Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) has constantly evolved over the past twenty years. Once upon a time SEO was a relatively simple subject whereas now a huge industry has grown up around it.
One example of the complexity of SEO is from over ten years ago, when there was much talk about the fact that Google had approximately 200 signals in its search algorithm. Whilst, for business reasons, the search giant cannot divulge all the secrets in its intellectual property, it has drip-fed some of the signals to the public, including the use of HTTPS and speed as ranking factors.
Google’s then head of web spam, Matt Cutts, went on to elaborate that some of those 200 signals might have over 50 variations. So, on any web page Google could have been looking at as many as 1,000 factors whilst considering where to rank your content and your competition.
All of these signals play their part, to varying degrees, in how and where your website ranks. Yet despite all the years of nuance and detail, one factor that has always been a strong signal in SEO has been the backlink.
The Importance of Backlinks
A backlink is a link from a third-party website to your site. It may be a link from one of your partner businesses, a client’s website or, if you publish useful content, a link from an admirer of your work. If you publish genuine thought leadership or scientific data, then you many earn a citation through a web link. If you’ve done something newsworthy, you may have been referred to in a news source. You may have a link in a local, national or even global website directory. The list goes on…
Backlinks are an important sign to the search engines; they can indicate popularity or authority. Receiving a single link from an important or prestigious website carries a lot of weight, as does a multitude of backlinks from smaller sites, or social media posts for instance.
However, backlinks can also be manipulated.
Last week a story surfaced on Ycombinator’s Hacker News from a German software developer. He discovered some questionable backlink tactics from a competitor and published a blog post with his findings.
For the best part of a year Caspar Wrede had been trying to rank his scorecard website on Google. But he was unable to achieve the number one spot, despite his product, by its nature, attaining lots of backlinks from users due to its popularity.
Using the Ahrefs SEO tool Wrede decide to analyse his competitor’s backlink profile. What he discovered was that the number one site in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) had accumulated nearly 3,648 in a short timescale. Initially impressed, Wrede further analysed the links and found that they were from a variety of websites with no apparently valid reason to link back to the competitor’s website.
Wrede wrote to a number of the websites where he found these links, asking if they were selling outbound links. The response from just one of the sites he contacted took him by surprise. Whilst the news portal he contacted made it very clear that they were not selling links “at any cost” the content publisher clarified that they had used an online HTML editor to clean the markup in their content.
What came next was truly shocking. According to the news publisher, the free online HTML editor had been secretly injecting links into the supposedly clean code.
Wrede’s competitors had not just created the number one website but also a handful of online HTML editors with different URLs that were all adding backlinks to it.
What Happened Next?
Just four days after his blog post, the competitor website was penalized for “unnatural link building”. Additionally, there was the threat that the site would be removed from Google search.
The lesson here is that “black hat” and “grey hat” techniques go against Google’s guidelines. The only way to conduct effective long-term organic digital marketing strategies is by using “white hat” SEO.
Google publishes a number of Webmaster guidelines, aimed at those who own, run and maintain websites and content.
Some of the basic principles that were violated in this story include:
- Don’t deceive your users.
- Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings.
Going against the principles laid out in Google’s guidelines, the number one website will now lose its place due to unsavoury short-term tactics.
The best advice for all website owners is to stick to white hat SEO techniques and adhere to best practice. Build your website, create content and behave within the search engines’ guidelines.
There are better long-term SEO strategies for building backlinks, including creating content that is worthy enough to earn natural links, to be shared via social media and by contributing to other websites’ articles.
Clever Marketing is a full-service digital marketing agency based in Berkshire, Hampshire and Surrey with over twenty years’ experience in SEO.