Do Unnatural Linking Penalties Signal A Fundamental Shift In Google Policy?

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The last couple of weeks have seen a series of fairly dramatic algorithm updates in which hundreds of thousands of sites have been de-indexed and have received messages from Google indicating that they are falling foul in exhibiting an 'unnatural linking' profile.

Link building has long been a staple element of SEO strategy. Google's own webmaster guidelines emphasise the need for relevant links of decent quality as a key ingredient in achieving sustainable rankings.

Some may see the latest algorithm updates as a head-on attack on the link building industry. However, this is far too broad a supposition.

Certainly, many firms offering link building services have historically fallen foul Google's guidelines. In particular, Google explicitly states that that buying or selling of links solely for the purpose of passing page rank is against its terms of service and that any such links should include a 'nofollow' tag.

Link buying has become nothing short of an epidemic in the last couple of years. Otherwise ethical webmasters have been persuaded to provide 'dofollow' links in return for cash payments: often substantial and frequently recurring.

No one can dispute the need to monetise any website. However, many believe that driving revenues by selling links in this fashion could be placing sites at risk, as Google continues to refine its systems in an attempt to re-introduce some rationale to linking.

Other recent 'victims' of the updates include low value blog networks in which content was 're-spun' using automated technology in an attempt to defeat any uniqueness checks. These networks and the links from them are now largely defunct.

In order to identify some of the worst culprits, Google appears to be applying some pattern recognition processes. One of the more obvious patterns is likely to include a disproportionate number of links containing the same anchor text and pointing to the same page. Content pages with multiple links to the same external domain may, some believe, also send the wrong signals.

Many in the industry are now suggesting that those responsible for establishing links should mix the associated anchor text, with a combination of keyword, brand name and domain name recommended. In no small part, this can be attributed to a growing recognition as to the need for greater transparency and openness.

The recent updates appear to be a reflection of the Google Webspam Team's on-going objective to maximise SERPs relevance and quality. This objective is by no means new. Indeed, the key messages from Google relating to linking remain unchanged. Do it at sensible levels, ethically and perhaps most importantly, relevantly. It is this final point that has so often been ignored. Ask yourself a simple question: from the reader's perspective, does the presence of this link make sense and is it merited?

So is this a fundamental shift? It would seem not. Rather, it appears to be the enforcement of long-established policy. It will doubtless prove painful for many in the short term, with some innocent sites inevitably suffering as a by-product of what is, after all, an algorithmic change. However, the result is likely to drive much needed improvement as businesses and their SEO providers adjust their approach.

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