Link farms. An age old Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) link building technique that is still employed by some SEO agencies.
We were contacted by one of our long-standing Google AdWords clients, concerned about the practice.
He asked: “what are all these landing pages and different domains they’ve created as part of their SEO service?”
We analysed these domains and sites and established that the SEO agency had created a small link farm. Apparently for two purposes:
- For external linking to the website.
- To optimise and rank each site for specific location terms.
This appears to be an example of a “link farm.” Google has penalised and strongly recommends against this technique for SEO link building.
Part of Google’s algorithm is based on the “authority” of the page itself and the authority of the domain that page is part of. This then determines which pages are shown in search results. Authority is in part determined by “backlinks” – links to that site from external websites (domains). Think of this as a reference.Think of backlinks in SEO as a reference for a jobClick To Tweet If multiple sites link to a specific page or to other pages within that same domain, Google awards that page/site greater authority. This then influences its place in organic rankings.
It’s not the whole algorithm, but one factor
Historically, SEO firms would build a “link farm” by creating dozens, hundreds or even thousands of websites. The sole purpose was to manipulate the algorithm and the rankings. Many of the larger link farms have been “taken down” by Google and the sites they link to, were penalised for being part of these attempts to cheat its system. Google continues to target link farms and penalise sites they link to.
The problem for our client who cancelled their SEO service contract is that it’s likely that the SEO agency will remove those external sites and domains, or even use those same sites to rank for a competitor instead.
There are more issues with this approach. Sites which sole purpose is to refer traffic to another site are called “doorway pages.” Google’s policy on these sites is fairly simple. Google hates doorway pages and strongly recommends against them. These “thin content” sites provide little value to a searcher (your customer!) and therefore to Google as a search engine.
How This Affects Leads and Sales
Yes – this approach does mean the main site ranks on the first page of Google for long-tail [link] location searches. (SEO Portsmouth, for example). But, it’s the home page of the main site which ranks for that term.
Why do SEO then?
The primary reason to invest in SEO is to increase leads and sales. The goal of only improving rankings is a shortsighted one that leaves money on the table.
There are now three problems:
- the “doorway page” might rank for a long-tail location search term with zero search volume. This makes that particular site largely pointless for attracting traffic.
- the doorway page ranks for a long tail and a location term which has some traffic, but the content is so thin that the customer finds little of value on the site which leads to it bouncing.
- the doorway page encourages clicks and ranks the home page of the primary website. Customers land on a page which is not relevant to their query, resulting in a high bounce rate and most importantly, a low conversion rate.
Simply, a customer searching for “service + location” terms is much (much, much) more likely to convert on an enquiry on a page, which reinforces relevance to their query.
A search for “car hire portsmouth” converts better on a “portsmouth car hire” page, than a “car hire” page which doesn’t mention Portsmouth.
A similar algorithm is at work in Google AdWords, with part of the Quality Score and ad rank being landing page relevance. In AdWords, more relevant pages mean lower click costs.
Is it worth the risk?
Considering the risk of a penalty, our recommendation would be NOT to depend on those existing external domains. If the SEO agency take those domains down, your site may experience a temporary drop in rankings. In my opinion, that’s less painful than recovering from a penalty which Google might place on your domain on discovery of this practice.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to accurately predict how far that drop might be. It’s reasonable to expect that it would only be as far as the site rankings were before the link farm was created.
Historic ranking data for the site suggests that some terms would remain on page one and many on page two. That’s recoverable with more legitimate SEO. More importantly, that SEO strategy is sustainable in the long term. And most importantly of all, it should convert more traffic into leads and sales.
What your CUSTOMERS want is a single site with good content that will help them choose the right product or service for them. This also demonstrates that you’re an expert in your field.
Since that’s what customers want, that’s what Google values too.
Your SEO Strategy for a local business should be:
- relevant pages for location terms rather than ranking the less relevant home page for everything.
- great content within the site which is helpful to your customer.
- external links should ideally be earned with that good content rather than manufactured.