Why engineered link building no longer works in 2020

Backlinks reign as Google’s #1 ranking signal. The sites with the most links rank the highest. So SEO agencies started engineering fake links (PBNs). Clients who bought links would gain higher rankings. But Google’s algorithm evolved. In 2018, it killed PBNs. In early 2020, it started making moves to kill guest posts. This article clarifies the link-building SEO landscape in 2020.

Fake backlinks will damage your website
Shady fake link schemes will drain your bank account and crash your site’s rankings.

In February 2020, Google started making moves to cripple guest posts as a means of link building. Search Engine Journal reports a handful of site publishers receiving warnings from Google.

This isn’t surprising, given other developments. Late last year, Google split no-follow links into three types:

  1. Sponsored: use to identify links on your site created as part of ads, sponsorships or other paid links.
  2. UGC: UGC stands for User Generated Content. Use this for things like comments and forum posts.
  3. Nofollow: use this when you want to link to a page but don’t want to imply any type of endorsement.

On March 1, Google changed the no-follow rule from a directive to a suggestion. This allows search engine crawlers to take a closer look at no-follow links.

Google’s recent no-follow changes plus recent warnings to webmasters suggest the end of paid guest posts for link-building. Here are the two types of engineered (fake) links that have dominated the SEO agency scene for the past decade.

Private blog networks

A PBN, or private blog network, is a black hat SEO technique. It involves using a network of controlled sites to gain backlinks for other websites.

PBN blog network
Buying engineered PBN links used to be a surefire way to rank a website.

When a domain name expires, it keeps all the links that point to it. Around 10 years ago, SEOs figured this out. They began buying up expired domains with good link profiles. Then, they would add a few pages of content and a blogroll.

Within the blog, they would publish pure spun or low-quality articles with links to client sites. For the past ten years, this saw the rise of thousands of “SEO agencies”. These cowboys earned thousands per month selling links from their networks.

In 2014, Google began their crackdown on PBNs. When their crawlers found a PBN link, they would levy a penalty onto the sites receiving links. Then, they would de-index the PBN.

For the next few years, it was a cat-and-mouse game between SEOs and the Google algorithm. Every time Google detected a new PBN footprint, webmasters would mix things up.

Google finally killed PBNs for good with the March 2019 Core update. Then, their algorithm became sophisticated enough to spot PBNs from a mile away.

  1. Fake PBN websites don’t have organic traffic.
  2. PBN sites have too many outbound links.
  3. Fake sites don’t get real links from other sites.

Guest posts

In late 2019, Google began making moves against guest posts. That started by splitting the no-follow directive into sponsored, user-generated or no-follow variations.

In February 2020, Search Engine Journal reported many webmasters receiving Google warnings.

“We have detected that some of your articles are guest posts… We have disabled your authority for your outbound links. Please set your outbound links to nofollow and submit a review request.”

Google manual action screenshot
A manual action message sent to a publisher of guest posts.

The webmaster they spoke to reported his patterns:

  • He sold 15 guest posts on his site over 3 months.
  • All paid links only used branded anchor text, not keyword-optimized anchor text (this might be the footprint Google spotted).
  • His site does not mention that they accept guest posts.

Google hasn’t commented, but the trends point in a clear direction. If you accept guest posts or paid links, use rel=”sponsored” or rel=”nofollow”. Publishing guest posts without one of these tags is risky — at least until Google makes an announcement.

How to build links in 2020

Link-building under Google’s algorithm brings us back to the old-school. Twenty years ago, Google invented PageRank. That algorithm saw links as “votes”. The concept was that the best content would have the most votes.

For the past ten years, many SEOs took advantage of this with PBN networks. When PBNs died, paid guest posts became the best way to gain links.

Without a way to engineer links, the only option left is to wait for votes or do outreach to get some. However, even if you do get outreach links, Google expects them to be marked as rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored”.

We’ll update this story with more details as it develops.

About the Author

Anil Ramsey has been a media pro in Asia for 15+ years. He is a former print editor (Japan and Korea), NGO media director (China) and ad agency executive (SE Asia). He currently leads the production of several affiliate and authority websites. In his spare time, he shares what he learns as a part-time consultant.

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