MANILA, Philippines – When you’re online, you’ve probably come across text or images on web pages that allow you to navigate to other web pages. They are called hyperlinks.
Hyperlinks indicate to the user or other web applications that further information or data on the subject can be found on the other site or online address. The more useful information a page contains on a given topic, the greater the chance that it will be read and get more links.
Among digital marketers who do search engine optimization (SEO), these are referred to as backlinks. And they are worth their weight in gold.
Search engine giants like Google are known to use these backlinks as one of the signals to assess the importance of a page in relation to a topic. Websites and pages that get lots of backlinks rank higher on search engine results pages.
News websites, especially those that produce regularly updated, unique, credible, and informative content, rank well in search results because they get a lot of backlinks.
Gaming the system via artificial link building
In contrast, other commercial or marketing websites that don’t regularly produce original content on a daily basis have a harder time getting those backlinks.
So how do marketers get around this?
They approach high authority sites in hopes of getting them to link back. Rappler, for example, has received many of these requests for years because it ranks well on the results pages.
Over time, savvy SEO practitioners have turned to playing the search algorithms to make websites they promote more visible on search results pages. A common practice was to set up numerous websites to artificially build these backlinks.
That’s not hard.
The World Wide Web is full of services that promise to automate this process of building links to your website. A quick search on Google will lead you to services that even automate the process of building websites. These sites can also be easily populated with tools that take content from other sites and “rotate” it to be different from the source site.
The industry now refers to these unethical, manipulative techniques as black hat SEO. And Google, whose stated mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” has been at war with these black-hat operators for years.
For these black hat SEO practitioners, it doesn’t matter if the websites they create are of poor quality or very little content. What matters are the backlinks.
The search optimization industry labels backlinks built through these link building schemes as toxic backlinks. Due to the proliferation of these toxic sites across the web, Google released a series of algorithm updates in early 2012 aimed at discouraging or minimizing the practice on their search results pages.
This technique is used not only to promote websites and pages, but also as an attack tool against the competition.
Stacy (not her real name), a digital marketing practitioner who used to work for an Australian SEO company, spoke to Rappler in late 2021 about a case where this technique was used to target competition.
The marketer recalls noticing a sudden drop in search result traffic to his client’s, a local retailer’s, product’s website. To identify the cause of the drop, Stacy said they looked at various indicators. For example, did the articles with backlinks still exist? Were the articles with these links removed or were the hyperlinks broken?
This process led them to an indicator: a huge increase in backlinks from toxic domains.
“We firmly believed that it was their competitor that was paying their online marketers to improve their own rankings,” Stacy said. “It was a highly competitive industry and they were too focused to be random.”
First, Google said it only devalues the low-quality links accumulated from websites through these black hat link building schemes. That should have been the end, except black hat operators found another way to make themselves relevant nonetheless: by using the same techniques to sabotage traffic going to their customers’ competitors’ websites.
Industry experts refer to this as “negative SEO”. Google has denied for years that such techniques work. As late as March 2021, John Mueller, Web Trends Analyst at Google, argued that “negative SEO” was nothing more than a meme.
Then, in October 2021, after a fresh update of Google’s search algorithm, Mueller admitted that in some cases, where there is a clear pattern of spammy and manipulative links on the site, their algorithm may decide to simply close the entire site mistrust.
Mueller answered a question about how “toxic backlinks” affect a website’s visibility in search results. His response to the question: “Most of the time, if we can tell something is problematic or a spam link, we’ll try to ignore it. When our systems realize that they cannot ignore those links to the site, when they see a very strong pattern there, our algorithms may say we really have lost trust in that site.”
Mueller acknowledged that Google is taking a rather conservative approach to this problem. “The web is very chaotic and Google ignores the links out there.” He said this decline usually occurs “when there’s a clear pattern.”
Fight against toxic links, prosecution of black hat operators
What do website owners need to do when attacked by toxic linkbacks?
According to Google and SEO experts, one way is to disavow these bad links.
Unfortunately, not every website owner has the staff or tools to spot, let alone fight, spammers on a regular basis.
The hard part here is sifting through the backlink clutter and identifying which links are desirable and which aren’t — which can be a tedious process. It’s a tricky business, and Google itself advises website managers to use the disavow tool with caution.
In addition to identifying toxic compounds, catching those responsible for the sabotage can be even more difficult. As in the rest of the digital space, attackers can also be lurking behind anonymous accounts and proxies.
“We did not determine if the competitor actively requested this attack,” Stacy said.
It’s also likely, she added, that the competitor didn’t actively request the attack. “It could have just been ‘part of the service’ to improve SEO for the competitor without explaining black hat tactics to the client.”
Attention buyers and readers. – Rappler.com