With all the unnatural linking penalties happening last couple years, many webmasters have become concerned about whether they should link to related websites under the same company. Whether it is something like linking between different country specific websites for the same company, or merely linking between similar websites owned by the same company, many people are concerned about what they should and shouldn't be doing.
On one hand they want to lead their visitors to the related sites they might be interested in, while on the other hand they don't want to get penalized because is considered unnatural linking. Fortunately, Google's Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts is tackling this topic in his latest Google webmaster help video.
Is there any way Google identifies "sister" websites? For example, relationships between ebay.co.uk and ebay.com? Does linking from one to the other is taken as paid or unnatural? And I'm strictly talking about good, genuine ccTLDs for businesses.
Now, there's certainly differences between the site of eBay stature, and as sites with the low quality content. And Cutts is quick to stress that there are differences between the two and how they handle sister sites.
"It is the case we try to interpret the best we can the relationships that there are on the web," Cutts said. "At the same time, it's very helpful if you can tell us a little bit about what your sites are, so that we can return the correct content to users, regardless of which country they're coming from.
"So let's look at the spectrum, on one hand, we've got eBay.co.uk and eBay.com and we need to know that those are somehow related. And on the other hand, we've got all the way down to somebody who has 100 different websites all about medical malpractice or something like that."
Cutts started by discussing how he used sites such as eBay.com and eBay.co.uk and how Google interprets it they are linked as sister websites.
It is the case that we try to figure out those sites that are related, but we are doing the best we can, and if we get a little bit more help, then we can say all this is a German user they should get eBay.de or yoursite.de if it's a French usually they should get the .fr version that sort of thing.
So the best thing to help is to use something called hreflang. You can do that inside of a webpage, where you can markup “hey on eBay.com the French version of this page is here or the German version of the page is over here”. Or if you don't want to have that on all different pages on your site, you can also make a sitemap, and you can just say “OK, over here is one version for a country and over here is another version for a country.”
That's really helpful because we try to interpret where uses are coming from, what their language, their locale, all that sort of thing is, and show them the best version of your page. But if you are able to tell us what are the actual versions of your page, we're much less likely to mix that up.
The hreflang tag is structured data specifically to direct to the correct localized version of a site.
Google recommends three ways you should implement hreflang in order to let both Google and visitors know that there are alternative language options available.
- HTML link element in header. In the HTML **head> section of http://www.example.com/, add a link element pointing to the Spanish version of that webpage at http://es.example.com/, like this: ***link rel="alternate" hreflang="es" href="http://es.example.com/" />
- HTTP header. If you publish non-HTML files (like PDFs), you can use an HTTP header to indicate a different language version of a URL: Link: ***http://es.example.com/>; rel="alternate"; hreflang="es"
- Sitemap. Instead of using markup, you can submit language version information in a Sitemap.
By utilizing where these three ways, you get your visitors to the correct version of the webpage, and you helped Google better understand the relationship between multiple websites for the same company but simply for different languages.
"It's definitely the case where we know those sites are related, many of the different times, and so by using that information we can try make sure we show the best possible result. If you tell us, we can do slightly better job of it," Cutts said. "We might or might not trust links between any given sites, on any given basis, but for the most part I wouldn't worry about them being viewed as paid or unnatural links, because it is pretty normal for sites that are .co.uk, or.com to link to each other and that's a pretty normal, natural reaction."
However, if you have many different country specific sites, he advise you to play smart about how you link them, because some linking techniques are definitely viewed as potentially spam your than others, and could possibly get a second look if there is ever a spam review.
"If you can, I would do it in a sort of organic way," Cutts said. "If you have 50 different sites, I wouldn't link to all 50 sites down in the footer of your website, because that can start to look pretty spammy to users. Instead you might just link to no more than three or four or five down in the footer, that sort of thing, or have a link to a global page, and the global page can talk about all the different verions and country versions of your website."
What about sites that aren't intrinsically linked to things such as country locations or languages. What about the group of sites about a similar market area for the same language, targeting users in the same country areas? This is where definitely gets more tricky and can certainly trip up spam filters if you start cross-linking between everything.
"If you've got stuff that is all on one area, like .com, and you've got 50 or 100 different websites, that is something where I'd be really a lot more careful about linking them together," he said. "And that's the sort of thing where I wouldn't be surprised if we don't want to necessarily treat the links between those different websites exactly the same as we would treat them as editorial votes from some other website."
For best practices, when you have multiple websites, or sister websites, link them using hreflang in order for Google to definitely them properly, and direct users to the correct version. However, if you sister sites that are targeting the same language and country, and you just mass-produced many sites within the same market area, proceed with caution or don't even interlink them at all. You could be doing more harm than good when it comes to SEO.