Home on the Web Range: What Are Link Farms (And Why Are They Bad)?

We try to publish blog posts with information that is constructive and actionable--suggestions that you can immediately employ to improve some aspect of your business operations. As Josh the Boss likes to say, "Don't give me a problem. Give me a solution." He's not one to obsess over the negatives, which has really shaped how Post Modern Marketing has grown and developed.

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However, I do believe that in order to get people to do what’s good for them, you have to explain the consequences of choosing otherwise. It isn’t enough to just provide a recipe for a fantastic home-cooked meal–you have to also show what’s going to happen when that tasty-looking 3000 calorie bacon ranch double-cheeseburger lodges in your heart. I think this is the case because it’s just so tempting to go the quick and easy route–right through the drive-thru five nights a week–rather than spend an hour or two a night making a balanced meal. “Well yeah, I understand why it’s such a good idea to invest the effort, but… it just takes so much worrrrrrrrk. It isn’t that big of a deal.” But once you’ve seen what’s in that chicken nugget or how much grease is in the aforementioned mondo burger, it’s a whole lot easier to find the motivation to make healthier choices. (I seem to have a lot of food-based metaphors running around in my brain at the moment. Blame it on the restaurant blog post from a few weeks ago.)

What are Link Farms? Types of Bad SEO
Somewhere, a veteran player of the Zelda games just broke into a sweat. So. Many. Bushes.

This is the case in the online world as well. A healthy, balanced diet for a growing website consists of quality backlinks, useful content, active social media campaigns, and so on. This requires a heck of a lot of time, effort, and expense. This is why it’s so tempting to go the McDonald’s route and slam down a super-sized value meal full of black hat goodness: spam, content spinning, keyword stuffing, private blog networks, and more.

Let me reiterate what we’ve said in the past: black hat SEO techniques may give you a boost in the short term, but ultimately, black hat practices leave you worse off than when you started. When you pay for low-quality SEO services–the sort that promise front page search results, submissions to hundreds of directories, dozens of blog posts a month–you are actually paying someone to hurt your business by feeding it unhealthy, even poisonous fast food garbage. If you can bear to look at the ingredients list, you’ll discover that it’s really not something you should be feeding to your business.

The target of my ire for today: link farms. When an SEO service offers you a package deal that includes a specific number of backlinks, what they’re really talking about is link farming. Link farming is the fast and easy way to make it look like your website is being discussed all over the Internet.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we discuss link farming, we have to answer the question, “What is a link farm?” But to do so, we have to go back even further and answer the question:

Why do link farms exist to begin with? Blame keywords.

In the beginning… There were web directories–such as Yahoo!–which were the equivalent of Internet Yellow Pages. Out of this primordial ooze came search engines.

When search engines first began to roam the earth, they were simple, stupid creatures. The first known Internet search engine was Archie (a version of which can be used here), a program written in the late ’80s by Alan Emtage at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Archie–which actually predated the Web itself–was used for finding files stored across FTP servers across the Internet. This system was a major improvement over the previously common practice of simply downloading a complete list of all the publicly available files present on servers to which the school was connected. Users could submit a search query to Archie, such as “brain,” and Archie would return any files–text files, images, etc–that had the word the word “brain” in it, such as harvard-brain-study.txt, brain-slide-01.jpg, etc.

From the idea of Archie came some of the earliest Web search engines, such as Excite, WebCrawler, and Lycos. All of these search engines were simply expansions on Archie. The difference was, instead of being able to just see the titles of files (all web sites, at their hearts, are mostly fancy text files), these engines could look at the words inside of a website. They worked by doing nothing more than matching search queries to phrases that appeared on websites. If someone searched for “shoes for ducks,” then the search engines would track down all the sites that mentioned “shoes for ducks,” and spit out a list of them. Sites that had that exact phrase would be at the top of search results, and those that had all of those words–but not in that order or right next to each other–would be next in the rankings, and so on.

But then came the dark days of the meta keyword tag. Keyword tags were a way of telling search engines what a webpage was about, without having to incorporate those words into the written content appearing on the site. So if someone were to make a page devoted to selling shoes for ducks, they could insert a keyword tag with a list of related words and phrases–“sneakers for mallards,” “footwear for aquatic fowl”–without having to write awful, awkward site content that used all of those different keywords (doing this is referred to as “keyword stuffing”).

The intent of the keyword tag was good. It had a great deal of potential. But… the keyword tag was powerful. And power corrupts. If one could have a list of ten keywords, why not have a list of twenty keywords? Or a hundred? Or a thousand? The consequences of this arms race were inevitable. Those who used keyword tags became craven and greedy, their souls blackened by the One Tag of the Web. They fell under the sway of its influence, and lo, the Web was thrown into darkness, overrun by sites with useless, endless lists of keywords. Our once-innocent, humble website about “shoes for ducks” was consumed by an ever-expanding keyword list that included “hats for iguanas,” “toupees for camels,” “underwear for orangutans,” and even more wildly unrelated fare.

But then, there was a light. Slowly, the developers of search engines began to realize that the power to determine the usefulness of a website should not rest in the hands of the owners of those websites. That power should be held by the whole world. The world should judge the sites that were good, and the sites that were not. But how could a search engine know which websites the world thought were good? But then the folks who ran search engines remembered that things that are popular tend to be good as well (they overlooked such exceptions as boy bands, reality TV, and candy corn). When people think something on the Internet is good, they usually want other people to know about it as well. And they do that by posting links to these interesting sites on their own sites. Thus, the age of the backlink came to be.

How the hunting and gathering of backlinks was supplanted by the agricultural production of backlinks.

The second generation of Web search engines looked at more than just keywords: They looked at how many links each site got from other sites. (Links that link back to other sites are creatively called “backlinks.”) The best known of these modern search engines is Google, whose search algorithm was the product of a research paper written by Larry Page, then a student at Stanford. (For a more in-depth look at Google, see our blog post on search marketing.)

So now, when a search engine user looked for “shoes for ducks,” the search engines would see which sites contained that phrase. Then, they would look at how many other websites linked to each of those pages, to measure how well-liked and popular they were. The “shoes for ducks” sites that had the most backlinks were considered to be the most popular, and thus, the best websites on the Internet about “shoes for ducks.” So the search engines ranked them the highest, because people would not post links to “shoes for ducks” sites that they thought were lacking.

Backlinks became more and more important, and grew in power. And we all know what great power does. Just as webmasters had previously realized that if ten keywords were good, then ten thousand keywords were better, they realized that having many backlinks was better than having a few. But how could a site owner force other sites to link to them? In a flash, they recognized their salvation: they could quickly build many other sites, and then have each of those sites link to their main website. Search engines had no way of knowing who owned what websites, nor could they recognize when sites had been created for the sole purpose of making other sites look good. Whoever created the largest number of backlink sites would have the greatest amount of power.

Some people took this reasoning a step further. Rather than spend time making a useful site, and then making a bunch of purposeless sites to all link to their own site, they dispensed with the useful and began to create nothing but useless sites for the sole purpose of hosting links to other sites. These people were mercenaries. Sellswords. They would post links on their purposeless sites to whomever paid them for the service. Some of these mercenaries found increasingly quick ways of creating thousands and tens of thousands of different websites. So when the owner of a website hired these mercenaries, the mercenaries could instantly provide them with thousands of backlinks, making it look as if thousands of people were linking to the site. These increasingly toxic, link-filled wastelands came to be known as “link farms.”

In the years since, link farms may have vanished from the memories of most, but they have not vanished from the Internet, nor have the mercenaries who control them. When you hire an SEO company that guarantees hundreds or thousands of backlinks, you are in fact hiring one of these mercenaries, with their legions of zombie link farms. If you dig deeply enough, you can see these link farms for yourselves. Some have become more elaborate over the years, hiding behind names such as “social networks,” “private blog networks,” or “guest blogs,” but they all serve the same purpose.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. See for yourself. Gaze upon such gems as ActiveSocialNetwork, Base Articles, Greenscollar, Anything in World, and I Can Blog Anything Better Than You (You might want to make sure you have Adblock installed on your browser if you decide to take a look. Also, all of these links are nofollow links, so they won’t help their search rankings). They are all stuffed with massive numbers of poorly written blog posts about incredibly disparate topics. A posting about “Silent Diesel Generator Supplies” is immediately followed by two others discussing “tumble cleaned once fired brass.” Discount PSN codes give way to espresso machines, and then to obscure aspects of law school, and tips on how to pass drug tests. When you pay for backlinks, this is the publicity for which you are paying. The scary thing is, these sites are some of the less dodgy looking backlink sites. Most have URLs like 3p9eb9y.com or purplemonkeydishwasher79.info, and don’t even bother with worthless blog posts, instead getting straight to the point with nothing but massive lists of backlinks and keywords.

So when you pay a dodgy SEO company for 1000 backlinks, they quickly spin a bunch of shallow content, embed links to your site, and automatically send these blog posts out to their many affiliated low-grade sites. In the years since Google and other search engines started factoring backlinks into their ranking algorithms, they’ve become aware of how people try to game the system. When you hear about sites trying to recover from “manual penalties,” Google has basically put its finger on the scales, forcing the offending sites down in the search rankings, compared to where the search engine algorithm would normally rank them.

The above should make it patently clear why paid backlinks obtained through backlink farms are trouble. They provide nothing of value to the Web, and the people who inhabit it. Their only purpose is to manipulate search engines. And that’s why search engines hate backlink farms with a passion.

“Google penalty recovery services” have become common offerings from thousands of SEO companies–both good and bad–for a reason. If you pay for bad backlinks, you’re going to end up paying someone else much more money to get rid of them for you. If you’re lucky. Otherwise, you’ll be spending literally thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to have your old site burned to the ground, and start from scratch–a new site on a new domain, with zero backlinks or publicity of any sort, with completely new content that can’t be traced back to your tainted site.

Don’t do it. Don’t fall prey to the temptation of cheap and easy backlinks. Run far, far away, and earn your backlinks the right way–through social campaigns, networking, and advertising.

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