It’s no secret that Google hates unnatural links, but what are unnatural links and why are they bad? This article will also discuss Google’s current regime of devaluing websites based on unnatural links and the ethics involved.
What are Unnatural Links?
Unnatural links are those that are built deliberately, with the intention of gaining better rankings in search engines. So the difference between ‘natural’ links and ‘unnatural’ links is quite simply down to ‘intent’ i.e. the intent of the individual who created the link.
Identifying intent isn’t exactly straight forward when looking at a single link, but it becomes much easier when looking at a website’s back link profile as a whole. Google knows what a natural link profile looks like. If any given website’s link profile deviates too far from Google’s predetermined natural model, the site gets penalised for having ‘link spam’.
Google have two methods of link spam detection; manual (human) and automated (algorithmic). Both methods rely on ‘footprints’ or patterns.
Essentially, an unnatural link profile leaves a footprint or pattern. An example could be where a website has 100 links, 50 of which are from within blog posts, each with the link to your site positioned in the last sentence of the post. This pattern would indicate an SEO guest blogging campaign because guest bloggers traditionally attribute themselves with a link using an author bio found at the bottom of the blog article.
Another example might be where a site’s back links use a non-diverse selection of anchor text. If let’s say 30% of a website’s back links used the word ‘Cheap TVs’ as the linking anchor text, it would be suspicious and might incur a penalty.
I have listed two examples, but Google references a huge catalog of different footprints as it scours the web, which is why it’s important to ensure that your SEO is conducted with extreme stealth. If you have an SEO company working for you, it’s worth asking for a monthly list of the links they have built to your site because if your site gets penalised it can be very difficult to return it to its former glory.
Weirdly the Google link spam team don’t have any problem with you cross-linking pages from within a single domain for SEO benefit. It’s only links from other domains that Google monitors for foul play.
Why they’re bad?
The truth is; unnatural links are bad because Google says their bad.
Google use back links as signal to help them evaluate the quality of the content on any given website. In theory, the more links a website has, the more important its content is. Links are thought of by Google to be similar to citations found in academic papers. The more a publication is cited, the more likely it is to be of use to other people interested in the subject matter.
Google uses hundreds of different signals, but links hold by far the most weight. And the SEO community know it too. Which is why we deliberately use links to make websites increase in rankings.
Google’s search quality teams don’t like SEO because they see it as manipulation of their search engine. If someone can gain rankings and traffic to their website by building links, it means Google’s not in control. But does it really mean the quality of the search engine results will suffer?
The internet and linking existed before Google did. In fact, before search engines existed, linking and link directories were how people got around online. Back then, building links to your website, from other sites wasn’t a problem for anyone. It was a practice that came with the benefit of driving traffic to your website.
Then Google came along. Created by Larry Page and Sergey Brin 1998, Google set out with some great ideals about providing non-biased search engine results, free from human interference. They had a policy whereby no one was allowed to manually edit the search engine results because it was deemed that manual, human action was susceptible to corruption and greed. Eventually this policy was pushed aside probably because they felt that manual action was required to maintain quality.
Google is actually fine with webmasters building as amany links as they want provided a ‘NoFollow’ tag is used in the ‘rel’ attribute of the link. Nofollow tags simply signal Google to null any SEO benefit the link would carry. By failing to obey this regime, you run the risk of having your website tanked by Google. But is this really fair? Google invented the ‘NoFollow’ tag and now they are forcing us to use it lest we have our websites banished from the SERPs. If you have an opinion on the nofollow tag please let us know in the comments.
The truth About Search Quality
Why is it that Google doesn’t like us link building? Well, as long as it’s possible for you and I to sell our products and services through organic SEO, we’ll be less likely to pay through the nose for placements in Google Ad words and Google shopping services which are always conveniently located at the top of the first page of Google’s SERPs.
Incidentally Google released an algorithm update last year designed to downgrade any websites that were too top heavy with affiliate ads above the fold. Well a quick search for the phrase ‘Mobile Phones’ reveals Google themselves have 14 and a half adds above the fold. A punishable crime by their own standards!
As Google pillages the internet on their witch hunt for unnatural links in the name of search quality, they’re seemingly quite happy to sacrifice search quality when it means they can earn a few bucks from advertising. A double standard anyone’s book I dare say.