Russ Jones, principal search scientist at Moz, and the creator of the Domain Authority technology, wouldn’t necessarily compare link manipulation to ad fraud in a blanket statement, but says there are some tactics that might fall into that category. Ad fraud is close to the money, he said, and in many cases crosses the line into criminal activity.
There are various types of link manipulation, while it has not been tested in court. One of the most frustrating types of link manipulation is related to comments. This is where a webmaster will use a bot to post comments in tens or hundreds of thousands of blogs and forums. He thinks there is little, if any, difference when compared with vandalism.
Other techniques such as parasitic hosting -- the process of hosting a website on someone else's server without their consent, to get links from it -- could be considered close to criminal.
Search Insider (SI) caught up with Jones via phone to talk about link manipulation. What follows are excepts from the conversation.
SI: How do you define link manipulation?
Jones: Search engines, like Google, primarily work on two ranking factors. The first is content. The second is measuring the popularity of individual pages and domains. Google created PageRank many years ago. It follows links around the web and essentially counts them like votes. The more links received from higher-quality sites, the more important the page and the domain become.
Links are responsible for a large portion of where sites and pages rank in query results following Google’s quality guidelines. Link manipulation is the attempt to acquire links for a site in violation of those quality guidelines. The rule is, you cannot give anything in exchange for a link other than the value it offers the users of the other website.
SI: What causes the biggest challenge to marketers with regard to link manipulation?
Jones: There are a number of challenges. If you aren’t aware of available link manipulation schemes like buying links or people leaving comments in forums or guest books, marketers can often accidentally violate Google’s webmaster guidelines and then be penalized and lose rankings. It can put you out of business. The other is that some marketers purchase domains at auction.
For example, they might want to switch from their current long domain name to something much shorter. They might purchase the site based on its domain authority. This has led to manipulation -- not just for the reason of improving search results, but for increasing domain authority.
SI: In the past year, how has link manipulation become more sophisticated?
Jones: People have spent a lot of time focusing on how to bypass Google’s rules through sophisticated, professionally designed private blog networks. They have purchased a lot of websites, preferably that already have links, and would put links on these websites that link back to theirs. By controlling all of the links they can, in some cases, the sites rank very well in Google. This has probably become the most sophisticated process during the past couple of years. It’s expensive, but very effective.
SI: How has the detection and identity of these links become more sophisticated?
Jones: Moz’s Domain Authority technology, [which Google doesn't use as a ranking factor in its algorithm], doesn’t swat flies, but rather learns what is likely to produce ranking and what doesn’t. Domain Authority is trained on Google's search results. It may predict the ranking, but not cause it.
Imagine if you wanted to discover what it takes to be an all-star in basketball. You took all the basketball players with all their statistics and ran a study to compare those who made the all-star team versus those who didn’t. You would probably come up with factors like high-scoring player, but you would discover that you would need to be tall to become an all-star. Machine learning would discover these nuances of the importance of height.
SI: What does link manipulation cost brands?
Jones: The average price for a high-quality guest post -- the most common method, where you pay to have an article published on someone’s website and the article includes links back to your site -- is about $150 and $250 per placement. Of course, you can buy links of higher-quality sites and pay more, or lower-quality sites and pay less.
The major costs first come with acquiring the domain, but you also need to pay to host the site, create content, and more. It’s not unheard of that companies in competitive spaces feel the need to acquire links using tactics against Google’s guidelines.
It’s not unheard of to have monthly minimums between $3,000 and $5,000. We’ve seen in some industries companies will spend $100,000 per month in link acquisitions, because their competitors will do the same thing. Everyone’s trying to cheat.
SI: Those who don’t -- what is the cost to them?
Jones: They get no business. About 20 years ago, if you wanted to buy a stereo and didn’t know what’s good, you might ask your next-door neighbor to get advice. Or you might call a local store. Now no one does that. They ask Google. If you sell stereos and don’t rank on the first page, you will have a difficult time succeeding.
The cost to a webmaster who does not cheat can be really, really high. It’s an imprecise science. Because of that, a lot of sites that choose the high ground have gone out of business.
SI: Are you saying you should cheat -- just don’t get caught?
Jones: Luckily, there are tactics that allow you to acquire links that are not against Google’s guidelines. If you follow them you can still get links and not break the guidelines, but it’s more difficult. It takes work.
One item falling in that category is broken link building. That’s not a violation of the guidelines because you’re not trading anything. There are techniques, but they tend to cost more.