• 08 Jun 2021
  • 4 Min read

Suspected link network behind backlink spike at high-profile sites

Several top-tier ecommerce and news websites have experienced a sudden surge in backlinks from new referring domains over the past two months.

Our analysis shows that these links are primarily coming from new Blogspot domains, many of which appear to be linked to one another, indicating that this activity may be part of a large-scale link-building network. But what does this mean, and why should sites be wary of this sort of activity?

What is a link network?

A link network is a group of sites that have been created with the intention of building lots of links quickly. However, backlinks engineered in this way tend to be of poor quality, and as such don’t confer much SEO value. Google’s Webmaster Guidelines warn against the use of such schemes, especially those that use “automated programs or services to create links to your site”.

While link networks are nothing new, what’s surprising about this one is the sheer scale of activity and the speed with which links have been acquired. In some instances, sites have gained as many as hundreds of thousands of additional referring domains in just 45 days.

What did we find?

We first uncovered the network when we noticed that one of our SEO clients had experienced a sudden spike in the number of domains linking to their site. This wasn’t link-building activity that we had instigated, so we took a closer look at the domains that had caused the surge.

We discovered that the large majority of these links were coming from Blogspot domains, many of which were brand new sites. When we crawled one of these, we noticed that there were a significant number of image-based outlinks to various sites, including our client.

Digging deeper, we soon found that the associated Blogspot profile had lots of links to sites that were doing exactly the same thing. When we cross-referenced this with the other links on the domain, we learned that a number of high-profile ecommerce and news websites had also been impacted by the same techniques.

In particular, we found that a lot of sites in the pet care and home and interiors sectors had been affected, as well as a number of high-profile foreign and domestic news sites, including The Sun, IKEA, Next, and La Redoute.

You can clearly see the spike in referring domains in the screengrabs from Ahrefs below:

The Sun (https://www.thesun.co.uk/)

Source: Ahrefs

Next (https://www.next.co.uk)

Source: Ahrefs

La Redoute (https://www.laredoute.com)

Source: Ahrefs

IKEA (https://www.ikea.com/)

Source: Ahrefs

All of these sites experienced a rise in link activity during a similar timeframe, with a significant increase taking place after January 2021. This would indicate that they may have been hit by the same network as our client.

Why did this happen?

Although a varied backlink profile is usually a positive ranking factor, link networks of this kind can do more harm than good. If search engines believe that a link has been engineered purely to pass link value from one site to another, and it is clear that the content is in any way unnatural or manipulated, these links won’t pass on any SEO benefit. In serious cases, link networks can even lead to a site receiving a penalty from Google.

As such, it’s likely that this link network was not something that was engineered by the sites that have been affected. It’s possible this network was created by a third-party, potentially with the intention of harming the afflicted site’s backlink profiles. 

Creating all of these new domains manually would be a monumental task, especially within such a short timeframe. So, it’s probable that software or AI was used to facilitate this link network — another practice that Google warns against.

What happens next?

The silver lining is that Google is getting better and better at recognising and responding to link networks. The search engine has even stated that their algorithm is now sophisticated enough to ignore spammy links (Search Engine Roundtable). That means sites are unlikely to be penalised or suffer a rankings drop because of malicious link-building by a third party.

However, just to be on the safe side, web developers can also use Google’s Disavow Links tool, which tells the search engine to ignore specific backlinks that are pointing to their site.

If you’re looking to boost your site’s search visibility, then it’s essential to have a strong backlink profile. Here at Glass Digital, our Outreach team can work with you to build high-quality links using white-hat tactics that comply with guidelines set by Google and the Advertising Standards Agency. We only ever seek natural links that will legitimately contribute to higher organic search rankings. Get in touch or book a free consultation to learn more today.

Marc Swann

Search Director

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