Outbound and inbound links help give your content authority. But too many or the wrong kind can actually get your site blacklisted.
In Thursday’s post, I mentioned that content creation is a balancing act between satisfying the algorithms by which search engines rank content and writing for human eyes. This week, I want to do a deeper dive into the concept to illustrate why it is so important to achieve this balance–and why sometimes, seemingly paradoxically, the machine will lose.
Some of the most popular and risky ways to game SERP rankings include:
Today, we’re going to talk about artificial linkbuilding.
Links are another way to build authority for your content. There are two types: outbound, which take you to another website, such as when you’re citing a source; and inbound, which bring people to your website. Algorithms evaluate links as one of the criteria to determine page rankings. Good links:
- Track to sites with high trust and authority
- Take viewers to relevant content
- Offer value to the reader
There’s a lot of variation in what experts say is a good link density. One common formula, and the one I personally hold to, is between 2-5 links per post. (Note: This article has 6: four internal links and two outbound. Because of the relevance of these links to the information I’m presenting, this is reasonable. Always remember: THERE ARE NO HARD AND FAST RULES WHEN IT COMES TO SEO, ONLY BEST PRACTICES!)
However, Google seems to allow as many links as you can stuff in, provided the links meet the criteria above. If I was doing a rundown on the top stories of 2020, this would be a good thing as I would need to do a ton of linking to cite all my sources. But generally speaking, 2-5 is plenty. This allows me a couple of external source citations, a couple of internal links to other content on my site and one more “wild card” link I can use for whatever best suits the content I’m creating.
Artificial linkbuilding ignores this formula by creating links to sites of dubious or no relevance or value to the viewer.
If you’ve ever received spam comments on your website exhorting viewers to click to see “hot Russian women who want to marry YOU!” or “Buy methytraxachloroquine* cheap!” with a link, you’ve seen one of the most common artificial linkbuilding tactics. People who post these links hope the webmaster or comment curator won’t be paying attention or takes the lazy route by bulk-approving comments, giving the poster a free inbound link. This sort of linkbuilding is usually executed by third parties, many of whom get paid to do so based on how many links they can seed around. For this reason, the content of these comments is usually copypasta.
Unfortunately, this method works often enough to keep them doing it.
The problem is, when it works, these links compromise the authority and perceived value of the site by Google and other search engines. Which makes sense, because this sort of link has nothing to do with the actual content on the site.
Another variation on this theme is creating a ton of links to other sites within the content itself, which don’t actually have anything to do with the site itself and only the most tenuous connection to the content. Unlike comment-based artificial linkbuilding, this is done by someone who has direct access to the backend of the website. This type of linking usually involves selecting a bunch of arbitrary anchor text or keywords and then finding something loosely related to them.
This style is both more insidious and harder to detect by the human eye. Web-savvy users assume by default that if a link is present, there must be a reason for it. You may click on a random link or two, realize it’s irrelevant and move on with your day, but chances are you don’t give it a second thought beyond that. On the admin side, unless someone goes through and manually clicks every link to verify it goes somewhere relevant, the same assumption is present:
“This link is here. No one puts in links without a reason. Ergo, this link is here for a reason.”-Every User and Webmaster Ever
The logical fallacy of this non sequitur (“It does not follow”) should be obvious. The link is indisputably there. No one adds the extra work to install a link for no reason. The link thus must serve some purpose within the content.
(Yes, yes, I’m also a fan of Terry Pratchett too and, as such, I’m well aware of his opinion of multiple exclamation points.)
The fatal error in the logical chain comes in that bit in the middle. Let us say rather that no one installs links for the sake of installing them. There is always a reason to put a link in, but that reason is not always for the benefit of the visitor.
This sort of linkbuilding is just one shady tactic employed by black-hat SEO operators. Lots of inbound links leading to their site boosts their apparent authority, but damages the credibility and authority score of the sites where the link is present. Over time, this can lead to a substantial drop in SERP ranking or, if other forms of algorithm-gaming are determined to be present in conjunction with artificial linkbuilding, can get your website blacklisted.
Here’s how website owners and admins can combat artificial linkbuilding.
- Always check any outbound links personally. Content creators are only human and we sometimes make mistakes. Thus, a link which looks visually fine on the page may not work in practice. Leaving a character off the end of the link, the wrong HTTP suffix or a subtle misspelling of one word could result in a broken link, or worse, take your visitors somewhere they didn’t intend to go. (Back in the day, you may recall, whitehouse.com took you someplace very different than whitehouse.gov, much to the consternation of a generation of parents and teachers who wanted to teach kids about government and instead found themselves fielding awkward sex education questions!)
- Clear your spam comment cache regularly. (I personally recommend doing this at least weekly, and daily is better.)
- Blacklist the IP addresses and email of offending commentators.
- Add keywords which pop up in your spam comments regularly to your list of disapproved content, like methytraxachloroquine. Unless you’re a pharmacist or pharmaceutical manufacturer, the odds a word like this is going to pop up in normal discourse on your site are virtually nil.
- Set all information requested by your contact form as “Required.”
- Set up a honeypot to trap spambots. Honeypot programs add a required element to your contact form which is invisible to human eyes, but which bots will readily fill in because bots are not smart. When this happens, they’re automatically prevented from posting to your site.
- Audit your site links periodically. At a minimum, this should be done biweekly, because link addresses may change, sites may go down, or information may be altered or amended to no longer apply to the anchor content you’re linking from. If your key authority link falls down, it can drag your site’s authority ranking down with it.
- You might want to sit down with your content creation staff and hammer out a “best practices” style sheet for things like links. Establish a whitelist of known authority sites relevant to your profession and niche, and stick to that list as much as you can. While you’re doing this, also establish a review policy for links which deviate from the list. Every link should be relevant, timely to the content or evergreen, and capable of conveying additional information or increasing value in some way for the viewer. If a proposed link doesn’t meet these criteria, without a very good reason, cut it and find a link which does.
With a little vigilance, some due diligence and a healthy dollop of caution, you can help protect your site and its visitors from artificial linkbuilding and spamming, building your reputation and authority without jeopardizing your search engine ranking!
Be sure to tune in tomorrow, when we’ll be discussing the weirdest method of algorithm gaming around. In the meantime, be sure to drop a comment and tell me about your experiences with artificial linkbuilding. What steps did you take to prevent it? What steps would you recommend others take? Can you think of any other important bits, tips, tricks or tactics I might have overlooked?
*This is a joke name intended to highlight a serious issue for website owners. Methytraxachloroquine, to the best of my and Google’s knowledge, does not exist. Using an actual drug here struck me as being in singularly poor taste, so I made up my own mythical placeholder.