Every month or so, we get a question from a student about whether we can recommend using the “SEO Smart Links” plugin for WordPress. The answer is always no, because the way it works inevitably creates a terrible user experience. Well, now we’ve got evidence that it can do far worse than that.
After reviewing the evidence, I am convinced that using SEO Smart Links can get you penalized by Google. This does not mean that using this plugin will instantly cause a penalty, but the way we see most people using it is extremely risky.
What is SEO Smart Links? Well, this plugin’s intended purpose is to improve ranking, by automatically linking every occurence of a keyword or phrase within your WordPress site, to a target URL that you’re hoping to get ranked.
There are undoubtedly some “smart” ways to use this plugin. I can think of several – like automatically linking a call to action (“click here to sign up”). However, right-out-of-the-box, it is one heck of a dangerous tool. Out of the box, in the free version, it doesn’t even limit the number of links it creates on a page.
Imagine what it would look like if every occurrence of “SEO” in this post were linked to our home page, or to some doorway page. To make it easy for you, I linked a bunch of SEOs (to href=”#”) already. Now imagine if we also wanted to rank some different pages for keywords that included words like [Wordpress], [plugin], [penalized], [user experience], [keyword], [ranking], [google], etc. etc. Half of the sentences in this post might contain links!
Imagine if we actually thought that would be a good idea.
If we did, we’d install this plugin, keyword-stuff all of our posts to get more links in, and add as many keywords as possible to the plugin’s list…
Which would make our posts harder to read, and much less useful. It would, in short, reduce the quality of our web site. It might even cause us to violate Google’s “quality guidelines” for web sites.
As happened to a friend of a friend, whose rankings went deep into the well of despair shortly after installing and beginning to use SEO Smart Links. Since there hadn’t been any other changes to the site, he took a flyer on a reconsideration request and discovered that yes, indeed, there had been a penalty:
So, what had this site owner done to merit a successful reconsideration request? Simple – he removed the SEO Smart Links plugin and apologized for using it in the first place. Let me run the sequence of events by you again…
- Site owner installs SEO Smart Links Plugin and begins keyword-link-stuffing his pages automatically.
- Google manually penalizes the site for violating their quality guidelines.
- Site owner removes SEO Smart Links Plugin, apologizes, and asks Google to reconsider the penalty.
- Google sees that the plugin is gone, and removes the penalty.
The only part of this story that should surprise you, is that a human at Google responded and removed the penalty as quickly as they did.
Everything else should come as no surprise whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if you agree with what Google did, in applying the penalty. It only matters that you understand why they would apply a penalty.
Of course, it might also be worth taking a look at any sites you’re working on. Consider whether you might be stuffing keyword links in where they don’t make sense for users, and if you are, ponder the likelihood of losing the “Google lottery” by “winning” a manual penalty.
Most penalties do not come with a “warning” in Webmaster Tools. They just happen. When they do, it’s up to you to figure out what you did, clean it up, and ask for forgiveness.
The “Penguin anti-webspam algorithm update” doesn’t come with a warning either, but if it’s *not* looking for the same kind of quality issues that the humans do, I’d be surprised.
Although asking for comments is so annoyingly clichéd at this point, please do let us know if you have used SEO Smart Links or something similar, and if so – have you lost traffic from Google recently?
If you are using this plugin, my advice is to stop using it right now, unless you are dead certain about what you are doing.