The Big Burden of Backlinks for Small Businesses

SEOs around the world now mark their calendars for the fall Google algorithm update season. This year, Google delivered right on time with Panda 4.1, Penguin 3.0, and even Pirate 2.0. These updates have been covered extensively. Marketers can argue about whether we had Panda and Penguin updates or just refreshes, or whether negative SEO is possible or not, but small business owners are confronted with a bigger problem: how to deal with the burden of backlinks. Backlink maintenance and management is a new burden that most small businesses are not equipped to handle. Many small businesses don’t yet know that they should even review their links.

Links Still Matter

Clients who have been impacted by Penguin 2.1 or 3.0 will often ask if links are really needed to achieve good rankings in the search engines. According to the Moz 2014 Local Search Ranking Factors Survey, four of the top five factors are directly connected to links to the site or the specific page. So yes, links matter.

The Moz study was followed-up by a great video on the possibility of ranking with only great content. Generally speaking the answer is that great content is not enough. Only a few elite content creators can produce content that earns organic links without any effort. The rest of us, especially small businesses, need to consciously consider and work on ways to promote our sites and the content that earns backlinks.

Think You Don’t Have Dangerous Links?

Most small businesses got their start with SEO by hiring low-cost services that used barely passable tactics. You know the ones — the SEO companies that offered deals like 500 backlinks for $79 or 100 Directory Links from High PR Sites for $100. While these tactics worked for a while, small businesses that signed up for that type of service now have links that are considered toxic.

In addition, small businesses don’t always understand that things like directory listings, citations, and social bookmarks actually create links. One client was buying hundreds of directory citations with dofollow links, but insisted that they had never purchased a link and were therefore immune from Penguin.

not-my-fault

Just because a small business doesn’t understand that a directory citation is a link does not make that link exempt from Penguin.

Negative SEO

On top of links that small businesses knowingly or unknowingly create, negative SEO is now a real concern. Negative SEO is the ability to use tactics, such as building spammy links to a competitor’s website, in an effort to suppress rankings and improve their own position. A poll conducted by SERoundtable found that about 80 percent of SEOs had been able to sometimes or always negatively impact the rankings of a website.

Unintentional negative SEO also hurts small businesses. There are many examples of scrapers, strange search engines, directories, and other useless websites that create risky backlinks.

Many have disputed the existence of negative SEO, saying that sites allegedly affected by negative SEO already had low-quality or manipulative backlinks. That is exactly the issue. Almost all small business sites have some skeletons in the closet. If intentional or unintentional negative SEO can tip the balance, then small businesses must take action.

Links Can Actually Hurt Your Rankings

Prior to 2012, most marketers believed that links could not hurt you. In fact, Google responded to a question on its webmaster blog in 2006 saying that “in general, linking to web spammers and ‘bad neighborhoods’ can harm your site’s indexing and ranking. And while links from these sites won’t harm your site, they won’t help your indexing or ranking.”

In 2012, Google launched its disavow tool. The initial advice was to use the tool very selectively and in fact Matt Cutts said that most sites should NOT use the disavow tool.

In 2014, John Mueller at Google changed direction on that and suggests using the disavow tool as a way to stay on top of the backlinks to your website.

The Google Tax: Manage Backlinks or Else

The importance of links in search engine rankings is still strong. Google has shifted the burden of determining which links are good and bad from their team to small businesses. Small businesses must take action to regularly review their backlinks and use the disavow tool. While the process can be automated, it won’t be free. Preventative maintenance will save small businesses big headaches down the road.

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