Cheap Backlinks: Too Good to be True?

It’s often been said that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. While this adage might be true in some situations, it’s absolutely false when it comes to cheap backlinks.

A quick explanation for the uninitiated – when a website that’s relevant to yours creates a link to a page on your site, then Google potentially will see this as a ranking signal. If other sites are linking to your site, then this means your site contains valuable information related to whatever content is on the linked page. But this only holds true if the page that’s doing the linking is a reputable page with good domain authority.

Many low-quality link-building companies will attempt to tantalize you with cheap backlinks. Don’t buy into their scheme. Just as lousy customer reviews can kill your business, cheap backlinks can ruin your domain. Here’s why.

Authentic vs. Artificial Backlinks

Authentic backlinks serve an important purpose. They drive traffic to your site, and perhaps more importantly, convince search engine algorithms that your site matters. Backlinks from relevant, top-quality sites can help to increase your domain authority, which means that more Internet users are likely to find you when they search.

Backlinks from low-quality sites, on the other hand, are bad SEO. When search engines scrutinize your site keywords, they compare the originating source of your backlinks to your own content. Backlinks from irrelevant sources or ones that aren’t moderated by a human editor (also known as “link dumps”) will eventually drive up your site’s level of link toxicity and start to affect its performance.

Penguin Penalties

In April of 2012, Google rolled out the Penguin update, a software program that periodically evaluates websites for backlink misbehavior. If you’re found guilty of unsavory backlinking or over-optimization of anchor text, you could suffer the Penguin penalty – a de-ranking of your site. And here’s the rub: Google won’t notify you of your punishment.

Last year, media training business director Peter Walter hired an SEO firm to help boost his site’s traffic. The firm created hundreds of artificial backlinks for Walter, and as a result, his site traffic and business soared. However, when the first Penguin update hit, Walter’s organic traffic fell flat. Customers could no longer find him online.

Walter couldn’t appeal the penalty, but he did discover that with time – about 18 months in his case – Google might “reconsider” certain Penguin penalties. Consequently, Walter now advises that “there’s no shortcut to ranking well on Google. It’s about getting established, reputable sites linking to yours for a good reason.”

Manual Penalties

In no uncertain terms, Google states that “any links intended to manipulate page rank […] may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.” The company goes on to list link buying, selling, swapping, and planting via content as four of its biggest no-nos. If Google discovers that a site has violated its rules, it may issue a manual punishment like the one suffered by RapGenius.com in 2013.

If you aren’t familiar with the RapGenius debacle, here’s the scoop. Two years ago, a representative from RapGenius.com asked business CEO John Marbach to plant some backlinks for him. In exchange, the administrator promised to tweet links to Marbach’s blog. Marbach didn’t comply. Instead, he blew the whistle on RapGenius.com by publishing a blog called “RapGenius Growth Hack Exposed.”

In response to Marbach’s exposé, Google relegated RapGenius to the bottom of page six. Critics complained that the punishment was too harsh, but critics don’t make the rules. Google does.

Don’t fall for cheap link-building scams. Anyone who offers to embed links for you via ads, footnotes, widgets, forum comments, and so on is a cardinal sinner in the almighty Google’s eyes. A link, as Google says, is supposed to be an “editorial vote given by choice,” not a sneaky side-benefit of a carefully placed string of hyper-linked text.

The only links that will actually benefit your site are high-quality backlinks gained by providing valuable content.

Image via Thinkstock

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