Recently, Google quietly released an update to its link schemes/unnatural links document in Webmaster Tools. For something that happened so quietly, it generated significant noise across industry media outlets. So, what changes were made and what do SEO professionals, business owners and webmasters need to do differently as a result?
Building Links to Manipulate PageRank
Here’s what Google’s document now says about manipulating PageRank:
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
What does Google mean when they say, “any links intended to manipulate PageRank”? According to Google, any links you (or someone on your behalf) create with the sole intention of improving your PageRank or Google rankings is considered unnatural.
The quantity and quality of inbound links have always been a crucial part of how Google’s algorithm determines PageRank. However, this fact manifested manipulative link building schemes that created nothing other than spam across the Web, which is something Google has been working feverishly to eliminate since it launched it original Penguin algorithm in April 2012.
Now, Google is much better at differentiating true editorial links (ie, natural) links from manipulative (unnatural) ones. In fact, Google now penalizes Websites in the search rankings that display an exceptionally manipulative link profile or history of links.
What about Buying or Selling Links?
Google says, “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.”
If people found out that their favorite politician had in some way purchased a majority of his or her votes, how would they feel about it? When we purchase (or sell) links for a website, we are essentially doing the same thing.
Google has made it clear that purchasing links violates their quality guidelines. However, many companies continue to do so, and some companies have severely lost search rankings and visibility as a result.
Google is getting better at understanding which links are purchased in a wide variety of ways. They also have a team devoted to investigating web spam, including purchased links.
Excessive Link Exchanges
Google says, “Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.”
A few years ago, it was a common for webmasters to exchange links. This method worked; as a result it started to become abused at large scale. As a result, Google started discounting such links. Now, Google has officially added this to its examples of unnatural link building tactics.
Large-scale Article Marketing or Guest Posting Campaigns
Google says, “Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.”
This, in particular, has a lot of people wondering, “can you still engage in guest posting as a way to get inbound links?” The answer depends on how you’re doing it.
A few years ago, it was a common for SEOs to engage in large-scale article marketing in an attempt to quickly get tons of inbound links. Many were using low-quality, often “spun” content (mixed and mashed, sometimes computer-generated nonsense) to reduce time and content production costs. The result was a surge in nonsensical articles being published around the Web for the sole purpose of creating inbound links. It was a true “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” approach to online marketing; some publications rejected these submissions, and others approved them without any editorial review. It was all a numbers game with the hopes that some of the content would get indexed, and thus, count for the link.
Google responded by launching its Penguin and Panda algorithms to penalize businesses that were creating this mess; Penguin targeted websites with many inbound links that were obviously unnatural, while Panda targeted the publishers that published the content without any editorial review. As a result, most of the large-scale article marketing links became worthless.
After people started to realize that large-scale article marketing campaigns were no longer working, they turned to guest posting as an alternative. Unfortunately, what many considered “guest posting” was simply an ugly reincarnation of article marketing; the only difference was the publishers and the extra steps of finding websites open to publishing guest contributions. Many continue to use low-quality content in mass quantities, and wonder why they still get penalized by Penguin.
Does guest posting still work for building inbound links? Yes, but only if you publish high quality content on relevant, authoritative sites. High-quality guest posts are a popular and tremendously effective way to acquire editorial links for your site, and they have many other benefits as well. For more information on how to use guest posting as a safe, effective link building tactic, see my article “The Ultimate, Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your Business by Guest Blogging.
Automated Link Building Programs
Google says, “Using automated programs or services to create links to your site.”
A few years ago, during the same time period that article marketing and spinning was all the rage, a market developed for programs and services that would automate the steps involved in these processes. These tools and services became popular because they were an easy way to get huge numbers of links to your site quickly. Most importantly, they worked. Unfortunately, they only accelerated the permeation of low-quality nonsense that pervaded the industry at that time.
Google now hunts down sites that have these sorts of inbound links, denying them any benefit.
So, why is Google waging a war on unnatural links? For years, many SEOs effectively manipulated their rankings using the methods described above, along with others. However, the types of links and content that people created as a result provided no value to people; only clutter. They cause search results to display nonsensical, confusing content, which makes Google look bad to its users. Furthermore, they cost Google money as its bots spend time scraping and indexing nonsense rather than good, quality content.
As of April 2012, with the release of the Penguin algorithm, Google has been trying to keep low quality content out of its index as well as the search results. Now, they’re becoming more transparent with their goals as they refine and clarify their webmaster guidelines.
Although these changes created quite a stir across the industry, it’s really just the same message that Google has been trying to convey for years. Create quality content that people want to read and share; the inbound links will come as a result, and you won’t need to worry about unnatural ones bringing down your website in the rankings.
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