Yesterday Fantomaster via Threadwatcher pointed me to this page of Google’s Webmaster help system. The cache was a few days old and didn’t show a difference, I don’t archive each and every change of the guidelines, so I asked and a friendly and helpful Googler told me that this item was around for a while now. Today this page made it on Sphinn and probably a few other Webmaster hangouts too.
So what the heck is the scandal all about? When you ask Google for help on “link exchange“, the help machine rattles for a second, sighs, coughs, clears its throat and then yells out the answer in bold letters: “Link schemes“, bah!
Ok, we already knew what Google thinks about artificial linkage: “Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank”. Honestly, what is the intent when I suggest that you link to me and concurrently I link to you? Yup, it means I boost your PageRank and you boost mine, also we chose some nice anchor text and that makes the link deal perfect. In the eyes of Google even such a tiny deal is a link scheme, because both links weren’t put up for users but for search engines.
Pre-Google this kind of link deal was business as usual and considered natural, but frankly back then the links were exchanged for traffic and not for search engine love. We can rant and argue as much as we want, that will not revert the changed character of link swaps nor Google’s take on manipulative links.
Consequently Google has devalued artificial reciprocal links for ages. Pretty much simplified these links nullify each other in Google’s search index. That goes for tiny sins. Folks raising the concept onto larger link networks got caught too but penalized or even banned for link farming.
Obviously all kinds of link swaps are easy to detect algorithmically, even triangular link deals, three way link exchanges and whatnot. I called that plain vanilla link ’swindles’, but only just recently Google has caught up with a scalable solution and seems to detect and penalize most if not all variants covering the whole search index, thanks to the search quality folks in Dublin and Zurich even overseas in whatever languages.
The knowledge that the days of free link trading are numbered was out for years before the exodus. Artificial reciprocal links as well as other linkage considered link spam by Google was and is a pet peeve of Matt’s team. Google sent lots of warnings, and many sane SEOs and Webmasters heard their traffic master’s voice and acted accordingly. Successful link trading just went underground leaving the great unwashed alone with their obsession about exchanging reciprocal links in the public.
Also old news is, that Google does not penalize reciprocal links in general. Google almost never penalizes a pattern or a technique. Instead they try to figure out the Webmaster’s intent and judge case by case based on their findings. And yes, that’s doable with algos, perhaps sometimes with a little help from humans to compile the seed, but we don’t know how perfect the algo is when it comes to evaluations of intent. Natural reciprocal links are perfectly fine with Google. That applies to well maintained blogrolls too, despite the often reciprocal character of these links. Reading the link schemes page completely should make that clear.
Google defines link scheme as “[…] Link exchange and reciprocal links schemes (’Link to me and I’ll link to you.’) […]”. The “I link to you and vice versa” part literally addresses link trading of any kind, not a situation where I link to your compelling contents because I like a particular page, and you return the favour later on because you find my stuff somewhat useful. As Perkiset puts it “linking is now supposed to be like that well known sex act, ‘68? - or, you do me and I’ll owe you one’” and there is truth in this analogy. Sometimes a favor will not be returned. That’s the way the cookie crumbles when you’re keen on Google traffic.
The fact that Google openly said that link exchange schemes designed “exclusively for the sake of cross-linking” of any kind violate their guidelines indicates that first they were sure to have invented the catchall algo, and second that they felt safe to launch it without too much collateral damage. Not everybody agrees, I quote Fantomaster’s critique not only because I like his inimitably parlance:
This is essentially a theological debate: Attempting to determine any given action’s (and by inference: actor’s) “intention” (as in “sinning”) is always bound to open a can of worms or two.
It will always have to work by conjecture, however plausible, which makes it a fundamentally tacky, unreliable and arbitrary process.
The delusion that such a task, error prone as it is even when you set the most intelligent and well informed human experts to it (vide e.g. criminal law where “intention” can make all the difference between an indictment for second or first degree murder…) can be handled definitively by mechanistic computer algorithms is arguably the most scary aspect of this inane orgy of technological hubris and naivety the likes of Google are pressing onto us.
I’ve seen some collateral damage already, but pragmatic Webmasters will find –respectively have found long ago– their way to build inbound links under Google’s regime.
And here is the context of Google’s definition link exchanges = link schemes which makes clear that not each and every reciprocal link is evil:
[…] However, some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results. Examples of link schemes can include:
• Links intended to manipulate PageRank
• Links to web spammers or bad neighborhoods on the web
• Link exchange and reciprocal links schemes (’Link to me and I’ll link to you.’)
• Buying or selling links […]
Again, please read the whole page.
Bear in mind that all this is Internet history, it just boiled up yesterday as the help page was discovered.
Related article: Eric Ward on reciprocal links, why they do good, and where they do bad.