Following recent updates, most notably the Penguin update, Google seem to really be clamping down on sites that are manipulating the search engine results and benefiting from unnatural links. This was also an effort to reward websites that created really good quality and useful content, the type of content that Google wants to rank highly to improve their search results.
Since the initial algorithm change, there have been a number of other updates to tweak and hone it further, which has resulted in more websites being affected.
During July 2012, Google began issuing a number of unnatural link warnings to websites through Google Webmaster Tools. This reinforced how serious they were about these recent changes and it also highlighted to site owners, webmasters and online marketers that they should reconsider their link building activity to make sure that it does not violate any recent updates or that it doesn’t cause any future problems for the site.
The problems with link building
There has always been an issue with ‘link building’ in the traditional sense. If you are actively creating lots of links across the web to your own website you stand a good chance of creating a link profile that has a familiar pattern and one that could be perceived as being unnatural.
An ideal world, from Google’s point of view, would be one where websites do their best to create really useful and engaging content and great experiences for their visitors. In return, these same visitors would share, recommend, rate and review these sites across the web. This builds authority and presence, while also providing results that reflect public expectations.
If you think about it, it does make sense for Google to do this. It is not like they have changed their idea of the web overnight, their technology is constantly evolving and they are getting better at identifying ways to reward sites that practise the above.
Take Mashable (http://www.mashable.com) for example. They consistently put out interesting, newsworthy content related to the Technology industry. In return they have gained a strong following and have created an authoritative platform. People are highly likely to link to their content and every post they create receives hundreds of social shares. They now receive strong rankings within the Google SERPs for most of the content they create.
This does not necessarily mean that companies or website owners cannot use various platforms across the web for their own advantage and create additional links to their site; it means that quite a lot of previously popular link strategies should be looked at and reassessed for effectiveness or potential to create link issues.
Previous Link Strategies
Here is a list of link strategies that have previously been popular but are unlikely to be effective today due to recent changes:
Directory Submissions – Directory links originally were considered good quality links.
The few directory websites at the time offered its users an easy way of finding companies that offered products or services they were searching for. The relevance also filtered through to the search engines and aided site rankings.
This caught on, and quite quickly you started seeing hundreds of free and paid directories spring up because people wanted more links for their website and it was an easy link to source. This evolved and you found that the submissions increasingly utilised keywords for the anchor text link. The directories were becoming less valuable to the end user and for that reason a link from one of their pages was less valuable in Google’s eyes. They were effectively being gamed by site owners to improve rankings, which is exactly what the search engines are looking to avoid.
It is for this reason, these links were devalued and, depending on the severity of the link profile, could potentially harm a website.
Article Directories – Article directories were sites that would accept submitted content from external parties, ideally good quality content to create a useful resource for anyone wanting to read about various subjects. In a similar way to standard directories, you started to see significant growth in the number of these types of sites and the number of articles submitted.
An average user could throw together some quick content; sometimes the content was spun from a single article and submitted to a number of directories. A link could be placed within these articles (usually anchor text optimised for the target keywords) or an author bio as a way of gaining rankings for those terms.
The sheer volume of low quality articles on these websites resulted in many getting hit following the Google Panda update and their outbound links being devalued.
Reciprocal Linking – Reciprocal linking was the practise of exchanging links in the hope that both websites would benefit from these links. As both parties seemed to benefit, it was an easy link to source – some websites even openly stated that they will partake in reciprocal linking, especially some free directories.
Google could easily spot where two sites link to each other and it wasn’t too difficult for them to establish the purpose of the link. Websites of course link to each other naturally, especially when Blogging and linking to external resources. When this is an obvious reciprocal link for ranking benefit the placement of the links on the websites was odd or didn’t offer any value for users.
Blog Roll Links – Within the Blogging world, it was common for Blog owners to display a link or number of links on their site to other Blogs that they publicly endorsed or were friendly with. Although there is nothing wrong with this on the surface, Google would need to question the value of these links, especially since it was a trend that was growing because of the ranking benefits they could create (increasingly websites would link to irrelevant sites, possibly because they got paid for the link).
As with other links, these were likely to get devalued overtime.
Link/Resource Pages – Link or Resource pages are pages on a website that aim to provide users of that website with a list of resources that they might find useful. This is a slightly grey area because these types of pages are not inherently bad; they are completely natural if a website chooses to list resources to help its visitors. There is also a trend in the Blogging world where a site will create a post that comprises of a list of resources.
An issue occurs when webmasters create these pages purely for reciprocal linking or to sell links etc. The best way to approach these types of links is to question the value of having a link on a particular page, is the website relevant, will the users of that website be interested in what I have to offer?
Footer Links – Footer links are quite common to external websites, the reasons websites will do this vary. There may be a link present because it highlights various accreditations or it links to the mother site if the site is part of a group or larger company for example.
It is also quite common for sites to link to the companies who have developed the website, sometimes these are keyword optimised in an attempt to rank for these terms. There are other reasons for an external link to be present within a site Footer, it may be that someone paid for the link and that would be an example of an unnatural link.
The first problem with Footer links is that they typically appear on every page of a website. The second is the relevance, if a site is important, would you hide it away in the Footer? This has resulted in these links being devalued. There are reasons why an external link may be present within a site Footer, but make sure to ask yourself a question about why the link is there, what does it offer your site visitors?
Forum Links – Forum links are quite popular, most forums you visit nowadays will contain many posts with an anchor optimised link within the user’s signature. The more posts the user has, the more links it will have from that specific domain.
Forum threads generally are made up of a large number of posts, if each of those posts had a link within the signature it is likely that each of the links go to various unrelated websites. This creates the problem of having topic pages with a number of unrelated links which becomes difficult for Google to assign any value to each link and therefore they are likely to be devalued.
Conversation is at the heart of every forum, and it is highly likely that within that conversation, users will link to various resources. There must still be some value in these links because they are completely natural. Watch out for lots of anchor optimised links within forums, these are going to be considered to be largely unnatural.
Paid Links – Paid links have been mentioned in a few of the above sections and they can be present in many forms. Generally an obvious paid link will be oddly placed on the page or in a sidebar; they sometimes are irrelevant to the main site content and are placed alongside other links that are unrelated. Sometimes these can appear in a section named ‘sponsored links’ which should be avoided.
Quite often the link can appear on every page of a website, which is about the clearest way of saying to Google “I’m taking part in paid link activities”. Google are much better at identifying these links and they should definitely be a cause for concern among webmasters.
Lots of Anchor Text Links – This has also previously been mentioned as being related to a number of the above link activities. There are many platforms where individuals can create lots of anchor optimised links pointing to a website. These links are easy to create and therefore are unlikely to create any value for the site.
Having lots of anchor optimised links is definitely something a website will want to avoid, if the link profile was completely natural only a small percentage of these links will contain keyword associated text.
Link Strategies Moving Forwards
It is definitely more difficult to create valuable links for a site nowadays, ever changing updates has made SEOs question current strategies, is there a chance that a current link strategy might cause a problem in the future? This very question is causing concern for many SEOs and you could even say that some are afraid of artificially creating links.
Approaching link building from a user’s perspective is definitely a useful way of finding or creating quality links. Think about how a potential customer will find you online and use this to think up ideas for your link building. Here are a few ideas:
- Create a resource or tool; this may otherwise be referred to as Link Bait – but the idea is to create something useful which can potentially create lots of natural links as well as helping users.
- Be active on the popular social platforms. People will find you, follow you and it is a good way of introducing them to your website or offerings. A good social following can result in lots of external links to your website.
- Actively create a presence on industry related platforms and social sites. There are lots of industry related sites with active user bases that may well be interested in what you have to offer. Rather than jumping in with a link or lots of self-promotion, try engaging within the community and build your profile.
- Join other related or popular social media websites, manage the profile over time and engage with others on that platform.
- A link on a quality local business directory can still be relevant, especially if it can bring you customers as well (think Yell.com).
- Publish great content regularly, build up your following and the number of external links should increase proportionally.
- Guest Blogging and providing external websites with a quality and unique posts is a good way of expanding your brand presence and gaining a link to your site. This however is one of those link building tactics that has caught on and has evolved to the point where people are creating posts on low quality Blogs for the sake of a link. This has even caught the attention of Google’s Matt Cutts, who urges people that it can be a useful tactic for growing your brand, but be careful (see video below).
- Official and recognised achievements or accreditations can sometimes create some good quality links.
- Self-created external resources or websites if they provide a useful service can help improve brand recognition and can provide the opportunity to link back to your main site (avoid linking on each page or using keyword optimised anchor text).
There are likely many others, let us know in the comments if you feel something has worked well for your own websites.
Remember to Avoid
Remember to avoid the following to escape the wrath of Google Penguin or any future updates. Question whether Google would see the link as a quality link before proceeding based on the types of results they want to see in their result pages:
- Paid links
- Lots of anchor text links
- A large proportion of directory links
- Created low quality content for article submission
- Unnatural Footer links
- Reciprocal linking
- Links on irrelevant websites or pages
- Hidden links
Image credit: Scared man from Big Stock