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BACK TO BASICS: Link Development: Avoid Poor Choices

by Dærick Gröss, October 15, 2010

Recently I had a conversation with a client here at Bruce Clay, Inc. who came to us with a link development program in place. In reviewing what they were doing we very quickly noticed they had fallen into a very common pitfall, one that we've been seeing with more and more frequency. The client had hired a third party vendor (offshore) whose development program consisted of going to various blogs and forums all over the Internet to place replies with a link back to the pertinent page on the client's site.

Now when stated this simply, it is easy recognize that there are a number of flaws with this plan, not the least of which is the insincerity of it all. While most readers will recognize right off the problems, we have to keep in mind that many companies out there have little to no real understanding of what a poor link is or how low-quality link development can be a waste of time, effort, and money.

Most businesses hiring an outside agency for link development or SEO have enough SEO knowledge to know that links are important and that buying links outright is bad. General knowledge tends to stop there however, and definitions such as 'bad' and 'quality' are not as widely understood. Most businesses also tend to underestimate the complexity and sophistication of the engines (specifically Google) and think that certain tactics should be 'fine' because they see nothing wrong with them or feel that Google couldn't possibly determine that a given link didn't naturally evolve. Unfortunately, there are plenty of "link development" companies who will take advantage of this gray area.

The purpose of this article isn't to point out the bad things this client was doing. On the contrary, I believe this client had good intentions in their actions. The issue here is about education and understanding. We feel it is important that everyone understand what it is about certain link development practices that is unfavorable and potentially detrimental.

In the spirit of education, I am going to share the discussion points I put together to make sure the client understood exactly why the links being developed were inappropriate and needed to be halted immediately in favor of a better strategy. First, we covered the obvious: that Google does not like unnatural and unearned links or any attempt to manipulate their algorithm unfairly. This is usually the place where SEO companies begin and end their attempts at education: "Don't do it, Google doesn't like it." However, I want to focus on the other reasons why, even if Google didn't exist, these links were such a bad idea.

The links below are just samples of the kind of links we found. There were hundreds like this in place when we did the initial audit. The specific 'strategy' that the vendor was using was not to place blatantly spammy links but to instead try and be clever and post generic comments with a single innocuous link. As you look through the responses to the following articles you will see the pattern: "Thank you for posting this great article, I found it really insightful and will be sure to pass it on to my friends! - ". You will also note it is neither clever nor innocuous.

Example 1: http://hollywood-elsewhere.com/2010/03/white_rips_hobe.php

Example 2: http://family.webshots.com/album/511415112WXEVyl

It was clear the client never checked in on the work being done. They were paying a very low fee for services, were happy with the high volume of links being created, and at the time they started to work with us, they were also seeing benefit from these links. All in all, there was a bit of a "don't ask, don't tell" air about the whole thing, which we were quick to correct for them. After going through the standard SEO lecture on links, I also broke down the following points in terms that would make more sense to the layman.

Harms Branding

These links were obviously spam and insincere. I pointed out that, while many of these links were on pages few would read or so far down in comments no one would really notice, their website and business was still associated with this. They might escape notice or complaint thousands of times but just one post to one thriving and protective community would be all it would take for a potential wave of negative sentiment and even vocal admonishment calling them out as spammers. Even if there were no SEO considerations with this practice, the risk to reputation and credibility should be enough to stay away from this game of roulette.

Harms Relevancy

Assuming that SEO and Reputation Management were non-factors for a moment, the indiscriminate shotgun approach that this vendor was taking made this strategy highly inefficient. The vendor paid no attention at all to the industry their clients were in. In these examples, and the hundreds more that we poured through, it was clear that there was no relevant connection at all. These links were being placed anywhere and everywhere they could. Links from anywhere about anything may have had value once, say around 1996, but today there is no way that such disparate and unrelated links would carry anywhere near enough value to be worth the cost and effort it takes to develop them.

Transient Value

Links on blogs lose value over time. Even a highly respected blog with a home page PageRank of 8 isn't going to be able to support high value as time goes on. Assuming that links that appear in the comments section carry any weight at all (which is debatable at best), as each post moves off the main page and become archived, the value of that post diminishes as it loses links, freshness and exposure. Thus any equity any links may be passing also diminishes. If the post in question doesn't have any inbound link equity of its own as it moves off the main page, then it has even less value to pass on to any links the page may have.

Mathematics

PageRank confuses many people, but the basic principle should be easy enough to follow. Link equity is split equally between the links going out from the page. A page with two links passes on half the equity through each. Ten links would each pass on a tenth of the equity evenly. So what happens when you are response number 113? How much equity are you really gaining from this? Even assuming other SEO concerns, branding issues, relevancy, and the transience of the links in question are non-factors, how much value are you squeezing out of that link? What happens when all the other spammers try the same thing? When the 285th response hits, what has happened to the value of the link you had? Even as minimal as the value you were getting at 113, now that there are 285 responses you are getting less than half of what you were getting when you first placed it, assuming there was any value to begin with.

Google Isn't Stupid

This last point is something I really try to stress with my clients, especially when they have this kind of link development in their past. It is important to understand Google isn't trying to tell a site what they can and cannot do, but what they are saying is that, if you want to play in their space and be listed on their site, they have certain quality guidelines to follow. Google fiercely protects that space, the quality and integrity of their listings is what gives them the credibility to be a profitable company. If their integrity becomes compromised, their business is at risk. Thus it is ignorant, possibly even arrogant, to think that there is an "easy" way to get rankings to improve.

Clients come in all this time telling us how much they need rankings, and right away. The truth is everyone needs rankings and right away. There is a right way to do things, and a not-right way to do them. Google isn't omniscient nor are they infallible, but it is foolish to believe any one person is going to outwit and out-run a room full of mathematical geniuses whose daily mission is to weed out spam from carrying any value.

After going through all of this, the client completely understood my points and took some time to reevaluate their link strategy. We are currently encouraging them to develop their site to be more interesting, useful, and engaging for their customer base, thus enticing the natural development of links. Brand awareness and topic expertise can be built through a proper social media campaign. It can be a time consuming and sometimes tedious task, but link development is best done through giving people reasons to want to link to you. In the end, taking shortcuts is a waste of money and effort that can put your rankings and even your company's reputation at risk.


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