It won’t always be this obvious…
A link scheme includes any method used to unnaturally manipulate the Google algorithm known as PageRank. PageRank, in essence, factors in the number of quality links (from other websites) that you have pointing towards your site. The higher the number of quality links, the better your website performs on Google search. For years shady online marketers known as “black hat SEOs” have been promising clients Google Page One glory through the purchase of links. Google of course has publically denounced this practice and vowed to condemn any website that has reaped, or attempted to reap, the rewards of improved PageRank via unnatural link building. While any webmaster that has done so with full knowledge of this practice garners what they sow, there are many “innocents” falling to Google penalties because they did not realize they were a part of a link scheme. It is not always an obvious “link in direct exchange for money” transaction. To help you avoid link schemes in the future I have put together this list of what to look out for, and avoid.
6 Ways to Identify a Link Scheme so that you Know When to Avoid them for the Safety of your Website
1. You’ve Received an Outright Offer to Buy Links
We have to begin with the obvious. While you would think that in today’s “Google is Watching” age that no black hat operator would dare offer to sell you links outright it happens all of the time. If you’ve received this offer of quality backlinks in exchange for money, run away.
2. You’ve Been Offered Links in Exchange for Your Business’ Products/Services
This one is less obvious but comes with all of the ramifications against your website. If you are being offered links in exchange for your product/service then you are in violation of the Google law. On the flip side, many businesses (and/or their questionable SEO providers) perform the outreach themselves, contacting reputable bloggers who review products/services, and offer these bloggers “free samples” in exchange for a favorable review AND a link back to their website. This is also a big no-no.
3. You’ve Been Offered an Advertorial
It seems completely natural from a marketing perspective to be offered an online spot for your brand in an advertorial. Since the beginning of print periodicals businesses have been given the opportunity to showcase their offer via an editorial feature. However when advertorials occur online the offer almost always comes with the promise of a high quality link (that violates the DoFollow/NoFollow rule) back to your website. This too is in violation of Google’s mandate against link schemes. If in doubt, ask Interflora if they will buy an advertorial ever again.
4. You’ve Been Contacted by an Overseas SEO Company
I’m no regionalist, but I’ve been around the block in this SEO game enough to know that nine times out of ten when an overseas SEO company contacts you with an offer to improve your PageRank they intend on doing so via link schemes. The other one out of the ten is some kid in his/her parents’ garage stealing wireless from a local backpacker internet café, using a proxy to solicit your SEO business. You’ll be able to ID the origin of the SEO provider by the explicit lack of grammar in the email correspondence or on the phone by simply inquiring about their corporate address.
5. The Triple-Digit Rule
If any “SEO” promises to get you over 100 links (triple digits) within one month then they are getting you involved in a link scheme. While you should be wary of any guarantee to even get you over 10 quality links on a monthly basis, the triple-digit rule is a steadfast one.
6. You’ve Been Offered Link Exchanges, Excessively
Online businesses are frequently contacted by other businesses (or representatives of…) for a reciprocal link exchange. Now this practice is OK in some circumstances. When complementary businesses agree to exchange links to one another’s websites because it also serves their customer/client base it is deemed as natural. For example, a local Realtor “trading” links with a local (same region) moving company absolutely makes sense. Google be damned if they suggest otherwise. However when businesses are not complementary AND link exchanges become excessive to the point that a “network” of reciprocal linking is occurring Google will take notice and hit you with a link scheme based penalty. Keep it close knit and natural and you will be safe.
For further information on the above you can refer to Google Webmaster Tools’ quality guidelines regarding link schemes.