Just When is an Embedded Link Okay?

on under Myth-Busting, Search Engine Optimization.

As you may already know, Getty, the massive image licensing company, recently shifted strategies away from legally pursuing  copyright violators. Instead, they now allow anybody to embed the image on their site, with a link back to Getty.

This is good news for us bloggers, SEOs, and content marketers, who need visual content to keep posts visually appealing, and who can't always pay the price of admission for licensers like Getty. But, as SEOs, it also poses a question.

When is an embedded link not a link scheme?

At SMX West 2014, an attendee asked Matt Cutts if Getty's policy change counts as a "link scheme." Matt Cutts explained that if an embedded link is used as an honest way to give attribution, it's not against the rules. In this case, no, Getty's embedded image links don't count as a link scheme. They're attribution.

But where do we draw the line?

When is a Widget a Link Scheme?

At what point does a link in a widget cross the line? It's clear in cases like the UK Bank Halifax, which used keyword stuffed widgets like these:

halifaxAnd even shared case studies explaining how they used these widgets to game Google.

But what if the widgets didn't use "personal loans" and other targeted keywords as anchor text? What if they merely placed a link that said "widget provided by Halifax," or something to that effect? Would that be attribution, or would it be a link scheme?

Back in January, Google updated their link schemes page. It used to call out "Links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites." Now, instead, it specifically mentions "Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites."

In other words, had Halifax had enough foresight to use brand name links instead of keyword-stuffed links, they very well may have been within Google's guidelines (even though that particular language wasn't in place at the time).

Of course, Google's long-standing assertion that "Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme," is still in place. I always remind people to keep this in mind, since this is really the final word on the matter.

So, where do we draw the line?

As I've argued before, it's not really about the kinds of links you're building, it's about the intent. The real question is whether the link would be worth anything to you if it were no-followed. If so, what you're doing probably makes sense as a marketing strategy outside of SEO, and hence is kosher as an SEO strategy.

If the links were no-followed, how would you use the widgets? You certainly wouldn't be giving them away for free without attribution. So you would probably link back to your site, but you'd almost certainly either use your company name as the anchor text, or use some kind of call to action instead.

Alternatively, thinking of it as a pure-attribution link, you might link back to the page where people could find the widget.

You almost certainly wouldn't point the link to anything other than your home page, a closely-related landing page, or your widget page, because all that would do is confuse users.

In the Halifax example above, simply shifting the link from "personal loans" to "Get a quick quote" could have made all the difference. That's call-to-action anchor text, the kind of thing you would use if you were a conversion rate optimizer, as opposed to a Google spammer.

Finally, I'd still take Cutts' original statement about embedded links to be true: "I would not rely on widgets and infographics as your primary source to gather links." While embedded links can be a completely legitimate way to market yourself and get attribution, if they become your primary source of links, something is probably wrong with your SEO strategy overall.

Image credit: Jyri Engestrom