Spotting Unnatural Linking Patterns
Last week’s column Aggressively Seeking Links – How Much Is Too Much? sparked several comments and questions. In the past, I’ve hesitated to revisit previous columns, preferring to let them stand on their own, but this time I’d like to make an exception to clarify some of the assertions I made.
In that column, I wrote “…spotting manipulated linking patterns isn’t as hard as some people think it is” In response, I was asked “What would you classify as ‘manipulated linking patterns”, and “…it would be great if you could give examples of easily identifiable patterns“.
First, note that I am not saying a manipulated linking pattern is automatically a bad thing. It could be, but not always. Buying links for the sake of advertising on a demographically relevant target site is smart business, and it is arguably manipulated, but it’s not spam and doesn’t deserve a penalty. Likewise, asking the person who runs this site to give a link to this site is also a form of manipulation, but again, not spam. That’s logical and on-topic link seeking at it’s best.
I define a manipulated linking pattern as links obtained purely in pursuit of search rank with no thought given to topical relevancy. I further define manipulated linking as any attempt to take advantage of or exploit a weakness in content/server design, like form injection or automated blog commenting, or the recent Google MapSpam incident. Last, and I’m sure I’ll hear it for this, I define manipulated linking as any links acquired as a result of sending automated or bulk email link requests to sites that you have never visited.
OK, so now on to an example of how I spot manipulated linking patterns.
For this example, I’m using five web sites all devoted to self-directed IRA investing. These sites all compete with each other in that they are after the same prospects. They all also appear in the top twenty Google results for key phrases that make sense for what they do. After running my competitive link analysis tools, I had a database of 26,500 cumulative inbound links across all five sites. I import this database into Excel. I sort the links for each of the five sites analyzed, and look to see if any one site has inbound links that none of the others have, and if so, I look at those links first. I then notice that one of the five has the following collection of inbound links, and none of the other sites do.
Have a look and tell me what you see.
Without having to visit any of the below sites, I’ll argue all day long that this is 100% manipulated, spam, junk, rank-chasing link building at its most pointless. Note that I am including only about 10% of the inbound links I found, and I *’d out some letters in the URLs so as not to embarrass the site owners.
Sure, a few of them might be on-topic and of some possible value to somebody somewhere. However, there’s a lot of fishy looking sites and URLs there, along with oddly similar file and sub-directory naming conventions. When I see one site with hundreds of similar inbound links originating from fairly indiscriminate links pages, and none of the other sites have anywhere close to that number, I know I’ve found the link manipulator who is seeking to improve rank without regard to quality or value. Did you notice the last one listed above is about hosiery? Anyone want to hazard a guess as to what hosiery and self directed IRA’s have to do with each other? Bueller..? Bueller…? Bueller?
Is this exercise right every time? Probably not. And I’ll be the first to admit that you should dig deeper. The point here is once you become comfortable interacting and scanning thousands and thousands of inbound links across hundreds of web sites, you start to notice things. And if I can see it using a rudimentary Excel spreadsheet, then the engines can see it any time they decide they want to see it.
Originating inbound URLs leave telltale signs, paint a picture, sing a song. So don’t do it unless you are prepared to face the music.
Eric Ward has been in the link building and content publicity game since 1994, providing services ranking from linking strategy to a monthly private newsletters on linking for subscribers. The Link Week column appears on Mondays at Search Engine Land.
Everything you need to know about SEO, delivered every Thursday.