Links are important for rankings. We all know that.
However, in the rush to get those rankings (that lead to converting traffic of course) webmasters and business owners can be tempted to take shortcuts for easy wins.
One of the most popular (and dangerous) ways that you can grab up a bunch of links quickly is by using a link network (also called a blog network, site network, or sometimes article network). It's one-stop shopping for links in large quantities.
Sounds great, right? You deal with one person, give them the keywords you want to rank for, and you can get 500 links tomorrow.
Again, an easy win – until you remember that in link building, there really are no easy wins.
Here's how you can better understand what a network is, how to identify networked sites, and whether those easy links are too good to be true.
What is a Link Network?
It seems there is mass confusion about link networks. Heck, even in my own office, we'll occasionally argue about whether we've actually found a true network, and if we have? We will argue about whether it's a bad one.
Simply, a link (or site/blog/article) network is a group of sites that are connected. They can be owned by one person or multiple people, their connections can be as obvious as a badge displayed that proudly identifies the site as a member of X network or as covert as a footprint uncovered by lots of digging.
From my experience, there are many immediate site tells that indicate a site may be a member of a network:
- Language on the site. From "Proud partner in ABC Network" to "See our other networked sites" the key here is the wording about networks.
- Network badges.
- Page that lists a ton of other sites. This can be linked with the anchor "Friends" or "Partners" and doesn't always indicate a network, but it does indicate the need for attention.
There are a few others that require some digging once you think sites are connected as network members. I mention these because my experience has been that many webmasters won't be upfront with you and will offer you links on various sites while swearing they aren't connected in any way.
- Same or very similar template used for multiple sites.
- Same Google Analytics number or Google AdSense number used. You can use ewhois for this.
- Same site owner for loads of different sites.
- Same IP address. This one is tricky in case there's shared hosting involved but it can be useful. It just doesn't guarantee that the sites sharing the same IP address are networked of course.
There are also immediate webmaster tells if you're in contact.
- Email signature lists 10 or more other sites.
- Webmaster contacts you and says he has some great new sites for you to look at.
- Webmaster sends you a list of sites he owns without you asking.
Recent Issues With Networks
Go search for [network penalized] or [network deindexed] and see those results. Scary stuff isn't it?
Networks can get deindexed or their links can be devalued, which is the same result for you if you're basing your link foundation off those sites.
My biggest concern with networks is the quality, though. Unless it's a really good one, the quality of the sites connected tends to be pretty low. There's a lot of duplicate content, excessive cross-linking between sites, and duplicate social signals.
One other giant problem? Networked links aren't free. If you get caught using them, you're getting caught for buying links, basically.
What Does Google Think About All This?
Let's not forget to check Google's Webmaster Guidelines, which, as they related to links, seem to be getting tighter and tighter. They warn against the use of link schemes and specifically mention “using automated programs or services to create links to your site.”
Getting links on a network takes very little time and is obviously quite unnatural. If that's not a scheme, I'm not sure what is.
Even if you aren't dealing with a true network (and are instead dealing with a lone webmaster who has an unofficial one where he just happens to own 100 sites and can quickly add your link to each one) the key here is the shortcut taken to get links.
Many times you'll immediately know that the sites putting up your links are members of a network simply because you've contracted with someone for that exact service. However, as with anything, there are unscrupulous companies who will simply not inform you that the sites they're getting links on are networked. Therefore you need to ask questions and do your own research so that you aren't solely relying upon the word of someone who may not have your best interests at heart.
Now, I have no problem with people understanding risks and asking for risky techniques. My problem is with clients not understanding risk and getting talked into doing something detrimental without being properly informed of the danger.
Just as it isn't enough to say "buying links is risky" it's not enough to say that networks can be risky. Clients need to be informed of what can happen if the networks hosting their links get caught and deindexed.
My link building agency runs into networks every single day. Some of them are good but many of them are bad if not downright dangerous.
Many potential clients still ask for that kind of service, too, despite all the publicity surrounding some of the big ones getting caught. I'm much less paranoid about the ones we encounter doing discovery than I am about the ones that come to my link builders in a giant spreadsheet, unsolicited.
In my mind, the worst networks are a house of cards. Think about what would happen if your site ranked well off a network that got deindexed or penalized.
I've known people with sites made up of links that mainly came off a network and when it got hit, they lost a lot of money. Fast forward a year and some of them are still struggling to get back to where they were.
Link Networks: The Good (Or OK For Now)
As I said, some of them seem ok for now. I do worry about the future in case they get nailed, but it would be silly to say that all networked sites are worthless or dangerous.
Members of the network are indexed in Google, ranking for key terms and their brand, not excessively cross-linked to other network member sites, don't share the same ip address with the majority of the sites, aren't all owned by the same person or couple of people, and don't seem to exist just to sell links. There isn't a giant master list of members posted on every networked site. The majority of the sites have decent Google Toolbar PR. Searching for the network name doesn't generate tons of negative results.
The Not-So-Great Link Networks
A few of the members of the network are not indexed in Google. Some of them don't rank for any terms that you can find. Many of them share the same ip address. Searching for the network name generates lots of negative results.
The Really Bad Link Networks
Most sites have no Toolbar PageRank, are not indexed in Google and if they are, they don't rank for the brand/URL or any snippets from the homepage. Most sites post a list of the other members and link to them. Duplicate or very thin content is obvious. Wording on site is poorly done.
I am definitely very paranoid about networks and have become much less tolerant of them over the past year, but I do realize that getting a link from a few networked sites here and there isn't going to seriously hurt most sites that have decent links for the most part.
The real danger lies in only working with networks. Some sites might not be a member of a network when you secure a link on them but get bought and added, so it's not something that you can completely control, either.
Just be careful with networks, as they can be too good to be true. Just remember that whether you think a blog network is good or bad, it doesn't mean that the search engines will agree with you. What they think is the bottom line when it comes right down to it.
Meet Your Favorite Search Engine Watch Contributors
Many of SEW's leading expert contributors will be at ClickZ Live, the new online and digital marketing event kicking off in New York (March 31-April 3). Hear from the likes of: Thom Craver, Josh Braaten, Lisa Barone, Simon Heseltine, Josh McCoy, Lisa Raehsler, Greg Jarboe, Dan Cristo, Joseph Kerschbaum, John Gagnon, Eric Enge and more!