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.
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What are sitewide links?
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.
History of sitewide links
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.
Are sitewide links considered “natural” links?
Not always. Here are some instances where a sitewide link may be considered very natural:
- Showcasing the website designer or website developer can be done very naturally with a link to the service provider in the footer with something like “website design by XYZ.digital,” or something similar. However, in doing so, it is suggested that 1) the link anchor text only reference the brand and no money keywords (in this case “XYZ.digital” only, not “website design”) and 2) that the backlink be marked as nofollow, just to stay on the safe side.
- Showcasing the software that powers a website is acceptable. This could mean the content management system (CMS) or platform that runs a site’s backend. For instance, many sites might have listed, “Proudly Powered by WordPress,” with a link to WordPress.org.
- If you include links to another publication or website owned by your organization, then those links are considered natural. However, such links will be highly discounted because 1) they are likely to reside on a similar IP or IP block (which further discounts the link equity), 2) the Whois registry on the domains is likely the same or similar and 3) the links are likely to be reciprocal (site A links to site B and site B links back to site A). It’s natural, but does not carry near the same weight.
Are Sitewide Links Always a Bad Thing?
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.
Is It Worth Using Sitewide Links?
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.
Best Practices: How to Use Sitewide Links Responsibly
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:
- Follow general best practices for link building. You’ll want to use the same strategies and best practices you use for “normal” link building when establishing sitewide links. In other words, try to keep the link as relevant as possible, don’t stuff it with keywords, and make sure it doesn’t stand out from other links that are being used on this domain.
- Ensure sitewide linking domains are relevant. There needs to be a good reason for your sitewide link to exist. In other words, you need the connective tissue of relevance. If you own two domains that cover the same types of topics, the relevant connection is clear. The same is true if you’re simply acknowledging a website designer or a piece of software. Other relationships may be harder to justify.
- Don’t buy a sitewide link. Never buy a sitewide link outright. Money isn’t a “good reason” for having one, and most paid sitewide links end up on cheap, spammy, irrelevant domains. It’s fine to build a sitewide link with a domain you have a professional relationship with, but don’t participate in a direct paid scheme like this.
- Use sitewide links sparingly. If you’re adding new sitewide links on a regular basis, like weekly, it’s going to be a red flag. Even if you’re designing websites for lots of clients or adding multiple new domains to your portfolio, try to build sitewide links sparingly.
- Keep your history clean. Your sitewide links are going to be even more dangerous if your website has an established history of participating in link exchanges, link circles, and other link schemes. If you keep your history clean and you follow best link building practices as much as possible, you’ll be in a much better position.
- Pay attention to sister sitewide links. If you have a sitewide link on a domain, see if there are other sitewide links to other domains on that central referring domain. These are your “sister” sitewide links. What are these domains like? Are they spammy and irrelevant? If so, you may be in bad company.
- Research the domain. You should also research the referring domain itself. What is its domain authority? Is its subject matter relevant to your domain? Does it have a sketchy history at all? Any red flags here should make you wary of having a sitewide link with the domain.
- Talk to the domain owner. Finally, consider talking to the domain owner directly (if you haven’t yet). Find out more about how they build and manage links on their site – and be cautious of any questionable practices.
- Make Sure Your Profile is Diverse. A sitewide link can royally screw up an otherwise flawless link profile. If you only had 100 links to your site, but suddenly acquired 10,000 links from a couple of sitewide links, it’s going to look very suspicious. This is especially true for link building for startups. Established, enterprise sites can take more inbound, sitewide links. In either case, engaging in strategy that provides backlink diversity will help to spread out the influence of focused site wide links.
How to Find and Resolve Sitewide Links
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.
Can sitewide links hurt your SEO?
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:
- Links that use precise anchor text or even varied anchor text that includes your money terms are a big sitewide “no-no.”
- Excessive sitewide linking from unrelated websites or blogs.
- Total sitewide links greatly outweigh other natural, in-context links across a site’s linkgraph.
- Sitewide links from bad neighbors on a massive scale, even in cases of attempts at negative SEO, can still hurt you, despite comments to the contrary.
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.
Sitewide backlink best practices for SEO
I’m going to keep this short, simple and to the point:
- Don’t ever buy, trade or swap for sitewide links back to your site. This is probably the worst strategy you could ever implement.
- Avoid sitewide link placements that include exact match anchors using money keywords. Legitimate sitewide links are almost always branded keyword links (e.g. SEO.co or PPC.co)
- Ask yourself, “does this link look natural?” If the answer is no, then 1) don’t do it or, 2) request it be removed or 3) disavow.
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.
Are you needing help with building links to your website for SEO? Our backlink building service can help. Contact us today!
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