If you’re familiar with Search Engine Optimization (SEO), you’ll know that one of the pillars on which SEO is built is link-building. This activity involves the creation of inbound links to a website from other sites. However, if you look at what Google has to say about SEO, you will find nothing about link-building. In fact, link-building for the purpose of improving your site’s ranking, contravenes Google’s guidelines and can result in penalties. So is Google turning a blind eye to this practice, or is time running out for the link-building industry as we know it?
Google has a comprehensive set of guidelines for webmasters, including quality guidelines. In the ‘Link Schemes’ section of their quality guidelines they state the following...
“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.”
Taking this statement at face value it invalidates the entire link-building industry, the purpose of which is precisely this: the creation of backlinks which have the express purpose of improving a site’s ranking on Google.
Black-hat SEO involves questionable tactics which are intended to manipulate a site’s ranking and generally these dubious tactics are easy to spot. However, it could be said that white-hat SEO is equally intended to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google. It’s just that the tactics and activities involved are widely accepted as an industry standard and are not such a clear violation of Google’s guidelines.
In order for backlinks to be valid in Google’s eyes they should be achieved naturally. Natural backlinks happen when other sites write about you and your products or services or refer to you naturally in their content.
Google talks about link schemes being ‘any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site’ and then provides a number of examples. These include buying or selling links that pass PageRank, excessive link exchanges, and ‘large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links’. It’s a fact that a favored tactic of many SEO agencies is the use of guest posting campaigns which naturally involve the exchange of money.
I recently wrote to one prominent and successful SEO company who offer a range of packages for their clients. These include link-building and guest posting packages. Their most basic product offers the creation of in-content contextual links back to your site and they state, “These links help build a base of authority to your site to help keep your link profile diverse and looking natural in the eyes of the search engines.” You submit your URLs and anchor text to them and they create original, relevant content building links back to your site. Doesn’t this sound very much like buying links that pass PageRank?
I wrote to them saying, “I'm interested in your X packages. My only concern is that it seems like a way of buying backlinks which is in contravention of Google's guidelines. To fall foul of a Google penalty and see my rankings tank would be disastrous for me and my business.”
I was hoping for an answer which would set my mind at rest. Unfortunately their response was to try to upsell me on one of their other products and they didn’t address my concern at all. I wrote to them again saying, “This is a most disappointing response. I contacted you with a genuine concern about 'buying' backlinks and all you've done is try to upsell me an alternative product.”
Their response this time was to explain how they do it, “It uses In-content links on top level sites to drive authority to your site. We do this by creating backlinks that point to the top level sites. I'll break it down for you now...” I exchanged a couple more emails with them after that but at no point did they attempt to address my original concern.
This particular company is likely to be fairly representative of the SEO industry at-large, and specifically of the link-building industry. Another company I had recent contact with state in their advertising, “We sell guest posts on high authority websites with solid metrics and traffic stats in a wide variety of niches!” Returning to Google’s guidelines about buying or selling links that pass PageRank, they state “This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links”. This company’s entire raison d’être would appear to be in direct violation of Google’s guidelines.
Ahead of the curve are companies like SEMRush, a well-known online visibility management and content marketing platform. They had intended to launch a white-hat guest blog post service but made the decision to pause this offering at the beginning of June. They remain committed to developing appropriate tools for their clients.
Should Google ultimately implement a shutdown of the link-building industry, it will not only impact the SEO agencies, but thousands of businesses around the world who’ve relied on this strategy to improve their rankings with Google. Not only would a wave of Google penalties have dire consequences for businesses as a result of their rankings dropping, but they would also be left scratching their heads for an alternative strategy which wouldn’t fall foul of Google’s guidelines.
This article was written by Norm McLaughlin. He is a Google-certified Digital Marketer and founder of Norm’s Computer Services, a local computer repair and IT support business in Brisbane, Australia.