In the beginning, there was light, and Yahoo shined above all the others. To get web traffic and to the top of Yahoo’s search results it was important to be admitted into its directory. A link from their directory is still very powerful, but mostly they charge for that service now.
Along came google with a new formula, whereby a website was judged by the number of links pointing to it. Each link pointing to a website is like a positive vote. Why else would someone link to another page from theirs if the page they were linking to did not serve some useful purpose?
This concept has been labeled PageRank, whereby the higher a page’s ranking evaluation (0 is the lowest and 10 is the highest), the higher it will show up in google’s search results. This is because the webpage’s pagerank is taken into consideration in google’s algorithm (a long, mathematical formula used to compute the ranking of pages according to the keywords searched) when it is deciding which order to rank pages in.
This formula proved very effective and soon people realized that they were getting better search results with google than they were with Yahoo, so they started switching on mass.
Of course, webmasters caught on quickly too and it became an industry to build “backlinks” – which are links from other websites to yours (if you are the webmaster). All sorts of services sprouted which were designed to accumulate these backlinks for a webmaster. Perhaps it was a submission to 500 directories for a fee of $50. Many such directories sprouted up and included automated systems which made submission to them easier. A domain, such as ezinearticles.com, can be purchased for as little as $12 a year. This means someone can set up an automated directory, then use the programming scripts to do the same but on many other domains. The services which automatically submit links for their clients do so on many of these automated directories, while the directories themselves try to earn an income by including google ads on each of their pages. A single page might mention only a link to your site, with the title and description text, while you have the option to pay extra to push your link to a more prominent, visible and higher traffic location in their directory.
All these sorts of gimmicks and tricks were designed to take advantage of the google pagerank system in order to elevate a page’s ranking in google’s search results. Afterall, how often do you look past the first page of 10 results when surfing the internet? If you are not on the first page, or even in the top few links, much fewer people will actually stumble on your site.
But along comes Panda and Penguin. No, these are not two animals wishing to build links to their little cove in nature, but an adjustment in google’s algorithm to battle against these tactics. After all, google became much more successful than yahoo precisely because its formula for search results was more accurate and successful. But if everyone jumps on the bandwagon and starts to frantically build backlinks, it distorts the original concept in favor of those who practice this strategy. Links are no longer an honest vote and reflection of a website’s usefulness, but can be considered as spam intended to distort google’s search results in someone’s favor.
These tactics would negatively affect google’s business strategy, which is based on producing quality and accurate results, so in the spring of 2012 it rolled up its sleeves and unrolled a few tweaks to its algorithm designed to negatively affect such spammers, while giving a boost to those websites following more honest practices and which seem to be of legitimate quality.
Of course this spelt absolute disaster for many who had intensively practiced such deceitful tactics, and many are still struggling to recover and save face in the eyes of google.
One strategy how to build backlinks is by exchanging links with other websites. You link to their page from yours, they link back to you, and you both benefit equally. Ideally, you want to exchange links with websites which are thematically related to yours. For example, if your website is about dog food, you will probably not want to exchange links with your direct competition, but perhaps with a dog food store in another city, or with a dog pound. Definitely not with a site about Viagra. The words on their website should be similar to the ones on yours.
But google caught onto this as well, so if you have a partner.html page from which you link to the homepages of your link exchange partners, while your partners have the same and from which they link to your home page, it looks a little obvious that this is manipulated and google can easily cancel out any positive affect from such an exchange, even though such a strategy worked in the past. Such a link is called a “two-way exchange”, and is easily discernable. You may still get some positive affect from it, but with the new rules probably not very much.
Ideally you want to work with three-way exchanges, such as if you link from a page in your domain to the homepage or deep page of your partner’s domain, while they would link from a page in that domain to a page of another domain you own. Or perhaps they would link to one of your partners, and they in turn link back to you. Such linking would not be so obvious and it would be difficult for google to consider as spam or discredit it.
Also, it is not so effective to link from a “partner” page, full of single links to all sorts of other pages, because google can easily understand the purpose of such a page and also discredit its value. Or simple links at the bottom of your pages pointing out in different directions.
No, the most powerful link would be directly from within the text of a page. Such as a long article about how to take care of a dog, with a link to your store when “dog food” is mentioned. Or perhaps you could create a sponsor box, with some brief text about dog food and link out from that. That way your readers will see it is an advertisement, not get offended if they click on “dog food” from within your text (because they might expect to read more and useful information about dog food – not just get pushed to some product sell), while google could perceive that as some other text within your article (although it might make some assumptions and partially discredit it).
There is a lot of talk on the internet now about backlinking and many have different opinions. I believe you simply need to be more careful and less obvious, but use your mathematical intuition to understand the limitations of any algorithm which google might develop to attack such practices. Best is to be subtle, but to whatever degree google decides to discredit a link, chances are it will not be discredited completely and it will always pay to focus on developing quality backlinks, than to do nothing.
However, one major problem in developing link exchanges, which can be a rather time consuming process, is if your link partner is dishonest and removes their link to you after some time, assuming you will not bother to constantly check that they are still linking back to you. If they remove their link to you, it means you are linking only to them, which is considered a one-way link – the most prized of all links.
Or another nasty trick is if they add a “nofollow” relation to their link to you. This is a command to the search engines not to follow the link to your website, meaning it is almost the same as removing the link. Except that you will still see it and may think your link partner remains honest.
There are several nasty tricks webmasters can use to bend the link exchange game in their favour, such as adding a NOINDEX or NOFOLLOW meta in their headers, which would essentially tell any search engine to ignore all the contents on that page.
Because it takes time to email with potential link exchange partners, find and approach potential partners, log your agreements somewhere and then add the link to one of your pages, it is a good idea to use a link exchange tool which would automate much of this work and immediately inform you as soon as a link partner tries something dishonest.