The last week has been full of speculation, hypothesis, and outright guess work by many people in the SEO industry. Suddenly years of supposedly acceptable link building tactics are coming back to haunt thousands of websites. Right or wrong, it appears that the sins of the father are coming home to roost on the sons of today. Setting aside the larger discussion of whether Links can hurt you, negative SEO works or does not work, or even if link building is black hat or white, let’s first discuss several ways you can tell if a link is good or bad, assuming that links can be “bad” for you like a triple fudge sundae made with chocolate ice cream and stuffed with brownies.
Nature vs Nurture
Search engines that rely on link profiles have traditionally been easy to game by throwing more and more links at them. This is why there are so many “guidelines’ about the types of links you should try to acquire and why the number one guideline tends to be create great content and people will link to you. Unfortunately that isn’t necessarily true. With so many websites using nofollow by default, and site owners becoming terrified about linking to other sites for fear of being penalized themselves, natural linking has been harmed in a way so deep that I seriously doubt that it exists in the way it did before search engines started sculpting the internet to suit their algorithms.
Over time two types of “bad links” have evolved, those that are simply born bad and those that become bad over time for various reasons.
Born That Way
Some links are simply born under a bad sign.
Paid links: We used to call these advertising. But along the way someone figured out that those bits of advertising helped in natural search and the flood gates opened. Blogroll links for $10, footer links for $100, and thousands of variations popped up. Since they were easy to get, and site owners were willing to nearly anything for a buck, they were all dumped in to the same bucket and made verboten. Never mind that fact that many “paid links” are also the most relevant links out there.
Automated Link Building: There are various levels of automation, screwing a cap on a bottle is good automation, letting Skynet control your weapons and manufacturing, not so good. When most people think of link automation the latter comes to mind, and they are usually right. Tools such as AutoPligg and XRummer have been around for years and used surgically they may provide some benefit, but most users use them like a tactical nuclear device with little regard for the devastation they can cause to both webmasters that own the sites being abused and their own link profiles.
XRummer is typically used to create thousands of profile links on unsuspecting forums and social sites. They sign up for the signature and profile and vanish, never to return. We so so much abuse at one SEO forum that we wrote a script that deleted any new user with zero posts after x number of days. Not to mention the nofollow attribute applied to the profile pages.
AutoPligg is even worse in my opinion. It was written to take advantage of people trying to create and run sites with a Digg feel to them. AutoPligg faked being social by posting links to stories and blog posts by the thousands. But AutoPligg isn’t the only guilty party here, many Pligg site owners are just as guilty of running sites created just for link building. Take http://03m.info/ for example.
This site serves no useful purpose. It exists only to have links placed on it. This is obvious by the total randomness of the ‘stories’ posted there. On the front page alone they range from Pokemon toys to business class airline travel. This is obviously not being treated well by it’s owner.
There Goes The Neighborhood
I’m a marketer and sometimes marketers make me sick. There is this genetic predisposition to blowing things up in the interest of making more money, driving more traffic, and simply to sound important and in the know. And marketers have ruined many great things over the years.
Reciprocal Linking: Early on Google actually told webmasters that going out and asking other webmasters for links was a great way to promote your website. And they were right to do so. Unfortunately, link many things touched by marketing, if 10 is good, 10,000 must be better. This led to massive reciprocal link pages with hundreds of links on them and in due time less and less relevance to the topic of the site.Sort of like this http://www.somethingaboutbeads.com/linkresources.html
Now Google has said that over doing reciprocal links is a bad thing and people are using the “new” rules to point at others and claim that they are “spammers” simply because the rules changed and they haven’t been able to keep pace for whatever reason. Reciprocal links have their place, but like hot fudge, too much is not a good idea.
Guest Blogging: Guest blogging started out as a great way to get your message in front of a new audience. It still is when you can get your message posted to great websites like Search News Central or Marketing Land for those of us in the search and marketing fields. However, outside of search, most popular portals no longer allow links for authors which is the coin of the realm. They won’t even link to your Google profile so you can get some author rank going for yourself.
Then sites like MyBlogGuest appeared. On the surface, and for most people, this is a great way for content creators and publishers to get together to get great content out there. Unfortunately the quality of many sites and most authors on these sites is subpar at best. Downright horrible at worst. You can join, and we recommend that you do, and participate, but be very diligent when considering using content from those sites or allowing your content to be published on blogs looking for content there.
Unfortunately guest blogging devolved to mean sticking a keyword stuffed article on a junk blog with thousands of other junk blog posts all hitting random topics. Take http://360commercials.com/ for instance. Just a quick glance at the home page and you see blog posts on a variety of topics. Depression, hair removal, Pinterest, wait, maybe they are depressed that the hair removal picture they pinned on Pinterest didn’t get any repins. In any case, blogs like these are a result of search engines making in content links more valuable than other types. People created these blogs to gain toolbar PR so that they could sell space. A $5 blog post on a $5 blog and Bob’s your uncle, instant authority. Except it doesn’t work like that any more.
Blog Networks: This is another example of 2 being good, 200 being better. It makes sense to have a network of blogs work together. A fashion portal that focuses on everything from hair care to shoes may not do as well as a collection of sites that focus on specific topics in the same niche. Then you have the other end of the spectrum, groups like Build My Rank. Thousands of blogs where you can pay to have your “guest post” distributed. Unfortunately you could end up on a blog network without even realizing it. You may find a great blog to have your information written about only to find out that they are part of a massive network later.
The New Guy, or the ME TOO! Syndrome
Our industry has a habit if discovering a new technique and burning it to the ground just as fast as it can. We’ve seen them all come and go, some more useful than others. Pixel links were a cute gimmick the first few times it was done, and then someone wrote a script to make it easy for anyone to sell pixel links. Suddenly the new kid that was an original idea had thousands of imitators.
Sponsored themes (for various open source platforms like WordPress) became hot. Pay to have a developer create a new theme, embed your anchor text rich link in the footer and hope the theme becomes popular.This makes great sense if you are actually a theme developer or graphic designer, not so much if you sell reusable baby diapers.
Web page gadgets quickly followed. You could create a gadget that people could put on their website and in the bottom there would be a link to your site. Again, this is great if you are creating a calculator to determine body fat on an exercise site, not so great if you are creating that same calculator for your auto detailing shop.
The latest to enter the fray are all those wonderful infographics. You know, those amazing graphic representation of data that almost always are unreadable and provide very little real or useful data? If you decide to make an infographic, make it useful to your viewers, not a source of links from unrelated blogs that happen to repost it. Much like sponsored themes and gadgets, we have seen unrelated companies sponsoring infographics in an effort to get easy links.
So What Now?
In the end, all links are good, and all links are bad. It is a matter of intent and execution, and I personally find it hard to believe that an algorithm can measure intent. So they must fall back on trends and patterns. Unfortunately trends and patterns can, and do, create false positives and miss actual positives. The best thing you can do is ask yourself, if the link I’m trying to get placed on someone else’s site were to come to me, would I want it on my site?