Search engine optimization (SEO) may seem straightforward, but there are countless nuances you’ll need to consider to be successful.
For example, there are literally hundreds of ranking factors, all of which can have an impact on your eventual rankings.
And notably, just because something seems like a good thing for your strategy, doesn’t mean it is.
Take backlinks as an example. In case you aren’t familiar, Google selectively ranks webpages based on their relevance and authority; the relevance refers to how closely they match the topic searched by the user and the authority is a measure of trustworthiness. Generally speaking, the more backlinks you have, and the more authoritative the sites are that are linking to you, the more your trustworthiness will grow.
But that doesn’t mean that more backlinks are always a good thing.
Ever since the Penguin update, which completely changed how Google evaluates backlink quality, you need to think carefully about the quality, context, placement, and even the timing of your backlinks.
With sitewide links, these considerations are even more important.
But what exactly are sitewide links? Are they dangerous to include? And is it worth the risk of trying to use them?
Table of Contents
What Are Sitewide Links in SEO?
Let’s start with the basics. What are sitewide links in SEO, exactly?
A backlink is a link from any external webpage that points to your webpage.
A sitewide link is a backlink that appears on most (or all) of an external website’s pages. You might think this is strange, but there are a few conditions where this can occur somewhat naturally; for example, you might see a sitewide link in a blogroll in the sidebar of the website, or in the footer (assuming the footer is replicated on every page from a template).
Why Sitewide Links Became a Common Practice
Not too long ago, sitewide links were a common practice.
Because they were an easy, straightforward way to get a lot of links quickly. Let’s say you’re working with a tutorial website that has more than 20,000 pages. They decide to link to your website in the footer, which is replicated for each of those pages. Suddenly, with one link building move, you can have 20,000 links pointing to your site.
Before the Penguin update, this was actually a viable strategy. The quantity of links was so overwhelming that you could see substantial results from this one tactic alone.
But these days, you can’t get away with such a maneuver – at least not without significant risk.
The Modern State of Sitewide Links
So what are sitewide links like today?
Google’s Penguin update and subsequent link quality updates were designed to target “unnatural” and low-quality links on the web. After their rollout, millions of sites saw their rankings immediately plummet. If your website used shady link building practices, link schemes, or low-quality links, it would probably fall in rankings significantly.
Sitewide links often fall into one of these categories. If you try to shoehorn your link into the footer of a website just to get thousands of links at once, you probably deserve the penalty that Google has in store for you.
However, before you write off sitewide links completely, there are some other considerations you need to bear in mind.
Are Sitewide Links Always a Bad Thing?
It’s true that building low-quality or irrelevant sitewide links can have a disastrous effect on your ranking potential. But does that mean sitewide links are always a bad thing, or that they should be avoided?
There are plenty of anecdotal examples of websites that feature inbound sitewide links – and they seem to be doing just fine in search rankings.
And Matt Cutts, Google software engineer, once confirmed that there are certain types of sitewide links that are entirely deemed “natural.” In other words, some forms of sitewide links can aid your strategy, while others might attract a penalty.
That said, not all links are treated equally. Some links are determined to be more relevant and more important, based on where they appear. Oftentimes, links that are found in sidebars, headers, and footers are actually valued less by Google – even though they may seem like a more important location than a simple blog post.
In other words, there are natural ways to establish sitewide links, but even if you get the authoritative value from them, they probably won’t be as significant as other links you could build.
Types of Natural Sitewide Links
So when is a sitewide link considered “natural?”
We don’t have documentation of all the inner workings of Google’s search engine algorithm. However, we do know there are some types of acceptable sitewide links.
Website designer attribution. When a web design firm (or individual) designs a new website, they often want some form of attribution – that way, they can get credit for the work and possibly get some new referrals. Again, this is a natural type of sitewide link, and will likely benefit you, rather than penalize you.
Software identification. Similarly, if you design a site using WordPress theme or if you use another piece of software to keep your site up and running, you may be required to include a link to the service on your website (especially if it’s free).
Cross-links between publications. Webmasters often own multiple related domains. If this is the case, you’re well within “natural” territory if you want to link those domains to each other with sitewide links.
The Benefits and Dangers of Sitewide Links
What exactly are the benefits and dangers of sitewide links?
Sitewide links can, under the right circumstances, pass authority to your site much like standard links. However, because links in footers, headers, blogrolls, and other common areas are undervalued compared to standard backlinks, you’re probably not going to see as many benefits from this practice as you would with a conventional link building strategy.
So what are the dangers?
If you use sitewide links as a cheap tactic to get lots of links at once, if your sitewide links are irrelevant, or if your practices are found to be “unnatural” in any way, sitewide links can get you penalized. In egregious cases, you may see a manual penalty that gets you deindexed, but more commonly, you’ll just see a fall in your search engine rankings.
Either way, bad sitewide link building practices are going to hurt you.
Is It Worth Using Sitewide Links?
Knowing the balance here, you may be wondering if it’s worth using sitewide links at all.
Here’s a general rule to follow: if you have a good reason to use sitewide links, go ahead and use them. Otherwise, don’t bother trying to force them into your strategy.
For example, if you design a client’s website, it’s perfectly fine to try and establish a sitewide link that credits you as the designer. If you own multiple domains on related topics, mutual sitewide links can be valuable.
But if you’re speculating about the possibility of building as many sitewide links as you can on as many domains as you can – don’t bother. Your efforts are better spent elsewhere.
Best Practices: How to Use Sitewide Links Responsibly
If you’re still concerned about the possibility of sitewide links working against you, there are a few important strategies you can follow to use sitewide links responsibly:
Follow general best practices for link building. You’ll want to use the same strategies and best practices you use for “normal” link building when establishing sitewide links. In other words, try to keep the link as relevant as possible, don’t stuff it with keywords, and make sure it doesn’t stand out from other links that are being used on this domain.
Ensure sitewide linking domains are relevant. There needs to be a good reason for your sitewide link to exist. In other words, you need the connective tissue of relevance. If you own two domains that cover the same types of topics, the relevant connection is clear. The same is true if you’re simply acknowledging a website designer or a piece of software. Other relationships may be harder to justify.
Don’t buy a sitewide link. Never buy a sitewide link outright. Money isn’t a “good reason” for having one, and most paid sitewide links end up on cheap, spammy, irrelevant domains. It’s fine to build a sitewide link with a domain you have a professional relationship with, but don’t participate in a direct paid scheme like this.
Use sitewide links sparingly. If you’re adding new sitewide links on a regular basis, like weekly, it’s going to be a red flag. Even if you’re designing websites for lots of clients or adding multiple new domains to your portfolio, try to build sitewide links sparingly.
Keep your history clean. Your sitewide links are going to be even more dangerous if your website has an established history of participating in link exchanges, link circles, and other link schemes. If you keep your history clean and you follow best link building practices as much as possible, you’ll be in a much better position.
Pay attention to sister sitewide links. If you have a sitewide link on a domain, see if there are other sitewide links to other domains on that central referring domain. These are your “sister” sitewide links. What are these domains like? Are they spammy and irrelevant? If so, you may be in bad company.
Research the domain. You should also research the referring domain itself. What is its domain authority? Is its subject matter relevant to your domain? Does it have a sketchy history at all? Any red flags here should make you wary of having a sitewide link with the domain.
Talk to the domain owner. Finally, consider talking to the domain owner directly (if you haven’t yet). Find out more about how they build and manage links on their site – and be cautious of any questionable practices.
Make Sure Your Profile is Diverse. A sitewide link can royally screw up an otherwise flawless link profile. If you only had 100 links to your site, but suddenly acquired 10,000 links from a couple of sitewide links, it’s going to look very suspicious. This is especially true for link building for startups. Established, enterprise sites can take more inbound, sitewide links.
How to Find and Resolve Sitewide Links
It’s a good idea to keep an eye out for sitewide links that were built without your knowledge or direction. Though rare, this situation can arise. For example, a referring domain may feel inclined to link to your site in the footer as a resource for web users, or one of your staff members may be attempting to get sitewide links, not knowing the risks of the strategy.
Accordingly, it’s a good idea to conduct a backlink profile analysis on a regular basis – at least quarterly, if not monthly. Check out what types of links you’ve built, where they’re coming from, and how they fit with the rest of your profile.
If you discover hundreds or thousands of links from a single referring domain, you’ve got a sitewide link on your hands. If this isn’t a relevant, natural sitewide link in accordance with the best practices above, it’s a good idea to remove it.
The easiest way to do this is to reach out to the referring domain owner and politely ask them to remove the link. If they refuse, or if you’re unable to get in touch with them after several attempts, you’ll be forced to use the last-ditch effort to formally disavow the link.
The Bottom Line for Sitewide Links
Sitewide links may seem like a great idea – an opportunity to get hundreds, or even thousands of links to your site at once. But in reality, it’s much more complicated than it first appears. The benefits of sitewide links are never extraordinary, and if you mismanage your sitewide links, you could end up with a penalty. Proceed with caution.
Do you need help establishing or resolving sitewide links? Or are you just looking for an effective, sustainable way to build links and increase your search engine rankings? Link.Build can help. Take a look at our white label link building service for agencies.
Industry veteran Timothy Carter is SEO.co’s Chief Revenue Officer. Tim leads all revenue for the company and oversees all customer-facing teams - including sales, marketing & customer success. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO & Digital Marketing leading, building and scaling sales operations, helping companies increase revenue efficiency and drive growth from websites and sales teams. When he's not working, Tim enjoys playing a few rounds of disc golf, running, and spending time with his wife and family on the beach...preferably in Hawaii.
Over the years he's written for publications like Entrepreneur, Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications. Connect with Tim on Linkedin & Twitter.
Industry veteran Timothy Carter is SEO.co’s Chief Revenue Officer. Tim leads all revenue for the company and oversees all customer-facing teams - including sales, marketing & customer success. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO & Digital Marketing leading, building and scaling sales operations, helping companies increase revenue efficiency and drive growth from websites and sales teams. When he's not working, Tim enjoys playing a few rounds of disc golf, running, and spending time with his wife and family on the beach...preferably in Hawaii. Over the years he's written for publications like Entrepreneur, Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications.