Make sense of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines with our in-depth guide to link schemes. We’ll help you discover which links are worth pursuing, and which could land you with a hefty penalty!

Google has many personalities. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a tough lawmaker, a master magician, or just a big company with a big heart, working towards creating a better Internet for everybody.

Whatever your thoughts on the big ‘G’, it’s hard to deny that its Webmaster Guidelines are sometimes open to interpretation. Arguably, the most confusion (and discussion) arises around its guidelines on Link Schemes.

And if you’ve fallen foul of a Penguin linking penalty, it’s easy to see understand why you might consider Google’s use of language to be a deliberate attempt to muddle the issue.

However, with some careful, close reading, it is possible to extract some (fairly) definitive answers from Google’s documentation. In other words, we should be able to get a good idea of what Google considers a good link, a bad link, and a downright ugly link.

Please note: Google reserves the right to amend its guidelines if it sees new, unnatural link building techniques emerging. It is very much a working document!

The 14 Suspects – SEO link schemes

The suspects... as cuddly toys.

Source: Nana B Agyel at Flickr.

We’ll break this down by looking at the 14 types of link schemes Google defines in its Webmaster Guidelines. Here’s the full list for reference:

1. Paid links

2. Article marketing

3. Guest posts

4. Directories

5. Bookmarks

6. Press releases

7. Forum comments

8. Link exchanges

9. Automated links

10. Adverts

11. Advertorials

12. Widget spam

13. Template spam

14. Sitewide

For the purposes of this post, ‘good’ means ‘probably OK, as long as you follow guidelines. ‘Bad’ means ‘best avoided, but may be OK under certain circumstances’. And ‘ugly’ means ‘avoid at all costs’.

1. Paid Links

What Google says:

Google lists ‘paid links’ under the category of link schemes that can ‘negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results’. It goes on to clarify:

Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.”

What this means:

Sounds pretty definitively bad, right? Paid links are pretty much Google’s worst enemy. It regularly talks of the dangers of paid linking, and the Interflora episode – when the florist was handed a heavy penalty for buying links from newspapers – was seen by some as an effort to ‘make an example’ of the company.

However, it’s not as cut-and-dry as ‘you pay for a link with cash, you get penalised’. For example:

  • People often believe paid linking means ‘paying money for a link’, but as Google says in its guidelines, sending someone a free product or providing goods and services in exchange for a link is equally prohibited. This means that traditional PR tactics like sending freebies to bloggers and journos with the expectation of receiving a ‘dofollow’ link is a big ‘no no’ in Google’s eyes.
  • …Which brings us onto our second point. Google explicitly warns against “buying or selling links that pass PageRank”. Buying or selling a link that doesn’t pass PageRank is OK, as this will likely not affect search engine rankings. PPC ads, display ads and similar advertisements (if managed through trusted channels) are also included under this definition.

The moral of the story is: If you plan to buy links, you should explicitly ask for a ‘nofollow’ link from the seller. This kind of linking should only be done as a means of raising your profile, not as a way to manipulate search rankings.

What Matt Cutts says:

There’s still a fair bit of room for interpretation in the guidelines, so for a more in-depth view, check out this video from Google’s head of web spam, Matt Cutts:

The verdict on paid links:

'UGLY' stamp.

….unless they don’t pass PageRank

2. Article Marketing

What Google says:

Article marketing is also mentioned in Google’s link scheme guidelines as one of the “link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking.” However, its full definition tells a slightly different story:

Large-scale article marketing […] with keyword-rich anchor text links.”

What this means:

Article marketing was once a common SEO tactic, but has since been devalued by the digital marketing community, thanks in part to pronouncements like this from Google.

But before you denounce articles entirely, there are two points to be aware of within Google’s guidelines:

  • Google warns against ‘large-scale’ article marketing, not article marketing in general.
  • Google specifically refers to article marketing using ‘keyword-rich anchor text links’.

Of course, these terms leave a lot to the imagination. What does Google mean by ‘large-scale’? We don’t know, but if we had to guess, we’d say they’re referring to the old-school tactic of automatically uploading articles to dozens of sites at a time.

The other point is crucial. Google seems most interested in penalising sites that use articles with keyword-rich anchor text links. This refers to the use of high-value ‘money term’ keywords in anchor text links, as a way to improve your chances of ranking for a specific term. Linking on your brand (which is inherently non-competitive) or using a ‘naked’ URL as anchor text (http://www.example.com/) is presumably OK.

Does this mean that small-scale article marketing with keyword-rich anchor text is OK? Or that any article marketing using keyword-rich anchor text is bad? It’s hard to tell.

But wait… there’s more. Google mentions articles again under its category of ‘links that may violate our guidelines, where it pays special attention to keyword-rich anchor text:

Links with optimized anchor text in articles […] distributed on other sites.”

The upshot of this? It’s reasonable to assume that small-scale article marketing will be tolerated, but on no circumstances should you use keyword-rich anchor text!

What Matt Cutts says

Matt Cutts’ personal recommendation is ‘not to upload to article directories’ in order to build links. However, he makes specific reference to ‘spammy’ and ‘low-quality’ content, keyword-rich anchor text links, and large-scale campaigns – just like Google’s guidelines:

The verdict on article marketing: potentially…

'GOOD' stamp.

…but only on a small-scale, without keyword-rich anchor text.

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3. Guest posts

What Google says:

Google mentions guest posts along with articles as a tactic that could negatively impact rankings:

Large-scale […] guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.”

What this means:

In essence, the issue here is the same as with article marketing. No large-scale campaigns, and no keyword-rich anchor text, and you’ll be OK right?

Well, the difference here is that Matt Cutts publicly and dramatically cut down guest posting/blogging as an SEO tactic in a now-infamous blog post entitled The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO.

What Matt Cutts says

In his blog post, Matt Cutts wrote: “Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company.”

Cutts later edited his post to make clear that he wasn’t referring to guest blogging as inherently bad – it’s fine to use it to increase reach, brand exposure etc.

However, his remained emphatically clear on his original point: “I’m talking about guest blogging for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes.”

The verdict on guest blogging:

'UGLY' stamp.

… because Matt Cutts says so.

4. Directories

What Google says:

Google lists “low-quality directory […] site links” under the category of “links that may violate our guidelines,” making specific reference to ‘unnatural links’.

What are unnatural links? In Google’s eyes, these are “links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page.”

What this means:

So you’ve got loads of links from directories. Is it time to disavow them all? Let’s look at the facts first…

First of all, we have to consider what Google means by ‘low-quality directories’. This reads like deliberate vagueness, to give Google the power to decide what constitutes a low-quality directory on a case-by-case basis.

And deliberate vagueness it may be. But can we take Google’s definition of ‘unnatural links’ as a clue to what it considers a ‘high-quality’ directory, or at least an ‘acceptable-quality’ directory?

Unnatural links are links that “weren’t editorially placed or vouched for,” so if a directory site has an approval process for its links, does this mean its OK to use it for link building?

Let’s take DMOZ as an example. DMOZ is one of the oldest directory sites online. It has an approval process for links. And, importantly, Google has previously said that DMOZ links are good.

However, late last year, a webmaster received an unnatural link warning referring to DMOZ.org, as reported by SEOprofiler.

To confuse matters further, a Google representative then went on to say: “That particular DMOZ/ODP link example sounds like a mistake on our side.”

The verdict on directories:

'BAD' stamp.

….because there’s simply too much we don’t know. Does Google have a manual process for determining low-quality directories? Or an algorithm? While we don’t have the answers, it’s safer to stay away.

5. Bookmarks

What Google says:

Social bookmarking sites are mentioned alongside directories, in the same section of Google’s guidelines:

Low-quality […] bookmark site links.”

What this means:

Read the entry on directories if you haven’t already. The same applies to bookmark sites. The only difference is that bookmark sites are even less likely to have an approval process built in, so are even more likely to be considered ‘low quality’.

The verdict on bookmarks:

'UGLY' stamp.

…there are far too many grey areas, and not enough ‘quality’ sites.

6. Press Releases

What Google says:

Press releases are another link scheme listed under the ‘maybe’ category:

Links with optimized anchor text in […] press releases distributed on other sites.”

What this means:

What Google is getting at here is that press releases should not be used to build links with keyword-rich anchor text.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the history, press releases have historically been distributed online as a means to generate links. Our approach with press releases has always been to, first and foremost, increase exposure online. But the prevalence of useless link-building press releases containing spammy content has led to warnings like this from Google.

The key thing to take away from this is that it’s the “links with optimized anchor text” that make press releases ‘go bad’. Using press releases as marketing tool to gain exposure rather than build links will not lead to you being penalised.

The safe thing to do is to use non-keyword-rich anchor text in any press release links. And to be safe, you should ‘nofollow’ all links too – many trustworthy press release platforms now automatically ‘nofollow’ links by default.

What Matt Cutts says:

Matt Cutts has written about using press releases for SEO. But the most definitive explanation comes from John Mueller, Webmaster Trends analyst:

It’s the first question to be dealt with in that video, so don’t let the length put you off. However, here’s the even shorter version: There’s still value in using press releases to promote a service or product. However, you shouldn’t use ‘dofollow’ links as a means to manipulate search rankings.

The verdict on press releases:

'GOOD' stamp.

…for exposure and brand visibility.

'BAD' stamp.

… for link building.

7. Forum comments

What Google says:

Using forum comments as a link building tactic is pretty much considered the archetype of spammy behaviour nowadays. Interestingly, however, Google mentions it as a tactic that ‘may violate our guidelines’:

Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature, for example:
Thanks, that’s great info!
– Paul
paul’s pizzasan diego pizzabest pizza san diego

What this means:

At first glance, this guideline seems to follow the pattern of others we’ve already examined. In other words, ‘it might be OK, as long as you don’t use optimized anchor text’.

Does this mean it’s OK to post on forums to gain links, as long as you use non-optimised anchor text? In all likelihood, no.

The issue here is that Google has to be very careful in the way it talks about forum links. After all, forums are, by their very nature, full of organic, natural, user-generated content. And with this content comes organic, natural, user-generated links .

In other words, exactly the kind of links Google wants to encourage.

Google needs its guidelines to discourage forum spam, without discouraging people from posting links on forums as personal recommendations.

How does Google tell ‘personal recommendation’ from ‘unnatural link’? We don’t know. But it’s safer to seek other, more modern link building methods than dabble with this very dangerous relic from the bygone days of SEO.

The verdict on forum links:

'UGLY' stamp.

…this is not a present-proof tactic, never mind a future-proof tactic.

8. Link exchanges

What Google says:

Link exchanges are listed as one of the link schemes that “can negatively impact a site’s ranking.” Here are Google’s exact words:

Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.”

What this means:

Back in the early days of digital marketing, link exchanges were the bread and butter of SEO. If you wanted better rankings, you needed links. Lots of other sites need better rankings too. Why not exchange links with them to get a mutually beneficial ranking boost?

It makes sense. But it’s also easy to understand why practices like these may be considered ‘unnatural’.

Let’s examine Google’s use of language:

  • Google mentions “excessive” use of link exchanges. Does this mean a little bit of link exchanging is acceptable?
  • Google also mentions “partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking,” but could we also take this to mean “excessive link exchanges exclusively for the sake of cross-linking”?

We don’t have the answers to these questions. But we may be able to shed some light on why Google chose to word its guidelines in this way.

Firstly, ‘non-excessive’ link exchanging may be perfectly natural. Say, for example, you run a hairdressers in a small village. And let’s say your friend down the road owns a nail parlour. It’s a very good nail parlour, and you want your customers to know where they can get their nails done nearby, so you include a link to the nail parlour’s website on your own. Your manicurist friend thinks the same thing, so he links back to you.

Perfectly understandable, perfectly helpful, perfectly natural.

Secondly, although setting up partner sites “exclusively for the sake of cross-linking” is obviously unnatural and bad. But partner sites as a rule are not bad, as it makes perfect sense for partners to link to one another for the sake of their customers.

This said, if you come across a spammy email offering a link exchange, avoid it like the plague.

The verdict on link exchanges:

'BAD' stamp.

…although they can be natural in certain circumstances, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

9. Automated links

What Google says:

Under the heading of link schemes that “can negatively impact a site’s ranking”, Google mentions:

Using automated programs or services to create links to your site.”

What this means:

In our section about article marketing, we posited the theory that Google considered “large-scale” article marketing to be that conducted using automated programs.

Well here, the search giant lays the facts bare. If you use automated linking programs, you risk getting penalised for it, pure and simple.

We know how Google works. And we know that a sudden uplift in your link profile of, say, 2,000 links is likely to raise suspicion. Don’t do it.

The verdict on automated links:

'UGLY' stamp.

…it’s not only unnatural and spammy – it’s also very easy to get caught out.

10./11. Adverts and advertorials

What Google says:

There are so many similarities between these two link schemes that we’re grouping them together. Google lists these link schemes under “unnatural links that may violate our guidelines”:

Text advertisements that pass PageRank.”

And…

Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank.”

What this means:

Notice there is no mention of ‘keyword-rich anchor text’ here. Paying for a link that passes PageRank from an article or advertisement is bad, full stop.

Notably, this does not include paid search or display advertising that’s conducted through proper channels, as these links should not pass PageRank.

Long story short: If somebody offers you an advertising opportunity with a ‘dofollow’ link as part of the package, run for the hills.

As we’ve already seen with paid links, using advertorials or advertising as a means to promote a product or service without getting a ‘dofollow’ link is OK.

What Matt Cutts says:

Here’s Matt Cutts with some more information on this topic:

The verdict on adverts and advertorials:

'UGLY' stamp.

…they’re paid links in all but name. Avoid.

12. Widget Spam

What Google says:

In case you’re unsure what widget spam is, Google has a succinct explanation:

Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites, for example:
Visitors to this page: 1,472
car insurance

This is under the heading of “unnatural links that may violate our guidelines.”

What this means:

Here’s an example of how widget spam can occur:

You create a cool little web app that lets users calculate their BMI. You code this ‘widget’ so it’s embeddable on other sites, and sure enough lots of health and fitness blogs and websites include it on relevant pages. After all, it’s useful to their users.

So if you’re providing a useful tool, what’s the problem? Well, the ‘spam’ part of the equation occurs when you include “keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links” within the widget in an effort to manipulate search rankings.

But this isn’t quite enough information to come a clear verdict. Let’s look more closely at Google’s definition:

  • “Keyword-rich” links: Fine, we know not to use keyword-rich anchor text in widget links.
  • “Hidden” links: Links should be clearly visible to users, otherwise it’s a clear attempt to manipulate rankings through subterfuge.
  • “Low-quality” links: This one’s a little more difficult. What is a low-quality link?

We don’t have the answer to this question. So although distributing widgets with non-optimised, clearly visible links may be OK, the vagueness of the term ‘low quality’ means there’s too much room for interpretation to make this a viable linking strategy.

What Matt Cutts says:

Late last year, Matt Cutts posted a quick video in which he recommended using ‘nofollow’ links on all widgets:

The verdict on widgets:

'BAD' stamp.

…but probably OK for brand exposure, as long as the link is ‘nofollowed’.

13./14. Sitewide links and template spam

What Google says:

We’re grouping these two link schemes together because they are often one and the same. Google says:

Widely distributed links in the footers or templates of various sites…”

…may violate its guidelines.

What this means:

‘Sitewide links’ refers to links that occur on every page of a site.

This often goes hand-in-hand with template spam, because people often create site templates (for WordPress, for example), with the express intention of generating links back to their own sites in the footer of each page.

You’ve probably seen these. They usually look something like this:

Simple blog theme by Example template creator.

If we’ve established these kinds of links are bad, does this prevent web designers from ever crediting themselves on the websites they create?

No. As usual, the answer lies in Google’s careful use of language.

It says “widely distributed links” may be against its guidelines. So if you create websites for clients at a steady pace and include a link back to your own site, you shouldn’t have much to worry about.

The other key term is “in the footers or templates of various sites”. If you do include a link to let users know who built the site, don’t include it in the template of all pages.

But this is all damage limitation. As an active link building strategy, template spam and sitewide links are bad news.

The verdict on template spam and sitewide links:

'BAD' stamp.

…not a viable strategy in any sort of useful volume.

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