Today I had a bit of a surprise when I checked into Google’s Webmaster Tools to see how theWebalyst.com was doing. A few things to add to the task list, such as some “page not found” errors, and then I noticed rather a lot of backlinks. Too many to be real, surely: 922 from the top linking website, and over 200 from the next!
So, “Dammit,” I thought, “Webmaster Tools is screwing up, or there’s something broken on the source website, or perhaps there’s some kind of ping-pong redirection sending Google’s web crawler into a spin.”
I looked at the source website to find one of these links and my assumption seemed to be confirmed. Looking at the first page with a backlink, I found no mention of theWebalyst.com on it, let alone a link.
But In Fact, The Links Were Real Dofollow Backlinks
Yes, the backlinks were real. A little investigation (a post to Google’s Webmaster forum—always a great source of help—and a word with the website owner) confirmed this. The links were real, but only around for a short time—and lucky for me Googlebot caught them. If you think about it, on a PR4 (pagerank) website Googlebot is quite likely to spot them because it crawls high ranking websites frequently, much more frequently than others. What’s strange is why they were still showing up in Google’s tools. More on that in while, because the first questions in an SEO expert’s mind are always going to be:
If the backlinks were only temporary, were they any good for SEO? And if so, how can YOU get some!
How Were The Links Made?
This one was easy to figure out. They were the result of a single blog comment, and that comment showing up in a widget used to show the most recent comment on the bottom of every page. So after I had commented there was a backlink (and a dofollow backlink in this case) on every page, just waiting for Googlebot to come along and sweep up all that link juice and send it zipping over to theWebalyst.com. Which brings me to the question..
Were These Very Brief Backlinks Any Good For SEO?
This one is hard. I haven’t commented too frequently on that website so if I could review my comments I could probably work out when this happened and might be able to say if it had any impact—by inspecting Google Analytics to look for a bump in organic search visitors for example.
However, the website has been restructured and old comments seem to have been lost so I think I’ll have to leave this one open for now. Will update if I learn more.
I do know though that my comment was weeks or months old. And its a busy website, so the links were probably around for just a few minutes, a couple of hours at the most, and have been gone for quite some time. This raises some other questions and the plot thickens as you’ll see.
Why Did The Backlinks Stick Around Weeks After They Disappeared?
I think this gives some clues as to how Google’s Webmaster Tools gets its data, but firstly here’s some additional information I’ve since noticed.
- In addition to the 922 backlinks from a website that has since undergone a complete re-architecture, the next 200+ backlink website also happens to have undergone a complete re-architecture since I commented on it.
- Just a few hours after discovering this, Google’s Webmaster Tools is no longer showing the 922 backlinks. That’s “a few hours” after I noticed the first set of links, posted about it to Google’s forum, and queried with the website owner. The 200+ links from the other website are still showing.
This strongly suggests two conclusions:
- The backlinks may have stuck around in Google’s Webmaster Tools because the original pages have disappeared, and Google is keeping the backlinks in place in case the pages come back. Just maybe, that means my link juice persisted in the mean time. In which case, thank you Google!
- Something I did today caused those backlinks to disappear, but what? Logging into Google Webmaster Tools? Maybe. Posting about it on Google’s forum? Very unlikely. Telling the website owner about it? Possibly, though I don’t think its likely.
I don’t believe in co-incidence, so my bet is logging into Google Webmaster Tools caused it to zip off to some data store (the real Google index) and update the dataset it uses to generate reports. This is speculation, but if true it probably means I wasn’t getting link-juice in the mean time, and that the main Google index wasn’t keeping the phantom links in place after all.
Don’t believe what Google Webmaster Tools says about backlinks without checking them! But I knew that already.
Google Webmaster Tools is handy, but the data can be out of date, and may be the moreso after a period of absence. If you use it frequently the data (at least around backlinks) may be more accurate.
Even if you are lucky enough to get 922 dofollow backlinks with a single blog comment, the best thing to come of it might be the fun of investigating them and writing a short blog post about it!
Thanks for reading. If you have your own tales about backlinks, Googlebot, Google Webmaster Tools or similar I’d love to hear from you.