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The Difference Between Clever SEO and Link Schemes

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Link building strategies require a delicate balance. In order to earn more authority for your domain, you’ll have to engage in some kind of link building strategy, but if any of your links appear unnatural or violate Google’s official policies, you could end up getting penalized instead of rewarded.

In the early days of search engine optimization (SEO), it was possible to earn page rank through sheer force of will. Climbing to the top ranks of Google was a simple matter of posting as many links as you possibly could, using whatever tactics you could come up with to get the job done. Google has grown sophisticated, and today, it’s able to easily detect those link schemes and stick the perpetrators with a ranking penalty. Link building today requires tactful consideration and well-executed strategies, carefully toeing the line between what’s seen as a “link scheme” in Google’s eyes and what is simply a type of clever SEO.

The problem is that the line between clever SEO and link schemes is thinner than you might think, and it’s difficult even for seasoned experts to tell the difference. In this article, we’ll take a look at the types of link building strategies that can earn you a penalty, and how clever SEO is distinguished from them.

The Risk of Link Scheming

articleimage884 The Risk of Link Scheming

It should be no secret that link scheming will earn you a penalty if you’re aggressive enough. Ever since Google’s Penguin update in 2012 (and its subsequent revisions and follow-ups), Google has been able to clearly evaluate the quality of links on the web and take that quality into consideration when it evaluates rank. Google’s entire philosophy is to improve how people experience the web, and that means weeding out the people who abuse the system or fail to provide value to users.

Put simply, link scheming is any way of building links that carries absolutely no value for the end user. This is a simple definition, but should allow you to evaluate whether your strategy falls into this category. Because these schemes have no value to users, and may even hinder their experience, Google will penalize domains who engage in them by throttling their domain authority and automatically or manually decreasing their rank for various queries. You’ll want to avoid link schemes at all costs.

Types of Link Schemes

articleimage884Types of Link Schemes

If you’re having trouble determining exactly what counts as a link scheme, you aren’t alone. Since some people qualify a link scheme as any attempt to increase domain authority through link building, the lines are particularly blurry. Below are several examples of plain-as-day link schemes you’ll want to avoid no matter what; they should help illustrate what counts as a scheme.

Article Directories

Article directories are low-quality sites that host hundreds of poorly written articles as an excuse to build links. They don’t specialize in anything, they don’t provide value to users, and they don’t offer anything other than a place for random sites to post articles. Building links here or creating your own directory to pass authority qualifies as a scheme. The exception to this is niche directories, which cater to a specialized industry and try to connect industry companies and direct users to them.

Link Farms

Link farms are even worse than article directories, because they don’t have any content to back them up (usually). A link farm is a group of peripherally related websites that all link to each other for no reason other than to link to each other. Some people try to wedge their way into an existing link farm and others try to set up their own independent domains; either way, it’s classified as a scheme and will earn you a penalty.

Automated Link Building

Building links with any automated process, such as creating a bot to spam links across the web, is a bad idea. In fact, it’s one of the easiest types of schemes for Google to detect; you’ll be caught right away, and your domain will likely face a harsh penalty.

Reciprocal Link Building

Reciprocal link building can be good in small doses. Backlinking to a site and having them link back to you is not a link scheme by itself; however, when two sites exchange links constantly, and don’t diversify their strategy with other sites, it’s a clear indication of poor link building.

Link Buying, in Any Form

As a general rule, if you pay for the link to be built, it qualifies as a link scheme. The only justifiable reason to pay money for a link is when you’re using an affiliate link strategy—and affiliate link building is acceptable.

What Constitutes “Clever” SEO

Clever SEO can take advantage of Google’s algorithm and find ways to link build without risking the threat of a penalty. Diversity is the key here; you can build links on almost any source, as long as you hedge your bets by including many other sources. Use varying types of anchor text, grounded in the body of great, contextually appropriate content, and link to different internal pages of your site. You can even use nofollow links and link-less brand mentions to keep your strategy even more diverse.

The Best Strategy

articleimage884The Best Strategy

If you’re worried about what constitutes a link scheme and what’s simply an execution of clever SEO, go the safe route. Let your audience build your links for you. By creating and syndicating high-quality, informative, entertaining content, you’ll encourage viral sharing of your material, and by extension, you’ll be the recipient of hundreds to thousands of inbound links. Creating viral content takes time and isn’t an exact science, but you’ll never have to worry about being penalized for links you earn as a result of it.

Want more information on link building? Head over to our comprehensive guide on link building here: SEO Link Building: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

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Samuel Edwards

In his 4+ years as a digital marketing specialist, Sam has learned the ins and outs of online marketing. Additionally, he has worked with countless local businesses as well as enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including: NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP, and human rights organization Amnesty International. Today he continues to work with and establish SEO, PPC and SEM campaigns.

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