Co-written by Jennifer Croft, an SEO consultant with 30 years of marketing experience who has worked on more than 500 websites, including 70 higher education websites.
Google uses more than 200 parameters to decide which pages and websites to send to the top of its search engine results, and for years, backlinks have played a large role in those parameters. Also known as “incoming links” or “external links,” backlinks are links that are placed on other websites that point to your school’s site.
Google had long considered these links as “votes” for your website, believing that if other website owners thought highly enough of your site to send traffic from theirs to yours, this spoke to the credibility of your site and content.
As soon as SEO consultants realized that backlinks could help send a site to the top of Google, the race was on for backlinks, and unscrupulous practices soon followed. People traded backlinks, bought backlinks, and created backlinks from empty directory-type sites.
In 2012, realizing that its voting system had been severely compromised by black-hat SEO practices, Google began rolling out significant algorithm changes (under the name Penguin) to try to restore integrity to its ranking system. Sites with a high number of suspicious backlinks were penalized, resulting in a dramatic drop in their organic search traffic.
Typically, college and university websites have healthy, reputable backlink profiles, with thousands or even millions of backlinks coming in from reputable sources, including other higher education sites and government sites. Of late, however, more and more higher ed sites are being targeted by unscrupulous SEO practitioners and spammers, and their reputable sites are at risk of being considered disreputable by Google.
How to spot suspicious backlinks
While good links coming from credible sites can boost your SEO performance, bad links coming from suspicious sites can harm your site. Suspicious backlinks include:
Run-of-site links: Thousands, or even millions, of links coming from the same site.
Foreign links: Links coming from foreign sites. You can easily spot these because of their top-level domains (e.g., .vn, .pl, and .sk for Vietnam, Poland, and Slovakia, respectively).
Off-topic links: Links that are coming in from sites that aren’t related to higher ed, such as medical or shopping pages. You can spot these by the anchor text in the link, such as “white kidney bean diet” or “replica Rolex watches.”