What Is the Link Spam Update About?
In an effort to continue improving the quality of its search results, Google has just rolled out its 'link spam update' on July 26th, 2021. This is an algorithm update aimed at more effectively identifying and nullifying link spam for search results across multiple languages. Google is expected to continue its deployment for another two weeks.
The update will target re-assessing links from content that may be commercial in nature and that take part in link spamming. Google says that it is an effort to 'observe sites intentionally building spammy links with the intent of manipulating ranking, often in deceptive ways.'
In simple terms, Google wants site owners to be more particular in handling links within content containing value exchanges such as sponsorships and affiliates. The update may also mean imminent changes in ranking for some site owners as their algorithms begin to pinpoint sites taking part in link spam.
On July 26, Google likewise announced on Twitter that websites and blogs that monetize their content through affiliate links or sponsored and guest posts should now start qualifying these links.
If you monetize your websites and blogs with affiliate links or sponsored and guest posts, it's very important to qualify these 🔗 🔗 links. Learn more about commercial links and link spam → https://t.co/piENjy5azO pic.twitter.com/joqIvPFXlE
— Google Search Central (@googlesearchc) July 26, 2021
On the Google Search Central Blog, Google issued a reminder for site owners to deal with links of a commercial nature. Generally, outbound links should be annotated correctly and should not be overdone, so as to not violate Google's quality guidelines.
Google also highlighted what types of links are to be avoided, such as those that are part of link schemes that violate their Webmaster Guidelines (more on link schemes in the next section).
Google claims that the update is part of their constant effort to improve their ranking systems and detect spam. Likewise, they enjoined site owners to:
- Continue following guidelines by focusing on building websites with great user experience and high-quality content
- Follow best practices on both incoming and outgoing links
- Promote awareness of one's site through appropriately tagged links
- Monetize content using properly tagged affiliate links.
Google highlighted that focusing on great content and UX 'always wins out compared to manipulating links.'
In this article, we'll take you through all relevant information regarding the update, including best practices on link tagging to avoid lowering your search rankings.
What Are Link Schemes And Why Should They Be Avoided?
Google defines link schemes as links that intend to manipulate PageRank. PageRank is the algorithm Google uses to rank sites on search results.
As such, all links that are identified to be part of a link scheme are in automatic violation of their Webmaster Guidelines, which discourage the following practices:
- Participating in link schemes of any sort
- Publishing pages with little original content or plagiarized content
- Publishing automatically generated content (content that consists only of SEO keywords)
- Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value for users
- Publishing a page with hidden texts or links (using white font, small font sizes, and other deceptive means of inserting text and links)
- Funneling users to one page with doorway pages
- Cloaking, or publishing something and showing a different version to search engines (Ex.: users see a mere image but the page's HTML is full of text intended for the search engine)
- Stuffing a page with irrelevant keywords in an attempt to rank high on SERPs
- Copying or republishing content from bigger sites in an effort to increase traffic
- Using 'sneaky redirects' wherein users click on URL but they are sent to another URL that's completely different from the originally requested one
- Any type of page created with malicious behavior like installing viruses, spam, badware, and phishing
- Marking up irrelevant or misleading content through structured data
- Sending any sort of automated query to Google
What Types Of Links Should I Be Wary of?
In connection with link schemes, any kind of behavior that manipulates links to your site, as well as outgoing links from your site, is considered a violation of the Webmaster Guidelines. These can also, therefore, negatively impact your site's search results ranking.
Here are some examples that Google identifies as link schemes:
- Buying and selling links that pass PageRank, such as:
- Exchanging links (or posts that contain links) for money
- Exchanging links for goods or services for money
- Sending someone a 'free' product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link in their blog or website
- Excessive link exchanges between two websites
- Partner pages dedicated solely to cross-linking
- Large-scale marketing through articles
- Campaigns that use guest posts with keyword-rich anchor text links
- Use of automated programs to create links to your site
- Requiring linking as part of a contract, Terms of Service, or similar arrangement; Depriving a third-party content owner the choice of qualifying the outbound link as they deem fit
Likewise, unnatural links are also a violation of Google's guidelines. According to Google, these are links that weren't 'editorially placed or vouched for by the site's owner.'
Here are some examples:
- Using text advertisements that have passed PageRank
- Adverts or native ads wherein the payment is received in exchange for articles including links that pass PageRank
- Links that contain optimized anchor text in PRs or articles that are distributed on other sites
- Low-quality directory/bookmark site links
- Hidden or low-quality links, as well as keyword-rich links, embedded in widgets distributed on various sites
- Widely distributed links within footers and templates of various sites
- Forum comments that contain optimized links in the post itself or the signature of the commenter
All these may seem quite overwhelming to remember; however, Google assures site owners that unique, relevant content remains their top priority.
According to them, 'Creating good content pays off,' and that the best way to get high-quality links is by creating relevant, quality content that contributes to the online community.
'The more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it,' Google adds.
Best Practices for Google Link Tagging
This update is about Google reminding site owners to appropriately qualify links when linking out to other sites.
As such, all sites are now required to add tags whenever a link is part of an exchange in value, such as sponsorships, affiliate links, and guest content.
Very briefly, here are Google's recommendations for each type of link:
Google states that, in general, there's no problem with the use of affiliate links to monetize a website. However, with this new update, Google asks sites participating in affiliate programs to qualify these links with rel=“sponsored” regardless of how these links were created (manually or dynamically).
Links from Sponsored Posts
Paid links or links that are advertisements and paid placements should also be marked with the rel=“sponsored” value, according to Google. These are typically articles or blog posts that contain advertisements and paid placements in exchange for money, goods, or services.
Google highlights that while sponsored posts are not prohibited, site owners should refrain from participating in low-quality campaigns that are primarily geared towards gaining links and add no value to the readers of such articles and blog posts.
Links from Guest Posts
Typically, guest posts are articles written by or under the name of one website and published on a different website. It's a common exchange among site and blog owners that often does not involve any monetary value. As such, Google wants site owners to stay away from low-quality guest posts primarily intended to gain links.
Guest posts are to be marked with the rel=“nofollow” value, as per Google.
Why Is There a Need to Use 'Rel Attribute Values'?
Google evolved the nofollow link attribute in 2019 and added sponsored and ugc attributes to help Google better understand the nature of links.
However, the nofollow link attribute dates back to 2005, which Google used to try and tackle the influx of spam links via blog comments, forums, and message boards. This was conceptualized because Google noticed that these spam links helped low-quality sites rank higher on search results compared to high-quality websites.
As Google is always trying to improve its search results and user experience, the nofollow attribute was born. Through it, Google is able to learn about the context of the link, thereby helping to make search ranking better.
As a site owner, you should use the nofollow link attribute for cases such as:
- Cases where you need to link to something but don't necessarily want to be associated with the link target
- On widgets
- On certification badges
- On press releases
Guidelines for Qualifying Your Outbound Links to Google
Qualifying links on your site allow you to 'tell' Google about your relationship with the linked page. You can do this by using one of the following rel attribute values in the <a> tag.
Regular links that you expect Google to follow sans any qualifications don't need a rel attribute added to them.
Example: “The color <a href="https://colors.example.com/Blue">blue</a> evokes trust, strength, and stability.”
For other links, one or more of the following values should be used:
Use this to mark paid links such as advertisements and paid placements. Google previously recommended the nofollow attribute to be used for these types of links, so it's still an acceptable means of flagging them. However, the sponsored value is more preferred as of this update.
UGC or user-generated content links like comments and forum posts should be marked with the ugc value. Google notes that you can remove this attribute from links posted by trustworthy members or users who have consistently made high-quality contributions to your site over time. Otherwise, here's how you can avoid comment spam.
The nofollow value can be used when other values do not apply and you prefer to not let Google associate your site with (or crawl) the linked page from your site. Google notes that you can use this when you don't want to imply 'any type of endorsement, including passing along ranking credit to another page.'
Multiple rel values
Multiple rel values may be separated via a space or a comma. Here are some examples:
- I like <a href="https://dogs.example.com/Poodles" rel="ugc nofollow">Poodles</a>.
- I dislike <a href="https://dogs.example.com/Caucasian_shepherds" rel="ugc,nofollow">Caucasian</a>shepherds.
Google advises that you use the robots.txt disallow rule for links to pages within your own site that you need to prevent Google from following.
FAQs Regarding Rel Values
According to Google, all the link attributes (sponsored, ugc, and nofollow) are treated as hints regarding which links they should consider or exclude within Google search. These hints will be used along with other ranking signals to better understand how they can properly analyze and use links within their systems.
Google sees links as valuable pieces of information that can help them further improve search. As such, they want to look at all the links they encounter to also be able to identify and understand unnatural linking patterns.
Below are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) regarding rel values:
Do existing nofollows need to be changed?
Google says that there's 'absolutely no need' to change any nofollow links that you already have. If you already use nofollow as a way to block sponsored links or to indicate that you don't (or can't) vouch for a page that you are linking to, then the nofollow attribute in this context will continue to be supported by Google.
Is there a need to change nofollows that are currently being used for ads or sponsored links?
There is no need to change any existing nofollows for sponsored links. They can still be used to flag links to avoid link scheme penalties. However, Google recommends using the appropriate rel=“sponsored” value for future links or changing existing ones only if and when it is convenient to you.
Is it possible to use more than one rel value for one link?
Yes, it's possible to use more than one rel value. As discussed in the above section entitled 'Guidelines for qualifying your outbound links to Google,' multiple rel values can be separated using commas or spaces.
It's recommended to tag such links with multiple values whenever applicable. For example, you can use rel=“ugc sponsored” to hint that a link is both user-generated and sponsored.
Is there a need to flag ad or sponsored links?
Yes, there is. To avoid being flagged as part of a link scheme, you should use rel=“sponsored” or rel=“nofollow” for ad or sponsored links. The sponsored attribute is preferred by Google but both work fine.
What happens if the wrong attribute is used on a link?
Google states that there is no 'wrong attribute,' except in the case of sponsored links. For example, flagging a UGC link or any non-ad link as sponsored will mean that Google will see that hint, but the impact will likely only be towards not counting the link as a credit for the target page.
Generally, as long as links are tagged, it shouldn't be too much of an issue or impact on your search rankings if you misplace one or two links under the 'wrong' or less-appropriate rel values.
Will changing to a 'hint' approach encourage more link spam in comments and other UGC content?
A lot of sites that allow third parties to contribute content or submit comments often already have link spam deterrents, such as moderation tools and human review. In this case, the hint approach, a.k.a link attributes of ugc and nofollow will continue to act as a further deterrent for link spam.
They're generally treated by Google similarly to the previous nofollow attribute anyway and are not considered for ranking purposes on search.
Is it really necessary or helpful to use any of these new attributes?
Yes, very much so. Using the new attributes will allow Google to improve link analysis further, including your own content, if sites that link to you likewise use these new attributes for linking.
Also, you'll avoid getting flagged for link schemes and can focus on creating quality content and a great user experience.
How the Google Link Spam Update Affects Affiliate Links
We've briefly discussed how this particular update affects affiliate links in the sections above. However, if you own a blog or site that often publishes pages such as product reviews, shopping guides, and similar content, here are a few more facts and guidelines to make sure that this update does not hurt your future pages.
Google recognizes that affiliate links are a common way for publishers to monetize site traffic. As such, they did clarify that there is nothing wrong with the use of affiliate links, per se. However, there is a need to tag these links properly with the rel=“sponsored” tag, in compliance with Google's efforts to improve rankings on search for product-related searches.
High-quality content will likewise be better rewarded, so tagging links appropriately will definitely be worth something.
A word of caution, though. Google says that should they find sites that fail to qualify affiliate links properly, they may issue manual actions to prevent these links from affecting search results. Furthermore, their systems will also likely take algorithmic actions toward non-compliant sites.
In short, both manual and algorithmic actions taken towards a site would mean bad news for its search rankings.
What Is a 'Manual Action' From Google?
Google issues a 'manual action' when a human reviewer from Google monitors that pages on a site are not compliant with or are in violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines.
As such, manual actions are usually taken against sites that attempt to manipulate Search through a variety of ways, including link scheming.
What Are the Consequences of Having a Manual Action Taken Against Your Site?
If a site has a manual action, some or all of the contents of that site will cease to show up in Google's search results.
The lesser penalty is lower page rank on Search, 'without any visual indication to the user,' says Google. Site owners with manual actions on their site will then be notified through the Manual Actions report and also in the Search Console message center.
Does It Still Make Sense to Pay For Sponsored and Guest Posts Now?
Even before this month's link spam update rolled out, Google has consistently reminded webmasters to be wary of spammy links in large-scale article campaigns.
That being said, Google does not discourage sponsored and guest posts, as long as they are not created for the sole purpose of link building. In their words, 'Google does not discourage these types of articles in the cases when they inform users, educate another site's audience or bring awareness to your cause or company.'
In short, sponsored posts and guest posts are okay. You can keep using them. What Google frowns upon are articles containing spam links, hidden in the guise of 'contributor posts,' 'guest posts,' or 'syndicated posts.'
What differentiates these types of content is their intent. Most of the time, these articles are part of link schemes and are intended to build links on a large scale back to the author's website.
Below are the practices that connote a violation of Google's guidelines:
- Keyword and link stuffing in articles
- Publishing similar articles on various sites
- Publishing too many articles on a few different sites (usually large sites)
- Having articles written by writers who have little to no knowledge or research on the topic they're writing on
- Using the same content in all articles
- Duplicating content of articles within your own site (in this case, you should use rel="canonical" and rel="nofollow")
As a general rule, if you own a site that accepts and publishes guest posts, these posts must always undergo a vetting process. Make sure that you know the person submitting the content and that the article contains useful content that fits your site.
Always avoid paid guest posts
On the contrary, paid guest posts should always be avoided. Even SEO giant SEMrush issued a mea culpa after being called out by Google's John Mueller for allegedly selling guest posts.
Here's what Mueller said:
That's an unnatural link - the kind the webspam team might take action on. https://t.co/kfQQithCnK & https://t.co/q5GmAxx2YM have more. Making sure the links use rel=nofollow / rel=sponsored would still allow sites to get visibility without having to worry about manual actions.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) June 3, 2020
Google stands by its content-and-user-first principles, especially when it comes to guest posts:
'For websites creating articles made for links, Google takes action on this behavior because it's bad for the Web as a whole. When link building comes first, the quality of the articles can suffer and create a bad experience for users.' -Google Webspam Team.
Search Engine Bing Likewise Supports the Use of Rel Values
A review of Bing's updated Webmaster Guidelines shows that the search engine now supports the use of rel=“sponsored” and rel=“ugc” attributes when tagging links. According to Bing, webmasters can use these tags to 'prevent the links from being followed by a crawler and from potentially impacting search rankings.'
Bing has previously supported the use of rel=“nofollow” since its introduction in 2005. Meanwhile, the two new link attributes rel=“sponsored” and rel=“ugc” announced by Google in September 2019 have also been adopted by Bing.
The recommendations for usage are similar as well:
- rel=“sponsored”: To be used for qualifying links that were created as part of any commercial or compensation agreements like sponsorships and advertisements.
- rel=“ugc”: To be used for links with user-generated content (UGC) like comments and posts on a forum.
Similar to Google, Bing treats these rel values as hints, not directives. According to their spokesperson in an interview with Search Engine Land, the sponsored and ugc values are likewise not considered strong signals for Bing.
How Do I Avoid Getting Hit by the Update?
As with all of Google's updates, there's no way to say for sure that a site can't be affected by changes in its algorithm.
However, it's always best to follow best practices when building links moving forward. We've discussed this in the section entitled 'Best Practices for Google Link Tagging,' but in summary, here are the key points to remember for link-building:
- You don't have to stop using affiliate links on your pages. Google only asks that for links of a commercial nature (such as affiliate links), site owners should tag them with the rel=“sponsored” attribute so that Google's systems can properly understand them.
- You can also keep using sponsored links and guest posts. These are also fine as long as they contain useful and unique content that was not created solely for link building. They should likewise be tagged with the correct attributes.
- Don't prioritize ranking on Search over content and UX. Google is adamant about this, which remains at the core of their consistent algorithm updates. The goal is to always create content that adds value to the Web in general, and to the individual users who come across it. Anything that's built just to rank will likely be recognized as spam and will consequently be flagged or penalized.
In the next section, we'll discuss general points for keeping up with Google's constant updates. Find out how to build a robust SEO and content strategy that will allow you to recover from most of Google's updates.
How to Keep Up With Google Algorithm Updates
If this particular update hits your site and hurts your search rankings, you might be wondering if there are ways to recover from or strengthen your site against further updates down the road.
The good news is yes; there's a general formula for bolstering your site.
The (kind of) bad news is that Google will always be rolling out updates to improve user experience on the internet, so you'll still need to be on your toes after each update and possibly tweak certain things to improve your site's performance.
In some cases, Google may roll out an update and then 'take back' some changes (often called reversals), depending on their observations. That being said, Google's updates are constantly being changed and rolled out, totaling 500-600 updates in a year.
Some of these are daily changes that go unnoticed, but the more comprehensive ones are announced by Google (such as the link spam update) along with guidelines on how to navigate changes - the search engine giant likely releases unannounced updates too, which
If you're someone who wants to stay on top of your SEO game to ensure maximum discoverability, then the way you adapt to these algorithm updates can either make or break your site's rank. Depending on the update, it can either affect one or more of the following factors related to your site:
- Ranking on Google SERPs (search engine results pages)
- Organic search traffic
- Return on investment (ROI)
Tips for Dealing With Major Update Rollouts
Let's say another major update is coming. If there's anything to take away from this article, it's that major updates can be unpredictable and have wide-sweeping effects - many of which won't become apparent for days or even months.
While we cannot predict what Google HQ is busy cooking up, what we can give you is a set of fool-proof tips to be able to weather such updates, and maybe even come out with much better rankings.
Don't Panic, Observe First
Google doesn't usually issue extensive memos containing all the details regarding the changes prior to an update rollout. What they usually do is just give out a few clues and some helpful tips pertaining to the update.
It's helpful to stay informed pre-update by doing some research and trying to understand potential effects on your site.
- Don't do major site overhauls yet in preparation for the update. If you must, just focus on constantly adhering to SEO guidelines while waiting for further information.
- Once the update rolls around, do observe for a day or two. See if it impacts your site or other similar sites within your niche.
- Don't forget to document data concerning site analytics, as this will help you monitor any subsequent changes while the update rolls out fully.
Analyze Your Website's Traffic and Positions on SERPS
The only way to monitor whether or not your site was affected is by regularly analyzing your organic traffic and positions on SERPs. Identify any drastic changes such as drops and spikes in pageviews or traffic and see if those changes coincide with the dates of Google's significant updates.
You can also check with Google Search Console to see whether or not your average keyword position has changed drastically. Usually, fluctuations in position denote that a certain update may have favored your competitors. In that case, you can do a competitors' check.
Run a Complete Audit of Your Website
If you do confirm that your site was negatively affected by a certain update, the next step would be to conduct a comprehensive audit to try and find the source of the problem. Below are the things you should keep in mind:
-> Make sure your content is interesting, original, and free of duplicates
Naturally, your content is the most important part of your website. It's also what Google considers as a top-ranking factor. In the event of lower rankings on search, try and analyze your content for the following issues:
- Duplicate posts or content
- Missing meta tags and headings
- Poorly written or uninteresting content
- Lack of keywords
-> Check your backlink profile
Your backlink profile is a huge determining factor in SEO. Be careful of unnatural links (artificial links, spam links) as these may cause your page to get penalized by Google. Audit all of your inbound links to make sure that they are also working properly and link to updated and relevant content.
Use a tool like Ahrefs to do a backlink profile analysis and weed out spam links. Also, take note of the following:
- Check for over-optimized anchor text
- Check for irrelevant anchor text
- Look for backlinks from low-quality websites and remove them
-> Technical considerations
It's highly possible for Google to crawl (or index) your website several times to check your pages every time a new update is released. As such, we encourage you to check the following technical aspects:
- Ensure facilitation of Google's crawl through clear paths
- Check canonicals
- Check your sitemaps
- Check noindex rules
-> Improve user experience (UX)
There have been a couple of Google updates that focus on user experience and page experience, so make sure that you're not disregarding this. Ensure that you are offering your users the best possible experience on your site by checking the following:
- Optimize your site for mobile: Google has a mobile-first index, which means that any site that hopes to see a rankings boost must be optimized for mobile devices. You can check this through Google's Mobile-Friendly Test
- Improve user engagement: Engaged users are an asset to your site. Ensure that you're constantly creating interesting, trustworthy content that users will want to read. Use the right keywords and make sure that you are answering searchers' questions adequately and correctly.
- Improve page speed: Google reports that 53% of mobile users bounce from slow websites. Particularly, those that take over 3 seconds to load. Pagespeed can greatly affect user experience and therefore hurt your rankings, so check your speed through PageSpeed Insights to see how it can be improved.
- Improve site navigation: Ensure a seamless navigation experience for your users by creating a streamlined menu and navigation process, creating a sitemap, and ensuring that all links work.
-> Don't overdo your SEO
Yes, it's possible to over-optimize!
While SEO is important, anything that's too much can be harmful, so don't overdo it. By 'overdo,' we mean including keywords and links that may be irrelevant and/or unrelated to your content just to increase your chances of ranking on Search. It can also look like buying links or over-optimizing anchor texts.
-> Make your page secure
Increasing page security is an important aspect of SEO. This means that you should ideally have already moved from HTTP to HTTPS. If not, consider doing it ASAP.
This is because HTTPS sites are more secure and generally more trustworthy. Like we discussed, Google values E-A-T, and a large part of trustworthiness is page security.
Since Google rolls out multiple updates in a year, it's always best to stay updated with the latest news from legitimate sources in the tech and SEO world. Not all updates come with changes that might hurt your rankings, but more often, it's the major ones that do.
However, a slight change in rankings following an algorithm update is seldomly a cause for concern. It's normal, and even the biggest sets with the best SEO professionals behind them can experience dips every once in a while.
The important thing to remember is to stay focused on what Google has been telling webmasters time and time again. That's staying focused on creating high-quality content for your users and ensuring that they have a great page experience on your site.
Together with SEO best practices, you're sure to recover and thrive in any update that Google has down the road.