How the LinkSpam update and SpamBrain impact link building for 2023

In December 2022 Google announced the rollout of their latest LinkSpam update. They had made some noises about updates that targeted link-related signals during 2022, but this was the first time we saw an update with real impact and depth.

What was the Dec 2022 update?

The update was noteworthy because it also heralded a major change in the behind-the-scenes plumbing at Google. Since 2012 Google has relied on an algo called Penguin to help negate links they felt demonstrated what they call an ‘intent to manipulate’. Originally Penguin was a stand-alone routine run periodically, and then it was baked into the core ranking algorithm.

At the point that they baked it in, we saw Google increasingly saying that they now felt they had a complete handle on manipulative links and that they now ignore most of what they consider manipulative.

As a competitive SEO and long-standing link builder and auditor, I could clearly see that this claim was not really as true as they had hoped. Links were still being abused and it was easy to slip signals through and compete in volume. You can see that yourself if you pay any attention to the resurgence in link providers and the general offering that they had.

Enter the LinkSpam Dec 2022 update

This update introduced something Google are calling ‘SpamBrain’ (seriously Google, please please choose better names, I am getting bored of non-SEO people laughing when I tell them these).
SpamBrain effectively replaces Real-time Penguin and puts link manipulation detection and negation into the hands of the AI.
At Opphive and Offpage, we see a large number of client link profiles, and these represent a good cross-section of different approaches to link acquisition. It is clear that the SpamBrain AI is impacting a lot more links than Penguin ever did.

And its not just us seeing these impacts, Glen Gabe tweeted this: -

We concur with this. If the profile had a large number of links that we would formerly consider at risk for being ignored by Penguin, SpamBrain seems to be following through with that threat and actually finally ignoring them en masse.

What is the impact of this on the average link profile?

To understand how this update might impact you and your profiles you really need to have a good understanding of what you have in your links. Opphive is the perfect way to audit and understand your links in detail, but if you want to get a quick idea of how you may be impacted, you could: -

Export your links from your link data provider of choice (Majestic or Ahrefs for this, not GSC, sadly)
Remove those lines that exist in any legacy disavow file you have
Pivot in Excel to group by anchor text
Use anchor text as a VERY rough proxy of where the historical intent may be

These are the links most likely to be ignored by SpamBrain.

If you have a reasonable number of these, then you are likely to feel it in your rankings. It is also very important to understand that the impact won't just be felt on the pages that those links were pointed at. You will also feel it across the site as a whole.

Why will the impact be felt across the whole site?

Even though SpamBrain ignores individual links, you are likely to see ranking drops across the whole domain. This is because the ignored links are no longer passing their value into the domain, and that value is no longer being shared downstream through internal links to deeper pages.
You will also see a reduction in the ip > domain volume, which will impact overall trust. It is also very important to realise that, because this is targeting intent, you are losing a lot of the more direct or clear signals you had before. Losing direct anchor text links will have an impact on the ability of the domain as a whole to compete for its terms.

What changes should you make to your own link acquisition plans?
Whilst you should make some adjustments, they're adjustments, not panic.

First it's even more vital that you understand your links as well as you can. Link audits aren't about disavow files, they're about understanding what you have, its risks, weaknesses and its opportunities.

Redirect any budgets and resources away from any link-building campaigns that gained their links from sites that could be footprinted as possibly paid.
Remember though, paid links are not any riskier than any other link type and offer significant advantages, you just have to avoid links from sites where the site can easily be argued as a site that takes payment for link placement.

You could increase the number of campaigns you do that cant be argued as having any risk of manipulation but you will have to address the lack of control you have over the signal and make adjustments. It is important to understand that the LinkSpam update and the introduction of SpamBrain does not mean that link building is dead. Google still values and uses links as a ranking signal. However, the focus has again shifted from quantity to quality. The key is to acquire links that are natural, relevant, and from reputable sources.

One way to do this is to focus on building relationships with other websites and businesses in your niche. This can lead to opportunities for non-footprinted contributions, partnership linking, and other forms of link-building that are less likely to be considered manipulative.

Another approach is to switch all focus on creating high-quality content that naturally attracts links. This could include things like infographics, research studies, or in-depth guides on a particular topic. If your content is valuable and informative, people will be more likely to link to it but this is less predictable than other methods.

It is also important to regularly audit and monitor your existing links. This will help you identify any that may be at risk of being ignored by SpamBrain and take appropriate action, such as removing them or adding to a selective and lean disavow.

Summary

In summary, the LinkSpam update and SpamBrain indicate that Google is taking a more proactive approach to identifying and negating manipulative links. This means that link-building strategies that rely on large volumes of low-quality links are likely to be less effective in the future. Instead, focus on building natural, relevant, and reputable links to help your website rank well in Google.

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