Unnatural Links – has Google got it backwards?

June 12, 2013
By John McCormac

I’ve been working on a historical links graph and database for the Irish webscape for the last few years. One thing that has become increasingly apparent is that the ordinary (Google) approach to unnatural links may have got it backwards. In engineering, you solve a problem not its effects. Google seems to be trying to solve the effects while leaving the problem itself untouched. The problem itself is out of profile/zone links (atypical links) FROM websites rather than links TO websites. It is a critical difference. And it is lost on some SEOs who thrive on FUD (well it does create billable hours). It has to do with a relatively simple link ecology idea (authority sites) that may have been part of the original Pagerank model.

The problem, simply stated, isn’t unnatural inbound links to a website but rather atypical outbound links from websites. Most websites have a small set of outbound links. The most common will be to Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Linkedin, Adobe and some web analytics sites. Then sites will have outbound links to sites in their “social” network. The odd links, the atypical ones, sometimes indicate linkspam patterns. But the real issue is the source of these links rather than the destination.

The best and perhaps the most recent example of these atypical outbound links would be the recent Wordpress Social Media widget. It was compromised and used to include spam links in Wordpress websites. Now these links (typically payday loan links to websites) were often highly atypical for many Wordpress websites. Wordpress is increasingly used as a production tool for websites and sometimes the clients are left to maintain the site but have no idea how to do it. Of approximately 780 websites identified as compromised in the Irish webscape, a significant number have been compromised due to their use of this compromised widget and many still remain compromised.

Because Google’s focus is on the destination of these atypical links rather than the source, the webmaster on the receiving end of an “unnatural” links warning often has no idea of what are good or bad links. Indeed some SEOs are so clueless that they do not understand the impact of DMOZ (The Open Directory Project) on the link ecology of a website. If a website is in DMOZ, then it may be part of hundreds, if not thousands of web directories that legitimately reuse some of the data from DMOZ. And they often take the data automatically from DMOZ rather than keeping a local copy of the DMOZ data.

However a current SEO superstition, certainly amongst the clueless, is that all these links are bad and some SEOs are going around trying to have links removed from these web directories (unaware that these directories are often dynamically generated). The long-term effect of this FUD about removing links is that it damages the link ecology of the web itself and makes people scared about linking to websites. And without links to websites, the link based crawlers of search engines like Google and Bing will not find new websites.

Solving the problem of “unnatural” links might partially be as simple (for a search engine) as working out what is a natural outbound link for a website. However for website owners included in DMOZ, the problem isn’t the directories that reuse DMOZ data but rather snakeoil salespeople who bill them for trying to remove links from dynamically generated directories. And both webmasters and genuine SEOs are stuck in the middle.

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