A link is a link…right? Not so fast. In 2021 (and beyond) high-quality links are more important than ever. That is if you want your traffic and PPC business to keep growing. And we know you do. That’s why, in this post, we’ll tell you all about link spam and how to be sure you don’t get hit by Google’s algorithm updates.
What is link spam?
If you’re wondering what we mean by link spam in the first place, let’s start there.
The way Google looks at it, link spam essentially means including several links even if it doesn’t directly relate to the content or benefit readers. For example, if a user added several links to the comment section on this post that had nothing to do with this post, that would be link spam. In most cases, these links lead to products or services that the spammer wants to promote.
It isn’t only in comment sections that link spam can take place. Many website owners are guilty of doing it on their own website! Unfortunately, they might not realize they’re doing it. But if they’re constantly adding links to their web pages, even when the link doesn’t relate to the page’s content, this is still link spamming.
And whether these links are intentionally spam-y or not, Google will notice. And because of a recent Google spam link algorithm update, the penalties for doing this can be severe! (We’ll talk more about that in a minute)
Google link tag best practices to avoid link spam
But first, let’s take a look at some of the best practices for linking to help you avoid getting a penalty.
Best practices for high-quality pages
Before we explore Google link tag best practices in particular, let’s look at high-quality pages in general. More importantly, let’s take a look at what Google considers a high-quality website over another.
Now more than ever, Google prefers content with high E-A-T. That means it displays expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. If your site is packed with spam links and irrelevant content, you can imagine why Google won’t have it appear high up in search engine results.
“high-quality pages exist for almost any beneficial purpose, from giving information to making people laugh to expressing oneself artistically to purchasing products or services online. What makes a high-quality page? A high-quality page should have a beneficial purpose and achieve that purpose well.
- In addition, high-quality pages have the following characteristics:
- High level of Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T).
- A satisfying amount of high-quality MC, including a descriptive or helpful title.
- Satisfying website information and/or information about who is responsible for the website. If the page is primarily for shopping or includes financial transactions, then it should have satisfying customer service information.
- Positive website reputation for a website that is responsible for the MC on the page.
- Positive reputation of the creator of the MC, if different from that of the website.”
Okay, now back to best practices for linking. Luckily, Google is relatively upfront about its ranking system and keeping the public informed about algorithm updates.
We’ll turn directly to Google again to hear what they have to say about three primary types of commercial links: affiliate links, links from sponsored posts, and links from guest posts.
In July of 2021, Google shared a helpful update with reminders about how to deal with links that might have a commercial nature, along with how they intend to minimize the impact of link spam on Google results:
“Affiliate links on pages such as product reviews or shopping guides are a common way for blogs and publishers to monetize their traffic. In general, using affiliate links to monetize a website is fine. We ask sites participating in affiliate programs to qualify these links with rel=” sponsored”, regardless of whether these links were created manually or dynamically.
As a part of our ongoing effort to improve the ranking for product-related searches and better reward high-quality content, when we find sites failing to qualify affiliate links appropriately, we may issue manual actions to prevent these links from affecting Search, and our systems might also take algorithmic actions. Both manual and algorithmic actions may affect how we see a site in Search, so it’s good to avoid things that may cause actions, where possible.”
In summary, these links should be qualified with rel=“sponsored”.
Links from sponsored and guest posts
In that same update from July 2021, Google also discusses sponsored and guest posts:
“Another common way sites can monetize is by accepting sponsored and guest posts from other sites. These are articles written by or in the name of one website and published on a different website. In the past, we observed campaigns of low-quality sponsored and guest posts primarily intended to gain links.
While we have gotten significantly better at detecting and nullifying such link schemes, we still strongly recommend that site owners apply the appropriate rel values to these links. When we detect sites engaging in either publishing or acquiring links with excessive sponsored and guest posting without proper link tags, algorithmic and manual actions may be applied, similar to affiliate links.”
In summary, paid links should be marked with rel=“sponsored” and guest posts should be marked with the rel=“nofollow” value.
Google link spam update rolling out
Now that we know a bit more about the best practices for affiliate, guest, and sponsored posts, let’s talk more about the Google link spam update.
What’s the update really about?
The broad goal of the link spam update is to make it easier for the algorithm to spot link spam. The update began in late July 2021, but it took a few weeks to roll out to search results in every language.
With the goal of identifying, and in turn, nullifying link spam, this update can have a big impact on a number of industries. Without these best practices in place, website owners may begin to experience a drop in their search engine performance.
While it might feel like a penalty or a punishment for website owners, the overarching goal of the update is anything but! Rather than punishing pages with link spam, it’s meant to create a better experience for everyone on the internet. After all, wouldn’t you rather see the most relevant results when you search for a how-to article, rather than a post packed with self-serving, irrelevant links?
How to build your links to avoid getting hit by the link spam update
We know what you’re thinking “Okay, now tell me what to do to avoid a ranking decline in Google!” We’ve got you covered. There are a number of actionable steps you can take today to avoid getting hit by the link spam update. With these practices in place, the update can have the opposite effect of declining ranking and actually help improve your search engine performance!
High-quality and unique content
Above all, your content needs to be unique and high-quality. We’ve already discussed what Google considers high-quality content. But if you want to dive deeper into 2019’s E-A-T algorithm update, click here.
As tempting as it may be to copy-paste someone else’s content and call it your own, you’re not doing yourself any favors this way. If you are going to use content from other sources, that’s absolutely fine. However, you need to be very clear about where it’s coming from and who wrote it. This includes using links back to the specific page the content is from, as well as quotation marks around the copy. (Head back up to our Google link tag best practices to see this in action)
Natural links are still the best
Links shouldn’t be forced. What do we mean by that? Well, a natural link can mean a few things. For example, if a commenter on another website links back to your website because it is valuable and relevant to readers of the post they’re commenting on, this is considered a natural link.
Additionally, a natural link can be one that’s inserted into the content in a natural, relevant way. Naturally, this is completely different from link spam.
Here’s what we mean by that.
Let’s say you have a boating equipment site and you’re creating a blog post about the must-have boating accessories for 2021. Within that most, you might mention a great boat stereo system you recommend. If you already have an existing blog post talking all about that stereo system, you can direct readers back to that post with the anchor link being “boat stereo system.”
As you can see, this just makes sense. It’s relevant to the content of the post and also provides the reader with something of value.
Affiliate links are okay
While natural links may be the best option, it doesn’t mean you need to avoid affiliate links altogether. Just do your best to include them in the most natural way possible.
Let’s say you’re writing a blog post about birdhouses and someone has paid you to add an affiliate link to your content. The problem is, the affiliate link is for dog food. If you hyperlink a post about dog food on “birdhouse” text or something similar, Google will pick up on this.
So, look for a way to include something about dog food in the post, or create a more relevant post to avoid getting penalized by Google for forcing a link in this way.
Don’t buy links to manipulate PageRank
Google can also pick up on sites that are trying to manipulate PageRank.
Google offers up a number of examples of link schemes that can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:
- “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes:
- Exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links
- Exchanging goods or services for links
- Sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing it and including a link
- Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.
- Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.
- Using automated programs or services to create links to your site.
- Requiring a link as part of a Terms of Service, contract, or similar arrangement without allowing a third-party content owner the choice of qualifying the outbound link, should they wish.
Don’t go for large-scale link exchanges
Large-scale link exchanges violate Google’s guidelines…no matter how relevant they may be.
Take a look at this post from the Search Engine Journal to read about the dangers of link exchanges.
Don’t use automated link creators
Automated link creators might be smart, but they’re not smarter than Google’s algorithms. These link creators might unintentionally contribute to link spam on your site. Rather than using these automated link creators, take the time to create natural links for your content and you’ll be glad you did!
Don’t overdo it with your internal linking
This next one is something we see a lot from well-meaning business owners who write their own blog posts: over-linking! As an example, let’s say a business owner who sells green tea writes a blog post on their site that includes the word “green tea” 36 times. Then, that same business owner uses all 36 occurrences of the term “green tea” as anchor text to their shop page where users can buy green tea.
This, even with the best of intentions, is link spam!
Instead, choose one place to link back to your green tea shop page and this will pay off in your search engine results.
Be careful of unnatural links (link spam)
We mentioned what Google considers natural links already and why they’re the best option. On the other end of the spectrum, we find unnatural links. It’s important to be on the lookout for these in your own content.
- Keyword-rich links, hidden links, or those embedded in widgets
- Content that contains numerous links placed on keywords
- Comments featured with a link
- Links in footers
Want to learn more about high-quality linking strategies to avoid link spam?
We should talk! We’re interested in all things search engines, and that includes helping your site perform well in search results.
We’ve covered a lot in this post, including defining link spam and telling you how to get rid of spam links on your own site. But now it’s time to put these best practices to work. If this feels overwhelming to take on yourself, we’re here to help. Click here to learn more about our link-building services and what they can do for you.