Every day, sellers on platforms like eBay, Upwork, and Fiverr tempt their potential clients with irresistible offers: hundreds, even thousands, of backlinks for just a handful of dollars. This is a well-known statement in the digital marketing world: external links to your website are beneficial for Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
However, an often overlooked aspect is that these backlinks can also have a paradoxical effect. In fact, they could lead to Google penalizing your website. While on one hand, backlinks are deemed as one of the most critical factors contributing to your website’s ranking, Google despises any practice of generating backlinks that are solely created for SEO purposes.
Google refers to these malpractices as “Link Farms.” In the parlance of SEO specialists, this is known as “artificial backlink building.” Essentially, this form of backlink generation could be one of the worst things that can happen to an SEO campaign.
Understanding this, it becomes evident that while backlinks can be powerful tools in improving your website’s visibility and ranking, they must be handled with care, caution, and authenticity. It’s important to strike a balance between enhancing SEO and complying with Google’s guidelines to avoid the potential backlash from artificial backlink building.
Since the Florida Update in 2003, Google has been waging war against artificial backlinks, often referred to as ‘Link Farms’. Ever since, Google has engineered control mechanisms specifically designed to counteract such practices.
There was a time, a few years back, when backlinks worked flawlessly. If you’re an ‘old school’ SEO expert from 2015, you might still hold onto the notion that backlinks are great for SEO. However, given that it’s already 2023, such a perspective is the equivalent of a century in SEO years. Keep in mind, a single year in the evolution of the SEO industry equates to a decade in the real world. That’s how rapidly the landscape changes in the world of SEO.
Google’s ability to detect purchased backlinks has become incredibly sharp, often within just a few weeks. The methodology employed by Google is brilliantly straightforward — and many might have anticipated it had they given it some thought: Google is well-versed in the history of a website and understands how backlinks naturally accrue over time. For instance, if hundreds of backlinks are directed at your website overnight, Google raises the red flag, marking the beginning of a disastrous SEO campaign.
Even if all the backlinks are of high quality — coming from reputable websites — Google can still discern when a backlink campaign has been initiated, which ultimately contravenes Google’s guidelines.
What Google wants is simple: It desires for backlinks to develop organically. Google prefers users to set backlinks based on their interest and volition, not triggered by automated mechanisms or strategic marketing campaigns.
There’s nothing wrong with creating a backlink strategy that aligns with Google’s guidelines. This endeavour, however, requires particular skills and a type of sensitivity, which I will delve into later in this article.
Before we explore that further, it’s crucial to understand what happens when a backlink strategy isn’t correctly implemented. The consequences could be graver than you might imagine.
By now, it should be abundantly clear that massive directory entries, guestbooks, and similar strategies are an absolute no-go. A backlink on a website only makes sense if the content genuinely requires a link to your website. This is because such a link would be of assistance to the user and is contextually relevant to the topic at hand.
Here’s an illustrative example: Suppose your website focuses on artificial intelligence, and a blogger writes an article on this topic and links to your article. In this case, you’ve earned a thematically relevant backlink, which Google tends to view positively.
However, exercise caution: If each of this blogger’s articles explores different themes and consistently links to a thematically relevant website, Google may deduce that the blogger is selling backlinks. In such instances, the blogger’s website may already be flagged by Google, and the backlink could be classified as negative SEO, thereby putting you at risk of a Manual Action.
Backlinks should not be placed on websites that have essentially turned backlinking into a conceptual business model. For instance, Brian Dean of Backlinko, a leading authority on backlink building, advises creating a list of potential backlink partners while simultaneously avoiding large portals that monetize articles and backlinks from external sources.
This category includes prominent portals like Forbes, Times, Money, BusinessWeek, and many others. In Germany, this might cover large portals and magazines, as well as niche-specific websites. For example, an online magazine dedicated to dentistry that exclusively offers backlinks for dentists and clinics would also be regarded as negative SEO by Google.
For a healthy backlink strategy, you should ensure the website meets the following criteria:
- Backlink Virgin: Backlinking should not be part of the site’s fundamental concept or product offerings.
- Topic Relevance: The website should be relevant to your topic—the closer the site’s focus aligns with your theme, the better.
- Low Spam Score: It’s worth checking on moz.com to see the spam score of the website where you plan to place a backlink. If the spam score is high, it’s strongly advised against.
- Domain Authority: Evaluate the Domain Authority (DA) of the website to determine if the effort is worthwhile.
In most cases, backlinks are obtained by reaching out to the website administrator. The initial message is a crucial part of the communication process that must be well-prepared. There are numerous ways to motivate other website administrators to place a backlink for you. Also, remember that you should control how the backlink is used—it should appear as natural as possible.
While backlink strategies are still crucial for SEO, this doesn’t mean websites without backlink campaigns can’t achieve high rankings, visibility, and relevant traffic.
A good SEO strategy that includes high-quality content can often thrive without artificial backlink measures. I’ve observed significant successes both from clients and competitors who have achieved excellent results without a high number of backlinks.
Building backlinks is one of the success factors, but it isn’t the only key to successful SEO. As always with SEO, many factors can contribute to a fruitful outcome.
“Consequences of a Google Penalty: The Manual Action by Google”
When Google detects that your backlinks don’t meet its guidelines, your website may be subjected to what’s known as a ‘Manual Action’. This means Google sends a warning to the website’s administrator via the Google Search Console (GSC).
As a consequence, the website often virtually vanishes from the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). We’ve noted traffic losses of up to 90% on websites that have received such a penalty from Google.
The challenge with a Manual Action by Google is that it can take several months or even years for a website to fully recover from such a penalty.
Over the years, I’ve helped numerous clients get rid of this ‘Manual Action’ from Google. If a client has used such services and strategies for backlink building, as described above, cleaning up the negative backlinks can be one of the most strenuous efforts in Search Engine Optimization (SEO). This is especially true because the process can take several months and cost valuable time that could have been spent on positive SEO measures. The cleanup process also tests the patience of both the client and the SEO team.
The aim of such a rescue operation is to identify all artificially created links and compile them into a list. This list is then uploaded to Google in what’s known as a Disavow format. Google then disregards these listed links, effectively meaning they’re no longer considered as ranking factors. And that’s the purpose of a Disavow file: you’re instructing Google to disregard these links and essentially declaring that the websites on the Disavow list are sources of spam backlinks.
In the event of a Manual Action, the final step is to send a personal message to Google, referred to as a “Reconsideration Request”. It can take several weeks for a Google representative to review these links and determine whether all existing spam backlinks are listed in the Disavow file. Typically, Google then sends a message stating that the Disavow list is incomplete and the penalty cannot be lifted—this is a standard procedure.
In such instances, the Disavow list must be expanded, and the process must be repeated until Google finally accepts the Disavow list as complete. In my 20-year tenure as an SEO, I’ve been involved in countless Reconsideration Requests. In all these cases, the client had taken a backlink campaign into their own hands and landed themselves in this precarious situation.
In my most successful case, I managed to lift the Manual Action after the third Reconsideration Request, which is quite rare. It’s common for 20 or more Reconsideration Requests to be required before Google approves the request and lifts the Manual Action. The problem is, it seems almost impossible to identify all questionable backlinks that Google has flagged as problematic in its database. Since Google doesn’t disclose which links it disapproves of, an extensive research process is necessary.
Another consequence is that recovering the website after a successful removal of the penalty can take up to a year or even longer. The lost keyword rankings don’t immediately bounce back into hits as soon as the Manual Action is resolved. They usually remain lost, and the website must rebuild Google’s trust from scratch. An SEO campaign is required to position the website where it was previously.
The rule is simple: You should never risk getting penalized by Google. Backlink building should only be left to experienced SEO professionals who are fully aware of the potential consequences.
It’s akin to riding a motorcycle: If you want advice from an experienced biker, ask those who’ve had an accident before. They can usually tell you how to avoid accidents. A wise and very experienced biker once told me, “A biker always anticipates falling one day—it’s a certainty.” Therefore, I cannot emphasize the risks of backlink building enough. A Manual Action is always waiting to appear as a GSC notification one day.
Initiating a backlink creation process at the start of an SEO campaign is not advised because Google knows that no website can acquire backlinks overnight. Websites with sparse content but a plethora of backlinks are particularly likely to raise Google’s suspicions.
You should only consider embarking on creating backlinks once all other SEO measures have been successfully leveraged and a backlink campaign is deemed the only necessary step left.
A skilled SEO expert will consider all potential opportunities, advantages, and risks, eventually advising whether a backlink strategy makes sense in the first place.
Exercise caution when dealing with services offering a backlink strategy as a standard package. These offerings should be scrutinized carefully because a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works in the nuanced world of SEO and could potentially lead to more harm than good if not tailored properly to the specific needs and characteristics of your website.