What Is Link Spam?

Link spam refers to backlinks that are placed on pages and websites regardless of context or user experience, as an attempt to boost search rankings. Search engines have clear guidelines warning against link spam and will punish or devalue spammy links.

The Definition of Link Spam

Link spamming is posting or embedding links you want to promote, regardless of post context, link or page quality, or established link building practices. This is done in an attempt to boost the number of external backlinks to a certain page, in the hopes of increasing the page’s SERP (search engine results page) position. 

Higher SERP rankings can translate to higher traffic rates, so it is not uncommon for site owners who engage in link spamming practices to link to their conversion or money-making pages. However, spammy links offer no additional value to the pages they occupy, and therefore link spam has no real effect on your page’s quality, as judged by search engine algorithms and readers alike. 

Types of Link Spam

There are several different signs of link spam that you may find across a site:

Spam Posting

Spam posting is most often associated with the term “link spam;” spam posting is when a black-hat link builder posts solo links in public forums, comment sections, or guest books. 

These types of web fields are common targets for link spammers because they have low barriers to entry, making it easy for link spammers to create accounts and post their spam comments with their links. However, these links are incredibly easy to identify as spam, and they often garner little to no actual clicks. 

Hidden Links

Hidden links are another type of link spamming, in which a site hides hyperlinks across its posts where site viewers can’t easily see them. To insert hidden links, the site may change the color of hyperlinks to match the background, hide hyperlinks in images that site owners don’t expect many site readers to click on, or even hide hyperlinks in the site’s code, so only the algorithm can see them. 

This achieves the quantitative goal of link spamming without visually appearing as such. The same tactic can also be applied to press release links, where site owners will write and disseminate their own press releases that are centered around linking their conversion pages.

Link Farms

Link farms are a type of link spamming that involves site owner cooperation. Site owners who engage in link farming will continuously link to each other for the sole purpose of building backlinks. However, this practice is not viewed as authoritative linking, and therefore either doesn’t affect a link farmer’s backlink profile, or will negatively affect it by flagging the farmer’s entire site as spam.

Nofollow Links

Many nofollow links on a page may be a sign of link spamming. Some automated link building programs will use randomized nofollow links to try and improve the page’s backlink profile while slipping by Google’s spam detectors. However, since the Penguin update — which evaluates links in terms of their quality and posting context, rather than their quantity — it is incredibly difficult for any automated system not to be flagged by the algorithm. 

Additionally, nofollow links have no link juice, and therefore they don’t pass PageRank. So even if no-follows aren’t picked up as spam, they still aren’t contributing to your SERP rank. 

Single-Post Blogs

A blog presence is typically a great way to improve your linkability through a variation of keyword-focused and linkable content. However, blogs become assets over time due to consistent and authoritative posting, not by their mere existence. 

Single-post blogs can be a sign of link spam, as a site owner will post one link-packed article in hopes of improving their backlink profile. However, these blogs often have very little effect, as they aren’t likely to gain many impressions or independent traffic due to their isolation. 

Directory Spam

Directories can be a double-edged sword when looking to improve your SERP rank. When dealing with local SEO, registering your business across different authoritative directories can cause serious improvements in your search rank. However, the key to this strategy is that the directory has to be authoritative — think Yelp, or Angie’s List. 

Directory spam is not a question of whether your business’s site is valuable, but whether the directory itself is valuable. If you’re registered across thousands of RDF Site Summary (RSS) pages or blog feed directories, this is an algorithmic red flag, as these directories are generally created with link manipulation in mind. Google has even started to scrub free directories from search results because they provide so little value.

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How Link Spam Started

Link spamming got its start with the rise of guest books and other public forums on sites. Because of the generally unregulated comments sections on these sites, other site owners found that if they posted their site links, they could see an increase in their SERP rank. 

This was before the Penguin update, when Google was evaluating links quantitatively, rather than qualitatively — a high number of external links, no matter where they came from, was enough to establish your site as an authority and worthy of promotion. As you can imagine, this quickly got out of control, which is why Google, and other search engines, have instituted a wide range of spam detection into their algorithms.

The Consequences of Link Spamming

Despite Google’s attempts to make link spamming ineffective, it hasn’t been able to fully eradicate it, so you may still find link spam employed by some site owners. However, since spam is devoid of value, diminishes the user experience, and attempts to mislead or manipulate search engines, Google has cracked down on spam content and link schemes and has been doling out penalties. 

If your page is associated with spam, you could get suppressed in the SERP by the algorithm, lowering your visibility. In some cases, Google may even manually remove your page from search results altogether, making it nigh impossible to sustain any kind of traffic or meaningful growth.

How to Recover From Link Spam Penalties

If you have posted spam links in the past and have either received a manual action notification in your Google Search Console, or you’ve noticed a severe traffic crash, the good news is your page isn’t irredeemable. There are some ways that you can recover from link spam penalties. 

First and foremost, you will need to stop engaging in link spam entirely. The older your spam posts are, the more likely the Google algorithm is able to or willing to ignore them when calculating your SERP ranking. 

You can also perform an SEO audit to get an understanding of what's actually hurting you. Finally, you can turn to the disavow tool. Google’s senior trends analyst, John Mueller, has stated that the disavow tool is really only effective on “really paid for (penalized) or otherwise actively unnaturally placed links.” Your SEO audit can help you determine these links, and gather your disavow folder. 

Understanding the difference between link building and link spamming, as well as having a basis for what is link-worthy, can help you improve the overall algorithmic authority of your site. Doing so could, in turn, improve your search rankings, visibility, and site growth.