My rant about links and link-building

Links are a big thing in the SEO world. And they’re the subject of a significant percentage of the questions that we answer on Dumb SEO Questions, so that’s enough reason to write a blog post about them.

This time, I’m going to:

  1. have a rant about dodgy link builders
  2. tell you about how Google has asked us to change the way we code links. And why I’m struggling to see why we should. That’s a bit of a rant, too

Rant: I hate dodgy link builders and their spam

How many emails do you get offering to build links for you or possibly some unmissable guest posting? Last week Google let through 27 spams into my inbox from people providing such services. I haven’t bothered to check the number that went straight into my spam folder.

While I see them as an annoyance and have the occasional sweary outburst at my screen, this kind of link building is a danger to websites. So many small businesses and beginning webmasters get caught by these charlatans. I don’t know how many of them believe in what they’re selling or if they just see it as an easy sell that can be just as easily automated.

I don’t know. But I know that purveyors of junk linking services take up hours of my time each week disavowing people of the thought they might get a cheap and easy SEO win. Unfortunately, SEO isn’t cheap or easy – run from anyone who promises you free traffic, BTW. And then there’s binning annoying emails and messages on LinkedIn.

Don’t get me started on LinkedIn as a source of spam. Just don’t.

So, Dave, why don’t you advise buying thousands of easy links from so-called high-quality sites?

Because, in fact, they will be low-quality links that may well upset Google. Who will then downgrade your site’s performance on organic search and sentence you to months of digging yourself out of the hole you’ve put yourself in.

Rule of life: if it looks too good to be true, then it is too good to be true.

Google has asked us to change the way we code links

So the first part of the rant was about inbound links. Now we’re going to talk about Google’s latest changes to the way we identify our outgoing links. And how Google seems to be asking us to do something for nothing.

We already do plenty of things so that Google gives us something back – that’s what a lot of my business involves. But this announcement doesn’t understand the sheer amount of work that’s involved in properly maintaining a website to ensure it ranks well on the SERPs. We don’t want any more!

OK. Let’s go. Here’s the story if you want to read it or challenge my view that it’s all a bit pointless for us who own or work on websites. In September, Google told us about Evolving “nofollow” – new ways to identify the nature of links.

Tweaking “nofollow” after 14 years

It’s nearly a decade and a half since Google introduced the rel=”nofollow” attributes. We have been using it to negate the effect of links to low-quality sites in user-generated content (UGC) and indicate paid or sponsored links.

Google has introduced two new attributes and clarified how rel=”nofollow” should be applied.

  • rel=”sponsored” is for paid or sponsored links. It should almost certainly be used with affiliate links
  • rel=“ugc” is for links within user-generated content, except when the content is from a trusted contributor
  • rel=“nofollow” is now the backstop for nofollow links; ie, if you can’t find a case for “sponsored” or “ugc”, then “no follow” is the one to go for

And, just when we’ve digested the above, Google tells us we can combine the attributes.

Do we have to change anything?

Now for the good news. Thank whatever deity you prefer, we don’t have to change all the thousands (millions?) of links on your website.

Just start using the new attributes from now on in. If you want to – see What about the benefits? below.

What about penalties?

In the past, you could be penalised for not marking paid-for links. That’s still the case.

Google advises that paid or sponsored links should be marked either “sponsored” or “nofollow” (which seems odd. Why bother launching “sponsored” and advise us that we can continue to use “nofollow”?

They’re also saying that we shouldn’t combine “ugc” with either “sponsored” or “no follow”, possibly to discourage contributed content from containing affiliate links.

Like so many changes, Google foists on us, this one will take a while to become properly clear.

What about the benefits?

The short answer? There aren’t any.

Google starts off its pitch by saying:

“When nofollow was introduced, Google would not count any link marked this way as a signal to use within our search algorithms. This has now changed. All the link attributes — sponsored, UGC and nofollow — are treated as hints about which links to consider or exclude within Search. We’ll use these hints — along with other signals — as a way to better understand how to appropriately analyze and use links within our systems.”

That sounds good. The new attributes help Google understand your links within its search algos.

But carry on reading and Google admits:

“Using the new attributes allows us to better process links for analysis of the web. That can include your own content, if people who link to you make use of these attributes.”

So, if I use the new attributes it won’t help my site. The benefits I may see are if other people use them to link to my site.

My view is that Google will have to show us some more tangible benefits before many of us start using them. And, if Google fails to, we’ll see them abandoning these attributes sometime in the future as they tend to with other ideas that fail to float. Personally, I hate wasting my time. 

Let me backpedal just a little. Balance is a good thing

It won’t do any harm to start using the new attributes now, though. Your SEO plugin may even make it easy to do the right thing, so why not?

There may even be some benefits Google hasn’t told us about – or maybe you can tell me. I’ll tell you if I find out anything, and if I change my point of view.

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Photo by Kaley Dykstra on Unsplash

David Rosam has been working online for more than 25 years, after a career in direct marketing copywriting for the tech and financial services industries.

Today, he specialises in Content-Focused Search Engine Optimisation—from audits, through research and strategy to implementation.

He was probably the UK’s first SEO Copywriter.