What’s a Link Network?
Since the beginning of Google, links have been a huge part of their ranking algorithm. Yes, it’s a complex algorithm and there are a lot of factors aside from just links, but it’s pretty clear that having more links usually leads to higher website rankings.
Knowing that, search engine optimization specialists - SEOs, for short - have been doing everything they can to get more links and improve the rankings of their websites. In the late 2000s, one of the most popular ways that SEOs generated links for websites was through link networks.
A link network is basically a group of websites that link to one another in some way. It’s easy to see why this technique was so popular: interlinking between sites in the network meant more links and higher rankings for everyone - a win-win across the board.
Best of all, link networks seemed to work. Sites just added in the links and watched their rankings get a boost. Easy, right?
...not so fast. Google has EXPLICITLY STATED that link networks are against their terms of service. Here’s the actual line from their policy:
It’s not just a throwaway line that they include to cover their butts - Google takes unnatural linking practices seriously, and actively takes steps to discount their effects.
To really drill home just how much Google frowns on link networks, you have to understand that Google is notoriously secretive and tight-lipped about how they manage their algorithm. They pull the strings from behind the scenes, and they like to keep it that way.
That was Google dropping the mic: when you play in our house, you play by our rules. And in the years since, they’ve slammed the door shut on anyone who’s tried to build link networks that “game” their algorithm.
A link network hurts your business even if you don’t know it’s there
While large-scale link networks like Anglo Rank are a thing of the past, there are still so-called “SEOs” using the technique on unsuspecting businesses on a smaller scale.
We’ve been working with a dentist in the Fairfield, California area, and as we were analyzing the practice’s local competitors, we noticed some link network red flags. The first site we came across was Dental Implants Solutions:
What we found was a blog full of generic content, with new posts being uploaded every week. It’s a problem you see on a lot of websites, dental or otherwise - content being created just for the sake of having content.
Working our way to the end of a post, we found a couple of references.
Good for transparency and authority, right? So we clicked through to see what kinds of sources were being referenced...
...and found ourselves on the blog posts of other nearby practices. That wasn’t a sure sign of a link network, but with so many bigger, more authoritative online sources that the blog could’ve linked to, it did seem a little fishy.
Checking out those nearby practices, it turned out that our instincts were right. Those sites had blogs, and those blogs had posts.
And at the end of those posts? You guessed it - references.
At this point, our link network alarm bells were going off. Both sites even referenced two same-titled blog posts that linked to other local practices’ websites!
Going down the rabbit hole, we followed the links and discovered a small network of 6 dental practices in California all linking to each other. Interestingly enough they were all hosted by the same “Dental Marketing” company that looked even more stock and generic than the dental websites themselves.
But hey - it’s not our place to judge or disparage another business.
Instead, we’re just going to leave this screenshot from their website here…
Do link networks work?
The short answer is yes, link networks probably still work…until you’re caught. In this specific case, it was very obvious that a small number of sites were linking to each other, so it would be very easy for Google to catch something like this.
At the beginning, and maybe even for a significant period of time, it’s likely that these links would actually help improve the rankings for these websites. The fact that they’re all topically relevant and within the same area (California) would make them very attractive links in the eyes of Google’s algorithm.
But in the long-run, the ranking improvements - however significant or long-lasting - wouldn’t be worth the harm caused by a Google penalty. It’s yet another instance of the old wisdom: short-term gain, long-term pain.
What happens if I get a Google penalty?
Google penalties cause your website rankings to drop, which correspondingly causes your website traffic to drop. If your day-to-day operations rely on people being able to find and use your website, that’s very bad news.
Less online visibility means fewer people engaging with your business, and even fewer people buying your products or services. In other words, even though a Google penalty only exists in the digital world, it can have a tangible impact on your bottom line in the real world.
A warning to local businesses
Reflecting on the case of this small link network in California, you have to feel for the dentists who own those practices, or at least wonder how much they knew.
In a lot of cases, business owners don’t really understand what’s happening on their websites, and it’s completely understandable. It’s a dentist’s job to be an expert in oral health, not website health, so it’s no surprise that they don’t know about things like link strategies, Google penalties, or search engine optimization in general.
Instead, they trust digital marketing companies to manage their website - and when those companies try to cut corners while chasing easy wins, it’s the business owners who are saddled with the mess.
Learn to protect yourself
Maybe you’re a dentist. Maybe you’re a restauranteur. Or maybe you’re creating an entirely new type of business. The bottom line is, if you’re a business owner and you’re thinking about giving the keys to your website to an independent contractor or digital marketing agency, you should always take steps to safeguard yourself. Here are some things you should think about:
1. Beware of link networks
There’s nothing wrong with link building; links are still one of the most important ranking signals to Google. However, if link building is a part of your business’ marketing strategy, you need to be aware of where those links are coming from. If the SEO specialist can’t explain clearly how they’re getting links, that’s a serious red flag.
2. Know the service provider
There are A LOT of digital marketing companies out there; since there are essentially no barriers to entry, anyone can claim to do Search Engine Optimization. So, before you work with an agency or individual who specializes in SEO, do your homework - check out their testimonials, read their case studies, ask where they’re located, and see what level of transparency you can expect from them. You wouldn’t hand over the keys to your store to just anyone, so you shouldn’t for your website either.
3. Be clear with expectations
When you hire an outside marketing agency, you need to be very clear with what your expectations are and what results you can expect from your investment. Watch out for “fluffed up” KPIs (key performance indicators) like number of links or number of blog posts that are delivered each month - these numbers are just fillers that distract you from the overall goal of the campaign. Instead, make sure you understand precisely how the agency’s work is supporting the KPIs you care about, likes sales or leads.