What The Hell Is “Natural Linking” Anyway?
SEO is like any other business, those “in the know” will often use terminology that seems baffling to anyone outside their circle. And like any other business, a lot of this terminology is not even properly understood by those using it. It’s a form of fence building.
“We understand, and you don’t” (Please don’t ask us what it means cause we don’t really have a clue ourselves) Maybe it’s because of this mystery behind the basic axioms of SEO that it is often considered a real risk by most outsiders, and some inside the business.
A long winded way of introducing the topic of:
Natural Links and Natural Link Building
Has anybody got a definitive answer as to what a natural link is or how to go about natural link building?
Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of you have opinions, but I’m looking for someone with a definitive answer.
I’ve looked long and hard through White Hat and Black Hat sites, and in every shade in between and seen earnest and long-winded diatribe explaining “natural linking” in so many very different ways that it’s become abundantly clear that nobody actually has a clue. It probably doesn’t even have a meaning that will hold up in a court of law (or the court of “Matt Cutts Imagination”)
Talking of Mr Cutts, let’s see what he says on the subject…
From about 1 minute 55 onwards Matt talks about some pretty specific things. Forum spam, blog spam and widget spam. I would also tend to lump in “site wide links” into that last category, something the people who developed WordPress themes have recently been hit for. It’s typical for WordPress author to leave a link back to their own sites in the footer. And this has been causing popular theme authors real issues recently.
So I decided to take a look for an authority sites list of what “bad links” were and took the liberty of making the assumption that bad links were “un-natural”. Yes, logically this is a liberty, but this post is the closest I could get to a full answer
While reading it occurred to me that some of these “spam” items were open to a hell of a lot of interpretation. The fall back is not to say that “X” link is bad but that SPAMMING “X” link is bad. So it seems that un-natural is almost a synonym for spam.
So if you create links outside of the 17 points of this post, would they be considered natural?
More importantly, where is the evidence presented by the author that breaking any of these rules has an effect on your site in Serps? Interestingly, and in common with 100% of this type of post I’ve read, the author presents no evidence at all. Might as well be “Google Pelican” or the flying spaghetti monster.
Had he supported in the list with some links to authority sites showing examples of where the most egregious spammers have indeed been hit, then this list might have had a little more credence. He doesn’t, but then no-one ever does.
I Wonder Why That Is?
Anecdotal evidence from individual webmasters? True, you get that but there are equally as many examples from those who claim to have built what they describe as “100% natural links” also being hit and claiming “foul” to Google. And let’s face it, it’s those affected that are going to write on forums making the fraction of a per cent that have been hit seem like a majority instead of an over-represented minority (and such is the case in life, politics and human relations in general at the moment)
My main gripe here is; Nice rhetoric, sounds logical, the crowd is applauding you – but where is the evidence?
So I have issues with this list, but it is very typical of the White Hat evangelising you see around the ‘net and as such does provide a great jumping off point to look at some of them individually. It says what we might of guessed. You should avoid…
Spam In All It’s Forms
Avoid spam. In the worst cases, since the manual penalty hits began in 2011 Google is going as far as writing to site owners telling them that they have un-natural links and spam pointing to their site. Having an UNL? That’s enough proof for me. A simple message, don’t create spam.
Not sure what a ULN is – check here
Again, let’s use Matt Cutts own definition, and a quick blog post on some comments from a reputable SEO blog.
What’s spam then? If you’ve read that, you’re probably none the wiser.
I’m going to put my own interpretation on it, spam is:
- Too many of the same type of link.
- A linking method that lacks variation in terms of anchor text, surrounding content, platform and very importantly, the chronology of the linking background.
- It also uses negligible or sub-prime content.
- It creates far more links than any effective SEO campaign would do as we enter 2014.
- Finally of course, the owner of the site the link is placed on would, if completely aware of the situation, choose to have neither the content nor the link.
One thing we have to bring into the discussion here is automation. There have been 2 or 3 tools that traditionally targeted specific site types. Blogs for comments and Forums for signature links. Spam is often solely associated with these two types of links, and that is largely as a result of the over use of these tools. Their ability to create a 6 figure number of links a day should was used, and in some cases abused by SEO’s giving the site types they targeted a bad name.
In practice good blog or forum comments on niche specific sites and adding to the conversation with appropriate linking is still about as good a link as you can get. It might take a long time for blogs and forums to throw of the stigma that Xrumer and Scrapebox have left them with
Technical Link Passing
301 redirects of an entire penalised domain to a new “clean” one is a method that still seems to work at least in the short term.
If you sat and read a Google un-natural linking notice, then it pretty much concentrates on link schemes and schemes to “game” Page rank. In practice I’ve found that these notices are almost exclusively raised to counter bought links.
You have paid links? Mwah ha ha ha. We have you now!
Over the last 18 months I have appraised well in excess of 150 linking backgrounds for clients and those that have contacted me via the various forums I post on. A good percentage of those have had an unnatural linking notice from Google. In almost every case the site owner has claimed initially that they had never bought a paid link and were not part of any link sharing schemes.
In 100% of the cases they were. (100%, not a slip of the keyboard) Often, however, they were not aware of it. A service they bought did not make it clear that part of the package, often labelled “Special sauce” or “Juiced with links from our own network” or even “These links are guaranteed to stick” was a way of telling them that there were indeed paid back links involved.
My experience of paid links is that the minute that Google sees one and identifies it, they’re on to it like flies around honey.
Single Post Blog (WEB2.0) links
While these are often seen as offering little value, the main reason they don’t work is that the reputable web 2.0 site owners delete them themselves.
They never even get as far as being appraised by Google as they are recognised as the spam they are more or less immediately. Remember, the likes of WordPress.com, Tumblr and other high Page rank blogging sites are themselves subject to visitations by Google, and as far as their own content and outbound links are concerned, Panda is a real issue for them.
A case in point here would be Ezine who allowed sub prime and overly commercial content with outbound links to poor websites to lower their quality in the eyes of the Panda algorithm so far as to drop their traffic by almost 70% overnight. Ouch.
Link Exchange Schemes
Specifically not the paid ones. Here’s an interesting point. Is guest blogging a link exchange?
You know what? Other than the fact that content is part of the deal, guest blogging often looks exactly the same as a link exchange to me.
It’s often espoused as the purest of pure ways to create links. I suppose it depends how it is carried out. A barter of well-written content placed on a site in exchange for a back link. To my mind that’s probably fair enough.
But what if it’s reciprocal? (your link for mine) That’s as obvious a link exchange as you can get isn’t it?
What if you join a scheme to find new blogs to post on? Paying someone to find you places to link to. Does the webmaster who hosts it get paid? Often they seem to. Isn’t that a paid link? Again I’ll answer that one for you. Yes it is.
What if you use sub-prime content, don’t vary your anchor text and make a business out of doing it purely to rank your website. Isn’t that just slow and less effective spamming? Looks like it from where I’m sat.
What if you charge for the links on your site or are charged either by another site or service to place links on some one else’s site – albeit in return to this content? Other than the content isn’t that a link exchange? I’ll answer that for you yet again. Yes it is.
In general though, that isn’t what people are talking about. Google, at the moment at least, seem at worst ambivalent to guest blogging, and those who actively do it have reported good results. Albeit requiring tens of thousands of words of high-quality content to work.
In general, link exchange is that old system of sending an e-mail to another site owner in your niche asking them to put your link on their site in returns are you putting their link on your site.
Google doesn’t like this, the two videos above both mention the ant spam’s team aversion to link exchanges. Bear this in mind whenever you do anything other than the purest of guest blogging.
Any link created by a bot is not natural – or is it?. This is almost a philosophical question. Like most people I can spot most bot made links a mile away. They are obvious. My blog receives comment spam which I delete daily. Often the user’s name has been replaced a keyword, and sometimes the halfwits accidentally leave the spin tax in their comment. At the moment I can only guess that Louis Vuitton is offering really good affiliate commission, though if they knew how their network was going about achieving it not sure they’d be so happy.
But hold on. I said this was of philosophical question, and it is. I would challenge anyone here to spot some of my links as bot created.
The content is good, the anchored text is varied, quite often the link is in the body of the text rather than in the name. I’ll go further bad state that often the content is that good that not only is it accepted by the webmaster but I’m thanked, “+1’d” or “Liked” for it.
No platform is spammed and the relevance and context is spot on. I’ve even had the site admins or the webmaster themselves reply to my bot made linking content.
Whether it’s on a blog, forum or elsewhere. You would not know it was bot created. So…
Does The End Justify The Means?
In other words, if I can create 50 links a day in 20 minutes using automation, and neither Google or the web-master of the site the links are placed on have the slightest clue that the links were created with automation, does it matter?
I told you it was a philosophical question.
In my (humble) opinion, no, it doesn’t matter.
“Bad Link building is bad” to coin a phrase. The analogy here is a bad workman who blames his tools. You can buy an application that will create links for you and use it badly, you can use the same tool well.
This isn’t something that is new and hasn’t been said 1000 times before. It doesn’t prevent the vast majority of automated link builders from doing a very poor job of it though.
A good, insightful well-written and contextual bot created link is 100% better than a slapdash thoughtless generic human written one.
You might think differently, but I’m sticking to my guns and calling you out. A good link is a good link no matter how it is made.
Isn’t it a slightly Luddite approach to eschew automation just because you have seen a majority of examples that use it badly? Are these the sort of people that would undo a rusty bolt with their teeth rather than news a spanner… because spanners are tools and therefore unnatural?
But What Is Natural Then?
On a link by link basis I don’t think you can say what is natural and what isn’t. If you take an overall profile pointing to a website then, after some analysis make a judgement call, then deciding on whether it looked natural or not might be a fair call, at least to base a defendable opinion on.
Maybe we are over thinking this? Perhaps the “win” here is moderation, good content, staying on topic and the effective use of whatever skills of tools you might have. Or is that just too darn simple…
A natural link profile? It will show a great deal of chronological variation, it will generally be based on sites that are relevant and authoritative. At the other end of the scale and unnatural link profile is likely to show that links were “blasted”, concentrated on specific platforms, often on sites with little or no relevance to the target site and using sub-prime content.
But within that very wide spectrum there is an almost infinite number of ways of linking.
So what’s yours? More importantly, what do you think is a natural link, and can you defend your definition of it?
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