If you spend a couple of years working in SEO, particularly agency-side, chances are you’ll see a lot of different ways to do things. White hat, black hat, varying shades of grey, good site architecture, navigation so bad that every link in the menu 302 redirects, you’ll see pretty much all of it, but the forum profile linkwheel I found the other day was a new one on me.
It went like this: I’ve just started a new job at a new agency (in between moving house and having no internet connection there – it’s been a pretty stressful time) and as you would expect, I’ve been looking at a lot of new sites. As I was looking through the backlink profile of one of them, I found a couple of forum links – naturally, this caught my eye as the last thing I want to have to do is try to work on a site that someone’s black-hatted into the Google Dungeon. It was strange though, in that there wasn’t enough of them for anyone to have really had a serious go at using them to leverage rankings, so I thought maybe these links were genuine forum profiles of employees who were listing this site as their own.
Then I clicked the link.
The Profile Links
This was where things got odd. The profile was your typical low quality spammer fare, with no real content and a couple of anchor text links wedged in where they could get them (when will forum owners learn? Do-follow links + auto approved profiles = SPAM!), but I couldn’t see why these links would be going to the site in question as there was no anchor text which was relevant to this site. I started to think that maybe the link had gone, but I had a look at the source and searched for the URL – sure enough, it was in there, but it was linking for a term totally unrelated to the site, to a profile on the site’s forum.
By now, I was starting to suspect that something was up, so I checked the link which, sure enough, was a duplicated spammer profile, with the same anchor text links in there but going to different forum profiles. I finally twigged what was going on.
What Is A Linkwheel?
Before we go any further, it might make sense if I explain quickly what a linkwheel is. Essentially, your site’s ideal linking profile would look a bit like this (excuse the terrible drawing):
Whereas a linkwheel would look a bit more like this:
The idea behind it is to create a more powerful link for the chosen keyterm by creating a wheel or chain for this particular keyterm. For example, I have a site that sells roast chickens online (I don’t and I don’t know where that came from either). If I wanted to create a linkwheel, I would perhaps write a blog post about buying roast chickens online, which I would use to link to both my site and another blog post about the same thing, using the anchor text I want my site to rank for.
I would then link that to another kind of web 2.0 property such as a social bookmarking platform or something else, again for the same keyterm. This would go on and on and eventually (depending on my level of patience), it would create a circle of sites all linking to another one for my keyword and the actual website I want to rank.
It used to work really well, apparently, but doesn’t so much anymore, possibly because of the massive footprint it leaves behind making it easy for Google to discover and the fact that most linkwheels are created automatically using spun or scraped content. Although it’s unlikely to get your site banned, you usually find that if the wheel is discovered, those links will be devalued.
So What Is A Forum Profile Linkwheel?
Essentially, it’s a similar thing, but with the potential for a much bigger footprint and can be created entirely through automated means. Rather than necessarily linking to the site itself, the wheel I discovered seemed to be entirely concerned with linking just to the different profiles and ending on the website it wanted to rank. Perhaps the term “link chain” would be better, but you get the idea.
The part that I find intriguing is the potential for size with this: obviously, I’ve never used any of the tools that you’d use to create one of these and I’m frankly a little ignorant about some of the newer black hat SEO methods, but considering the fact that these things can be automated, you could set it off and go to the pub while it does its work, creating thousands of profiles all linking to each other before going to the site itself. This could potentially negate the effect of flagging up to Google that there are some unnatural links going to it as rather than thousands of links suddenly appearing, there are just a few links that land on the site, but chances are that through this method they’ve got a bit of juice to them.
If My Forum Is Used This Way, Will My Site Get Penalised?
If Google penalised every site that had bad profiles on their forum, chances are there wouldn’t be many forums on the internet. Personally, I’m inclined to say that ‘No’, being if your forum has a couple of spammy profiles on it, you’re not going to get sanctioned, but I’d be concerned if there are a lot of them – if nothing else, it’s worth taking steps to ensure that people, not bots that are completing your registration process. Captchas, email approval and double opt-ins are good ways to do this – although they are also gamable, it’s an extra line of security. It might also be worth making profile links no-followed by default.
So anyway, that’s my weird discovery of the week. I hope you’ve found it interesting.