Search engine optimization (SEO) has a long history, and it remains one of the most popular digital marketing strategies in the world because of its accessibility and potential return on investment (ROI). While it’s easy to learn the basics and get started with a rudimentary strategy, some of the finer points of SEO are hard to master.
How to Avoid Link Schemes in SEO
For example, in SEO, there’s a fine line between optimization and manipulation. If you cross that line, you could end up with a penalty on your website that causes you to lose momentum and plunge in rankings – or be entirely blacklisted from the SERPs.
Fortunately, the most severe penalties are reserved for only the most grievous offenses, such as participating in link schemes. But how can you spot a link scheme from a distance? And what’s the right way to build links anyway?
What is an SEO Link Scheme?
A “link scheme” is defined as any deliberate attempt to manipulate your rankings with inbound links.
In case you aren’t familiar, Google preferentially ranks websites based on their level of trustworthiness – or, as some call it, “authority.” The more trustworthy your site seems to be, the higher it’s going to rank. And Google’s primary way of determining trustworthiness is evaluating the quality and quantity of links pointing to your website. In other words, if you earn more links, you’ll end up ranking higher.
The Black Hat Scheme’s
Unfortunately, “black hat” (i.e., unethical) practitioners of SEO have used this as an excuse to spam links in any way they can. If you’re caught placing links for the exclusive purpose of boosting your rankings, it’s considered a “scheme” and will likely be penalized. Common link schemes include link circles (or “link wheels”) and utilizing low-quality web directories.
Does that mean you should never practice link building?
The short answer is no. Google explicitly prohibits buying, selling, or manipulating links purely for ranking purposes. But having reliable links with great information is the main motivation to guarantee the best possible experience for web users.
In other words, as long as your links provide some kind of value to users, and appear naturally — they won’t be considered to be a scheme.
How to Spot a Link Scheme in SEO
Despite the risk of penalty, link schemes remain common. Inexperienced and malicious SEO optimizers often create products and services designed to take advantage of people who aren’t familiar with these guidelines.
Hallmarks of SEO Link Schemes that can help you identify the link scheme.
Simple transactions. If you’re shopping for a link building service provider and you see ridiculously simple services, consider it a warning sign. A responsible SEO company will work with you to get to know your brand and create the best possible offsite content for link-building purposes. If you’re promised basic links for a flat rate with no mention of content or the complexity of modern link-building, you have a right to be suspicious.
Bold promises. You should also be wary of practitioners who make any kind of bold promises. For example, you might find a company willing to help you “reach rank one in 14 days” or build “50 links in a single month.” SEO is a complex and multifaceted strategy – and one that typically takes months, or even years to fully develop. It’s somewhat unpredictable, even for the most experienced experts, so responsible companies never make such grandiose claims.
Cheap costs. You get what you pay for in SEO – at least, for the most part. It’s definitely possible to be overcharged for basic services and it’s possible to find a good deal on SEO services as well. But if you find suspiciously low rates, it should raise a red flag. Building a link properly, with well-researched, thoughtful content, takes time and expertise – it’s not something that can be done well for $10.
Ambiguous processes. Spend some time talking to the link builder in question. Ask them how they plan on building links and what their process is for helping clients raise in rankings? If they don’t provide you with clear answers, or if there’s a lot of ambiguity in what they’re saying, it’s a bad sign. Push for specific answers and think critically about what you hear.
English as a second language. There are amazing SEO practitioners all around the world, and the language you speak has no bearing on your expertise in the field. However, if you’re going to put together a solid SEO strategy, you need a team of writers and experts who can craft excellent content. If the company’s website is full of grammatical errors and other mistakes, consider it a warning sign.
Automation. Good links have to be placed meaningfully in well-spoken, articulate, publisher-optimized content. It’s not something you can accomplish with an automated algorithm. If your SEO company of choice is making a pitch for something large-scale and automated, you should be distrustful. For now, at least, this is something that’s only possible with the help of human strategic planning and linguistic nuance.
Reciprocity or exchanges. One of the most common hallmarks of a link scheme is some level of reciprocity. For example, an external source may build a link to your site if you build one to theirs, or you might work with a sizable directory that sells links directly. If you’re not earning your links with quality content and audience-focused goals, you’re doing something wrong.
Poor sources. Where is your link-building company planning on building links? If you can’t get a straight answer, run away. If their sources are all low-quality publishers, forums, and other untrustworthy institutions, you’re not going to benefit much, even if this isn’t technically a “scheme.”
Limited SEO knowledge. Before signing a contract with an agency, spend some time talking to the people who are going to work on your campaign. Have a conversation about your SEO goals and what you’re hoping to get out of this arrangement. Ask lots of questions and get a feel for their industry knowledge; if they don’t seem to know what they’re talking about, or if even the basic SEO fundamentals are obscure to them, you should look elsewhere for SEO services.
Poor reviews. It’s a good idea to look at past reviews and testimonials to see what other customers have had to say about this company. Do people generally see good results from this link-building service? Or do people typically end up disappointed? Be wary of fake reviews as well.
A bad reputation. Finally, spend some time lurking in SEO forums and talking to other people who are intimately familiar with Google and the SEO industry. Does this practitioner have a good reputation? A bad reputation? Or are they totally unheard of? Don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion if you’re on the fence.
If you notice more than one of these signs, stay away.
How to Build SEO Links — Responsibly
The list of warning signs for link schemes is intimidatingly long, but the process of building “good” links isn’t that complex. In fact, you can evade most link-related penalties by following three simple rules:
Use authoritative sources. The stronger and more trustworthy the source, the better the link will be. It might be harder to get featured, but that’s the cost of entry.
Remain relevant. Every link you build needs to be relevant to the content surrounding it and the publisher you choose. No spamming!
Provide value to users. Finally, your link (and the content housing it) needs to provide value to users. That could mean providing detailed information, a different perspective, or further reading on a topic important to your readership.
SEO is a complex subject and link building is a complex strategy. But don’t let that intimidate you. With even a bit of experience, identifying link schemes is simple – and you can build links of your own with a straightforward process.
Timothy Carter is the Chief Revenue Officer of the Seattle digital marketing agency SEO.co, DEV.co & PPC.co. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO and digital marketing leading, building and scaling sales operations, helping companies increase revenue efficiency and drive growth from websites and sales teams. When he's not working, Tim enjoys playing a few rounds of disc golf, running, and spending time with his wife and family on the beach -- preferably in Hawaii with a cup of Kona coffee.