The Collateral Damage of Google’s Link Policy

Google’s “company philosophy” states “Google search works because it relies on the millions of individuals posting links on websites to help determine which other sites offer content of value.” Over the last two years Google has rolled out a series of algorithm updates and public relations tactics that have lead the SEO industry to question this fundamental premise. Are links good or bad? What is the real difference between building and earning links? Has Google broken the Internet?

A Brief History of Linking

Before the Internet, writers would cite their sources in footnotes or a bibliography. The web allowed people to give a direct link to those sources for more information on a topic. Google started using links as an indicator that a site was a good one and moved that website to a place where more people would find it: Page one of the search results. Figuring out ways to create backlinks became a new industry. Some purposely manufactured links made for Google search results that weren’t necessarily the best results. That’s when everything went haywire.

Fear? Sometimes

Brett Bastello of Inseev Interactive received this message from a reporter who quoted him in an article: “Per our company guidelines, all the outsiders links are nofollow links.” Bastello assumes this has to do with fear of a Google penalty and says, “unfortunately this thinking couldn’t be further from the truth and the amount of misinformation circulating around this topic is astounding. Just as Wikipedia references outside websites, Google likes to see blogs and websites referencing other qualified and authoritative websites on similar topics. The reason the links on Wikipedia are nofollowed is because it is User Generated Content with a high possibility of abuse, however, as an editor of a website you have 100% of the content control, and thus, this eliminates virtually any possibility of abuse, therefore, these sites should be dofollowing the links.”

Agreed. But, read Rand Fishkin’s blog post about an unwarranted Google penalty. No wonder people are afraid!

Fear of Google penalties is only one reason for denying an earned link.

Holding onto the Link Juice

Simon Ensor of Yellowball, believes that “some websites have a policy of not linking out to websites, usually due to a fairly archaic rule of attempting to conserve their PageRank (or ‘link juice’). This ‘rule’ is highly contested nowadays with co-occurrence and co-citation being preferred by the majority of the SEO world, however websites are usually slower to change policies than SEOs. In my experience it is often the case that the person managing it is either adhering to policies set years ago or has heard about containing PageRank and is clinging to it as a valuable source of SEO knowledge!”

From Josh Rubin of Creative California: “For some reason, the concept of link juice bleeding started to get somewhat popular when Page Rank was in the heights of its usage. A webmaster who has his ear to SEO a little bit might have heard that you can bleed link juice by having outgoing links, and doesn’t want to lose the value of the page. It’s wrong, but that’s the thought.”

John Holtkamp of Aperture Interactive has heard references to Link Juice when he’s been denied a link, he said: “The basic idea is that sites gain juice by getting linked to, and they give away juice by linking to other sites. I know it sounds silly, but it is real.”

And Bill Elward of Castle Ink Cartridges says: “The issue is a misunderstanding around SEO. Too many people still think that linking out to third parties squanders PageRank. In reality Google likes to see external links when they aren’t contrived and enhance the user experience.”

Allen Walton of SpyGuy Security was interviewed for a story about entrepreneurship and provided a lot of valuable information. He said: “It was a great article, but they didn’t link to me. So I asked why. They told me, ‘Sorry, we don’t know anything about your company and can’t endorse it.’ Even though I gave them all sorts of info and advice they posted on their own website! Crazy link-juice hogs.”

Don’t Push Your Luck

Many sites accept guest posts and certainly, authors who write a piece of content that is worthy of being published on the site deserve to get a link for their efforts. But James Rice of WikiJob says, “by asking for specific anchor text in the link you are asking for a less natural link, and the site owner may (justifiably) start to worry about a potential search engine penalty. Don’t go down this route. Just request the link itself and leave it up to them to link as they choose.”

That sounds reasonable. But too many sites stick with the “brand link in the bio” policy and won’t give a link in the content itself, even when the link leads to critical information for the reader.

But, That’s Where I Found It

Mike Juba of EZSolution.com can point to multiple occasions where people post his infographics without a source link. “Sometimes, they link to visual.ly where they found it, and I ask to link to the original source and they refuse because they claim since they found it on visual.ly they use them as the source,” he commented.

In December, my agency posted data from a survey of digital marketers. Numerous websites referenced the data; some linked to it, some didn’t. One writer linked to a press release about the survey, most likely because that’s where she found it. Upon reaching out to the writer and requesting a link to the actual survey data, the writer redirected the link. Linking to the real source would certainly be more useful for the reader. But was asking for the link unnatural or manipulative?

big-data-personas

Cameron Graham of TechnologyAdvice.com asserts that: “Reputable sites almost never have an issue with linking to content that they cite. Occasionally they may not know where a stat originated from, but if we reach out and provide a link to the report, they’re often more than happy to update the post.”

There’s no harm in reaching out to ask the site owner to link to your site if you are in fact the original source. You’ve earned that link! Outreach doesn’t always work though.

That Other Site is Better than Yours

Chris of cutcabletoday.com broke a big story in his industry that got picked up by major publications like Engadget and TechCrunch. The major sites linked to his site as a source for the story, but a number of others who picked up the story didn’t mention his site, opting instead to cite the bigger sources. He’s reached out to the sites that ran this story without linking or mentioning his site and they either ignored his request or didn’t add the link for one reason or another. Chris’ theory: “These websites prefer to link to a popular mainstream publication than a smaller blog like mine. Maybe they feel it gives them more credibility linking to a site like Engadget.”

It is true that a well-known site that references content on a lesser-known site will get linked to like crazy. For example, Hubspot publishes “ultimate lists” with data from numerous sources. Bet they get lots of links and the original sources don’t. And bet some of those original sources spend precious time trying to get the link redirected.

Not to be Selfish, But…

Brock Murray of SEOplus was recently interviewed by the Financial Post; he asked for a link on the online version of the article and the author didn’t do it. “My thought is they discourage linking out as much as possible so as to keep the readers on their site rather than linking out. It’s pretty common, particularly in the news media industry.” Jordan Bauer of Versique finds that “a common objection is they want to keep users on their website instead of giving them an exit portal.” And Sean Graw of Brad’s Deals thinks “some sites don’t like linking because they want to keep users on-site and drive up pageviews. That’s generally the explanation I get from reporters.”

Of course a business wants to keep visitors on site. Of all the reasons for not adding an earned link, that makes the most sense. When quoted in articles about financial planning, Dale Degagne has been denied links due to “corporate policy.” He says, “They did not inform me of this policy until I asked. They get what they want – a story and a solid reference, and I did both interviews without a link provided because in the end, it’s still good publicity.”

Probably true, when it’s a local news site that might generate business, or a well-known site like New York Times or CNN. An obscure site that won’t give you a link in exchange for your expertise is probably not worth your time.

Links are a Hot Commodity

“Many websites and blogs have now come to realize the importance of links and just how valuable they really are and expect financial remuneration for external links. They equate linking out to other platforms with the provision of a service,” says Wojtek Mazur of ElephateSEO. Jonathan Bentz of Netrepid agrees that in many cases, it’s “No pay? No play!” Bentz says “Of all the reasons I’ve had link requests rejected, this is probably the most common reason.”

So that’s still going on… and paying for links is a violation of Google policy.

SEO illuminati make things sounds simple – “Just create great content and it will earn links.” But Google has a long history of putting out vague guidelines and information about links, which has created this culture of having to carefully negotiate your way into getting a link that you’ve earned. #thanksgoogle

Has Google broken the Internet? What is it like on the ground for you?

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