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Links Are Your Friends: Avoiding Google’s Outbound Link Penalty

Gareth Cartman

Google has announced mass penalties for sites who place manipulative outbound links on their site. This targets bloggers as much as anyone else - so what does it mean, and what can you do about it? Here's a quick guide...

avoiding google's outbound link penalty

This week, Google announced that it’s penalising websites who have placed manipulative outbound links.

Because they can. And also because it’s the Right. Thing. To. Do. Or is it?

Firstly – what are they penalising exactly, and why?

Let’s say you’re one of those many beauty bloggers, and you’re blogging about this face cream you’ve received from a face cream company, and you’ve put a link to the face cream company’s website. You will probably have received an e-mail from Google recently asking you to either remove it or ‘nofollow’ it.

So if you are placing outbound links on your website as a result of a review, you’re probably in trouble and your rankings will drop.

Why are they doing this? It’s their search engine and they’ll police it however they like. Their link graph is their most precious asset – it’s what helps define rankings, and product reviews with links are a way of building links. Google hates the idea that you might be building links.

All good, yes?

Well, in theory, yes it’s all good. After all, a major brand can send out a thousand products to a thousand bloggers, absorb the cost, and get a thousand natural links from bloggers who have plenty of authority. And they’ll almost all be positive.

So, in theory, it will give smaller brands a chance.

But in practice, it sounds messy. For instance, I have a site where two people have reviewed my service – without me asking. They’ve also handily linked to the service, which I was very pleased about.

But now I’d be worried that they’ve received a penalty from Google – how could anyone know whether these reviews were solicited or not?

For me, this was organic search at its very best – I create a site, I optimise it, I provide some customer service, and I earn links.

What’s more, I don’t think these people would know how to nofollow a link. It’s not their job, they just run a Wordpress site for fun. So effectively, Google is seeking to understand the offline link between two sites, and is potentially penalising the site that links.

But links are our friends

This isn’t about ethics or The. Right. Thing. To. Do. It’s about Google’s reliance on the link graph. 

The link graph is what powers the majority of rankings decisions. The way sites link to each other is the very basis of the Google algorithm, as a number of clever SEOs have pointed out recently.

Penguin was the first major step in penalising those who have asked for (or receive) the links. This – whatever you want to call it – penalises those who place the links, considering any kind of promotional link to a product, service, or even a social media profile, ‘manipulative’.

And that’s a huge shame, noble though it might sound to crack down on free promotion. Their only ambition is to stop this practice because it’s ruining their link graph. 

Personally, I’d focus on the algorithm rather than threaten some fashion bloggers who happen to like a skirt or a shirt.

Barry Adams is usually right and sums it up nicely:

I see links as a good thing. Outbound links especially are a very good thing. There’s a lot of discussion around about how popular it can be, and there have even been patents around about defining the quality of the links you’re pointing to. Bill Slawski’s piece (link not solicited, dear Google, please note), is an excellent insight into what Google might be thinking.

At its heart, Google is an academic search engine, so citations are at its core. Google can’t let go of them; even Yandex decided to abandon its experiment of a linkless algorithm. Just as within a scientific document, a citation or a link is a validation of authority.

And in reverse, placing a citation or a link shows that you know your stuff. The higher the quality of that link, it figures the higher the quality of your page.

Call it trickle-down link economics.

A good service or product that receives reviews should be rewarded. But how on earth are you ever going to know whether the link is solicited or not?

Advice for bloggers

How on earth, indeed. Here’s my advice – if you’ve been taking products and reviewing them in exchange for a link – go into your code and look for the link. It usually beings with <a href=http://… and it ends with </a>

Within that first part, put in the code rel=”nofollow” – you can do this after the URL or before it, it doesn’t matter.

Like this:

<a rel="nofollow" href="">This is your hypertext</a>

Then, disclose within the text that you received the product and the review was solicited.

Finally, I’d recommend ending every review with the words “This review was not solicited by the company mentioned, and there is no active relationship between myself and the aforementioned company.”

And to be safe, add the nofollow if your link is commercial.

And just to be sure:

Dear Google, none of the links in this blog post were solicited, nor is there a relationship between myself and any of the parties that I am linking to. Please don’t give me a penalty. Your humble, compliant servant, Gareth.