Link Wheels: Are They In or Out?

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Website marketers are constantly trying to uncover tricks to get their sites ranked higher in the search engines, just as Google engineers are always on the lookout for these schemes. One of the latest such techniques to gain prominence in the SEO community is the link wheel – a circular organization of Web 2.0 sites funneling PageRank and traffic back to a so-called “money site.”

But while past SEO marketers had success getting their sites ranked well using this technique, are they still a valid promotional strategy? Or has Google uncovered the practice and penalized links created in this manner? Let’s take a closer look…

First of all, let’s look at the theory behind the link wheel. Essentially, a traditional link wheel includes 5-10 Web 2.0 sites, all of which have one link pointing to a main site and one link pointing to the next Web 2.0 property in the wheel, resulting in a structure that resembles a bicycle or wagon wheel. Ideally, the PageRank that’s passed from Web 2.0 site to Web 2.0 site strengthens each link that then points towards the money site.

Consider the following traditional link wheel structure, as designed by LJ Interactive:

Suppose that, for the sake of simplicity, each of the Web 2.0 sites in the link wheel pictured above has 20 points of link juice that can be passed on through links. If the Hubpages property contains two links pointing away from the site, conveying 10 points of authority, both Digg and the home site will receive these benefits. But now, in addition to the original 20 points of link juice, the links coming out from Digg have additional authority that they’re able to pass on. As the wheel gets bigger, this benefit increases, making links from a link wheel more powerful than links pointing directly from Web 2.0 sites to the main site.

At least, that’s the case in theory. The problem – as you might expect – is that this defined wheel structure is incredibly easy to detect. When a new website pops up with thousands of links pointing at it in this particular arrangement, it’s easy to understand that the site in question is trying to game the system and achieve an artificially high rank. To make matters worse, many of the link wheels that are created are done using automated software that spins stock articles and pumps out link wheels without regard to quality.

As the SEO Design Solutions blog describes:

“The only problem with mass automation is (a) if proportions reach unprecedented levels of unusual likelihood (such as a post being circulated in 2 minutes to 1000 social media sites) or the same old new same URL, title or “footprint” inundate search engines – there is a high degree of that cluster of “social proof” tripping a filter and creating a null set (effectively making the links moot or suppressed).”

That sounds technical, but the basic point is that when link wheel creation is automated, a digital footprint is created that’s easy for the search engines to detect and penalize. As Google explicitly states in its Terms of Service, linking schemes such as the automated link wheel method described above are subject to penalty or removal from the index entirely.

According to the Google Webmaster Tools Help section:

“Some webmasters engage in link exchange schemes and build partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources, and the long-term impact it will have on their sites. This is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact your site’s ranking in search results.”

So, with all of this in mind, there’s no way that link wheels could still work as an effective SEO strategy, right?! Well, don’t jump to conclusions too quickly…

The truth is that the underlying model of the link wheel does have some merit. Building Web 2.0 sites is still a powerful linking strategy, especially considering the increased value the search engines are placing on links from social networking sites. However, it’s the way that you build your link wheels that matters most in terms of receiving link juice and ranking benefits from this technique.

Consider the following guidelines when adding link wheels to your marketing mix:

Use unique content on every spoke property you build. Although past link wheel creators have advocated spinning a single article and then using the variations resulting from this content to build every property in the link wheel, the increased importance of site quality conferred by the Google Panda updates makes using spun articles a very bad idea.

Yes, it’s a lot easier to use spun articles than unique content, but doing so runs the risk of having your Web 2.0 properties penalized as a result of the recent algorithm changes. So instead, every single spoke property you build needs to be created using totally unique, useful content. Essentially, you need to build every spoke property with the same care and attention you’d give to your main site in order for this strategy to work successfully.

Create your spoke properties over time. Instead of rushing out and building an entire link wheel in a day (which worked in the past but has since been penalized), build your spoke properties over time for maximum benefits. Think of the new link wheel as a long term project and add new content to your wheel as you have time, returning to interlink the properties at a later date.

Avoid the traditional spoke and wheel format. In the past, link wheels could be simple, with 5-10 Web 2.0 spokes pointing at a center site in a perfect circle. However, as this link format has been identified and devalued by Google, building a successful link wheel now requires website owners to create more complex linking structures.

Check out the following diagram by Affhelper:

As you can see, there’s no defined, circular link wheel structure as in the previous example. Instead, the format is disjointed, with various feeder sites and backlinks pointing at different Web 2.0 properties – some of which are interlinked and some of which stand alone. Although it isn’t recommended that you follow this exact pattern, it’s important that you vary your internal linking methods in order to create a more powerful link wheel.

Finally, if you’d still like to pursue link wheels as an SEO and traffic generation technique, keep in mind that you’ll want to be careful about how you link back to your main site. If your site is still young, sending thousands of links back to it via link wheels can raise a red flag with the search engines that the site is being promoted artificially.

Instead, consider sending any additional backlinks you create to the Web 2.0 properties used in your link wheel structure. These older, more established sites can tolerate more backlinks without triggering any penalties, and the additional link juice they generate will flow through the Web 2.0 properties you’ve created back to your main site. Over time, the effects of these additional links will turn your link wheels into power backlink sources that result in both increased traffic and rankings for your main site.