College website SEO: Watch out for bad backlinks

Stephanie GeyerOctober 13, 2015

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.”

To determine if you have a potential backlink problem that could be affecting your site’s SEO performance, use one or all of the tools listed below.

Google Webmaster Tools
Start your backlinks investigation by using Google Webmaster Tools (GWT). In egregious cases, Google will send a notification through GWT that your site is in violation of its quality guidelines. But don’t assume that no news is good news. Instead, regularly monitor your backlinks profile through GWT by looking at:

  • The number of backlinks coming into your site (watch for spikes).
  • The type of backlinks coming into your site (check to make sure your backlinks are coming from reputable domains).
  • The anchor text in the backlinks (look for suspicious terms that don’t relate to your institution or higher ed).

Majestic SEO
Majestic SEO is another tool you can use to monitor backlinks. On a single summary page, Majestic SEO can show you how many links are coming into your website, how many domains are referring to your website, the anchor text in the incoming links, a snapshot of your backlinks history, trust and credibility scores, and more. In more detailed Majestic SEO reports, you can analyze the target URLs (pages), which can help you ferret out where the rogue content and/or user comments have been placed on your site.

Google Analytics
Google Analytics can also be helpful in detecting a backlink problem. If referral traffic to your website suddenly increases, this could be an indicator of a backlink issue. You can also use the content (behavior) section of Google Analytics to find unauthorized pages that might have been put on your site by a hacker.

How to take care of suspicious backlinks to your college website

If you have a backlinks problem, Google insists that you first try to correct it on your own by removing all hacked content and removing and preventing user-generated spam (which is usually found in spammy posts and comments on forums and blogs).

Next, you need to attempt to get the spammy or low-quality backlinks taken down by contacting the webmasters or site owners.

Only then, after that initial work has been completed, should you consider Google’s disavow process. Google understands that you have no control over who links into your site. Because of this, a few years back, when link spamming threatened to jeopardize the algorithm’s accuracy and the quality of the search results it produced, Google implemented a backlinks disavowal process. It allows you to refute that you had anything to do with these links coming into your site and did not want these spammy websites to send visitors from their sites to yours.

While this disavowal process sounds simple, it can actually be a cumbersome and complex process that shouldn’t be undertaken without careful consideration and SEO expertise. By Google’s own admission, the disavowal process is something that could actually harm your website’s performance, if done incorrectly. Consider disavowal as a last resort, only to be implemented after you’ve done everything you can to correct your backlink problem, and only after you’ve instituted stringent measures to prevent a re-occurrence.

How to prevent suspicious backlinks

If you don’t have a backlink problem today, that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t get one tomorrow. This plague is hitting all types of college and university sites, small and large. To be on the safe side, here are steps you can take immediately to prevent suspicious backlinking:

  • Tighten security to prevent hacking and hacked content (which can include added content, added pages, hidden content, and redirects).
  • Tighten security to prevent user-generated spam (which typically shows up in forum threads or blog posts).
  • Tighten security to prevent spammy users from joining your online student portals or other public areas of your website.

Backlinks play a huge role in determining whether Google will send your pages to the top of its search engine results pages. To ensure the best SEO performance, implement robust safeguards to prevent hacking and spamming, and keep an eye on your backlinks by checking them at least once a month.

Find more strategies for web optimization and communication at a free webinar

Contact me with any questions about implementing SEO best practices at your institution. You can also sign up for our free webinar on October 15, Expanding Your Recruitment Reach Through Web Strategy and Integrated Marketing, to find the right mix of interactive marketing and recruitment strategies for your campus. In this one-hour session, you’ll learn how to create a compelling web experience, build smarter email campaigns, and make meaningful connections with students.

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