A History of SEO Link Spam and How Google Changed Search Forever

In 1998, Google changed digital marketing forever when it launched its search engine algorithm based on PageRank. This radically new method of ranking organic search results – by equating web page value with the number of links a page earned – kicked off modern search engine optimization (SEO) and its obsession with backlinks.

The progression of Google’s major link-based algorithms

As the leading search engine, Google has also heavily influenced the history of SEO and it’s darker, spammier side. Let’s step back in time to see how Google’s link-related algorithms changed organic search and SEO.

1990s – All About Keywords

Before Google, search engine algorithms were based on keyword relevance – When your page contents matched the search query the searcher entered, exactly, your page ranked higher.

Unfortunately, relevance could only be measured by an exact match of the search query and the words on the page. When the keyword was found more times on the page, it was more likely to rank.

This simple equation gave rise to keyword stuffing – The site’s owners would insert many iterations of the keywords onto the page, either directly in visitors’ or hidden where only search engines could crawl them.

Initially, the keywords didn’t even need to be topically relevant to the rest of the page’s or the site’s content. Marketers would cram lists of repeated keywords like “Viagra,” “Nike,” and other popular trends at the time into the page to drive people – anyone – to the page. That worked, but there were two major problems — Visitors hated the pages and bounced out in large numbers, which led to low conversion rates.

Then spammers began hiding the keywords in the code where search bots could see them but visitors could not. Typical areas included hiding keywords 1,000 pixels off the page; under images; in lists of white text on white backgrounds; below the footer in tiny font; and more. The pages would still rank well because the keywords were technically on the page, but visitors didn’t have to wade through legions of spam to get to the point of the page.

But many of the pages returned in the search results were still irrelevant because spammers were so good at stuffing high-value keywords into pages of any topic.

1998 – Links, Links, Links

As Google gained in popularity, people started to recognize that its search results were better. They weren’t spam-free, but they were more relevant. With that increase in popularity came an increase in attention from the SEO community.

Digging into the patents and publicity around Google’s algorithm revealed that their advantage was based on PageRank, a way of applying scientific citation analysis to the network of sites linking to every site on the web. Sites with more citations (links pointing to them) were deemed higher quality, just like a scientific study that has been cited many times would hold more authority. Those sites would in turn pass more PageRank to the sites they linked to.

For example, millions of sites linked to Wikipedia, so it had high levels of PageRank. The sites that Wikipedia linked to also received higher levels of authority in Google’s algorithmic calculations.

The logic was that no one would link to a low-quality site because they wouldn’t want to send their visitors to that site and be thought of as low-quality themselves. Therefore, all links are good links and more is better.

That made link quantity the most important factor in organic search success, which in turn created a new demand for links that could most easily be supplied by link spam strategies.

People created new sites whose sole purpose was to link to their other sites. They dropped spammy, link-filled comments into other people’s blogs. They spun out endless press releases and low-quality articles filled with links to host on other sites. Business directory sales soared as marketers purchased links. And site owners everywhere advertised their willingness to sell links on their sites.

Search-result relevance dropped again as spammers became more and more prolific in their race to reach Google’s top-ranking result.

Quality improved incrementally as Google fought individual tactics, but spammers were always coming up with new tricks. It was time for Google to go on the offensive.

2012 – Quality and Quantity

Google answered the proliferation of link-spam tactics with the Penguin algorithm in 2012. Search results changed dramatically when Google released another batch update of sites to penalize for poor linking behavior. This, understandably, caused a lot of tension in the SEO industry, as sites were penalized for past actions done when they weren’t yet against Google’s policies.

But it did work to stem the worst of the link spam. It also created a new niche in the industry where the link builders who had previously been paid to broker links with sites were now paid to remove them.

In 2016, Google made Penguin a part of its real-time algorithm and downgraded its penalty into a demotion of bad links. The real-time aspect meant that sites could recover from Penguin more quickly after changing their behavior or proving their innocence.

But the demotion aspect was even more important. Previously, each bad link was a negative mark against your rankings. In 2016, however, Google began simply ignoring each bad link it encountered. This was key to recognizing that bad links happen – maybe a site links to you and you have no control over it; someone in your company decides it’s a good idea to buy links for their division without talking to you; or because optimized press releases used to be a successful tactic.

Google had successfully shifted its focus from sheer quantity of links to the quality of the sites linking in the SEO industry, and was getting better at incorporating that into their algorithms as well.

Today – Relevance and Authority

Today, SEO search is all about the relevance your content has to the searcher’s query.

Much of that relevance comes from the words and other content on the page, but in a much more advanced way than in the 90s. Contextual relevance is key now, with the content and theme of your page wrapped into a larger contextual analysis of your entire site’s content and theme.

The days are long gone when you could write one page of content about shoes in a site dedicated to power tools, and still rank for shoes keywords, regardless of how many links that shoes page has.

That relevance extends to the relevance of links, as well. In addition to quantity and quality, Google takes topical relevance of links pointing to a page into account when it’s determining the contextual relevance of that page.

But it’s harder to acquire links now. “Link building” is practically a dirty word because it calls to mind the pre-Penguin days of buying links.

Natural links have long been prized by Google and SEOs alike. What makes a link look natural? It’s included in natural language as part of the body of a page for no other reason than that it’s relevant and beneficial to visitors. Natural links are most commonly acquired through content marketing and successful promotion.

When you have something of value to offer on your site, people want to link to it naturally. That is the spirit of Google’s original PageRank algorithm, and what it has been striving to accomplish since 1998, when it changed the face of digital marketing forever.

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