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How Do You Define Ethical Link Building in SEO?

Lucy Griffiths

by Lucy Griffiths on 28th April 2010

Link bait, paid links, link farms, article marketing; all of these can, in theory at least, improve your linking profile and SEO strength, but what is the real difference between ethical and unethical link building?Links, as we all know, provide the backbone of SEO. As such, there is now huge importance placed on earning links; even to the extent where an entire industry has sprouted devoted to providing dedicated link building services and linking opportunities.

With so much weight given to the gaining of quality links, the stakes have been raised. Businesses have begun to recognise their value and efforts to obtain the most prized trackbacks have been ramped up.

The metaphorical currency of links has stepped into the real world. Despite going against Google’s rule of “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank” [see: 5 Questions You Should Be Asking Before Outsourcing SEO], many are still prepared to pay hard cash for a single link that can bring serious value.

But, despite the risks, this behaviour is far from rare. Tens of thousands of sites are benefiting from having paid a strong domain for an embedded link; the numbers aren’t shrinking either. Chances of detection are relatively low, particularly where links appear natural and there is no obvious paper trail. It works, that’s why people do it.

The Perils (and Positives) of Paid Links

Because you’re paying for a link, does that make it any less ethical than if you, for example, indulge in article submission? According to Google it does, but if you have the financial clout and business acumen to spot a good opportunity and are willing to risk a rankings drop, then is that really unethical?

Any decent SEO agency won’t jeopardise a client’s website by getting involved in black hat SEO techniques though. Whilst it is fine to risk your own property, damaging a client’s site that has been entrusted to you is nothing short of unethical. This not only covers the buying of links, but also the deliberate cultivation of specialist hub sites.

These hubs, or link farms, are a maze of hundreds of sites interlinking to one another. The more members it has, the stronger it becomes. Link farms, like paid links, are on Google’s hit list. But like their paid counterparts, they aren’t always easy to track down.

Text links embedded within banners distributed to thousands of (presumably) unknowing affiliates, small footer links to and from the farm, anything that will make it appear natural but is quite the opposite. There are numerous ways that sites can cultivate this link farm, which are, by and large, undetectable.

Link Farms and Paid Links: Risk Versus Gain

There is method to this madness. There must be, otherwise link farms wouldn’t still be so widely used. It would be churlish to speculate on who might employ these tactics; but if you hear of anyone offering to dramatically improve your PageRank or link structure within days, it’d be safe to assume they have some kind of system.

Both paid links and link farms can damage a site. If Google find you are participating in such activities, you will, in all likelihood, be punished. Whether that is a long-term blacklisting or just a ranking handicap, it won’t be good for business.

Sometimes Google are given a helping hand. Webmasters are encouraged to seek obvious paid links or link farms directly to Google. Therefore there is good business for those who are willing to look into competitor’s linking profile and reporting any suspicions. They might not be acted on, but this active participation by the wider web community makes detection far more likely. Matt Cutts explains a little more in his blog post: How to report paid links.

The unethical part of all of this is when a client is involved. If somebody entrusts you with their content or has paid you more in ignorance than anything else for a link, then there is a clear breach of trust.

What is Ethical Link Building?

So now we’ve got an understanding about what isn’t classed as ethical link building, what is? Well, this is where it gets a little more confused.

Let’s start with an obvious one then, link baiting. There is probably no more positive or purer example of SEO in practice. Link bait is essentially the creation of content that inspires discussion, intrigue or controversy, which ultimately encourages links. If you’re clever enough to get this right, then you deserve to reap the rewards [see: Link Baiting: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly].

Link bait isn’t easy to achieve and it is far from guaranteed. Even great content can fall under the radar of those who count. Ironically you can get just as much strength from being criticised as you can from receiving glowing praise. The search engines can’t differentiate bad press from good, which is why many people deliberately court controversy to get the links they need. Sneaky, but certainly not unethical.

Content Distribution for Links: Just Internet Noise?

How about hubs, press releases and article submission? The temptation is to simply label them ethical. You have created content, released it and allowed others to decide whether they want to republish. Some might disagree though.

After all, articles tend not to be the greatest pieces of literature ever mustered. Most press releases are created purely for the embedded links they hold. Hubs tend to just be a mixture of the other two. In the most part, and there are genuine exceptions to this rule, when they are produced purely for SEO and link building capabilities, quality is a secondary commodity.

This pollutes the Internet with more noise [See: Is the Internet too Noisy?]. Search engine results pages are littered with articles, often outranking the websites they’re promoting. But most SEO professionals would recommend one of the above as a link building method. Like most things, particularly in link building, it is a matter of opinion.

Should websites who have developed a strong authority with the search engines and their readership be condemned or congratulated for capitalising on archived content? Selling embedded links in otherwise forgotten and overlooked pages is a great way to monetise a site. This goes on, everybody knows it, but does that make it right?

Unethical link builders/sellers have been driven underground. They have to find innovative ways to work unnoticed and earn their fees. Others just have to work out what they can and can’t get away with, working within or just outside the rules set by Google.

The trouble with all this is that people don’t want to get left behind. If they have been going about their business in an ethical fashion, have adhered to search engine rules on SEO but are still slipping down the rankings, what can they do?

The value of links is shifting steadily upwards. If the BBC, CNN or any other major news source were to start dishing out links to the highest bidder, they would make millions. With a PageRank of 9 and 8 respectively, they have the strength and link power to make a real difference (one would assume) to any site.

Of course this is purely hypothetical and could be assigned to any authoritative news site with thousands of indexed pages full of content. The point though is that this is happening on a smaller scale elsewhere; everybody knows it and plenty of people are actively engaging in link buying of some description. A good example of this was recently highlighted in an Econsultancy post entitled: Express Group turns to selling links, big companies caught buying.

Everything is open to interpretation in SEO. Link building is certainly no different. Nobody likes a cheat; but when does initiative or good business sense become an unethical practice?

Affiliate networks and their associated sites earn millions in revenue from their banner links. Embed some text within an ad and you have the potential for thousands of links from related sites, is that worse than buying one link from one site?

As always we would like you to share your experiences and views on this subject. Have you ever had to report paid links? Do you think more should be done to stop this trade happening? Maybe you think it is fine and rules should be loosened up to allow easier and less risky link buying to happen? Whatever your views, we would very much like to hear them.

Lucy Griffiths

Lucy Griffiths

Lucy is an Internet Search Specialist focusing and working with clients on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Pay-Per-Click (PPC) strategies.

9 Comments

  • Andy 28th April 2010

    I’d class anything with a risk of having a site penalised or blacklisted unethical. And as you say, it’s fine for you to do on your own site, but not something SEO companies should indulge in.

    Reply to this comment

  • BuzzStream 28th April 2010

    In some ways ethical link building is about quality relationships with sites or publishers. Taking the time to build those relationships and cultivate high quality links as a result. I agree there is a lot open to interpretation in SEO but using a PR approach to building links can sometimes solve the internal debate.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike 28th April 2010

    If linkbuilding is done right by ethical companies it can be a great benefit
    to companies that would rather promote their products than post on forums
    all day long. The problem comes with the linkspammers that blast thousands of
    low PR links that have little value to sites AND will get the google slap.

    If you take the time to realize thatyou can outsource (if you are careful)
    and use links the right way – to build relationships and better quality traffic -
    this becomes a win/win deal.

    Reply to this comment

  • Linknami 29th April 2010

    For me, one form of unethical linking is a do-followed link from a content that is not related to the target page.

    Reply to this comment

  • Roger Lapin 29th April 2010

    I thought they way forward now was reach of your site / domain – i.e where is your content on the web – I understand links are relevant but surely they will decline in a factor soon.

    Reply to this comment

    • Lucy Griffiths

      Lucy 30th April 2010

      I guess that’s what makes SEO so interesting in that we can all theorise on what is happening. I think you’re right in that content is key but I don’t see the need to gain links from legitimate sources going away any time soon. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Reply to this comment

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  • Robin Dally 14th September 2010

    Thanks very much for this, I think the answers are far from clear. One thing not discussed is purchasing graphic ads with optimised alt tags, which link back to a clients site. Also working with a client recently we had to think very hard about how to use alt tags when their clients displayed their logo. We wanted the tags to both work well for accessibility but also to help with SEO. Thanks again, I look forward to this discussion continuing.

    Reply to this comment

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