Tiered Link Building Is A Waste (And Not Because It's Spam)

Cara Bowles    By under Link Building.

spider webDon't do the tiered linking thing. Ever.

So you're a churn-and-burn SEO? Fine. I'm not here to preach ethics. If that's how you've chosen to build a revenue stream, and you're not breaking any laws, go right ahead. It would be a terrible move for us as an agency, but who am I to tell you how to run a business?

It still doesn't matter. Tiered link building is still a waste of resources.

There are only 2 "reasons" to build tiered links.

  • To hide spammy links
  • To increase your PageRank score

Let me explain to you why tiered links do not effectively accomplish either of these goals.

Tiered Linking Does Not Protect You From Penalties or Algorithmic Demotions

Not long before Penguin 2.0 came out, Matt Cutts put out a video about some of the things SEOs should expect from the webspam team. In the video, Matt Cutts very specifically says:

"We're also looking at some ways to go upstream to deny the value to links spammers, so people who, you know, spam links in various ways, we've got some nice ideas on trying to make sure that that becomes less effective, and so we expect that that will roll out over the next few months as well."

This video was recorded back in May of 2013.

But that's not really the point, either.

Let me start by saying that the evidence for anything more than link demotion in Penguin is sparse. I've written about this in great depth and I won't be reproducing what I have here. The point is, it's more likely that Penguin simply discounts or ignores links that it considers spammy, as opposed to actually passing "negative link juice" or anything of that nature. In extreme cases, it algorithmically "penalizes" sites with spammy outbound links.

If that's the case, it doesn't matter what tier the spammy links are in. If they get discounted, they get discounted, and they don't pass PageRank. It's that simple.

Let's suppose that Penguin does cause some links to pass "negative" PageRank. Here, again, this does nothing to protect you. The 2nd or 3rd tier links will simply pass negative PageRank down the tiers and negatively effect your site as a result. Not only that, but you've compounded the issue by pointing way more spammy links in your direction than you would have felt comfortable with if they were in the 1st tier.

Again, I suspect that this is not how Penguin works in the first place, but it demonstrates that, either way, tiered linking doesn't protect you from negative effects. The value to risk ratio doesn't change.

Now, in the case of manual penalties, the situation is obvious. It doesn't take a genius to spot a tiered linking profile. In fact, it's actually a much more obvious way to point red flags at yourself. If your own domain was getting hit with spammy links, you could try to argue that it was negative SEO or maybe a statistical fluke. But when all of the sites that link to you also have an unnaturally high amount of spammy links pointing toward them, this argument falls flat on its face. Especially if, as is usually the case, many of those tiered link profiles are either duplicated or very similar to each other.

Some of you may argue that if you "do it right" this won't happen to you. But that's also true of tier 1 links. The tiers don't have anything to do with whether or not a link is identified as spammy. And if the links are far enough away in the tiers that they can't possibly hurt you, it's equally true that they can't possibly be helping you in the first place.

And that brings us to the next point.

Tiered Linking Is A Very Inefficient Way to Pass PageRank

If you know anything about PageRank (and you really should read the initial paper on Google's algorithm by Sergey Brin and Larry Page if you don't), then you should know that tiered links pass virtually no PageRank.

PageRank is essentially designed to model a "random surfer." It models the probability that a random web surfer will come across a page by randomly clicking on links. There's also a damping factor: the probability that a web surfer will get bored and visit another random page on the web without clicking any links.

When you point a link at a site that is linking to you, the PageRank is diluted through all of the other outbound links on that page.

So if you point a link at a page that links to you, and that page also links to 9 other pages, you will only get 1/10th of the PageRank you would have received by pointing the link at your own site.

Since tiered links are usually low quality to begin with, they're already not passing very much PageRank.

It doesn't take a math genius to see that this is a tremendous waste of resources.

If you're thinking you can solve the problem by duplicating the 2nd tier links across your 1st tier links, all you're doing is pushing the dilution further up your "link funnel," and creating a way more obvious link profile in the process.

And if you're actually wasting time pointing links at your 2nd or 3rd tier links, in most cases you'll only be seeing 1/100th or even 1/1000th of the PageRank. Even if you don't get caught, who cares?

All you managed to accomplish was achieve the same results with 100 times the effort.

Image credit: Susanne Nilsson