Avoiding Footprints

My husband refers to me, lovingly I AM SURE, as Dr. No. That’s because I am a bit like Tard, the Grumpy Cat, not Joseph Wiseman. I’m not Canadian, for God’s sake. For the record, if there’s one thing that does not make me go all negative? It’s Tard. I love Tard. Tard makes me happy.


“No.” “That won’t work, here’s a list of all the bad things that will happen, there’s no way you won’t get screwed doing that.” If I wore tshirts with slogans and not just bands with dead members on them, I’d get some made with these emblazoned but of course the company would only muck it up.

So link footprints are always in my head when people either tell me the old methods they used (wow, some of you, just wow) or tell me their great ideas about what to do this month. Link footprints are much less likely to happen if you do just about nothing to build links, but if you do nothing, you’ll never get many links unless you’re an amazing big brand. There’s also not much of a distinction between how we all pursue links, as we have the same goal right? Links. Getting links. Building links. EARNING links. Building relationships, targeting our “pitches”…it’s still the same damn thing in the end.

I’m worried by people who don’t see that they will leave footprints and I’m worried by people who don’t care. Algorithms do change in response to patterns you know, especially patterns of abuse. So what if you’re not buying links and you’re only sending carefully researched bloggers a pitch to write about your product? If the only people writing about your product are stay at home moms who enjoy your specially-designed and patterned origami paper (is there such a thing? Surely the patterns would be bad for ori..oh never mind) then isn’t that a footprint? COULD that hurt you? Eventually I think it could, and it will.

We can use footprints in order to piggyback someone else’s strategy of course, and that is still a very common way to build links, especially for newer sites, or sites who really want to jump up in the rankings. My biggest problem with this is that you’re taking a huge chance by following someone’s else’s potentially problematic pattern that could get slapped in a future update. If some site is ranking highly right now and you copy them by either going after links on the same sites where they have links or you realize that they’re doing 25 guest posts a month, all on the same type of site, and you start doing that, you’re not creating anything unique. We talk about the need for unique content, but what about unique footprints?

Footprints don’t just hurt sites that use crap tactics of course but let’s talk about them for a second…there’s nothing we all love more than identifying someone’s bit of sneakery. As nice as I try to be, when something looks odd, I’ll spend ages digging into it and I will go into a state of ecstasy when I realize that the obviously fake pen name for 50 crap posts is a fairly well-respected SEO who’s been very slack in covering his tracks and has loads of co-citations with his real name. Glory be! I have no interest in outing, but I do like the find. Think of all those guys who write about their finds though. Do you want them to find you?

Note: Positive footprints definitely exist too, of course. Think about Google + and having a nice author footprint on great sites. That can only help you because IT’S GOOGLE. However, this is Dr No’s column so back to negative stuff.

What leaves a potentially dangerous footprint?

Advanced queries: yes, I will use them and recommend them but if you’re only going after link prospects because you found them using advanced queries, well, that’s a pattern of sites right there. They ARE useful, and they can help you wade through some murkier SERPs, but they can definitely create footprints that you may be unaware of. ESPECIALLY IF THAT’S THE ONLY WAY YOU FIND SITES. (As Paul Madden said, this is venturing into tin foil hat territory but I’m in a particularly negative mood after we’ve all been told that there will be big updates coming soon!)

Guest posts: I love guest posts (yes, still) but as with most forms of link building, people aren’t varying what they do. You can find 1000 guest posts that all list the same exact byline about how the guest author, Maxx Power, “enjoys writing about water treatment issues for folks based in coastal North Carolina.” Please believe me when I say that absolutely no one enjoys writing 1000 posts about water treatment issues for folks based in coastal North Carolina. I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who enjoys writing more than one.

Widgets: I hate widgets, and I feel bad saying that because I used to like them. They leave massive footprints though, of course. If you have specific code for people to grab and display on their site, there’s no way you can avoid some ugly footprints. Should Google know how to handle these and not penalize you for them? Yes. Do they? I wouldn’t bet my life on it. In fact, the only cool thing about widgets is that while I was searching for some “truly bad widgets” I found some truly bad widow’s peaks via Google’s amazing “did you mean?” functionality. I’ll spare you but personally speaking I didn’t think they were all that bad, but then I sport a big fat fringe.

Duplicate content: Guest posts and widgets can of course cause duplicate content. So can press releases and sending out 15 variations of the same article. If you’re using 4 pen names for the same bio line for your articles, it’s quite easy to track. Surely Maxx Power, Smiley McCracken, Gladys McCracken, and Jimmy Cricket don’t all enjoy writing about water treatment issues for folks based in coastal North Carolina, whether it’s on content identified as being by a “guest author”, in a press release, or anything else, and no, swapping “folks” for “people” a few times won’t prevent this from being a nasty footprint. It might annoy someone less though.

The same combination of things all over the damn place: co-citations are all the rage right now so remember that if you always mention certain terms in conjunction with your anchors, that’s a footprint too. When every mention of your brand comes with Jimmy Cricket and the phrase “awesome and inexpensive” God cries.

Am I being overly paranoid here? I mean I am a person who researches ways to avoid death by alligator and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered one nor do I plan to, but just in case it’s healthy to know what to do. (And don’t run in a circle as I stupidly and mistakenly told about 20 people once. It’s a ZIG ZAG.)


One big problem is that we don’t think about what we’re doing once some cool new tactic gets put into play. I know several people who heavily abused of advertorials but were quick to fuss about Interflora’s use of them. Are we just blind to what we’re doing but able to see the bad things everyone else does? I have spent loads of time pointing out potential problems to webmasters, whether they’re clients or not, and many times when I caution them against something, they just point to a big brand or a competitor using that same strategy and assume that it’s fine for them too. I’ll happily admit to doing things in risky ways myself (but always with the client’s permission after being warned about the dangers) but hell, even then I try to minimize the potential footprints. Clients don’t always listen though…maybe it’s time to get louder.