What Are Spam Links? (+ Are They Hurting Your SEO?)

Adam Steele
Sep 12
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In an attempt to pump the search engine rankings of a website, many SEOs and website owners have made the mistake of adding harmful spam links to their backlink profiles.

A spam link is any backlink created solely to inflate page rankings without regard for user experience or for the context in which it appears. Whether created knowingly or unknowingly, spam links can do serious damage to your rankings.

In this article, we’ll go over the different types of spam links, how to avoid them, and what to do if you currently have spam links damaging your rankings.

What Are Spam Links?

While there are tons of ways to create a spam link, they all have one thing in common: they aim to deceive Google’s algorithm into thinking a page or website is more authoritative or widely shared than it is so that it will appear higher in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Backlinks are a very important component of SEO since they provide an indication to Google’s web crawlers that the website being linked to contains valuable, interesting information.

For example, if someone chose to link to your product page instead of any number of other similar product pages they could have chosen, this tells Google your product must be relevant. If this happens many times, Google is more likely to return your product page at the top of its search results when people search for that product.

Landing at the top of SERPs can drive huge traffic numbers to a website, delivering results for its bottom line. For this reason, spam links are about as old as the internet.

For as long as backlinks have been a ranking factor for Google, people have tried to game the system with spammy links that provide a quick shortcut to what normally takes a long time to build: SEO results.

While the methods may always be changing, all spam links and link schemes are considered by Google to be against its terms.

Types Of Spam Links

The first kind of widely used spam links took place on website guestbooks in the 90s and early ’00s. Since many websites had guestbooks where visitors could leave comments, the enterprising black-hat SEOs of the 90s figured they could fill these guestbooks with links back to their websites.

Google, of course, caught on eventually, and the websites that practiced this kind of spam comment posting suffered huge rankings drops or even de-indexing by Google.

This type of spam posting may have gone the way of the website guestbook (RIP), but plenty of other approaches to spam linking are still attempted today. It’s a good idea to get familiar with them so that you can identify them before accidentally incorporating any of these fraudulent link-building techniques into your strategy.

Paid link spam

This may be a tricky example to start with because the internet is clearly full of many paid links. It’s not always easy to detect them. If a paid link fits in well with the theme and content of a website, provides value and an improved user experience, and appears natural, it may not harm your rankings

However, most paid links are awkwardly jammed into content where it doesn’t especially make sense, for the clear purpose of building a link where one would never naturally exist. This type of paid link spam should always be avoided.

If a paid link is included in an article, Google recommends the use of the rel=nofollow tag or the rel=sponsored tag. These tags tell Google that the link shouldn’t pass any page juice from the page on which it’s published to the page the link points to. Paid links carrying the appropriate tag won’t be penalized.

Spammy link exchanges

The “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” school of link building is best avoided. Link exchanges are considered fraudulent by Google. These entail two or more parties agreeing to link to one another for mutual SEO benefit, and since they’re the product of an agreement, the links are considered unnatural.

There is, however, some gray area here. Websites often link to each other, sometimes without even knowing it. It’s not surprising that websites in the same niche should occasionally link to each other, resulting in reciprocal links.

Again, the differentiating factor here is whether the link and link text make sense within the context of the content in which they appear. If they do, and the link provides value for a human visitor by providing useful or interesting information, you should be just fine. Just don’t build your whole ink strategy around reciprocal links.

Bait and switch links

A bait and switch link purports to link to one thing but actually takes the user to something else. This is a no-no both from an SEO perspective and from a user experience perspective. It’s deceptive, unlikely to build any goodwill with prospective customers, and is a good way to get a hit to your rankings from Google.

Link wheels

Link wheels are when a chain of pages link to each other in order to pass link juice to all of them. Page A links to page B, page B links to page C, page C links to page D, and D links back to page A.

We don’t have to tell you what happens next. Google’s clever algorithm identifies the fraudulent link scheme, and all participating pages suffer lower rankings as a result.

Hidden links

Hidden links are intended to be hidden from regular website visitors, but visible to Google’s algorithm. For example, the link text may be colored the same as the background, or a link may be hidden under an image.

Link farms

Link farms are websites that exist solely to sell links. The content is likely of low quality, all over the place thematically, and filled with awkward links that nobody is going to read, let alone click through.

Google’s algorithm favors quality over quantity, and no amount of low-quality link farm links will help your rankings. On the contrary, they’ll damage your reputation.

Bad directories

Listing your website on high-quality directories is awesome for SEO, especially local SEO. However, for every quality directory, there are probably 10 bad ones. Any directories you list your business on should have a good reputation and be widely used by real consumers to be worth listing on. Yelp is a good example.

Too many nofollow links

Here’s a surprising one: a page with tons of nofollow links can actually be a red flag to Google. Yes, we did say that the nofollow and sponsored tags should be used whenever a link is paid for, but some shady sites that sell links have tried to throw Google off the scent by adding these tags to a large number of their links. This can actually tip Google’s bots off to the fact the rest of the links are all fraudulent as well.

We haven’t covered every single possible type of spam link here because there are tons of ways people can try to trick the algorithm, but by now, you should have a pretty solid idea of what constitutes a spam link.

At the core of Google’s search algorithm is the aim of making the best information available to people when they use their search engine.

Backlinks can help the best information get discovered and validated by reputable websites so that it has a chance of reaching the top of the SERPs. Spam links are any links that aim to subvert this process and trick the algorithm to elevate the rankings of a website.

What To Do If You Have Spam Links

If reading any of the above has made you wonder if any of your existing links might actually be spam links, there are things you can do to get back on track. A link audit can help you identify spam links in your backlink profile so that you can take steps to clean those up.

Conducting a backlink audit is a good idea even if you’ve never engaged in any underhanded link building or hired someone to do it for you. Although it’s not very common, malicious third parties can try to create spam links on your behalf to damage your rankings.

So, what do you do if you discover damaging links in your profile?

The first step is to ask to have them removed. This requires a bit of labor since you have to get in touch with the webmaster of every website on which a bad link appears, but it’s the recommended first course of action.

Hopefully, those links will get removed and you can carry on with your squeaky clean link profile. But if they aren’t responsive, you do have another course of action.

Google’s Search Console does have a function for disavowing links. As Google states, this is an advanced feature that can damage your rankings if used incorrectly. They recommend using this feature only if you’ve received a notice of manual action from Google.

Best Practices for Avoiding Spam Links

After clearing up your spam links, there are things you can do to avoid having them mess up your SEO efforts again in the future. Here are the best ways to avoid spam links.

  1. Avoid unnatural anchor text – a key thing to remember when it comes to backlinks is that how they appear to Google’s bots matters. They should always appear natural. Even a natural link could raise suspicions if the link text is irrelevant or out of context. If you see this on any of your links, you can reach out to the webmaster in a friendly, respectful manner, thanking them for the link and requesting an adjustment to the text.
  2. Guest blog on quality sites – guest blogs are a popular way of getting more backlinks to your site, but avoid doing it on very low-DA, disreputable sites with low numbers of visitors. Even if it’s not technically paid, it can still look spammy.
  3. Use press releases widely – another double-edged sword in SEO world, press releases can have phenomenal results when sent to the right publications, but can be damaging if sent to press release syndicators that just repost any old press release.
  4. Be cautious with directories – we already mentioned the importance of sticking to reputable directories. Another thing to keep in mind is that your listings should be accurate and consistent across directories to avoid an SEO hit. Regular citation audits can help you identify these, and services exist to clean your citations up so you don’t have to do it manually.
  5. Ensure correct tags are in place – any explicitly paid or sponsored links should have the appropriate nofollow attributeThe same goes for paid links on your website.

Summary

It’s unfortunate but true, both in SEO and in life: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Good things, and high rankings, take time. Spam links will only hurt your website in the long run.

Stick to honest SEO practices, and your rankings will benefit. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t speed up the process in an above-board way. Let Loganix do the heavy lifting with SEO packages that tackle all of the different components of an SEO strategy, including keeping those unwanted spam links at bay.

Written by Adam Steele on September 12, 2022

COO and Product Director at Loganix. Recovering SEO, now focused on the understanding how Loganix can make the work-lives of SEO and agency folks more enjoyable, and profitable. Writing from beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia.

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