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Google’s Forum Links Update and Other Common Link Spam Practices

by Matthew Rasmusson

John Mueller, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, created quite a stir in the search engine optimization (SEO) community when he commented in the Webmaster section of Google’s Product Forums. Someone had created a post asking if including a link in their profile on a forum site would be viewed as spam and hurt their rankings. Since his response is fairly short, I’ve quoted it in its entirety below:

Just to be absolutely clear, if you are dropping links to your site in other people’s forums in the hope of gaming search engines, then that’s considered web-spam and can be taking into account by both our algorithms and our manual web-spam teams. It doesn’t matter how much “PR” the other site has, it doesn’t matter if it’s a .gov forum — what you’re doing would be considered web-spam by us.

If you care about how search engines like Google view your site, I’d recommend cleaning those link-drops up, removing the link to your site, and not doing that in the future.

Cheers

John

May 24, 2014 post on Google Product Forums

It is doubtful that this coincides with an algorithmic update, nor is it likely that this represents a change in Google’s policies. Google does not like spammy link building practices and it never has. But the stir in the SEO community is not entirely unwarranted. Google preaches relevance for link building and oftentimes a niche forum can be the location of the most up-to-date, relevant discussion in your sector. So then, why penalize the creation of relevant links?

Much like with the fall of guest blogging as a legitimate source of relevant links (more on this below), Google has come to the conclusion that for the most part, link dropping on forums has become a spammy practice. In the words of Matt Cutts, “This is why we can’t have nice things in the SEO space: a trend starts out as authentic. Then more and more people pile on until only the barest trace of legitimate behavior remains.”

This doesn’t mean that you need to scour your link profile for anything resembling a forum. It doesn’t even mean that the forum links that you do have need to be removed. Forums are a part of the Internet and if they represent a reasonable size of your link profile, then you have no need to worry. On the other hand, if they represent an unnaturally large portion of your link profile, a manual penalty might be right around the corner.

That said, here are some best practices going forward on forum links:

  • If you actively contribute to multiple forums, remove or nofollow links on your profile or signature. These links are repeated every time you post and this can send Google a spammy signal. If you are only participating on one forum, it is unlikely that Google would interpret this as spam.
  • Do not link-drop your own website on multiple forums, at least not regularly. Not only is this risky behavior for your link profile, but most actively moderated forums will give you the boot the second they think you are a marketer.

While we are on the subject, let’s take a look at some other spammy practices that Google has cracked down on so that you can avoid repeating the mistakes yourself or hiring SEO companies that employ these outdated, dangerous tactics.

Guest Blogging

Guest blogging started off innocently enough. “Let me contribute a piece of valuable content to your site in exchange for a link back to mine.”

Sounds like no big deal, right? Well, in SEO, the best type of link, Page Rank/Domain Authority aside, is one full of keywords that you are trying to rank for. With guest blogging, you control the content and the anchor text (the text that is linked) for your links. As more and more search engine optimizers (SEOs) realized this, more and more guest blogs were written and published, devaluing the practice and causing Google to alter its stance on the subject. Matt Cutts wrote about the subject on his personal blog to clarify Google’s position on guest blogging.

Now, your best bet with guest blogging is to nofollow any links contained in blogs that you are contributing to other sites or publishing on your own. This way, Google has no reason to penalize you and you can still drive traffic through your guest blogs. So, if your site provides visitors with a quality experience, some portion of them will naturally link back to it.

Blog Comment Spam

It is hard to rely on other webmasters to create links. In SEO, we are constantly relying on the benevolence of others to add links to articles, fix broken ones, or otherwise make changes to their website. Since this can be a frustratingly slow process, it is little wonder that SEOs quickly jump on any practice that allows them to add the links themselves. That is exactly what we have with blog comments. You can make an account and directly post on someone else’s website, as long as you can pass a CAPTCHA.

This practice has been similarly used and abused by SEOs, even to the point that programs have been written that automatically add comments to thousands of sites at a time, all including links back to the site they are trying to rank. Employing this method is a surefire way to end up with a manual penalty from Google.

How can you avoid this one? Stop adding links to your site in your blog comments, assuming you comment on blogs. Also, if your SEO company tells you they have generated an astronomical number of links and your rankings have exploded, chances are they are employing this method or a similar one and your results will be fleeting.

Directory Link Spam

Like I said before, if there is a practice that allows SEOs to create a link themselves, they will seize it. Directory link spam describes the practice of creating profiles on a massive number of directory sites without giving much thought to the value of those sites. Not all directory listings are bad. Yelp, for example, is a high quality local business directory, which coincidently does not allow for followed links to be added to your profile. However, if you are relying on solely directory listings for your link building strategy, you are playing with fire.

How can you avoid this? Practice good judgment when you are choosing directory sites to create profiles on. If you were a regular visitor on the directory site in question, would you use it to find what you are looking for? If not, it probably is not worth your time and may even end up hurting your SEO.

These are only a few of the spammy link techniques that SEOs will employ. I did not touch on paid links because avoiding them goes without saying. If you have any other practices you think need to be highlighted, post them in the comments below. Just don’t include links to “cheap ugg boots.”

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