How to Spot a Link Scheme (and Get Away Fast)

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Link building is a practical necessity if you want to increase your rankings in search engines. Google’s algorithms, like the algorithms of most search engines, evaluate the trustworthiness of your site based in part on the number and quality of links pointing to it. The more links you have, the more trustworthy those links are, and the more diverse those links are, the better you’ll be seen, and the more likely you’ll be to earn higher rankings.

However, link building is more complex than that, because Google has a strict policy against the use of link schemes—deliberate attempts to manipulate your rankings using low-quality, misleading, or otherwise unhelpful links. So how is the average search optimizer supposed to tell the difference between a link scheme and a viable link building strategy?

What Is a Link Scheme?
Google’s exact policy states: ”Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.” In other words, if the links are unnatural or intended solely to manipulate rankings, the strategies used to place or procure them are considered problematic, and may earn you a penalty.

Why Are Link Schemes Bad?
Link schemes are bad for everyone involved. They’re bad for web users because they typically spam low-quality links, which interfere with their ability to enjoy a positive online experience. They’re bad for link scheme practitioners because they’re typically more likely to earn you a penalty than a ranking increase. They’re also bad for Google because they make it harder to determine trustworthiness on an accurate basis.

Examples of Link Schemes
The terminology surrounding link schemes is somewhat vague, so it’s easier to understand what constitutes a link scheme by looking at examples.

  • Buying links directly. One of the most important features of a link is context. It needs to be included in a body of content, with contextual relevance for the reader. If you’re simply buying a link to be placed somewhere, without any attention to the context of that link or the content around it, it might be part of a scheme.
  • Link exchanges. A natural link building strategy should include links from a variety of sources. If you’re only relying on one source, or a handful of sources, this could be considered a manipulative link exchange. For example, one obsolete manipulative tactic involved purchasing or managing several domains, each of which had many links pointing to other nodes in this network of domains. This is definitely considered a link scheme. There are many varieties of this practice, including straightforward exchanges, link circles, and link networks. Much like pyramid schemes, they rarely go by such obvious names, but you’ll be able to tell what they are based on their practices.
  • Link automation. Almost any strategy that utilizes automation to build links is a scheme. Remember, context and content are important for the integrity of your links, and it’s nearly impossible to construct those frameworks using an artificial intelligence algorithm or a simple, automatic approach. Google wants to see sites with links that have been thoughtfully evaluated and intelligently constructed—which all but requires a human touch.
  • Spamming links. The quantity of links in your backlink profile does play a role in determining your authority within search engines, but it’s certainly not the only factor. Some link building services focus on churning out links as quickly as possible, which is absolutely scheme-worthy. Google takes notice when a site has a sudden influx of links, and it’s generally regarded as a manipulative tactic. Quality link building strategies focus on scaling authoritative growth from the ground up, slowly and deliberately.
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How to Spot a Link Scheme
There are viable link building strategies designed to help you earn links over time in a natural way, and in a way that’s valuable to web users. These strategies are positive for the online community, and support readers, publishers, practitioners, and Google all at once.
So how can you tell the difference between these healthy, natural strategies and actual link schemes?

  • Are these links accompanied with content? If your service provider is attempting to build links with no content and no real context (e.g., links posted by themselves on web pages, in forum comments, or hidden on an obscure domain), consider it a red flag. Solid link building strategies rely on high-quality content as a framework for supporting the link. That doesn’t mean every content-based link building strategy is necessarily valid, but it’s definitely a good first sign.
  • Do these links have value to readers? If you can, get a sample of links the company has built in the past. At the very least, ask for an example of the type of link this company would build. Does this link have inherent value to the readers encountering it? In other words, if you stumbled upon this article, would you be glad this link is available, or annoyed to see it? Google’s most important job is to keep users happy, and you’re a user in your own right; if you’re not happy to see this link, consider finding an alternative service.
  • What kinds of domains are being used? Look at the domains being used to build links to your site. A quality link building provider will rely on a wide variety of different domains from many different disciplines, and with a wide range of different domain authority scores (especially high-authority ones). If your provider seems to have access to one small niche of domains, or if all their domains seem to be low-authority, it’s a bad sign.
  • How much is the service? The old axiom “you get what you pay for” definitely applies to link building. Though not always a surefire indicator of quality, you can rest assured that if a link building service is cheap, it’s because they aren’t spending much time or effort on the links they build. Good link building is intensive, and therefore isn’t cheap.
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It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between link schemes and valuable link building strategies. If you’re looking to learn more about earned links and content-heavy link building, contact us for a free analysis today!

Timothy Carter

Chief Revenue Officer at SEO.co
Timothy Carter is the CRO for AudienceBloom. Since 1997 he’s been helping businesses maximize their sales revenue from websites via content marketing, SEO and Internet Marketing strategies.

Over the years he’s written for publications like Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications.

Timothy Carter

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