Linkspam – Common forms of link building that have gone toxic

As I’ve been predicting for a long time Google has finally upped the ante on poor quality link building and is starting to actively penalise those who participate in it. This has of course started an absolute firestorm of comment and general gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands amongst the “SEO community”.

rusty chainsI put those words in quotes because frankly I never thought half of them were actually SEOs, at least as I define it. In recent years a group has developed that claimed that ‘SEO was all about links’, and they’ve spread that gospel far and wide until far too many client companies took it as the truth. Large numbers of SEO companies have grown up on the premise that you can sell SEO in a scalable way by hiring cheap labour, often outsourced to places like India or the Philippines or Romania, and just building links, often in ways that actually have little value but sound good to the client.

Genuine link builders, and there are some excellent ones out there who I would not wish to see tarred with the same brush as the poor ones, know that sometimes a single really good link which may have taken weeks to research and achieve will be more valuable that thousands of even mediocre links. But it’s a very difficult thing to sell to a client when someone else is telling them that they’ll get 100 or even a 1000 links a week by their methods.

And the really annoying thing is that sometimes this worked! Seldom when faced with a really competitive niche with quality sites in it, but often enough to make it seem like a good idea. Those of us who believe SEO is a far more rounded holistic approach to website building and development have sometimes been left embarrassed by the rubbish sites showing up for some searches and have long expected and wished that Google would take more concerted action. Well now they have, but unfortunately along with the sub-standard sites a lot of genuine sites run by honest people who have simply been badly advised are being caught in the backlash.

Yet many of the link building techniques started out as perfectly good ideas. So how did we get here?

Article Marketing

Article marketing started off as a good idea. Write a useful article about a topic of your choice and send it to other sites where it will be seen. If it’s newsworthy then send it to a PR site (whether free or paid). Include a link back to your site in the attribution and allow others to use it as long as they maintain the attribution. It gives you visibility and enhances your reputation in your industry.

Unfortunately the idea was seized on by many agencies and turned into a “scalable product”. Instead of you writing it with your knowledge and expertise they would get someone else to do it. (You don’t have time after all). It might initially be one of their staff but pretty soon someone says why not outsource it to somewhere cheap like India or the Philippines.

Instead of submitting to quality sites which takes time and which may charge fees, someone suggests why not build sites and put articles there. Hey, if we’ve got loads of new sites lets link them all up. And/or outsource to someone else doing the same thing. Quantity takes over, quality drops. Rinse and repeat.

Soon that initially good idea has become this:

Someone else with no expertise writes an article on your specialist subject. At best it reads poorly because they have no understanding of the subject or the people who are your potential clients.

At worst it will be complete gobbledygook written by a machine (See “Sodium body of water town” – Salt Lake City) or by a third world outsourcer who speaks poor English. It’s cheap because of this. It’s scalable, without the agency having to train staff in real SEO. And the agency can mark it up and make a profit on it and say “look at all the links we got you”

Their idea is that it doesn’t matter if it’s crap because no-one is ever going to read the article anyway – the article site will never rank well itself and usually has no other way of people finding it. If they ever did they’d find poor quality and go elsewhere. In other words the entire site(s) the article is on is purely built to fool the search engines into thinking this is genuine content and the links embedded in it are worth recording and counting.

Are they really that stupid at Google? Very unlikely. Actually they tell us that they can detect link networks, they can detect poor grammar, they know who owns what domains and can trace it all back. They aren’t perfect so sometimes this stuff works for a while or within a specific niche but in the long-term it’s sure to be caught. As some notable networks have been caught recently. And those associated with it will suffer because of it.

The companies behind the link networks can walk away and probably have other schemes going on in another sector. They don’t care about the domain name being blacklisted because they just switch to another one. There’s no long term loss for them. But there is for the clients who were caught up in it – their rankings will drop and their trust will be diminished. Their branded domain name may take months or years to recover.

What you should do instead

Why not spend the time writing yourself, or training your staff or associates to do it if you don’t have the time. Writing good articles and getting them published – on other quality sites if possible, and/or on your own site or blog.

Good articles that really contribute something and inform people will get noticed and get links naturally from real sites and social media mentions by real people. Your reputation is enhanced and you get long-lasting benefits.

Directories

Once upon a time there were some good, well-collated directories and people actually used them to find things. Of course as the web grew ever larger they began to become logistically impossible and as usual there was a lot of bandwagon jumping as owner tried to charge for inclusion. But for a while they were useful and the search engines spidered them.  They are now mostly defunct. The days of there being thousands of directories worth submitting to are over. Google devalued most of them some time ago and many of them closed down. Many of the ones left aren’t even indexed below category level so any links on them are useless. If an agency tell you they are doing directory submissions ask them which ones and go and check them out yourself. Local ones may have some value for citations for local search but larger general ones will often be worthless if they aren’t indexed. Yet there are still agencies out there selling directory submissions as if they are massively important.

Blog Comments

Commenting on blogs is a perfectly good idea in itself. You engage with people on a subject where you can offer expertise. If you offer something of value then no-one minds if you have a link to your site. The problem comes again when the process is scaled up into a product for sale.

Someone else (usually outsourced again) writes a throwaway comment on a blog post which may (but more often does not) relate to your subject (and which may or may not be genuine) and chucks in a link (which in most cases is “no-followed” anyway). The result is that your company is seen as spammy for doing a drive-by advert and link drop with no value. Your reputation goes down.

There is a sub-category of blog comment spam which shows how insane the whole thing becomes – an agency or foreign outsourced company creates a fake blog about a subject and puts some rubbish content on it, to use it for links for their clients. Another agency or outsource, looking for places to do comments, finds it and posts comment spam on it. Others follow and pretty soon there are whole threads of posts and comments which are completely fake, all crammed with links to clients. I’ve seen such sites in places like the Ukraine, Romania and Pakistan in those languages and then the English names of the clients stuck in the middle. Value is nil – risk of Google finding them and associating the clients with such tactics is high.

Missed opportunity on genuine blogs

There is no engagement in such outsourced commenting because the person doing it neither knows nor cares about your subject. If there is a genuine person behind the blog, (and it’s usually fairly easy to tell from their other posts, it simply requires time and experience), and they have real problems then YOU or one of your trained staff could have offered them useful advice.

If you do that it probably won’t result directly in a sale, though it might, but it certainly has lots of other benefits.

  • It would show you in a good light, as someone who cares enough to spend their time offering assistance.
  • The blogger may reply, they may visit your site, and may link back to you if they are impressed with your advice or the site. (Such a link is worth far more than all the artificial ones)
  • The comment or conversation may be seen by the blogger’s friends and followers, who may tell other people.

Your reputation goes up, your message is being spread. More people know about you. They are less likely to believe any negative comments that your competition spread about you so your automatically helping your reputation management. This is what real social engagement is about.

Important points to keep in mind

  • If you’re promoting a quality product or service shouldn’t anything about the company or related to the company or that mentions the company be the highest quality?
  • If you’re spreading the word about your business don’t you want that to be the best word possible?

Tactics like those mentioned above when scaled in the ways described have the opposite effect. They make your business look cheap and lacking in ethics or expertise. Is that worth risking for a small and temporary gain in the rankings?

In my view good SEO in its broadest sense is about building a sustainable long-term successful company by making their website the best it can be and by engaging with their customers in the best possible way. If short-term, high volume link building risks damaging those core fundamentals then it should be avoided.

If you’ve been caught up in this and are suffering lost rankings then maybe it’s time you started asking exactly what your SEO has been doing on your behalf.

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