Backlinking is somewhat of a touchy subject in search engine optimization, especially since Google launched its much-publicized crack down on blackhat SEO last year. The search leader encourages a “proceed with caution” approach when it comes to backlinking, and understandably so, given the history that Google and backlinking have with each other.
Last month, Search Engine Journal published a story on Google’s recent cautioning on using unnatural backlinks, particularly in “advertorials,” massive guest posting, and optimized anchor text in press releases.
A Brief History of SEO
Back in the “Wild West” of the internet age – the mid 1990s – websites started popping up faster than people could keep up with them. Search engines were invented to help web users find what they wanted quickly and efficiently.
Back then, all a webmaster had to do to get his or her site indexed was to submit their URL to a search engine. A spider would be sent out to crawl the website, searching for any and all outgoing links as well as relevant keywords to report back to the search engine for indexing. Eventually, people started to see the value in getting higher up in search results, and the term “search engine optimization” was coined.
Since search engine algorithms relied so heavily on backlinks and keyword density, people began to come up with all sorts of ways to trick the system. One notably underhanded technique was the use of link farms. Link farms were networks of websites created with the sole purpose of hosting backlinks. Webmasters and internet marketers would commonly buy and trade backlink space. Search engines responded to such tactics by developing more complex algorithms to determine the relevance of a website. Google PageRank is one such example.
While employing PageRank brought some much needed order to things, Google’s subsequent algorithm updates were what made the biggest difference. In 2011, Google released the Panda algorithm update, which lowered the ranking of low-quality websites. In 2012, Google unleashed the Penguin update to penalize websites that violated Google’s webmaster guidelines.
Recently, changes made to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines provides even more insight into how Google is continuing to work on creating an environment in which natural backlinking is rewarded and unnatural backlinking is penalized. Specifically, the changes addressed concerns about guest posting, article directory marketing, advertorials and more.
How Much Guest Posting is Too Much?
In its recent update, Google didn’t specify how often a blogger should or shouldn’t guest post. A better approach would be to consider the reasons for the guest posting.
To clarify, Matthew Cutts, Google’s Head of Webspam, released a video on the topic in October of last year. Basically, he says that there is a difference between guest blogging to add value to a blog and guest blogging to get backlinks. Generally, tactics like spinning and distributing the same blog post to multiple websites for the sake of backlinks is a no-no. Cutts advised to use the rel=nofollow attribute for backlinks included in guest blog posts.
What is “Rel=nofollow?”
“Rel=nofollow” is an HTML tag used in links to tell a web crawler not to crawl that particular link. It was originally developed to discourage spammy blog comments. When you use this attribute, the backlink won’t count toward PageRank. You’re essentially saying that the link is for human eyes only, not for search engine consideration.
Backlinking from Advertorials
Advertorials, also know as native content, is content containing backlinks that a company pays a webmaster to publish. In essence, this is paying for backlinks, and it’s also an SEO no-no. The reason is two-fold:
It’s misleading to the reader, and
It’s misleading to Google, which has always used “editorial votes” as a way to rank websites.
If a piece of content is an advertorial, it’s best to disclose this, and also use the nofollow attribute for outgoing links. Again, not using the attribute could work against you.
Optimized Anchor Text in Press Releases
Optimized anchor text is anchor text that includes keywords that you want to rank for. Google considers “links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites” to be in violation of their webmaster guidelines. Since the links within the press release or article aren’t a true indication of your website’s relevance or popularity, make sure you nofollow them.
What all comes down to is this: It’s fine to use online content as a promotional tool, but you should use the nofollow attribute if you’re using backlinks in said content. Backlinks within your content should only be used to drive readers to your website, and if the readers like your content, hopefully they’ll link to it themselves.
Yes, it sounds like a long workaround, but anyone in search marketing will tell you that building a great online reputation takes time. Ultimately, your goal should be to get your readers to like you. If readers like you, then they will leave a trail back to you for search engines to follow creating an optimum SEO experience without the manipulation that Google loves to penalize.