If you run a blog or network of blogs, you are probably familiar with backlink requests. What are backlinks and what are backlink requests? According to Lexico a backlink is:
An incoming hyperlink from one web page to another website.
So a backlink request is any inquiry from another website to add a link to your website. These will come in many forms. At their best, they will specifically target your post’s content, trying to shine a light on a source you might have overlooked in your research. At their worst, they are just trying to get a link. They will offer to write a guest post, as long as they can link to sources of their choosing or will offer images and infographics “free-of-charge” as long as you maintain a link. Some will just offer you money outright to place a link in the same way that you would place advertising. Which is by far the most honest approach.
Why do they do it?
Backlinks help to add authority to your site for purposes of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). By adding a link to another page, you are basically endorsing that content and telling Search Engines (Google) that this is an authoritative source worth indexing higher in search results. It does get a lot more complicated than that. Links themselves have strength depending on how authoritative the originating page is. So if are suddenly getting all sorts of link requests, odds are you are doing something right.
So what is the problem?
Getting backlinks has become a business and business requires results. This has taken backlink requests out of the realm of person to person and added marketing automation. Now instead of getting a single request from a human, you are getting a flood of messages from a marketing tool often set as chains that will follow-up multiple times and alter and change depending on how you treat email. This means people are getting unprompted marketing emails they don’t want. Now doesn’t that sound familiar?
It fits the definition of Spam pretty well.
What’s worse is that doing this might also violate rules that Google has set down. As mentioned in his amazing piece on backlinking, Ernie Smith mentions this passage from Google’s quality guidelines
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
So not only is the practice Spam, but they also appear to be in violation of Google’s quality guidelines. Some SEO Experts, especially those involved in the Backlink Economy, will defend the practice, citing that Google has not cracked down on the Backlink requests. By not doing so, this means Google endorses it, and since it is effective, we should all just accept it as a part of the web. This is the same argument Spammers have made for years. So people claiming that are in poor company.
The reason this practice continues is that backlink requests are impossible to police and more importantly it generates money. It is a pay-to-win shortcut that most people see as victimless. What is wrong with just adding a link to a page, especially if I can make a few dollars or perhaps make my page a bit stronger? Who loses here?
Besides your reputation and your Spam-clogged Inbox? Everyone.
The idea of linking as a measure of authority was to harness the power of the group to define what should be a good search result. With backlink requests, we are just making authority transactional. So if you or your company have more money, you can rank higher. This means that the content that ranks highest is authored by whoever has the most money. If you are a blogger, this means that cracking the front page of Google’s search results could be almost impossible if you aren’t willing to pay. As the famous quote attributed to a dozen people goes:
The Best Place to Hide a Dead Body is Page Two of Google Search Results
Could it get worse?
If backlinks are power. What about companies with the ability to control, add, and alter backlinks on a large amount of content? For example mega-publisher Medium. In their Terms of Service, Medium states:
“By posting content to Medium, you give us a nonexclusive license to publish it on Medium Services, including anything reasonably related to publishing it (like storing, displaying, reformatting, and distributing it).”
While I have my doubts that Medium would add or change links to your page without permission, they don’t need it. Adding a link is arguably reasonably related to publishing. This demonstrates the tremendous disruptive power of a large publisher. As content continues to proliferate exponentially someone out there is trying to figure out how to do use this large scale to manipulate the web at an unprecedented level. This is something that Google is going to need to deal with through changes in their algorithm or some attempt at policing the practice of backlinking.
What should I do?
Intention and reality are two very separate things. Most SEO professionals did not set out to create a new class of Spam and they certainly do not want to make the internet less useful. But the manipulation of search engines for money is doing that. So if you are receiving requests for backlinks or guest posts. Mark them as Spam and move on with your day. Be wary of photo services that require you to add backlinks that are not within your control. Most importantly, start reading the Terms of Service on the service you are publishing and ask them to clarify their policy on links.
Even when the playing field is level, the internet is a challenging place to succeed. If we all get on the same page we can help keep things level and add integrity back to page ranking.