Irrefutable Proof that Blog Carnivals Can Hurt Your Blog
Jim: Today’s post comes from my friend Michael of Financial Ramblings. You may not have heard of Financial Ramblings but he previously had a successful exit from a high profile personal finance blog.
So you can imagine my surprise when he messaged me about something interesting he discovered – his site’s blog carnival links were killing his search traffic. As recently as Fincon2013, I said that blog carnivals wouldn’t help but I didn’t think they’d hurt. Seems like I was wrong — they can hurt.
Update: There’s a good discussion in the comments about how this isn’t an indictment on carnivals but more about overoptimization (since carnivals often link to your article with the title). I agree that the underlying culprit is overoptimization but blog carnivals are how a lot of bloggers overoptimize.
Also, a total of five bloggers have privately told me that they saw a lift in search after they disavowed carnivals – all within days of submission (3 – 10) and not all were during the same time frame. I agree that five is not a lot, nor is it a proof of causation, but it is worth mentioning.
That’s always been at the top of pretty much everyone’s list of SEO advice. But when you’re a no-name blogger and you’re just starting out, how do you do that?
For years, the answer has been to submit your articles to blog carnivals.
In case you aren’t aware, a blog carnival is essentially a recurring series of posts containing links to recent posts on a particular topic. These posts are most often self-selected (and submitted) by participating bloggers, and then assembled into a post by the host.
More often than not, hosting duties rotate among members of a given blogging community, with subsequent editions of the carnival occurring on a different site on a weekly or monthly basis. Participants are supposed to promote the carnival on their owns sites as well as via social media, thereby driving traffic to the host’s site and (hopefully) out to those of other participants.
The supposed point of blog carnivals is thus to provide bloggers with a venue to showcase their work in front of a like-minded audience.
Sounds great, right? Well, that’s not necessarily how it works — or why people submit.
Blog carnivals as linkfests
While hosts are generally expected to exercise some level of editorial judgment when assembling carnivals, that almost never happens. Most hosts write up a bit of introductory text, paste in the pre-formatted set of links, and then click “Publish” without giving it a second thought.
With zero quality control, carnival posts often devolve into little more than barely regulated linkfest with dozens (and dozens!) of links to articles of questionable quality and/or value.
But you get your links, and that’s what really matters.
For years, this strategy worked very well. As a result, many bloggers have fallen into the habit of building links via regular carnival submissions. In fact, I used to do this myself, using carnival submissions as part of my link-building strategy as I built a successful finance blog from which I later exited.
Back to the future
Upon my return to the blogging world a little over a year ago, I picked up where I left off. I was just getting started with Financial Ramblings, and I knew that I needed to build links.
Since carnivals had worked well in the past, I figured why not? And so I set out to regularly submit my articles to relevant carnivals.
At worst, I figured that carnival links would be worthless from an SEO perspective. Google might have wised up to the point that they were ignoring them, but I never thought I was putting my site at risk of a Google penalty, manual or algorithmic.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
All was well with this strategy until September 2013, when I received the Google smackdown of a lifetime. My search engine traffic all but dried up and I was left to wonder why.
I checked Webmaster Tools just to be sure, and this is what I saw.
Jim: Michael didn’t receive a manual penalty, this was algorithmic. And unfortunately his screenshot chopped off the y-axis but those horizontal lines are around 400 per line so it tops out at 1600.
That’s a snippet of the graph of my search queries over the time period in question and, as you can see, it took a nosedive on September 10th (indicated by the red arrow). Anecdotally, I also saw myself disappear from the SERPs for terms that I had previously ranked for.
Of course, this was all happening around the time of the Hummingbird update, which went into effect in late August despite not being announced until about a month later. But this particular date didn’t line up with any specific problems that others were reporting, so I was left scratching my head.
In the end, however, I knew that I needed to fix the problem.
Troubleshooting my search struggles
Unsure of what to do, I took a shotgun approach and started tightening up various aspects of my SEO. This included both major and minor things. I verified that I didn’t have any duplicate content. I extended my domain name registration. I cleaned up what could have been perceived as spammy meta tags. I went back and nofollow’d all of my affiliate links. And so on and so forth.
And then I waited. And nothing changed. So I waited some more. And still, nothing changed.
Having cleaned up everything that I could think of in terms of on-page SEO, I started digging more deeply into off-page factors. As part of this process, I downloaded my incoming links from Webmaster Tools and started sorting through them. And, in doing so, I started to notice lots (and lots!) of carnival-type links.
That wasn’t particularly surprising, since I had been submitting to carnivals on an ongoing basis. But it got me to thinking… carnival submissions were the closest thing that I had every done to spammy link building.
Could those links be the source of my troubles?
Since I had reached the end of the line in terms of solutions, I decided to clean up my backlink profile. I filtered the list of links to identify everything from a carnival or the like, and then I got to work.
I started contacting site owners, explaining the situation, apologizing for the hassle, and asking them to remove the links from carnivals that they had hosted. To make this as easy as possible, I provided them with the carnival URLs on their sites as well as the URLs that I wanted removed.
Some site owners complied (thanks!), others said they were too busy, and still others ignored (or never got) my messages. So, from there, I turned my attention disavowing the remaining links. For those that are unaware, Google introduced a link disavow tool awhile back that lets you upload a file telling them to ignore certain inbound links.
Why didn’t I disavow from the start? Google states you should first try to get the links removed from the web, and I wanted to play by their rules. So as I built my disavow list, I included comments detailing the process. These are links that I’ve successfully had removed, these are links where I’ve requested removal but haven’t heard back, these are links where I couldn’t find contact information, and so on.
And then I uploaded the file, crossed my fingers, and waited. I did this in early-ish November and, within about a week, I started seeing results.
Jim: Again, sorry for losing the y-axis but the horizontal lines here represent 500 visits, so it’s a bigger scale than in the previous chart.
That first blip (blue arrow) is actually kind of interesting, in that I was so anxious to try out the disavow tool that I uploaded a partial list of links around the 7th or 8th. I left that in place for a few days, but then decided to take it down while I finished building out the remainder of the file, and then I uploaded it in its entirety.
As you can see, that first upload appears to have produced a temporary blip, followed by a return to the crappy levels I had previously been suffering, presumably due to my deletion of the incomplete disavow file. But then, following my upload of the completed file, things really started to take off (green arrow).
Note that the data in Webmaster Tools is typically delayed by 2-3 days, so you can’t diagnose things in real time. This is compounded by the fact that it takes Google some time to process your disavow file and put it into action. Thus, you really have to make your changes and then wait patiently to see the results.
My search queries kept creeping upward for about a month, by which time they exceeded the pre-penalty levels of early September. And, importantly, I saw my actual search traffic come roaring back to life.
Blog carnivals are capable of destroying your Google search traffic.
Some caveats because of my situation
Now, I know what you may be thinking… “I’ve been submitting to blog carnivals for years and I’m not suffering.”
Honestly, that may or may not be true. While you may not have suffered a September crash like I did, those links could still be holding your search traffic at lower levels than you might otherwise be receiving.
Also consider that I’m talking about a relatively new site with a relatively thin link profile. As such, carnival links may have been a much higher proportion of my total inbound links than they would be for a more established site, and that could explain why I received such a perceptible penalty.
Whatever the case, I’m now convinced that blog carnivals are worse than worthless. Not only have I cleaned them out of my past, but I’ve sworn them off going forward.
And you might want to do the same thing.
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