Are Scholarship Links Considered Unnatural by Google?

We all know that when it comes to improving a site’s Google rankings, getting links is important. Until recent years, it seemed that almost any kind of link could help your site. But now, Google is getting good at figuring out when a link is one that was made with the sole intention of trying to manipulate Google. Sites that have overdone it with unnatural links can be manually penalized by Google or can see their site have difficulty ranking well because it has become suppressed by Google’s Penguin algorithm.

So, what can a business owner do to attract links to their site and not raise the ire of Google? Ultimately, the best link is a completely earned and unasked for link. But, there still are situations where asking for a link can fall within the quality guidelines. In a Google Webmaster Central Hangout in January of 2013, John Mueller was asked about whether or not it was ok to ask for someone to link to you. He responded by saying that as long as it was clear to the webmaster that they were linking to you and that it was not a paid link or some type of reciprocal link scheme, that it was perfectly acceptable to ask someone to link to you.

So, What About Scholarship Links?

I have seen a trend lately where a lot of websites are creating scholarships so that they can ask colleges and universities to link to them. The idea is that you create a scholarship that is funded by your company. I’ll describe this with a fictitious example. Let’s say I own a company that sells children’s toys. My company is called “Haynes Educational Toys.” For this scholarship, I have decided to offer $1,000 to anyone enrolling in teacher’s college or some type of early childhood education program. So, I create a page on my website describing the scholarship and I tell people that they can qualify for the scholarship by writing an essay that describes why you think educational toys are helpful to child development. I then would contact colleges and universities and invite them to link to my scholarship page.

When I search for the following, I see many opportunities for a link:

scholarship-google-search

This quick search shows me link opportunities from high PR authoritative .edu pages like this:

There are also companies such as this one that will actually do all of the prospecting work and administrative work for you.

Provided you have the budget for creating these scholarships, it can be a relatively easy way to attract links from authoritative sites. But, are these natural links?

Are Scholarship Links Natural Links?

I personally believe that many sites that are using this tactic are walking a fine line. I think that in many cases these links are perfectly valid. But, for other sites, these links are part of a link scheme and could certain be open to being manually penalized now, and perhaps devalued by Google’s Penguin algorithm in the future.

One could argue that these links are paid links because you are offering money in return for a link. On the other hand, you could argue that you have created something of value and that the colleges and universities that are linking to you are doing so on their own volition in which case, these would be editorial links.

It’s a tough call.

I asked John Mueller about this type of link in a hangout. The site that I asked him about was one that was dealing with a manual unnatural links penalty. While doing their backlink audit I noticed that there were many really obviously unnatural links from low-quality directories and keyword-anchored guest posts. But, they also had a good number of links that came as a result of a scholarship program that I had described above. I knew that this scholarship was created so that they could get links. But, I also knew that the schools that were linking to their scholarship did so on their own volition. It was a valid and true scholarship. I really wasn’t certain whether or not I should be trying to remove these in order to get the site’s manual penalty lifted.

When asked, John Mueller called this a “tricky situation.” He said that if the scholarship was solely set up so that the site could get links, then it’s not a bad idea to ask for a nofollow tag on those links. That way, they don’t pass PageRank and they are guaranteed not to be considered unnatural. (I think that this is Mueller’s CYA answer to most questions – “If you’re not sure, then go ahead and nofollow or disavow.” But then he said that they possibly could be valid depending on the scale of things. For example, if the site had created all sorts of mini scholarships and that this was essentially the only type of link in their whole link profile, then this looks very much like a paid link scheme. But, if the rest of the link profile looks good and this was a one-time program that the company ran, then this may perfectly acceptable to Google.

He also made a statement that I found interesting, saying that if this was the only type of link that the site had, that it was possible that Google’s algorithms could pick up on that.

His final advice on the subject was that if we wanted to be sure that these links were not considered unnatural, then we should add them to our disavow file. But, if the overall picture looked good then we may be fine to keep them. He suggested that a strategy that could be good for us in removing our manual penalty would be to file for reconsideration first without trying to remove the scholarship links and how the Web spam team responds.

This is exactly what we did. We did not remove the scholarship links, but instead focused on the obviously low-quality links. Not only did we successfully remove the penalty, but the site is ranking quite well for most of their terms today.

Now, does this mean that we should all be creating scholarships so that we can get links? I think that there is a real danger that this type of link is going to go the way of the guest post link. There was a time when guest posting was considered an acceptable way to get links to a site. But then SEOs abused the tactic by guest posting on a massive scale, which is what prompted Matt Cutts to say, “stick a fork in it – guest blogging is done.” Given that there are very few scalable link acquisition tactics beyond “create good stuff and attract links” left, I think that it is quite possible that Google will start taking a serious look at people who leverage scholarship programs on a large scale in order to obtain links.

General Guidelines for Scholarship Links

I still think that for some sites, creating a scholarship and asking colleges and universities to link to your scholarship can be a valid way to obtain good links. If you are considering doing this, then I would urge you to keep the following in mind:

  • Is this your only kind of link? If your site is not able to attract links on its own, or if the only links you have are self-made links, then getting links from scholarship programs may be a little risky. If your site gets a manual review and the Web spam team sees that your only good links are scholarship links, then I believe you could receive a manual unnatural links penalty. Also, as mentioned above, John Mueller suggested that Google’s algorithms may be able to determine that something is not right with your link profile.
  • Does the scholarship make sense? Let’s say that I found a large number of veterinary colleges who were linking out to external scholarships and figured that this would be a good link opportunity. Would it make sense to create a scholarship for veterinary students on my site selling children’s toys? Sure, if I twisted things enough I could try to make this related in some way. But, in reality, this doesn’t make sense. Only offer a scholarship if it really makes sense to do so.
  • Are you actually giving away the money? Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to publish a scholarship in writing only. You could argue that Google would never know if it was a fake scholarship. But, Google is smart. This would not be a wise tactic.
  • Be careful what you name your scholarship! If you name your scholarship with a keyword-rich phrase in the hopes of getting some good keyword anchor text pointing to your site, that’s not a good idea either. In my case, if I called my scholarship “The Best Educational Toys Scholarship,” that would be an obvious flag that is telling Google that I created the scholarship in order to get links to improve my Google rankings.
  • Don’t go crazy offering many scholarships! If you got some good links by offering one scholarship, it may be tempting to offer several other scholarships all related to different niches you service. If you’re doing this, it’s going to start to look more like a linking scheme and less like a natural program that is attracting links.

Conclusions

I think that the best question to ask yourself when considering this type of program is whether or not you would consider offering this scholarship even if none of the links you received would help you with your SEO. Are there other real benefits to your company by offering this scholarship? Perhaps it makes sense for you to help people who are training in your profession. Perhaps it will be excellent PR for your company. My main point is, that if you’re just doing it for the links, then you’re treading on thin ice.

Still, I do believe that for some companies, obtaining links through a scholarship program can work quite well. Let’s just not overdo it!

What do you think? Have you offered a scholarship through your company? Have you received links as a result? Do you feel that Google will crack down on this type of link?

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