There are no safe link building shortcuts. Instead I want to warn marketers about deceptive search marketers and the dangers of using “easy” link building tactics. In the latest instance, the search engine optimization community is abuzz with news that Home Depot’s SEO team has attempted to increase its link portfolio by potentially shady means. Last year, J.C. Penney and even Google’s own Chrome browser marketing site were reportedly penalized by Google Search for violating linking guidelines.
The temptation to manipulate rankings by acquiring links through unethical means is easy to understand: Links are the lifeblood of the Internet and a major factor in every major search engine’s ranking algorithms. In theory, more links means better rankings. In reality, the engines compile data across hundreds of factors algorithmically to determine rankings, and links are just one part. We’ll look at some link building tactics as examples of what not to do.
Know the Linking Guidelines
The first and easiest way to run afoul of linking guidelines is ignorance. Google in particular publishes its webmaster guidelines as a way to communicate what it considers ethical and unethical in its search algorithms. Google’s guidelines for links are very clear:
“Examples of link schemes can include:
- Links intended to manipulate PageRank
- Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
- Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging (‘Link to me and I’ll link to you.’)
- Buying or selling links that pass PageRank”
The guidelines are fairly broad. In practice, I use this check: If a linking opportunity seems too easy it’s probably in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines. For example, many companies will offer to sell you 100 links for the low price of $50. Yes, these companies will sell you the links and they may even produce the links. However, the tactics they use will involve activities like comment spam, link exchanges, and carbon copy posts that link back to your site from across a network of self-owned blogs. Emails that include link building and price without a strategic content or relationship aspect should be deleted immediately.
Home Depot’s Example
In the Home Depot example, its SEO team took an ethical link building tactic — requesting that vendors or partners link to a relevant page on your site — and twisted it to make it potentially unethical and certainly misleading. The request for links stated two things:
- “Linking to The Home Depot website will benefit our business partners by increasing the page authority of your website.” This statement is absolutely untrue. Home Depot will benefit from the link, but the business partners will not. The link won’t hurt business partners’ SEO efforts, but it won’t help them either.
- “Please note that the hyperlink does not have to be visually indicated.” Some SEO professionals have interpreted this to mean that hidden links are fine with Home Depot, such as a displaying the text of the link in white on a white background. However, I think it’s more likely that the requestor is stating that the link does not have to be blue and underlined. It could, for instance, not be underlined at all and be displayed in the same color as regular body text. There’s nothing unethical about that, many sites change the color and style of their hyperlinks.
The lesson to learn from Home Depot’s story is that emailed link requests are very easily forwarded to SEO professionals or media who are likely to make a story of it. If you do email a request for links, be absolutely certain that the request is factually correct and follows webmaster guidelines for linking to the letter. Anything that can be misconstrued probably will be.
Buying Links Is Very Risky
Finally, let’s talk about J.C. Penney’s snafu. Last year The New York Times ran an exposé on J.C. Penney’s strangely high rankings across a wide variety of highly competitive terms and uncovered paid links in the site’s link portfolio. As a result, Google issued a penalty after a human review. J.C. Penney disappeared from Google’s search rankings for three months while they cleaned up their paid link activity.
Google has stated clearly that buying and selling links for financial gain or in exchange for products constitutes an attempt to manipulate rankings and can be punished by lowering the site’s rankings or removing them entirely. In a Webmaster Tools post, Google stated, “Google works hard to ensure that it fully discounts links intended to manipulate search engine results, such as excessive link exchanges and purchased links that pass PageRank.” Google takes paid links so seriously that it even has a form set up for citizens of the web to report sites they suspect of buying or selling links.
These are just a few ways to run afoul for search engines’ linking guidelines for webmasters. When in doubt, ask a seasoned SEO professional or head to the Google Webmaster Forums to ask if an offer you’ve received is legitimate and ethical.