Link farms and Like farms – don’t be tempted

With our very busy lives, it’s easy to be tempted to engage in tactics that would seem to create efficiencies for us.  Signing up for, or paying for services which appear to take the pain out of critical tasks like managing your social program properly, or building links to your content may seem like a smart move, but be warned.  You may be setting yourself up to fail in the long run.

What is a link farm?

Simply put, a link farm is a service which builds links to your content.  Usually, they do so from within a network of known websites.  The network is formed often with the sole purpose of gathering a number of locations from which to point link at a client’s website.  The client sees a report detailing all of the websites that the link building program is obtaining links from, and the webmaster feels better as the number of links increase.  A smaller variation on this theme is the three-way link exchange.  Site A links to site B.  Site B links to site C.  And site C links to site A, completing the triangle.

Companies offering link building services will rarely, if ever, tell you they are operating a link farm, so be very careful when you opt to sign on for any link building programs.  Remember, it’s your domain that can be harmed, not theirs.  And what do you get for the hard earned money you’ve spent on such services?  Well, most times you get a lot of links from unrelated sites pointed at you.  After all, no network of websites being used to build links is as broad as the entire Internet itself.  Thus, some topics will be a closer match to the websites inside a network, while others will only be loosely related.

If you remember that we want to see links between related websites, this alone should be enough to steer you away from questionable link building tactics.  But there are more hard lessons to be learned.
All those links pointing to you may suddenly appear, which is an obvious giveaway to the engines that something is less than organic here.  People don’t suddenly build thousands of links to one website overnight.  Or, more specifically, that can happen, but it’s usually accompanied by other signals such as a trending topic in the news, social media programming, etc.  The bottom line is we can see sudden bursts of new links for what they may be – spam.  And what happens at the end of the month when you’re sitting in the meeting explaining how you spent thousands of dollars on link building efforts and yet there has been no change in search traffic.  Worse, if the tactics employed by the service you hired were seen as problematic by us, it could have hurt your ranking efforts.  It’s worth keeping in mind that any company offering link building services is doing so to many clients at once.  This is great if they are reputable.  If they are less-than-reputable, however, we see their repeated tactics at play and may opt to take action against the domains involved.  Since that includes your domain, you could be hurt.  In most cases, the vast majority, we simply opt to ignore the value of the links and move on.  You still net no gains, but you also get no big penalties.

What is a like farm?

It should be obvious that a like farm is simply the social equivalent to a link farm.  Amazingly, though, people think this approach works.  The rationale being that is social signals matter to search, they can ramp up the volume of the “like” signal in Facebook, causing a related boost in rankings.  The logic may seem fine, but when you recall that we can see sudden explosions of links as spammy, it’s easy to understand how we can see sudden explosions of likes as spammy as well.  To be fair, there’s more to it than that. 

Anyone could suddenly “go viral” and accumulate a lot of likes very quickly, so we look beyond just like/time to find patterns.  And if there is one thing a search engine is good at, its seeing patterns online.  Like farms tend to be built around a core network of accounts.  You pay someone to like your site, content or whatever, and they go out across their network and like you.  Its artificial and we know it.  Organic likes rarely follow obvious patterns.  In fact, if there’s a pattern to organic liking, it’s one built around chaos.  Like farms, however, no matter their size, end up looking obvious by comparison.  In the image below, you can see what an accumulation of likes look like to us when graphed.  In the first image, we see a like farm in action.  A limited number of accounts all engaged in communal liking of each other’s content.

In the second image, the difference is clear.  You can see how the sharing of the content and liking of the content began at a number of locations and spread organically from there.  The red dots represent the origin of a like, then the blue dots show friends from each red dot liking the item as well.  When you see it as a graph, it’s very obvious the differences between organic and like farm activity.

In most cases, if we spot like farm activity, we simply ignore the signal.  Again, you may have paid for a service which is bringing you no value in boosting your search results.  This also points out why it is so important that you manage your social media program.  At the very least, if you are outsourcing the management of your social program, you need to keep an eye on things.  Short cuts can add up eroding any value you were trying to achieve.

The ideas presented above are meant to be broad.  I’m sure there are examples when having a network of the same people liking your content can be beneficial, but broadly speaking, we don’t value those signals as highly as normal, organic social growth.  Same can be said for links.  Having more links can drive direct traffic to your website, which is fine.  Just don’t count on them to always bring value to your ranking efforts as well. 

If you take one thing away from this post, please take away that quality wins.  Quality links, from quality websites.  Quality social signals from a quality program.  You may think you’re saving time with short cuts such as link farms and like farms, but be assured, our short cuts are much faster.  We simply ignore the results of spammy tactics.  Invest your time and money in a quality-centric approach and you’ll have much more success.

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