Not all backlinks are created equal.
In fact, some types of links can do more harm than good if you’re looking to rank a website in online search.
While most of the focus for bad links revolves around the quality of the publisher websites in guest posting, the quality of the publisher may not be the only thing weighing down your rankings.
One oft-debated area for link quality is the presence of sitewide links from other websites.
Simply put, a sitewide link is a backlink that appears on most, if not all, of a website’s pages and/or posts.
Sitewide links typically are included in things like footer menus or sidebar menus. They will look something like this:
In the pre-Penguin update days, many anchor text specific sitewide links appeared on blogrolls, ensuring that with each new blog post a new outbound link would be given to those included there.
In the days before Google’s release of Penguin, obtaining 24K+ links from a single source with exact match anchors would likely have lead to elation.
The Google Penguin update really put the hammer on unnatural link building in SEO. Sitewide links were a component of that update.
As an oft-abused link building tactic, sitewide link building was a strategy used to game Google’s pre-Penguin reliance on anchor text as a more primary driver of relevance for a page.
But, does it really look natural if you have 24K+ sitewide links using anchor text that includes “payday loans?” Hardly.
In today’s world, sitewide links are weighted much differently in the overall linkgraph. They’re not only discounted in the weighting factor, the total quantity of the anchor text can serve to work against you if they are keyword and not brand-specific.
Not always. Here are some instances where a sitewide link may be considered very natural:
It’s true that building low-quality or irrelevant sitewide links can have a disastrous effect on your ranking potential. But does that mean sitewide links are always a bad thing, or that they should be avoided?
There are plenty of anecdotal examples of websites that feature inbound sitewide links – and they seem to be doing just fine in search rankings.
And Matt Cutts, Google software engineer, once confirmed that there are certain types of sitewide links that are entirely deemed “natural.” In other words, some forms of sitewide links can aid your strategy, while others might attract a penalty.
That said, not all links are treated equally. Some links are determined to be more relevant and more important, based on where they appear. Oftentimes, links that are found in sidebars, headers, and footers are actually valued less by Google – even though they may seem like a more important location than a simple blog post.
In other words, there are natural ways to establish sitewide links, but even if you get the authoritative value from them, they probably won’t be as significant as other links you could build.
The Benefits and Dangers of Sitewide Links
What exactly are the benefits and dangers of sitewide links?
Sitewide links can, under the right circumstances, pass authority to your site much like standard links. However, because links in footers, headers, blogrolls, and other common areas are undervalued compared to standard backlinks, you’re probably not going to see as many benefits from this practice as you would with a conventional link building strategy.
So what are the dangers?
If you use sitewide links as a cheap tactic to get lots of links at once, if your sitewide links are irrelevant, or if your practices are found to be “unnatural” in any way, sitewide links can get you penalized. In egregious cases, you may see a manual penalty that gets you deindexed, but more commonly, you’ll just see a fall in your search engine rankings.
Either way, bad sitewide link building practices are going to hurt you.
Knowing the balance here, you may be wondering if it’s worth using sitewide links at all.
Here’s a general rule to follow: if you have a good reason to use sitewide links, go ahead and use them. Otherwise, don’t bother trying to force them into your strategy.
For example, if you design a client’s website, it’s perfectly fine to try and establish a sitewide link that credits you as the designer. If you own multiple domains on related topics, mutual sitewide links can be valuable.
But if you’re speculating about the possibility of building as many sitewide links as you can on as many domains as you can – don’t bother. Your efforts are better spent elsewhere.
If you’re still concerned about the possibility of sitewide links working against you, there are a few important strategies you can follow to use sitewide links responsibly:
It’s a good idea to keep an eye out for sitewide links that were built without your knowledge or direction. Though rare, this situation can arise. For example, a referring domain may feel inclined to link to your site in the footer as a resource for web users, or one of your staff members may be attempting to get sitewide links, not knowing the risks of the strategy.
Accordingly, it’s a good idea to conduct a backlink profile analysis on a regular basis – at least quarterly, if not monthly. Check out what types of links you’ve built, where they’re coming from, and how they fit with the rest of your profile.
If you discover hundreds or thousands of links from a single referring domain, you’ve got a sitewide link on your hands. If this isn’t a relevant, natural sitewide link in accordance with the best practices above, it’s a good idea to remove it.
The easiest way to do this is to reach out to the referring domain owner and politely ask them to remove the link. If they refuse, or if you’re unable to get in touch with them after several attempts, you’ll be forced to use the last-ditch effort to formally disavow the link.
The short answer is “yes,” but it is somewhat nuanced. The worst types of sitewide links typically look like egregious attempts to either pass link equity from a high authority site to a new site or try to rank for a particular keyword or both.
Unnatural sitewide links that could eventually cause you to incur a penalty, might look like the following:
It is easier than ever for Google to spot sitewide links that are being used with an attempt to bolster rankings unnaturally.
Google doesn’t have to perform manual penalties to catch and punish perpetrators. The algorithms will do that for them.
Here’s a direct client example in the legal SEO space:
In a matter of hours, the client’s website amassed over 100K links from four separate sources in the legal niche. Each site that linked to them had a domain authority >70 and was linking with anchors that did not look natural.
Neither we nor the client initiated this.
And here’s the subsequent and resulting fallout to keyword rankings:
At its peak this website ranked for some 75K terms with over 1K terms in top 3 positions. Luckily, some defensive maneuvering has helped the site to recover, but not without eight months of lost revenue due to the lost rankings and a massive amount of stress and work.
Beware: if you’re not careful and vigilant, sitewide links can have a significant and immediate negative impact on your website.
I’m going to keep this short, simple and to the point:
Continue to monitor your backlink profile in Google Search Console, Moz, Ahrefs or all three. Pay attention to what others might be doing to ensure you can get ahead of sitewide link issues before they hurt you.
While sitewide link building for SEO may be a dead tactic, it still remains worth discussing.
Ignorance to best practices may come back to bite you hard, even if you had nothing to do with creating a sitewide link with unnatural anchor text to your website.