text? I didn’t see any of the super old SEO spam like white text on white background, nor any crazy CSS negative absolute position tricks.

After further browsing of the site, I did come across a few issues that could certainly warrant a ban from Google:

Hidden Links

Often sites that are hacked have hidden links attempting to provide link equity (aka votes by linking) to other sites, not visible by users. I did find a hidden form link, but it wasn’t from a hack. It was to the benefit of an alternative search engine that is owned by the same editor-in-chief as Natural News. Here’s the offending code:

gopher hidden link natural news
This followed link to the Good Gopher site is on every page of the site.

about good gopher

Allowing Advertisers to Buy Followed Links

This one may be completely unintentional, but Natural News has created an ad platform that allows advertisers to buy links that pass link equity (major Google violation). The way it happens is a bit tricky. Take this organic raw cashew ad, for example:

Natural News Ad Link Violation

If you view the source code, you see this:
ad html on natural news

That’s a followed link to a page called http://www.naturalenews.com/SBA-407.html, but when you try to visit that page, you are immediately redirected to the advertiser site. The redirect is a poor-man’s redirect, a meta refresh which is treated by Google as a pseudo 301 redirect which passes link equity, or a vote for the advertiser.

There’s many other examples as well. Here’s one more:

It’s possible Natural News is innocently using this system to track ad clicks, but the link should have been no-followed so it didn’t count as a vote for the advertiser site.

Massive UGC Spam

natural news blogNatural News has set up a blogging platform for writers which, nobly, allows the writers to make money off the site for their efforts.

The problem is they aren’t policing it well and they’ve allowed writers to embed their own ads and code. Having worked for a number of the world’s most popular user generated content sites & platforms, I know it takes a lot of work to keep spammers off your platform and to keep the content focused on the types of content that belong on the site.

It looks like some of the writers have had their Adsense accounts banned while embedding it into their site posts:

But the bigger issue is that the blogs are a free-for-all with many users dropping in affiliate links, unnatural links, and completely off topic posts. For example, look at author julia2’s work:

julia2 natural news spam

Do those articles look like that make sense on a site about natural health? Natural health Power Point presentations, IP tracking, credit cards and personal loans? She also drops some nice spam links in to what I assume are paying clients:

I do credit Natural News for making sure most UGC links are no-followed.

Julia likely doesn’t realize her links are no-followed or she’d stop spamming the site, though some spammers are ok with using the authority of a site like Natural News to rank high – using it as their spam site.

This isn’t just a Julia thing. The site has thousands of writers working in their own spammy interest:



We’ve even got SEO advice on Natural News:

seo natural news

And a lot of activity out of an Australian SEO agency who says on their site that they guarantee results, but won’t let you know how they are getting links:

Summary of the Natural News Google Ban

Having been in the SEO industry for over 18 years, I’ve certainly criticized Google from time-to-time, but until Natural News addresses many Google Webmasters violations I display above, there appears to be no evidence Google is playing favoritism or going after sites politically on the organic search side of things.

The blacklisting is, in fact, due to the site’s own activities that violate Google’s guidelines. Another site doing the same things I highlighted would also be banned. Since it appears it was due to negligence or lack of SEO expertise on the part of Natural News side, I can understand why they were confused and upset, drawing their own incorrect conclusions. Natural News simply needs to clean their site up and request reconsideration. Hopefully my article helps them get back into the index.

There are many things that I didn’t look at that I would normally look at in an SEO audit, including crawling the site with various robot simulators, investigating some their sketchy robots.txt file exclusions, and taking a look at their cross linking between their own domains (I do expect there is a lot of this happening on this site). There’s also word that they do some spammy mobile redirects that I didn’t look into. Even when they were in the index, I expect they were hampered from technical SEO issues.

SMX Advanced Linkbuilding Session

linkbuildingYesterday I spoke at SMX Advanced for the first time (though I have attended all of them). My talk & our entire session’s presentations on link building/acquisition seemed to go really well. I was a little nervous as the room was full of 800+ of the world’s most advanced SEOs.

I assumed most of the audience knew about, or actively used, many of the tactics SEOs have been preaching for years–so I decided to focus on some things they may not have tried or even heard about, including gamification & the brain science behind of pitching. I also shared a case study of a client I took from blacklisted site with barely any links to > $1 million in revenue in just two months with no budget.

It may be a little confusing without my audio explanation to go with it, but I thought I’d share the slides with you below. I have three clients who use gamification and I’ve been going to gamification conferences for the past two years. I have an additional gamificiation experiment underway for a film I’m working on that I will be able to share at some point.

I really enjoyed speaking with Justin & Kaila and thought Elisabeth did a wonderful job of selecting panelists and coordinating the talks.

Radiohead King of Limbs Online Execution

Loss of Limb: What Radiohead could have done to improve their self-distributed King of Lambs Album web success.

Over three years ago I beat up Radiohead for the online execution of In Rainbows. I was frustrated because they had a great opportunity to prove the self-distribution model online, but made several simple mistakes that may have reduced their effectiveness. With their latest release, King of Limbs, which hit the web today, they made some similar mistakes.

Before I jump into the King of Limbs website improvement suggestions, I do want to applaud their music and alternative distribution experiments. They are still doing a great job changing the music industry–I just wish they partnered with a company that knew what they were doing online.

King of Limbs Site Improvement Suggestions:

King of Limbs
Radiohead King of Limbs Album Website

Here’s what I wish Radiohead would have done with their King of Limbs Album Website from different standpoints.

King of Limbs Album Cover
King of Limbs Album Cover
Usability:

  • Splash homepage. Relying on Image map for navigation with poor alt text. Glad I’m not blind.
  • But they want me to be blind. There is no description of what is on the album. How many tracks? What songs?
  • No opportunity to preview any of the music. I don’t need to hear the whole song, but I would love to hear a sneak peek before drop $9-48.00.
  • No help deciding what digital version to choose from.
  • Newspaper Album terminology confusing.
  • No links to any information about the band. No links to other sites about the band or other albums.
  • Navigation comes and goes. Homepage has no navigation other then image map. Some pages have Home link, Order Tracking, Help and Checkout. Other have only Home link and some have Home, Order Tracking and Help, but no checkout.
  • Checkout jumps to www.thekingoflimbs.com through strange transaction URL redirect. If you started on kingoflimbs.com, this may trip up some people, especially with higher levels of browser security.
  • Not brought into a secure form until you fill out your email address and password. Order form being non-secure until this step may scare some people.
  • No choice on the download options. Does it always come down as a zip file?
  • The zip file came with no instructions whatsoever. Some people might want help loading the MP3s into iTunes, etc.
  • The zip file included the album cover, but didn’t bother with a song list, lyrics, videos, art, or any information about the album

Social:

  • No images to be used as thumbnails on Facebook or other sharing platforms when linking to the site.
  • No sharing options on the site. Why not encourage people to brag about downloading the album?
  • Completely reliant upon news organizations to point to the URL and share the news. No information about the release.
  • No link or embed of the music video. The press felt it was worth sharing, why did Radiohead skip it?
  • No evidence of interaction with fans on release day – other then a Tweet that says you can download the album.

SEO:

  • A splash homepage with an image map. Seriously?
  • Title tag is: “The King of Limbs : Where are you?” No mention of Radiohead, music, album, etc. “Where are you” not helping anything.
  • The alt tags on the image map are not helping the site (The Americas, S.E.Asia, UK/Ireland, Europe, Rest of the World.
  • No meta description. Guess they don’t care what their listing looks like in the engines.
  • Used only an H2 and a H5. I’m scratching my head on why they chose those two.
  • Had the search engines crawl the correct URL before the album launch. A search for “King of Limbs” has the following URL #1 in Google: thekingoflimbs.com/CC.php?ID=2.
  • Both canonical version of the site resolve (thekingoflimbs.com and www.thekingoflimbs.com). Pick one!
  • KingofLimbs and www.kingoflimbs also resolve – I can’t tell which domain they want to use.
  • All the different domain variations clearly creates duplicate content problems, but each area of the map you click on generates the same content–only the price changes.
  • Most of the URLs seem to push through a php page that uses a javascript URL rewrite.
  • Passing a large amount of link equity to shop.sandbag.uk.com.
  • The various SEO mistakes make it so search spammers, music resellers and bit torrents can potentially outrank Radiohead for their own album. Since they are self-distributing this could result in lost sales or unnecessary commissions.

Maybe it doesn’t matter?
Despite all the issues I raise above (and many more I didn’t bother pointing out), I’m sure the King of Limbs album will be highly successful. This site is still executed better than the In Rainbows site was. Again, I’m frustrated that they didn’t put the web to full use, especially if it is their primary distribution method.

Unnecessary disclaimer: I listened to the album while writing the post and must say that I enjoyed it. So far Codex is my favorite song.

Google Engage For SEOs

Something caught my attention while in Gmail today. Google had an ad targeting SEOs to get them to use Google Adwords for their clients. Seemed reasonable, but I was a little surprised by what I found.

Here’s the Google Engage Ad I saw:

Google Enage Program for SEOs
Google Enage Program for SEOs

I clicked on the link and ended up on the homepage for Google Engage. Immediately you are greeted with the following message:

Are you a search engine optimization (SEO) professional that helps small businesses with their online presence?
The Google Engage program offers search engine optimization professionals like yourself the training and tools that will help you offer AdWords services to your clients.

Clearly there is no SEO engagement here, but that is fine. They simply want more Adwords clients. Reading further through the page, I was surprised to see the page was written by someone who used English as a 2nd language:

“As a member, you will get the following benefits: Trainings to build and enhance your AdWords skills”
“By enhancing your online skill set and knowledge of Google products, you’ll be more attractive to potential clients and more beneficial to your existing ones.”
“Register today and begin further growing your business with Google!”
“Google Engage has already helped thousands of businesses and individuals around the world establish great business opportunities.”

Do I want to be trained on bidding for English words by an organization that uses “trainings” on the most important page for their program? Reading through the entire page, the choice of words reminds me of some of the poor content creation attempts I see on the web that were written by agencies based in the Philippines who will write articles for $0.05 a piece.

To make matters worse, the only customer quote they could come up with was from WEBSEM based out of Israel. They didn’t even list his name, nor did they link to his site. A search for WEBSEM agency doesn’t work, but WEBSEM Israel gives me a LinkedIn page. The only person close to being a “Founder” attached to the company is Asaf P who lists himself as the Operating manager. His link goes to www.websem.co.il which, according to Google, is completely in Hebrew. Of course, translating it to English produces poor results.

There’s nothing wrong with using a customer quote out of Israel, but I found myself looking at the URL several times to see if I, in fact, am on Google.com because there were very few signals that made me feel like the Google Engage program was legitimate.

But I did find this video:

/End Rant – Okay, I know I’m picking on Google Engage, but I do think they could get better “engagement” if they ran their homepage text through a fluent English-speaking editor & marketer.

Some SEM agencies will be put off by the Google Engage program (Is Google Trying to Steal their customers?). I specialize in only Organic SEO Consulting and a couple of my customers already spend over a million dollars each month on AdWords, so my participation would in the program would primarily be motivated by the $100 credit I could give to some of my smaller customers.

Google Blue Arrow Navigation Issues

Over on my SEO Naturale consulting site I added a post about the little blue marker you may be seeing on Google SERPs. The little arrow or triangle was added to help with keyboard navigation on Google (which few people will probably use). The problem is that it will likely cause false paid search clicks, poor user experience, and extra weight to the number 1 listing in Google (whether it be paid or organic).

Read the full article to discover: Google Blue Arrow Issues