MANILA, Philippines — When you’re online, you’ve probably come across text or images on webpages that allow you to navigate to other webpages. They are called hyperlinks.
Hyperlinks tell the user, or other web applications, that more information or data on the subject can be found at the other page or online address. The more useful information a page has on a particular topic, the more likely it is to be read and receive more links.
Among digital marketing professionals who practice search engine optimization (SEO), it is 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 gauge the importance of a page in relation to a topic. Websites and pages that receive a lot of backlinks are placed higher in search engine results pages.
News websites, especially those that regularly produce updated unique, credible, and informative content, rank well in search results because they get a lot of backlinks.
Game the system via the creation of artificial links
On the other hand, other commercial or marketing sites that do not regularly produce original content on a daily basis have a harder time obtaining these backlinks.
So how do marketers get around this?
They contact high authority sites hoping to get them back. Rappler, for example, because it ranks well on the results pages, has been getting many of these requests for years.
Over time, astute SEO practitioners have taken to playing with search algorithms to make the websites they promote more visible in search results pages. A common practice was to set up many sites to artificially build these backlinks.
It’s not hard to do.
The World Wide Web is full of services promising to automate this process of building links to your site. A quick Google search will lead you to services that even automate the website building process. These websites can also be easily powered by tools that grab content from other websites and “rotate” it to make it look different from the source site.
The industry now refers to these unethical manipulation techniques as black hat seo. And Google, whose avowed mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, was at war with these black hat operators for years.
For these Black Hat SEO practitioners, it doesn’t matter if the websites built are of poor quality or very little content. What matters are the backlinks.
The search optimization industry refers to backlinks built through these link building schemes as toxic backlinks. Due to the prevalence of these toxic websites on the web, Google has released a series of algorithm updates early 2012 that aimed to discourage or downplay the practice in their search results pages.
Beyond its use to promote sites and pages, this technique has also been used as a tool to attack the competition.
Stacy (pseudonym), a digital marketing practitioner who worked for an Australian SEO company, told Rappler about a case in late 2021 where this technique was used to target competition.
The marketer recalls seeing a sudden drop in search result traffic to his client’s product website, a local retailer. To identify the cause of the drop, Stacy said she inspected various indicators. For example, did articles with backlinks still exist? Were the stories that had these links removed or were the hyperlinks broken?
This process led them to one indicator: a huge jump in backlinks from toxic domains.
“We were convinced it was their competitor paying their online marketers to improve their own rankings,” Stacy said. “It was a competitive industry and they were too targeted to be random.”
At first, Google said it only downgrades low quality links accrued by websites through these black hat link building schemes. That should have been the end, except black hat operators found another way to make themselves always relevant: by using the same techniques to sabotage incoming traffic to the websites of their clients’ competitors.
Industry specialists call it “negative SEO.” For years, Google has denied that such techniques work. As recently as March 2021, Google Web Trends Analyst John Mueller claimed that “negative SEO” was nothing more than a meme.
Then in October 2021, following a new Google search algorithm update, Mueller admitted that in some cases, when there is a clear pattern of spammy and manipulative links by the site, their algorithm may decide to simply beware of the whole site.
Muller was answer a question about how “toxic backlinks” affect a website’s visibility in search results. It was his answer to the question: “For the most part, when we can recognize that something is problematic or is a spammy link, we will try to ignore it. If our systems recognize that they cannot ignore these links to the website, s ‘they see it as a very strong pattern, it may happen that our algorithms say well, we’ve really lost faith in this website.
Mueller conceded that Google tends to be conservative in its approach to this issue. “The web is very messy and Google ignores the links on it.” He said this decline usually occurs “when there is a clear pattern.”
Fighting toxic links, prosecuting black hat operators
What Should Website Owners Do When Targeted With Toxic Links?
One way is to disavow these bad linksaccording to Google and SEO practitioners.
Unfortunately, not all website owners have the staff or the tools to detect, let alone combat spammers on a regular basis.
The difficult part here is sifting through the mess of backlinks and identifying which links are desirable and which are not – which can be a tedious process. This is a tricky business and Google itself advises website managers to use the disavow tool with caution.
Beyond identifying toxic links, catching those responsible for sabotage can be even more difficult. As in the rest of the digital space, bad actors can hide behind anonymous accounts and proxies.
“We did not find out if the contestant actively requested this attack,” Stacy said.
It is also likely, she added, that the contestant did not actively request the attack. “It could have been just ‘part of the service’ to improve SEO for the competitor, without explaining the black hat tactics to the client.”
Buyer and reader beware. – Rappler.com