We all think we know a spammy link when we see one, right?
A blog comment from somebody named "free cheap Nike shoe sneakers" is a spammy backlink.
An article that's been spun past the point of legibility and "published" in an "article directory" without human review is a spammy backlink.
But where do we draw the line between spam and promotion? Does Google, as a policy, even see a difference between the two?
Just as importantly, do spammy backlinks really matter? Should you be monitoring your link profile for spam, asking for links to be removed, or cleaning up after previous efforts?
The answer to all of these questions starts with one important insight, and that insight challenges a core assumption of many in the SEO community.
There is a Danger in Assuming Google Wants to Reward the Best Marketers
Everybody here knows Google's party line. It goes something like this:
"Just create good content."
Or perhaps more descriptively:
"Be as useful to the user as possible."
Just about everybody here also knows that it rarely actually works that way. No matter how useful your content or tool, you need to promote it in order to get it in front of people. Whether you do that by finding ways to increase your visibility in search engines, contacting people who are influential to your customers, or spending money on advertisements, it takes resources to connect your audience with the pages on your site.
The number of resources necessary to accomplish that drop as the content itself becomes more valuable, but it always takes resources. It's never just about the content.
But that doesn't change Google's party line. Google insists that its goal is to connect users with the best possible content. Whether or not they succeed at that, I 100% believe this to be true. Google's business model depends on users who are satisfied with what they find in search results.
There is nothing inherently beneficial to Google about rewarding content because of it's good branding, because it was skillfully promoted, because it's popular, or because it gets cited. That's mere correlation. As Google finds other factors that correlate with content that satisfies users, it will continue to use them.
A common line in the SEO industry these days goes something like this:
"Promote your content using legitimate marketing tactics and Google will reward you for it, because Google wants to reward legitimate marketers."
A more specific example would be something along these lines:
"Promote your content with links that send actual, valuable referral traffic, because Google wants to reward businesses that don't rely on SEO."
Before I move on I want to say that I agree with this as strategic and tactical advice. If you are building links, you might as well be doing it in a way that doesn't rely strictly on Google to be valuable. The same goes for many other (though not all) SEO tactics and strategies.
However, the assumptions about what Google wants are wrong. It's certainly true that Google isn't a fan of businesses that rely on SEO to exist. That's what the Panda and Penguin algorithms are all about. But you are overextending the bounds of this argument when you start arguing that Google wants to reward legitimate marketers. That is not it's primary goal.
Promotion is a necessity, but it's not what Google ultimately wants to reward.
Why Does This Matter, and What Does it Have to Do With Spammy Backlinks?
Here's what it all comes down to: Google doesn't actually have a policy specifically against spammy backlinks.
Don't misunderstand me. Spammy backlinks are against Google's terms of service. But that is only because they belong to a larger category called "link schemes." From Google's perspective, any link intended to manipulate search results can be considered part of a link scheme. That doesn't necessarily mean the link is "spammy."
As an example, paid links are of course against Google's guidelines, and it's very risky to use them for SEO. But I would disagree with somebody who argued that a paid link is inherently spammy. "Advertorials," for example, are certainly promotional, but if done well, I wouldn't consider them spammy. There are very legitimate reasons for marketers to use advertorials that have nothing to do with SEO, and well written, useful advertorials certainly do exist.
Advertorials are a clear example of Google demonstrating that it does not want to "reward legitimate marketers over spammy ones."
Now for the clincher.
What You Might Call Spammy Links Could Actually Be a Sign of Good Content
-- Northcutt (@northcuttHQ) September 12, 2014
The SEO industry currently has an obsession with "quality" links.
As I said above, if you're building links, you might as well be doing it in a way that proves non-SEO value. It should be immediately obvious why that's the right decision from an ROI standpoint. I'm not saying that you should go out and intentionally build low-quality or spammy backlinks. At best, that's a high-risk SEO strategy, with no other potential benefits.
However, the majority of the links on the web always have been and always will be "low quality." A natural link profile will contain far more "low quality" links than "high quality" links.
A site with loads of TechCrunch-level links is well-promoted. But if that same site doesn't have dozens or hundreds of times more links from WordPress.com and Tumblr-level blog posts, there's something unnatural about it's link profile.
Yes: it's been promoted very well using very legitimate marketing techniques. But, odds are, the content isn't actually that good. If it were, amateur bloggers, scrapers, and paper.li papers would be linking to it too. A site that receives that much exposure without earning any amateur links is probably a pretty boring site. (It's all relative to your industry as well, of course.)
Monitoring for Spammy Links is Almost Always a Waste of Time
It's for this reason that guarding against spammy links is pretty much always a misuse of resources. While it is a good idea to clean up after any spammy link building tactics you've used in the past, it's pretty much always a bad idea to contact sites that spontaneously link to you site-wide, sites that use certain anchor texts, or "low quality" sites, and ask them to remove your links.
The end result of all this link pruning is a link profile that is not only smaller than it otherwise would be, but more artificial.
Square hedges don't grow in the wild. Neither do perfect link profiles. Stop pruning.
Image credit: Darron Birgenheier