January 16, 2013
In my "18 SEO Killers" article from the end of last year, I mentioned footer links as a potential SEO problem. I know this confused many people because I didn't explain what I meant by them. I didn't mean that it's bad to have any links in the footer of your website. But there are many specific types of footer links that Google's Panda/Penguin filters do seem to have a problem with. In fact, it's not always just links in the footer that can cause problems, but abuse of the footer area in general.
Let's face it, most of your site visitors are never going to see stuff that is way, way, way down. Especially when there's some visual indication that the page has ended. When a reasonable person sees your company address, copyright notice, and phone number at the bottom, they assume that's all there is.
Is It for People or Search Engines?
If your pages still have a bunch of stuffed content or links below the normal viewing area, there's a good chance you (or someone on your behalf) placed them there just for search engines. In fact, you probably don't want the visitors to notice what's down there. And who could blame you – most of the time it looks like crap! In fact, back in the old days you probably would have done it invisibly by making the text or links the same color as the background.
But today we all know that blatantly hidden content or links is just asking for trouble. So why don't we think the same way about links and/or text that are so far down the page where most people won't see them? Their specific placement at the bottom is not much different from actually making them invisible. Surely the intent is the same.
I've run across at least 5 footer abuse issues:
Content Well Below the Fold
This is an old technique usually implemented because the website designer or perhaps the CEO simply doesn't like text on the page. They believe that web pages look more aesthetically pleasing when they're visual. Yet they know search engines need content to provide some context as to what the page is all about so they compromise by putting some way below the fold.
And for many years this seemed to work perfectly fine. The search engines got content and the designers got their fancy-schmancy look. Well, guess what? People like content, too! And Google knows this just as well as you do. So they finally cracked down on pages where the text content was placed where the average person was unlikely to see it. Most of the time when I see this technique being used, the footer content is fairly keyword stuffed. But I believe it may still get discounted because it's way down below the fold, even if it's the best written, most relevant content in the world.
Recommendation: If you've been doing something like this on your site for whatever reason, I'd highly recommend removing the content altogether if it's keyword stuffed and spammy sounding. If it's professionally written, then redesign the page itself so that there's an area where people can read it. They really do want to know what your site is all about! In many cases, you don't need 250 words (or any particular amount). Just a few sentences at the top of your pages is often plenty to provide context for both people and search engines.
Lists of Keyword Phrases Placed in the Footer
I've seen these range from just one keyword phrase...
...to an entire list of keyword phrases. Some are even so bold as to explain to both people and search engines that what they're listing is just keywords:
There's obviously no reason other than search engines to do stuff like this on your website. And again, like most techniques that got Pandalized/Penguinized, they may have worked at one point, but Google got smarter.
Recommendation: If you're doing this, STOP! If those words are important to explain what the page is all about, then they should be featured in the page content itself. If they're not relevant, then that particular page of your site shouldn't show up in Google for those keywords anyway because it's a bad user experience.
Keyword-Stuffed Links in the Footer
This can range from just a few extra footer links to hundreds of them. Many times they're just on the home page, but sometimes they're on every page. The theory behind this technique is that people mistakenly believe that the home page of a site has some special power to pass extra link popularity to the pages linked from it. So they try to increase the rankings of some pages that would otherwise be buried by linking to them in the footer.
In some cases, the pages they link to are simply doorway pages and not even a real part of the site (yes, in 2013 even!) with the only link to them in the footer. Often they link to auto-generated, keyword-stuffed junk pages that don't even make sense. The scary thing is, I've seen reputable companies do this as a way to pick up additional keyword traffic that they wouldn't otherwise get. The problem is that today's Google may not just ignore or penalize the bad pages, but could potentially penalize the entire site. Even if you're linking to the real pages of your site in the footer, if they're not a duplicate of what you're linking to in your main global navigation they could be suspected of being there for search engines only – especially if they're keyword stuffed.
Recommendation: Of course it's fine to simply repeat what's in your top navigation down in your footer so that people don't have to scroll all the way to the top to get around. It's only when you've got a lot more going on downstairs than upstairs that it may cause Google problems. Obviously, if you're linking in your footer to auto-generated pages, you need to remove those links (and their resulting pages) ASAP. If you're linking to actual pages of your site that aren't already contained within your global navigation – WHY? If they're truly important pages, you should be linking to them from the global navigation. If you're just trying to push some extra internal link popularity to them, you may be doing the exact opposite. By linking to so-o-o-o many pages of your site, you're giving every page of your site less link popularity because you're spreading it too thinly. And if you feel it's a great way to get new pages crawled and indexed, you'd be much better served by submitting an auto-generated XML sitemap to Google using your Webmaster Tools account.
Footer Links That Use Different Anchor Text From the Main Navigation
We all know that in the past Google has given lots of weight to anchor text (the words in the clickable part of a link). Therefore, some people duplicate the links contained within their top global navigation in their footer, but with different anchor text. I can't say for sure if this is a problem in and of itself, but chances are it could set off some red flags with Google. Even more so if the anchor text is repetitive or keyword stuffed from link to link. The fact that those particular keywords are being used where fewer people will see could certainly look suspicious.
Recommendation: Keep the anchor text fairly similar to what's in the global navigation, if not totally the same.
Links From Other Sites' Footers
This type of footer link isn't on your own site, but on someone else's. Many sites will sell links, but they don't want them to be prominently featured because they don't want their users clicking away to someone else's site. So they stick them way down in their footer, usually in a fairly light text and/or small font. In other cases, the business owners own lots of different sites, so they link to them all in the footer. Many of the latter sites seem to exist only in order to cross-link to other sites. Again, while this may have worked like a charm in the past, it's most likely going to cause you grief today.
Recommendation: Of course it's fine to link to your own sites where it makes sense within your other sites, so don't worry about that. But if you don't want to link prominently to them, it's likely not a link that Google will want to count for anything. And of course if you've paid for links from other websites' footers, you'd be better off having them removed at this point. There's rarely a good explanation for a tiny link in someone's footer other than strictly for fake link popularity purposes.
In general, I like to think that my advice on footer links and footer content is common sense. However, I was consulting with someone the other day who told me that there were two schools of thought about it. She had spoken with another SEO firm who told her it was a good thing! Rest assured that there are not two legitimate schools of thought on this topic. Anytime you're doing something on your site that you hope real people don't actually see, it's "web spam" plain and simple. Thankfully, Google has finally figured out how to combat most of it.
If you've lost a good percentage of your targeted Google traffic, review the footer area of your site to ensure that you're not abusing it.
Jill Whalen has been an SEO Consultant and the CEO of High Rankings, a Boston area SEO Company since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen
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