Google & Yahoo! have been working hard over the past several years to clean up web spam, and discredit websites that use questionable tactics to increase rankings.
In fact, search engines have been penalizing websites, and filtering link publishers since at least 2002. Back then filtering paid linking was much more selective and wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as the operations running today.
Increasing your website’s link popularity is vital to the growth of your online brand, at least for most of us. Unfortunately, many traditional best practice link building models have come under fire. Rather than simply discrediting paid links Google has taken action to penalize in varying degrees some websites that participate in certain link building type programs. Generally these penalties are at the keyword-level, affecting only one phrase, which is much better than a site-wide penalty.
Directory registration is one example. There are many ethical ways to build links using directories, but unfortunately the layman webmaster can’t tell the difference between a valuable link-passing directory, and one which has been filtered in Google. Often, the filtered directories still have PageRank and pages indexed in the Google database.
The reality of the situation is that in order to be as safe as possible, website owners and webmasters need to stay away from major networks. The path to achieve customized, relevant, out of network links is more difficult and costly. However, the only way to maintain security is to manually negotiate on a one to one basis with website publishers to place paid links within content, ensuring the links are not marked as paid.
Any designation of payment, i.e. “sponsored links,” “top partners,” “featured sites,” etc. is enough to trip a radar and cause concern by the engines.
More importantly, links need to be discovered and negotiated based on relevant search engine rankings, not PageRank. PageRank has long been the measuring stick to evaluate the value of a paid link. Measuring link value by PageRank is an ineffective way to gauge link value. Number of outbound links, search engine rankings, and website age is more important.
This is a highly manual process, and while there are some tools that can help, the bottom line is that you need to physically sort through hundreds of websites, finding good clean sites that aren’t pushing paid links, contact them on a one on one basis, and negotiate a link price for links in content.
This puts a major damper on the big link sellers, and a kink in the game plan of many webmasters running smaller sites. Be cautious in working with SEO firms that aren’t heavily using this model as a primary means to build links, and stay away from websites blatantly promoting paid links!
Another thing to consider is Google’s new “Report Paid Links” program. Via Google Webmaster Tools, Google is asking that webmaster report linking violations. Smart competitors are reporting their competition – wouldn’t you? If you’re not, you should consider it. Ultimately, no one wants to be a tattle tail, but if your competitors are engaging in obvious paid linking and you are not do the right thing, and report those spammers!
Again, if your backlink portfolio represents a clear paid linking footprint (industry vets can eye these in about 10 seconds) you are in danger in 3 ways.
1) Google can easily catch you and penalize you at the keyword or site level.
2) Your competitors, if savvy, can report your paid links.
3) You are spending money on links that have already been filtered, and even though you are being penalized you are wasting money on links not passing link juice.
To wrap up here’s what I recommend:
1) Make sure you are taking advantage of your existing relationships from a linking perspective.
2) Partner up with 5-7 similar type businesses for home page to home page link reciprocation – don’t go over this, and make sure the other sites are relevant and authoritative.
3) Do lot’s of manual linking (custom link building) as I’ve explained above, but be careful to use natural looking anchor text. Don’t use a competitive keyword more than 1-2 times per month, and overall you should only be using about 25% of your keywords as anchor text – most anchor text should be your company name, URL, etc. Remember, even though keyword-targeted anchor text is a big deal, your overall link popularity is what’s most important, and a well optimized site will perform well from any valuable link, regardless of the anchor text.
4) Analyze the top performing sites in your category – work with an SEO expert to help you identify where they are buying their links and report them to Google – just make sure your portfolio looks nice and clean.
5) Always remember that link building should only be viewed as a supplement to the natural growth method you’ve established for your website. Building a business completely around organic search is not a good idea.