Stop The Freak Out Over Linking

On Friday, Google Webmaster Central had a post about linking that I’m watching generate all types of new worries of what’s allowed or not allowed. I’ll do the freak out, then a summary of it, then try to push the reset button by revisiting my golden rules on linking.

Let’s look at key parts of the Google post. From the top:

One of the issues that came up in sessions and in conversations was a certain confusion about how to most effectively increase the link-based popularity of a website. As a result we thought it might be helpful to clarify how search engines treat link spamming to increase a site’s popularity.

This confusion lies in the common belief that there are two ways for optimizing the link-based popularity of your website: Either the meritocratic and long-term option of developing natural links or the risky and short-term option of non-earned backlinks via link spamming tactics such as buying links.

Non-earned links? What’s a non-earned link that might get you into trouble? Buying links is named, but perhaps there are other non-earned worries. Hold onto that thought. Let’s go to another chunk:

So nowadays, undermining the PageRank algorithm is likely to result in the loss of the ability of link-selling sites to pass on reputation via links to other sites.

So if you sell links — and Google figures this out — they might take away your ability to pass along link love to other sites. That’s nothing new, and the vast majority of sites don’t sell links. So we have both a restatement of known facts and an issue that doesn’t concern most people. Move along!

Next important chunk:

Discounting non-earned links by search engines opened a new and wide field of tactics to build link-based popularity: Classically this involves optimizing your content so that thematically-related or trusted websites link to you by choice.

OK, in other words, have good content. Good content attracts good links. This has been said for years. Like over a decade. Move along.

Next chunk:

A more recent method is link baiting, which typically takes advantage of Web 2.0 social content websites. One example of this new way of generating links is to submit a handcrafted article to a service such as Another example is to earn a reputation in a certain field by building an authority through services such as

So link baiting, as I read it, is given the all clear. Some people have worried that getting links through buzz efforts like link baiting would be bad. Nope — because the post implies that you aren’t going to get those links unless you’ve earned them (setting aside the recent discussions that some of the top sites get on Digg through behind the scenes deals with top submitters, of course).

Next, probably the most important thing:

Our general advice is: Always focus on the users and not on search engines when developing your optimization strategy. Ask yourself what creates value for your users. Investing in the quality of your content and thereby earning natural backlinks benefits both the users and drives more qualified traffic to your site.

And finally, the bombshell…

To sum up, even though improved algorithms have promoted a transition away from paid or exchanged links towards earned organic links, there still seems to be some confusion within the market about what the most effective link strategy is. So when taking advice from your SEO consultant, keep in mind that nowadays search engines reward sweat-of-the-brow work on content that bait natural links given by choice.

I bolded the bad part — exchanged links. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Are exchanged links reciprocal links, IE links between two web sites? Or just between two specific pages? Or are they links only exchanged because two people agree to do so solely for search engine purposes? Or if I link to someone’s post, and they link back to me referencing something I’ve said about it, is that an exchange?

Damn, I wish the post had never used those words. It’s right back to the morass of worries that only finds its match with those who wonder how many times you can say a term within the meta keywords tag (and should I use commas? should I put spaces after each comma? should I….).

You can see the worries spark off in a WebmasterWorld thread:

It’s been a matter of debate whether or not Google discounted reciprocal links. Today it is safe to say that Google is not fond of reciprocal link exchange schemes. It doesn’t get more explicit than this.

Reciprocal link schemes, of course, are not the same as exchanged links. The post didn’t talks reciprocal links. The post pretty much ill-defined what’s a good or bad exchanged link at all. That’s one reason why I ignored the post initially. The lack of precise definitions meant it was just going to spark more confusions.

Google Discusses Link Building Strategies from Search Engine Roundtable covers the thread more and how Google had to come in to do damage control, with Adam Lasnik saying:

If it’s good for your users, link to it; if, by chance, the link is not given the *full* weight of a "vote," by Google or MSN or Yahoo or Ask or whatever… that shouldn’t be a huge deal. These things tend to work themselves out in the aggregate….

Link bait is quite visible nowadays… it’s the trend de jour. That doesn’t mean that it’s accounting for even 1% of all link popularity, nor is it — by a long shot — the only way to get links. With that said, I agree that perhaps the choice of words ("bait") at the end of the blog entry might have been unfortunate.

Anyway, I hope this has put some fears to rest. I link to friends who link to me; we like each others’ sites, we think that folks who visit our sites might like them, too. And that’s fine! And also, as Sugarrae pointed out, it’s only natural that someone may want to link to an article that links to them. Reciprocal linking happens, and it’s very often done in a natural, innocent way.

Over time and with lots and lots of data (and very handy tools for crunching it :-), it becomes more clear to us at Google what is "natural" (or organic) on the Web and what is not. We aim to reward the former, discount the latter. Take that as a broader SEO strategy statement if you will… it’s not just about links, and it’s DEFINITELY not all about reciprocal linking.

Pretty much, I agree with Adam. I disagree that Google necessarily is getting better at knowing what’s "natural" versus "fake" on an individual link level, especially if you were very clever. But I do agree that sites will have lots of "natural" looking links that can form a pattern and are harder to fake. And sites heavily reliant on links by buying them should be easier to spot.

Meanwhile, some of gang at Digg come away thinking the post is about spamming Google via Digg. I didn’t read it that way. Rather, I read it as Google saying that links from places like Digg are among the many, many places you can obtain links that are fine.

In summary, from the Google post:

  • Earned Links/Trusted Links: Google tries to determine what are "earned" links or what more commonly have been referred to in the SEO community as trusted links. To some degree, this isn’t new. Google’s long tried to reward some links with more importance than others, back to the original PageRank days.
  • Non-Earned Links/Non-Trusted Links: What happens to non-earned links or non-trusted links (whatever Google decides in its wisdom for these to be) isn’t clearly defined, but from past talks with Google, these simply don’t give you credit. The post itself talks about "link-weighting" that hints at this. You don’t get hurt by them unless you were of the incredibly small number of sites where Google thinks you’ve done something so bad that they might actually ban your site. This is practically no one, promise.
  • Buying Paid Links: Google considers paid links to be non-earned and will discount these links if it can spot them. That’s not all in the post, but that’s what Google has said in the past.
  • Selling Paid Links: From the post, consistent with past Google statements, sites known to be selling links might find their ability to pass along link love within Google’s ranking system stopped.
  • Have Good Content: Because it will naturally attract good links.
  • Link Baiting Is Fine: In case you were worried.
  • Exchanged Links Are Bad BUT I Say Ignore This: You can pretty much ignore this since it’s so badly defined as to what they are that you’re likely going to worry about the wrong thing.

And now to my Golden Rules Of Link Building. I wrote these back in 2002 when I first started seeing major freak out over link building. The rules are simple. They are so simple some people might find them laughable. But I think they still hold up for the confused site owner.

Rule 1 – Get links from web pages that are read by the audience you want

Want links from Digg? Is there an audience there you want? Go for it. Want links from some site you’ve come across? Screw what Google thinks. Is that a site with an audience that matches your content? Then go for it — and by doing so, you’re actually very likely to do exactly what Google and other search engines want you to do.

Rule 2 – Buy links if visitors that come solely from the link will justify the cost

Is Google discounting paid links? Did the site owner block link love with nofollow? Is the link one of hundreds on a page and perhaps not likely to give you as much link juice? Is the site banned from passing link benefits? Uncertain of all this? Then don’t buy links hoping they’ll boost you in the search engines. Buy them because you think you’ll get traffic from them. And if you do buy them for this reason, then I’d recommend using the nofollow attribute with them. That ensures the search engines know you aren’t trying to some how trick them. Don’t like my advice and want to buy link love. That’s your decision, of course.

Rule 3 - Link to sites because you want your visitors to know about them.

Did you just do a "bad" exchange? Why, just go over to the Google bad link exchange checking tool and find out. Whoops. It doesn’t exist. Don’t panic! Again, and I mean this in a totally positive way, screw Google. Stop thinking of whether you are doing a link because Google will like or dislike it. Link because your audience will like it. Do right by your audience, and you are showing the exact behavior that Google is trying to tailor its algorithms to detect.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Link Building: General | Link Building: Linkbait | SEO: Spamming


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • skore

    Excellent Danny – top post on SEL yet..

  • ★ Search Engines WEB

    Exchanged Links Are Bad BUT I Say Ignore This: You can pretty much ignore this since it’s so badly defined as to what they are that you’re likely going to worry about the wrong thing.

    MSN SERPs reflects their an anti-reciprocal link policy …. so, perhaps it IS something to worry about.

    The reason being no one knows if Google is slowly introducing a similar algo into their serps.

    The algo could detect and compare the amount of a site’s LINKS to its BACKLINKS from the same domains. then apply some sort of neutering algo.

    And just in case someone is engaging in Three way links to avoid this, an advanced algo level could look for LINK NEIGHBORHOODS.

    Also, since automatic link exchanges are frowned upon – dynamic urls that end in php or asp could also be devalued or send red flags if a sites has many backlinks from them.

    So for now, non recip, human reviewed directories, with static URLs could be the safest option (see the link in the username)

    Have Good Content: Because it will naturally attract good links.

    That – unfortunately – is not always true nor valid.

    No matter how good content is – THERE HAS TO BE A WAY FOR PEOPLE TO DISCOVER IT EASILY!!

    ADDITONALLY, not everyone comes under the ‘good content’ umbrella. Many small bu$inesses are just putting up a business web site or ecommerce sites that explain their products or services. They just want some business, they are not interested in becoming the next Micro$oft. They have every right to have a share of potential, relevant customers – and they should not be forced to use PPCs as their only hope.
    The fact is, few users are using Local search, and in a Web world, you can shop online to anywhere!

    What incentive is there for the high ‘trustranked’ Nytimes or Digg or Fortune of MSN MONEY to do a story or link to a tiny, nothing ecommerce Website??????

    If they issued PR releases, how many news services would pick it up and run with it????? LOL

    PrWeb use to be the hope for the small business, but now Google has discounted their link love ablilites.

    Search Engines MUST acknowlege the root causes and stop this denial. Whenever millions of’Basically GOOD’ people worldwide are doing the same behaviour – it means a VOID exists! Millions or people are not going to collectively change their behaviour or repress their ambitions. That is just life.

  • Halfdeck

    Quotes from my a post i just published:

    “A reciprocal link can just be coincidental, an exchanged one denotes some deliberation, and it’s the deliberate targeting of the PR algo through linkage that the blogpost is all about.” — Glengara, WMW

    Also, an Adam Lasnik quote:

    The key here is, indeed, moderation :). If, say, 90% of your backlinks are reciprocal, that’s probably not going to improve how our algorithms view your site. Or worse, if 90% of your backlinks are reciprocal and not likely to be of interest to your user.

    But exchanging links here and there — *especially* when
    done with clear editorial judgement (e.g., you’re not just
    accepting dozens of link exchanges willy-nilly) — that’s
    not the sort of thing Google looks down upon.

  • eric_ward

    My two cents -

    I’ve said before, and will say again, it’s not possible to determine reciprocal link “intent” with 100% accuracy by algorithm alone. Cannot be done. Never will. I’ll argue this point to my grave. But you can get pretty darn close.

    Thus an engine, once it comes across a pair of recips, needs only to look for what I call “signals of intent”. An engine cannot penalize a site based the existence of a recip. That’d be just plain insane. There’s lots of valid reasons why reciprocal links exist. It’s all about intent folks. And intent can be determined with a little algorithmic foraging. Not perfect, but it can be done. And it is.

    Of more concern to me is the potential for unintended consequences.

    For example, if Small Company in Idaho makes national news and gets a link to their site from, isn’t it pretty logical that the owners of Small Idaho Company would mention this on their site like…

    “Read about us at”

    and then link to the page that mentioned them? Of course they would. And in so doing, they just created a reciprocal link between themselves and

    So would Small Idaho Company have been better off algorithmically to not even mention the CNN site on their site so as to not raise the reciprocal suspicion ? Now that IS whacked.

    I have many recips on my site because I spotted coverage of my site and a link to my site on those sites and I wanted to tell my sites readers about them. It’s for trust, branding, credibility. Like this one

    If Inc. magazine writes about me and links to my site, wouldn’t it be nuts if I didn’t link to that Inc. page so my site’s reader’s can see this cool publicity?

    My intent with this link is 100% NOT algorithmically driven/motivated, but the moment I linked back to I turned that link to me into a reciprocal link, potentially making that link to my site less trustworthy. I’ve hurt my site.

    Google has their hands full. Recips are the backbone of the web since before engines ever showed up. But Google must look for “signals of intent” before they ignore or penalize.

    Eric Ward

  • mfshearer

    I appreciate the clarification and analogies on “reciprocal” and “exchange” links…it has been a confusion of mine in developing link strategies for my clients (of course, getting them to help me build link bait worthy content for their sites is an entirely different story). Question, though, as a web designer/seo consultant, am I taking a questionable liberty by including a link back to my site on websites that I design? I figure it helps me at least twofold: in the SE algos AND leads coming through who like the site design.

  • zkatkin

    I couldn’t agree more… do right by your audience and you’ll be fine.

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