In recent months, Google has been doing its utmost to prevent webmasters from manipulating their results through link building. For years, marketers, webmasters and just about everybody with a website that wanted to rank high in Google have been using a number of techniques and fads to get to the top of the SERPs.
As a quality measure, Google released an update to their algorithm known as ’Penguin’ back in April 2012. Penguin set its beak on spammers attempting to game the search results, and ruffled a lot of feathers dishing out penalties.
Penguin changed search history and continues to cleanse the search results — sites are still being penalized for using or continuing with unnatural tactics. However, we’re now seeing marketers working harder and even more ethically to get links to their website.
Yesterday, most marketers would build links solely for the purpose of ranking in Google. Today, links are built to help increase brand exposure, refer traffic and help increase social presence, as well as to rank in Google.
As the tides shift to more ethical link building tactics, here are 11 illicit techniques that not so long ago, marketers employed to rank their website in Google and should now be avoided according to Google’s guidelines.
1) Buying or selling links that pass PageRank
I am confident that in the near future Google will stop its PageRank system. Its only real influence on link building is for webmasters to inflate the price of links dependent upon an impressive Google PageRank.
Popular with gambling websites in particular, webmasters have judged external sites on their homepage PageRank before inquiring for the price of a link. Many websites take advantage of this opportunity to sell links, as they see how their site’s authority will help any paying customer to rank higher in Google.
Google’s response over the years has been to remove the PageRank of sites it believes are selling links and replacing it with a gray bar, and even kicking out or lowering these websites in the rankings.
In 2013, purchasing links for PageRank is a risky game, but marketers are still willing to chance it when they’ve been unable to generate enough buzz around their latest venture.
2) Excessive link exchanges ("Link to me and I'll link to you") or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
“Reciprocal links” was a term that used to be prevalent in online marketing, but it's not discussed very much today. Webmasters would set up “links” pages solely for exchanging links with similar websites to help boost their PageRank and ranking. Some webmasters would even exchange with non-related websites, which was sure to draw the eye of the omniscient Google.
Notice that Google has said “excessive link exchanges.” I believe it’s still OK to exchange links with relevant websites where both websites would benefit, without solely trying to manipulate the Google results.
3) Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links
Guest blogging and article marketing blew out of proportion in 2012 – when everything else was getting hit marketers would resort to guest posting.
There’s nothing wrong with continuing this method provided you don’t do it on a large scale. For example, posting just one post on numerous different sites with a “keyword-rich anchor text link” in each.
Google+ profiles allow you to set up authorship so that you can let Google know which sites you’re contributing to on a regular basis. This type of rich snippet is also a stamp of authority, so, worthwhile if you want to set yourself apart from the spammers.
4) Using automated programs or services to create links to your site
This is something I really don’t have much experience in because it’s something I completely disagree with. Google is referring to automated directory submitting, forum and comment spamming tools that are still on the market, like “10,000 instant backlink packages” etc.
The link above is to a test I carried out on one of those automated programs that had a negative effect on my website. I find it hard to believe these services ever really worked – thousands of low-quality backlinks in a short period of time was something I never considered (apart from testing it for a case study as above). To still be doing this in 2013 is website suicide.
5) Text advertisements that pass PageRank
This is purchasing a text link on an external website with a ‘good’ PageRank to help rank your website in Google SERPs. These are generally found in the menus of websites site-wide or sometimes only on the homepage. Once upon a time it was also popular to purchase links in the footers of websites, but this was quickly ousted by Google.
6) Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank
This implies you are purchasing space on the website solely to promote your product. Advertorials consist of pictures and texts, and try to look like legitimate news stories or articles. As well as purchasing an article to promote their product, an advertorial offered a marketer a subtle way to stuff in keyword-rich anchor text links.
This was a popular method as it was a win-win for both parties – one receives money whilst the other gets an anchor text link of their choice on a popular website. But it’s not always subtle enough, as Google does their best to put a halt to it.
7) Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.
This is the practice of writing and publishing press releases solely for anchor text links back to your websites. The popularity of PR websites to many marketers was their high PageRank.
It’s not cheap to publish a press release; we’re talking three-digit sums on all of the reputable press release websites. But traffic from them is minimal, so unless you were submitting a release that was going to get picked up by the major players in the media, this was a massive waste of money when Google put an end to any meaningful link juice being passed on.
Do people publish non-newsworthy content on press release sites in 2013? Just check out some of the sites for yourself and you’ll see that they do!
8) Low-quality directory or bookmark site links
We’ve touched upon directories earlier in this post. Similar to using automated tools that submit your site to low-quality directories, submitting them yourself is just as bad (and more time-consuming).
With each passing, I find fewer and fewer directories are worth submitting to. In fact, nine months into the New Year, I have submitted to only half a dozen listings for my clients and personal websites alone.
Local directories that list local tradesmen and businesses can still hold value in link building. There’s potential to drive relevant traffic to your website if the directory is popular among the locals. But how much good do directories like DMOZ, etc. pass on these days? Last time I had a site accepted in DMOZ, 30+ other low-quality directories added my site to theirs and I had to spend time adding them to a disavow file fearing the worst.
9) Links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites
When widgets first started doing the rounds they seemed pretty useful. Sites would have a funky tool that would display news from other, well-known news resources, a fun little game, or a comparison tool for holiday prices, etc. As with any link building method, it was blown out of proportion. Marketers began building these more for link building purposes than traffic. The result was we saw dull widgets on websites with a link coded into them. The traffic and leads these would provide seemed to play second fiddle to the link in a number of these widgets. Google has now made it known you’re not to put keyword-rich anchor text links in them. Perhaps the return of exciting, useful widgets is on its way.
10) Widely distributed links in the footers of various sites
When sitewide menu links and article links weren’t enough – before links in articles came to the forefront – getting a link in the footer of a website was a pretty big deal. This wasn’t the same as the black hat links hidden in the HTML code, or links at the bottom of the page hidden from the user in the same color font as the background.
Footers were an opportunity to get a link on a website for link building purposes. They were among the least popular parts of the homepages of websites. Webmasters were more inclined to add links to websites here knowing they wouldn’t be seen by much of their audience, and the benefit to the marketer building the link was getting a homepage link.
11) Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature
Google can include comments in this section, too, if they like. It used to be common for marketers to sign up to forums solely for spamming them with a keyword-rich anchor text link back to their website.
It sure must have been a nuisance running a high PageRank forum back in the day, having to delete these users and their posts. Mind you, it’s probably worse today as there are tools out there now that will spam forums en masse, much the same way that Akismet blocks thousands of spam comments each week to my websites.
Links from forums were never really passing a great deal of link juice and I’m sure Google picked up on this method quickly to devalue links from such places. The Google guidelines finish by saying these link methods are acceptable if you add the rel="nofollow" attribute to the links. This eliminates the link juice but if these links are driving you relevant traffic then there’s no harm in doing that.
Google also suggests in these guidelines that the best way to get links to your website is to “create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.”
Barrie Smith is an SEO consultant for Receptional Ltd.