Google & Link Schemes – Several Shades of Gray

shades-of-grayWhat Google says about link schemes is important to understand. Understanding the gray area between what Google says and what (currently) works is a different matter.

Let’s start with what Google says about link schemes (taken directly from their website).

Your site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to you. The quantity, quality, and relevance of links count towards your rating. The sites that link to you can provide context about the subject matter of your site, and can indicate its quality and popularity. However, some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results. Examples of link schemes can include:

  • Links intended to manipulate PageRank
  • Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
  • Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you.”)
  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank

The best way to get other sites to create relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can quickly gain popularity in the Internet community. The more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it. Before making any single decision, you should ask yourself the question: Is this going to be beneficial for my page’s visitors?

It is not only the number of links you have pointing to your site that matters, but also the quality and relevance of those links. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the buzzing blogger community can be an excellent place to generate interest.

Many websites have successfully practiced search engine optimization (SEO) “by the book,” following all of Google’s “white hat” quality guidelines and found success. However, there is some gray here. Let’s talk about the elephant in the middle of the room, and address each of these examples provided by Google.

Links Intended to Manipulate PageRank

Have you ever bought a directory listing with the expectation that the $300 per year will deliver a sound ROI, even if it doesn’t provide any link value that “might” influence PageRank? Are you 100 percent completely innocent of having achieved some links that were, at least to a slight degree, meant to “manipulate PageRank”?

Have you sent out a press release with a link to your website? Have you created content with the sole intent of generating some SEO benefit (links) and socially promoted it?


In fact, Google says “creating good content pays off.” That’s true. But, don’t we create content to “manipulate” (that’s an ugly word, let’s call it “affect”) PageRank?

Most of the links pointing to my company’s website are aimed toward the blog section. Other than using our blog as a way of showing some thought leadership, I’m absolutely interested in writing content and promoting it to affect PageRank.

Links to Web Spammers or Bad Neighborhoods on the Web

Not much to say about this one. You shouldn’t link to sites that practice spammy SEO (keyword stuffing, hidden links/text, etc.) or that take part in dubious tactics or have malware issues. But how does the common person know?

You should understand “guilty by association.” It’s just like any personal relationship – ”who you hang out with says a lot about who you are.” Live by that understanding, and you should be fine.

Excessive Reciprocal Links or Excessive Link Exchanging

One agency I know of probably has more than 100 attorney/law firm clients, and operates under the credo of “we only work with one law firm in each area of practice in each geographic location”. In other words, they don’t work with two competing firms in the same market.

What they do is having each/every client include “resources pages” in which they all link to one another. Anchor text is mixed up a bit. And, so, the links are – as defined by Google above – “relevant” (on topic). But, there’s no way that this is anything other than “excessive.” But it’s a link scheme that is working.

Google says, “Before making any single decision, you should ask yourself the question: Is this going to be beneficial for my page’s visitors?”

You could make an argument that linking out to other attorneys under “resources” might be good for the page’s visitors. If one website can’t provide a service a visitor needs, perhaps that visitor could benefit from being directed to another attorney’s website who might be able to help instead.

Is this “good” link building? Well, it’s not something I would ever recommend unless Matt Cutts himself emailed to say, “Yeah, that’s solid, go for it.”

Buying or Selling Links that Pass PageRank

This may sound clear cut, but it isn’t. Are you not “buying links” when you:

  • Buy a directory listing from 
  • Spend the money on quality distribution of a (optimized for SEO) press release?
  • Pay someone to create an infographics and socially promote it? 
  • Pay someone to write a blog post or article that goes viral and earns loads of links?

Yeah, we all understand what’s intended here. You shouldn’t “buy paid links” (especially site-wide/run of site links; or those that are too focused on specific keywords rather than “branded”). But, I can also tell you that there are many forms of “paid links”.

The gray area is understanding that some “paid links” are OK and other “paid links” may not be. In fact, one of the best known “paid link” brokerages offers up many “paid” programs that look an awful lot like what many in our industry would try to qualify as “white hat.”

Truth is, there are many shades of gray when it comes to link building.

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