“Ask an expert” is an occasional feature where we ask questions to e-commerce practitioners. For this installment, we have turned to Bill Sebald, a longtime search engine optimizer, managing partner of SEO agency Greenlane and a practical e-commerce contributor. He discusses the effect of low-grade or spammy inbound links on organic search rankings.
Convenient e-commerce: Rejecting or requesting the removal of low-quality inbound links was once a common SEO practice. Is it still necessary?
Bill Sebald: This does not have a black and white answer. It’s helpful to understand how Google uses links.
Google was the first search algorithm to see sites that link to each other as recommendations. This signal became the ingredient that Google used to rise above competing search engines. But it also created the link spam problem that Google eventually had to deal with. What was originally a signal from a democratic web became an industry of participants trying to manipulate Google with its own recipe.
In 2011, Google rolled out its first link penalty with the “Penguin” update. It was aimed at those who bought links or acquired unnatural (irrelevant) links to earn rankings. Subsequent updates came with the Penguin algorithm, which improved its detection capabilities. Google even assigned people to crawl and penalize sites.
Google also allowed penalized sites that had practiced unnatural link building to submit a request for reconsideration after proving that they were trying to get those links cleaned up from the Internet. Unfortunately, Google was never completely transparent as to the definition of an unnatural link, which caused panic in the SEO industry.
Today, Google’s main algorithm includes Penguin. It is built-in and, according to Google, it always runs in real time instead of occasionally, which was the previous practice. For years, Google’s web spam team has been writing algorithms to identify link spam properties. Website owners helped by submitting hundreds of thousands of rejected forms. Thus, in 2021, Google’s ability to automatically detect unnatural links is likely to be effective.
Google states that it now devalues all the unnatural and low-grade links that it identifies. But it does not say what it has or has not devalued. Therefore, I highly recommend caution when hiring a link builder. The key is to produce content that people would like to link to naturally – certainly not for money.
So I would not worry about spam links if I have never participated in aggressive or paid link building schemes. However, if the amount of spam links is so high that Google could conclude that you are trying to play the algorithm, the rejection process is painless enough.