Google can be pretty vague sometimes, leading to some crossed-wires in the SEO community. One subject that regularly has us arguing amongst ourselves is footer links.
Now everyone is pretty much agreed that site-wide footer links with exact match anchor text are a bad idea. But when you drill into the specifics of footer links, there are some real grey areas.
One of the greyest seems to be ‘developed by’ links – the practice of leaving a link to your website on sites built by your agency. These are extremely common and although suppliers have moved away from anchor text like ‘web design (place)’ towards a more brand-based accreditation, there are those who suggest this isn’t enough.
So do Google penalties lurk around the corner for developers who just want to get credit for their work?
What does Google say?
Google’s Webmaster Guidelines warn against “widely distributed links in the footers of various sites”. While a ‘developed by’ link appearing in the footer of every page could qualify as ‘widely distributed’, there is an argument that this advice relates more to other types of linking, such as the exact match/sitewide links mentioned above.
While this doesn’t rule out the possibility that Google would also target ‘developed by’ links, it does seem to suggest that other techniques are much more likely to be targeted before links that (after all) only exist to credit a professional for their work.
Or do they?
Matt Cutts has previously gone on record to say that Google dislike sponsored WordPress themes and widgets, citing the fact that the site is “not editorially choosing to link”.
Although Matt doesn’t specifically talk about developer links and his focus is more on anchor text, the point to pay attention to could be that these links are not the choice of the site owner, but are built by the person being linked to and could therefore be seen as manipulative.
So should clients allow the links?
Joost de Valk certainly thinks so. Mr. Yoast SEO compares developer links to a builder who leaves a banner on your roof advertising his services. Unless you’ve offered your client a discount, Joost believes you have no right to receive extra benefit on top of your fee for building the site by leaving your links lying about the place.
Google may look at this issue the same way, but speculation is of little use – are there any examples that suggest that Cutts and Co. are targeting this type of link building?
Has anyone actually been penalised?
It really doesn’t look like it. I wanted to show examples of sites who had disappeared from Google completely because of this technique – believe me I tried. But the more balanced me had to accept that as far as the evidence from countless SEO blogs and forums showed, Google isn’t penalising people for this practice – not yet, anyway.
Although sites have been penalised for embedding links in widgets, this isn’t the same as putting your link in the footer of a site you’ve developed. This is more akin to someone signing a piece of artwork to make sure everyone knows who made it, and is surely less manipulative.
What do SEOs think?
Search Engine Roundtable has covered a similar topic a number of times, highlighting the debate as to whether SEOs should ask for links from clients. Google’s advice is ‘you should never have to link to an SEO’ – but again the discussion is not directly focused on developer links – although the similarities here are too close to ignore.
I reached out to a few people who had some interesting opinions on the subject. Tom Bennet from SEO Gadget pointed out that Google continues to improve its detection of artificial or spammy links, but that “assuming that the developer has asked permission to include these links (which they always should), they are a genuine form of accreditation.”
Tom’s feeling was that instead, we should be asking whether or not these links offer any value:
“They tend to follow a very specific pattern and leave an obvious footprint. Google has said that they reserve the right to treat footer links differently to in-body links, in terms of trust and relevance. Furthermore, many web development companies tend to host their clients’ sites, leaving the developer with dozens of links from just a small handful of IP addresses. For these reasons, I suspect that links of this kind are very limited in terms of SEO benefit.”
It’s true that while links might not get you penalised, they also might not necessarily help your SEO efforts either. But Kelvin Newman of BrightonSEO insists that actually, there may be more serious consequences around the corner:
“If Google’s intention is to reward editorial links which have been given to a site entirely on merit, the credit in the footer is the exact opposite.
“The problem they have is determining what’s a link that’s there just to promote the author and isn’t a legitimate piece of user-interface to help web browsers understand where a website fits into a broader company.
“I would imagine anchor text would be the key.”
What’s the answer?
Some argue that there’s nothing wrong with this – a developer has every right to seek credit for their work and they shouldn’t have to no-follow the link. But the counter-argument is that Google reserves the right not to rank your site based on links you built yourself.
One suggestion that cropped up time and again was to no-follow the link. Doing this would be a sure-fire way to avoid any penalisation but of course, the links would have no SEO benefit.
And therein lies the point. As a developer, if you’re not doing it to be manipulative then why wouldn’t you no-follow your links? Everyone still sees that you created this beautiful website and you avoid having Google’s giant, accusatory finger pointed at you.
With all other factors such as anchor text taken out of consideration, my recommendation would always be to no-follow the link, just to be safe.
Written by Matt Fielding
Matt is Head of Search at Custard Media and blogs about SEO, social media and the wider world of online marketing. Follow him on Twitter at @MattFieldingSEO and on Google+.