The Link Directory: Just Another Form of Link Farm?

Directories are everywhere, on any topic imaginable.  As SEOs, we even promote submissions to link directories as a good method of getting backlinks.  But with more and more link directories popping up all over the web, are we somehow helping to promote a new type of link farm? A few years ago, link farms were easy to find.  Today, you rarely ever see them.  One could assume that the link farm syndrome has been cured.  Or has it?

In a time when it seems you cannot escape web spam, spammers are finding more and better ways at creating the unwanted junk.  Search engine engineers work hard to filter out such garbage, so that the search engine results are relevant to a user’s query.  And while spammers seem to always be either one step ahead of the search engines, or able to exploit holes in algorithms, search engines work hard at fixing these things so that we have a better search experience.  However, we are still bombarded on every side with it.  We get it in our email, in our blogs, in our forums, and even in our link exchanges.  I want to examine a particular aspect of linking strategies that seems to be the target of spam filters lately: the link directory.

A link farm is a large group of web pages created that contain hyperlinks to one another or a specific other page. Link farms are normally created by programs, rather than by human beings.  They can also be defined as sites created solely for search engine ranking purposes that consist almost entirely of a long list of unrelated links. These types of pages are penalized by almost all search engines.

While “link farm” is an older term used to describe those types of sites; the term can certainly apply to link directories. Some of these programs are nothing more than random links on a page and really do not help one’s popularity or backlink value. These most definitely can be considered spamming.

Many webmasters understand the importance of having backlinks.  Yet some do not understand the difference between high quality links and poor quality links.  I have to caution many clients about the importance of being able to decline a link exchange request.  Why?  There are several reasons for my caution.

1.  You can receive penalties for linking to a site that is considered spam.

Think of it in terms of reputation.  Google uses the Hilltop algorithmic principle.  Hilltop emphasizes the voting power of what it considers “authority sites”; this involves analyzing the links between pages on the web on the assumption that pages on the topic link to each other, and authoritative pages tend to point to other authoritative pages.  In order to build your good, you must not have associations with shady characters.  Being linked with spam sites, or other sites that use black-hat SEO would probably inflict negative results upon your reputation. 

The same can be true for websites.  If your website is associated with poorly reputed sites, then their bad reputation can certainly reflect on you, and your search engine positioning.

2.  Linking to irrelevant sites does not help you in any way, and in fact may hurt you.

No one is exactly sure how a search engine ranks relevancy, but you certainly don’t want to give them a reason to consider your site irrelevant.  In an extreme case, linking to too many irrelevant sites might give search engines the impressions that your directory is nothing more than a link farm.  The consequences of this are not worth the risk of being banned in the search engines, all for mere hope that it might bring you a little questionable value.

3.  There seems to be little value in creating a link exchange with some websites.

There is much controversy among SEOs, webmasters, and designers over whether there is any value at all in reciprocal linking.  It’s a lot of work and effort to maintain a link exchange, especially in a directory form, as well as trying to find good websites to link with.  Some webmasters simply do not participate in reciprocal linking programs at all; instead focusing on receiving one-way links only.  I think the jury is still out on this one, however.  Still, the theory may be sound: creating link exchanges with blogs or forums (sites which are particularly open to spamming techniques) retain little value at all.

4.  Too many irrelevant links can be seen as spam. 

While you don’t see many link farms anymore, they do still exist.  In fact, they can take the form of a link directory.  If you don’t have organized, clear, and distinct categories of links, then your directory can easily be determined to be a link farm, especially if you have more than 50 links already on a page.  Having a link farm on your website will be one of the fastest ways to get your website banned in the search engines.

5.  You can lose PageRank or even be black-listed for linking to a spam site.

The consequences of linking to black-hat websites can be severe.  “TrustRank” is a term recently trademarked by Google.  In talking about TrustRank, Google says, “Web spam pages use various techniques to achieve higher-than-deserved rankings in a search engine’s results. While human experts can identify spam, it is too expensive to manually evaluate a large number of pages. Instead, we propose techniques to semi-automatically separate reputable, good pages from spam. We first select a small set of seed pages to be evaluated by an expert. Once we manually identify the reputable seed pages, we use the link structure of the web to discover other pages that are likely to be good. In this paper we discuss possible ways to implement the seed selection and the discovery of good pages. We present results of experiments run on the World Wide Web indexed by AltaVista and evaluate the performance of our techniques. Our results show that we can effectively filter out spam from a significant fraction of the web, based on a good seed set of less than 200 sites.”

In essence, TrustRank is a way to cut down on spam and filter out content that is not relevant to the searcher in order to bring them results they really want.  What this could mean to you in the near future is that linking to a non-trusted site would deem your site untrustworthy as well.  It is so important to be careful to whom you link.  Even without TrustRank, which has yet to be used by Google, your PageRank can still be affected.

A company called Traffic Power was a notorious SEO firm that employed various black-hat SEO techniques, like doorway pages and JavaScript spam; so much so that the company and almost all of their clients were banned from the search engines.  We have also seen sites that have linked to such banned sites lose their PageRank and positions in the results pages.

Directory Tips

There would be several instances where you might have a good reason to incorporate a link directory into your website.  You should never have more than 50 outbound links on a page, as this dilutes the page’s value.  If you have a variety of links and they are not all related, you will need to categorize them together so they are relevant to each other.  A link directory might be the solution.  Another reason you might have a directory on your website is to generate revenue.  In these cases, it would be advisable for you to have a link directory, but there are some tips you should be aware of.

1.  Use clear, concise titles and descriptions for your categories.  This will not only help those who wish to submit their links to a category know exactly where they should suggest their URL; it also gives search engine spiders a fair understanding what that particular category is about, and how to measure the relevancy of the links in it. Use a directory script that utilizes title and description meta tags, or breadcrumb navigation.

2.  Research sites that ask you for a link exchange.  It is becoming more and more important to know just who you are linking to.  Take note of the location of your reciprocal link, the site’s and the page’s PageRank, and scan the source code of the page to spot possible spam practices that could get the site into trouble in the future.

3.  Be able to say “NO” to a link exchange request.  If you cannot see the relevance of the site requesting the exchange to your site or you feel the site would not be a good representation of your values, then it is recommended that you decline the request. 

4.  Try to keep links and categories relevant to the content of your website.  If your website is about race cars, then it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to have a category for bridal accessories in your link directory.

5.  You can’t be all things to everyone.  Don’t try to include a broad spectrum of categories in your directory.  It is one thing for a directory like DMOZ’s Open Directory to have categories ranging from kids toys to barbecue supplies to furnace repair companies, because they’ve built their reputation as an all-encompassing type of directory: that’s all they are.  If you have a website about the care of kittens, you can’t be DMOZ and try to keep your site relevant to kittens.

6.  Clean out your link directory on occasion.  Even if you’ve already approved a link exchange with a website in the past, it never hurts to follow up on these links.  Many times, you’ll find that a site seems to be a good choice for a link exchange, only to find out in a few months that the site is no longer found in the search engines because they’ve been banned due to black-hat SEO practices.  The site might have gone under, or moved, so it’s a good idea for you to remove these dead links as well.

As search engines implement more filters, there is greater risk that even links from legitimate directories are being filtered out, or not being credited to your backlink score.  Many directories are link farms and additionally some search engines may even be filtering out some of the links from some of the legitimate directories, because those links appear random, and there is no way for a search engine to tell the difference between this new form of link farm and the old.  There is no substitute for relevant, quality one-way links from well reputed sites.

Do I think the link farm has been replaced by the link directory?  Yes and no.  There are many great directories out there.  The Open Directory, or DMOZ, is a good example of a directory that carries fairly heavy weight in the search engines.  Google, especially, pulls a lot of information from the Open Directory.  But even a link from this directory doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to.

Most search engines, which include Google, Yahoo, and MSN, use backlinks to calculate a website’s relevance.  It makes complete sense that if links are that important, that you should be cautious about which sites you link to and which sites you choose to have linking to you.  The link farm may look obsolete, but in many respects it has only changed its façade.  The link directories are not bad things in all respects, but I think they are being more closely watched to make sure they don’t present opportunities for spam.  All it takes is a few bad apples, and the search engines will throw out the whole bunch: yours included.   Keep your links relevant, and be picky about who you link to, and your link directory may just hold some value; if not for search engines, then to bring qualified traffic to your website.

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