Link Schemes & Webmaster Guidelines

Link Schemes & Dangers of Buying Advertorial Links

Google maintains it’s official set of webmaster guidelines to help direct SEO agencies and website owners how to best market themselves, among many other things. Among these guidelines are described several specific types of backlinks that could potentially get your website penalized. All of these are worth careful consideration, but one that often goes overlooked are ‘advertorial’ links, which fall under the scope of Google’s Link Schemes Guidelines.

Link ‘Schemes’ are types of SEO methods that are against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can result in your site being given a manual penalty if deployed willy-nilly. These include such actions as buying types of links that pass along page rank (link juice), exchanging links with other webmasters, using automated programs or services to generate links to your site, or even using “large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword rich anchor texts.” That last bit is in quotes because it’s the exact language used in the Webmaster Guidelines discussion of Link Schemes. To get a general sense of Google’s perspective here, consider their own summation of links schemes:

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

If these guidelines were enforced militantly, half of the internet would receive a manual penalty over night. Nonetheless, it pays to keep an awareness of Google’s stance on link solicitation when developing your SEO strategy or when contracting SEO services. In practice, I tend to find that as long as you aren’t being belligerent about these types of actions, there’s a pretty wide berth before you’ll run into any trouble. For example, if you hire an SEO agency to do outreach for your business and start driving 10-20 guest-post caliber links to your site per month, you’re not going to throw up any red flags. If  you’ve built a webscraper to harvest any and every email you can find, use spintax to send out ‘unique’ pitches, and are sending sub-par content loaded with keywords to all the replies and taking what you can get—you might run into some issues. For the most part, violations of Google’s Link Scheme guidelines takes a certain level of intent and awareness. Some such caveats however, such as buying advertorial-type links from websites that openly sell such a service, might not be so clearly defined as potentially risky.

Advertorial links are content that is written in a website’s native format, such as an article, but has been written and paid for by a commercial interest. These don’t always pop out as advertisements to readers, and can therefore be quite effective from a marketing standpoint. Google regards these links as having potential to be link schemes, and requires the seller to use certain formatting to ensure no penalty is given. Google’s outlines the use of the rel=”nofollow” tag as being mandatory for websites that sell the write to publish content on their websites with links. This is an example of the required nofollow html markup added to a native link code:

This tells Google’s webcrawler not to pass on any Page Rank through this link, and serves much less SEO value than dofollow links (links without a rel=”nofollow” attribute). For another live example of this in action, check out the source code of this link. While these links are still useful in driving traffic to websites, they aren’t often regarded as being useful in helping pages to rank. The important thing to be aware of here is that if you are buying these types of links, your risk is having them eventually becoming switched to rel=’nofollow’ versions or being removed altogether if the hosting site is facing a manual penalty from Google (or the FTC). There’s little SEO risk of having a target site being penalized from links like these (from reputable websites that is) but there is a real risk of losing your investment. Again, to enforce this policy internet-wide they would have to be able to first; have the ability to identify abstract means of negotiating these deals, and second; be prepared to penalize half the damn news media industry. As a general rule, it’s low risk to buy links from large editorial sites when you’re negotiating on a personal level with authors or contributors. If there is a ‘media opportunities’ page that will let you upload and article and pay at the same time—avoid it like the plague!

Final Considerations

Google’s Webmaster guidelines regarding Link Schemes can come across as militant at first glance. It paints a picture of penalizing webmasters for engaging in common practices used by fortune 500 companies and multi-million dollar SEO agencies around the world. In practice, keeping your head down and using some common sensibility will help keep you in the clear. If you’re considering buying editorial links that don’t include rel=”nofollow” tags  just be aware that you are in a grey area that comes with some risk. If you’ve just invested $5000 in editorial dofollow links in top publications, just keep in mind there will always be a risk associated with those types of purchases. With risk comes reward—just make sure you’re not gambling with your business!