Link Farming: No Good Harvest

The SEO field is new, constantly growing, and often in flux. As a side effect, it gets a constant stream of new people who aren’t familiar with the correct practices and pitfalls of the profession. That means some of the same questions get asked repeatedly; it almost seems like they come in cycles, especially on SEO forums. One of these questions is about link farming.

It’s no surprise that the topic of link farming brings up so many questions or causes such confusion. It’s very easy to confuse link farming with link directories. One of these gets penalized in the search engines (especially Google) while the other one doesn’t. At first glance, however, the two practices may look the same. So how do you tell the difference?

A link farm is a group of web pages that all link to every other page in the group. It’s designed to raise the rankings of all the sites in the search engine results pages (SERPs). This is different from a link directory in that it isn’t just one site doing it; all of the sites are involved. They all have their own link pages that link to every other site.

I didn’t fully understand how link farms work until fathom, one of the more active members of our SEO Chat forum, recently gave a “dumb down” explanation in a thread asking whether link farming was really spam. As he puts it, “A link farm is basically no different than the phenomena known as a chain mail scheme but rather than money changing hands – links are.”

In fathom’s example, three people started a link farm; each one added a new page to their sites that contains a link to all three sites. Then a fourth person joins the farm and adds an identical page of links to her site; all four web sites now contain pages with links to all four sites.

This starts small and might even be undetectable by the search engines at first. But it can grow to thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people. By the time you get a link farm that big you have hundreds of pages in each web site that are all carbon copies of each other, and all pointing to all of those carbon copies. In short, it’s a mess.

While most sources I’ve seen date link farms to Google’s arrival on the scene, Wikipedia puts their origins a bit earlier. They were supposedly used in 1999 by SEOs to take advantage of Inktomi’s algorithm, which depended on link popularity. Back in the day, Inktomi’s primary index included only 100 million listings. Pages that didn’t have a lot of links regularly fell out of the primary index; link farms were supposed to help stabilize listings for web sites that had few natural inbound links.

When Google came on the scene, the link farmers had to adjust their techniques some, because it didn’t weigh votes the same way. Not every vote was equal. Still, link farming continued to prosper for a while, and eventually became automated. Link-finding software emerged, designed to hunt down potential link partners, send template-based emails, and build directory-like web pages containing the links.

It should surprise no one that what one computer program can create, another can detect. Link farms leave distinct patterns. Search engine algorithms can be tuned to these patterns. Once a link farm is detected, it’s easy enough to remove it from the index. And more often than not, that’s exactly what search engines do nowadays.

There’s a very good reason for this. Take another look at the end of the last section, and how big a link farm can become. You’re talking about 100,000 sites, each with hundreds of pages made up of nothing but links. Usually, with a link farm, there is no real information about any of the sites; there may be a one sentence description, but it could just as easily include only the links without a description. The links may be in no particular order and show no sign that any of them are related to the site hosting them in any way.

If you ran a search engine, would you want that kind of thing cluttering up your index? Of course not. Your job is to serve your visitors with the most relevant results possible. Link farms don’t help that cause at all. They’re no longer necessary for helping web sites stay in primary indexes; indeed, they haven’t been needed for that purpose for years. Even as far back as 2002, Kimberly Krause Berg, writing for Search Engine Guide, pointed out that link farms were “illogical, especially if your website was trying to generate sales leads or sell products or services. The appearance of link farm pages made some web sites appear unprofessional.”

Is there an obvious way to tell the difference between a link directory and a link farm? And how do you avoid link farms? The question has particular relevance since it can be easy to fall into a link farm unintentionally. Alice Seba on Internet Based Moms mentioned a link program her friend Tara was once involved in. While she’d never participated in that kind of program herself, she “still didn’t realize it was a link farm. It was just a group of moms in business trying to find a way to help promote each other.”

The key, as with so much of SEO, is relevance. Say you’re a Star Trek fan, and you have a web site devoted to that interest. You can legitimately link to other fan sites, stores that sell Star Trek memorabilia, professional or personal sites for the actors in the series, and so on. These would all naturally be of interest to anyone visiting your web site. (Sorry, links to toupee sites would probably be stretching it, even for the Shatner fans).

What does not work is signing up with a company that promises you hundreds of inbound links if you promise to add the same number of outbound links. That’s a link farm. The links you get will probably not be relevant. So if you get an email that appears to have been automatically generated, and is requesting a reciprocal link exchange, be very suspicious. If you check out their site and it doesn’t seem to be remotely relevant to yours, run the other way. In particular, if they’re asking you for a link on your links page, and you don’t have a links page, you can bet this is an automatic solicitation, and they didn’t do their homework.

Now as it is, there are some who would argue that link directories are becoming obsolete. Some of our own writers, in fact, think they’re on their last legs. Many SEOs seem to think that at least DMOZ is still worth it, though, and that there are a few good directories still out there.

Incidentally, if you check your back links one day and find that a link farm is linking to you, don’t panic. Google won’t kill you for it. The search engine assumes that you can’t control who links to you. On the other hand, it also assumes that you control what sites you link to, so don’t link to link farms or other “bad neighborhoods.” (And it doesn’t do any harm to check the sites you link to every so often just to make sure they’re still there – and still relevant to your site).

So you know that link farms don’t work and in fact can get you penalized in the SERPs. But you also know that you need to have links if you want to build your position in the SERPs. Link farms may get you lots of links fast, but the links aren’t relevant – and relevant links will ultimately do far more for you than large quantities of junk links.

So how do you get these relevant links? There are a number of articles here on SEO Chat that cover link building and link trading. And if you want a good general approach, you’d be wise to follow the advice of Larisa Thomason, Senior Web Analyst for NetMechanic. It’s every bit as relevant now as when she first gave it in 2002. She emphasized four points:

  • Stay with your theme. Make sure that all of the links that appear on your site are relevant to your site’s topic.
  • Hang out with the popular crowd. Search engines look at the relative importance of your links, not just their number. According to Thomason, “It’s far better to have 100 good inbound links from popular pages than 1000 links from a link farm stuffed with spam sites.”
  • Avoid automated link generators. This doesn’t mean you can’t trade links with other sites, but if you do, don’t send automated emails. Do your research on the other site – and make sure anyone who sends you an email for a link exchange has done their homework about yours.
  • Put links in context. This helps the search engine algorithms work in your favor. As Thomason explains, “Links that are included in page content and contain the page’s keywords are more valuable than links exiled to a site’s ‘Related Links’ page.”

If you’re looking to grow your web site’s popularity, don’t do it with link farms. All you’ll harvest is search engine penalties and annoyed visitors. Keep it real, and keep it relevant. Remember, most things of value – including a good web site – take time to grow.

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