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Big Brands and Bad Linking: How to Avoid Google Penalties

Josh McCoy
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One of the biggest events in a long time for the search marketing world began last week with the New York Times article on bad linking practices undertaken by JCPenney's search engine optimization (SEO) firm, SearchDex.

Google's penalization wasn't a big surprise to seasoned SEO veterans, considered their identified linking practices.

However, this can be seen as a wake-up call to the rest of the online world -- especially large corporations that have yet to understand the severity of allowing SEO companies to engage in unhealthy linking practices.

It's safe to say that most large companies wouldn't let a child sit in their headquarters and play with a book of matches. Letting your search firm execute paid linking schemes is like playing with fire when it comes to your brand and search engine visibility.

Let's take a look at how not to link your site throughout the web, as well as how you can avoid search engine ranking suicide.

What are Paid Links and Linking Schemes?

Most people become easily confused with the concept of paid linking. There are good paid links, bad paid links, and a fine gray area.

Google explicitly states how you should link your site to others on the web.

Natural Link Building

Google's webmaster guidelines on link building state: "The best way to get other sites to create relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can quickly gain popularity in the Internet community."

Google's philosophy is that websites should link to other websites when it adds value for its users. The linked site should be of topical relevance and the linked content should provide additional context in relation to a certain topic.

This form on non-paid or "natural" link building may take longer to accrue links to your site, but in no way poses a threat of penalty.

Good Paid Linking

All paid links aren't bad. Some authoritative directories on the web (including the Yahoo Directory, Business.com, and Best of the Web) require a payment for a listing.

These sites allow you to include your link within a category relevant to your site. There are few paid inclusion sites, so just play it safe by engaging only with the previously mentioned sites.

The Gray Area

It's essential for many sites to engage in banner advertising and other paid placement promotions on the web. This is a "gray" area because technically you're buying link placement on sites outside of the safe paid link sites mentioned above, but you aren't doing it for link value gains.

Google acknowledges this issue and yet again provides instruction in their guidelines to prevent any penalties. This includes either ensuring that the link features a rel=nofollow command to negate any link value being passed or to have the linking page included in the robots.txt file, out of the view of search engines.

Paid Linking and Linking Schemes

Paid linking at its core is rather self-explanatory. It is the exchange of money with another site for link placement.

Google denounces this practice: "Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site's ranking in search results."

This is rather cut and dry. Basically, at no time (other than the "gray area") should you approach other sites and offer payment for the placement of a link.

So how do many try to get around paid linking? As the search marketing industry has evolved, so have the tricksters who try to get ahead with unethical linking practices.

These linking schemes/techniques include:

  • Reciprocal linking: Basically, two sites agree to link back to each other. For the most part, this is ineffective due to Google's efforts to detect this practice.

  • Link networks: These are executed via a network of controlled sites, registered and hosted separately to present a non-unified relationship. Links can quickly be added to all point to a given site.

  • Triangular linking: This is basically non-linear reciprocal linking. Site A links to Site B if Site B will link to Site C, which is usually controlled by Site A.

Google has definitely done a better job over the last few years with identifying reciprocating and triangular link relationships and to some extent the link networks as well. Google advancements, however, leave the bad guys to lean more heavily on standard paid links that don't show a reciprocated or collective web of links directing to sites.

So, Where did JCPenney Go Wrong?

JCPenney should have known what their SEO company was doing. You need a solid understanding of what your SEO firm is doing to "help" you, and how you can monitor SEO campaigns involving your brand.

Big corporations and bad linking is nothing new. This won't be the last time big companies participate in linking schemes or a well-known sites sells links -- Forbes was just caught again last week.

A review of the SEOMoz Competitive Link Finder shows many similarities between JCPenney links and other SearchDex clients such as Old Navy and Best Buy to name a few. I imagine it will only be a matter of time before the hammer drops on these other companies.

The simple fact is that if you want to play on Google's property, you have to play by the rules. Google doesn't adhere to ignorance and doesn't issue warnings.

Comments such as this from JCPenney executive Darcie Brossart, don't cut it: "We have no record of ever having received a violation notification from Google before last week when the unauthorized links came to our attention. If we had, we would have worked quickly to remedy the situation, as we are doing now."

Wondering if you're adhering to Google's guidelines and assuming you'll get a fair warning will leave you cold and lonely when the lights go out on your search marketing campaign. There are no excuses when they provide all of their rules in print.

How to Stay in the Know

Ask your SEO provider how they plan on building links to your site if you plan to engage in a link building campaign:

  • Do you buy links and if so what type or from what sites?

  • Do you participate in artificial linking or in other words a network of sites that you own where you would place links to my site?

Monitor the link profile for your site. Use tools such as Open Site Explorer, Google Webmaster Tools, and Majestic SEO. This will help you to gain a better perspective on the types of sites your site receives links from as well as the anchor text associated with the link and link acquisition volume trends.

  • Are the instances of link anchor text identical? Link anchor text should vary between links. Linking the exact way from site to site can raise a red flag to spam authorities.

  • Is there a common relevance between the anchor text of the link and the page the link is on? Several links to your site with link anchor text that is non-related to the linked pages content shows a lack of relevance and the use of link building for unethical gain.

  • How many unique domains link to your site? Having many links from very few domains insinuates Run-of-Site linking, which shows a lack of relevance between a site and the linking site.

  • Are links gained slowly over time or are there large accruals of links in a short amount of time? Massive link gains without a viral explanation can indicate that paid linking is taking place.

The Way I See It

Had JCPenney taken a more concerned approach with the efforts of their SEO firm and paid attention, they would likely not be in the limelight right now. If you are willing to let the reputation of your brand lie in the hands of an unethical link building partner then you will eventually gain notoriety for all the wrong reasons.

I believe several well-known companies are playing in this minefield, whether knowingly or not, and I'd venture to say we'll see more of these large scale penalties to big brands in the near future.

Before you engage with an SEO firm, it's paramount that you ask the very important questions above to help guide you in your pursuit of an ethical SEO company. You should continue to monitor your search marketing vendor during the campaign to assess your on-going link profile as well.

There will probably be a lot more algorithmic changes coming our way that will be better at spotting linking schemes. I predict that bursts of links accrued without some form of a social vehicle will be suspect to penalty.

I'm thrilled with the events of late. This is a learning process for many.

I don't practice sketchy link-building techniques. While sometimes I may not build enough links fast enough to keep my clients happy, knowing that I've done it right and that my patient clients who sit at the top of the search rankings aren't going anywhere anytime soon, allows me to sleep a little better at night.


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