Does Google Consider Scholarship Links to Be Unnatural?

Everyone is aware that in order to improve the Google rankings of a site, it is important to get links. Until recently, it seemed as if a site would benefit from any kind of link. Now however, Google is getting better at figuring out when a link has been made with one intention in mind, to try and manipulate Google.

A site that has gone too far with unnatural links runs the risk of being manually penalized by Google or they may have a difficult time getting their site ranked well die to it becoming suppressed by Google´s Penguin algorithm.

That being said, what is a business able to do to attract links to their site yet not raise the wrath of Google? When all’s said and done, the ideal link is on that is unasked for and completely earned. However there are cases in which requesting a link may fall with the guidelines of quality.

In January 2013 at a Google Webmaster Central Hangout, John Mueller was asked if was OK to request someone to link to you or not. His answer was that as long as the webmaster could clearly see that they are linking to you and that this was not some sort of reciprocal link scheme or that it was not a paid link, it was perfectly fine to request someone to link to you.

Now, What About Scholarship Links?

So recently I have noticed a trend in which many websites are creating scholarships so that the can request universities and colleges to link to them. The idea is to create scholarships that your company funds. I will use a fictitious example to explain this. Let’s say that the company I own sells toys, the name of my company is “Haynes Educational Toys.”

I have decided to offer $1,000 to anyone who is enrolling in any kind of early childhood education program or in teacher’s college. So on my website I create a page that describes that scholarship and let people know that they are able to qualify for the scholarship simply by writing an essay in which they explain why they believe educational toys are beneficial to child development, I would then get in touch with universities and colleges inviting them to link to my scholarship page.

While searching for the following, what I see are many opportunities for a link:

With this quick search I see link opportunities from .edu pages that are high PR authoritative, for example:

  • https://education.asu.edu/resources/scholarships
  • http://www.mmm.edu/admissions/external-scholarships.php

There are certain companies such as this one which will actually take care of all the work of prospecting as well as all the administering work for you. As long as you are able to afford the creation of these scholarships, it is a relatively easy option in which you can attract links from sites that are authoritative. However, are these links natural?

Is a Scholarship Link Considered to be a Natural Link?

Personally, it is my belief that many sites that are implementing this tactic are in fact walking a fine line; I believe that there are many cases in which these links are completely valid. However there are other sites in which these links are used as a part of a link scheme and could most definitely be at risk of being manually penalized and in the future perhaps even be devalued by Google´s Penguin algorithm.

It could be argued that since you are offering money in return for that link, these links could be paid links. That being said, you could also argue that what you have created is something of value and the universities and colleges which are linking to you are doing so of their own free will, in which case these links would actually be editorial links.

This call is a tough one.

In a hangout, Google’s John Mueller was asked about this type of link. The site that specifically asked about was a site that was currently dealing with a manual unnatural links penalty. As I did their backlink audit, it came to my attention that there were many unnatural links that were really obvious and came from keyword-anchored guest posts and low-quality directories.

However they did also have quite a good amount of links which were there due to a scholarship program such as the one described above. I was aware of the fact that this scholarship link had been created so they would get links.

However, I was also aware that the schools that had linked to their scholarship had done so of their own volition. It was a scholarship that was valid and true. I was not really certain if I should or should not try to remove these so as to get the manual penalty on the site lifted.

When asked of John Mueller, he said that this was a “tricky situation:” He explained the if the scholarship had been set up solely so that the site would obtain links, then it would be a good idea to ask for the tag on those links to be no follow. This way they would not pass PageRank and would definitely not be considered unnatural. I believe that this is the CYA answer that Mueller gives to most questions: “If you are unsure, then go ahead and disavow or no follow.”

He then however said that they possibly could, depending on the scale of things, be valid. For example, if all kinds of mini scholarships had been created by this site and essentially this type of link was the only kind in their entire link profile, then this really does seem to be a paid link scheme. However if the rest of their link profile seems fine and this program was a one-time thing that the company ran, then Google may find it perfectly acceptable.

He also made a very interesting statement in which he said that if this link was the only type used by the site, then it was possible that that had been picked up by Google´s algorithms.

The last bit of advice he had on the matter was that if we wanted to be certain that said links were not seen as being unnatural, then what we should do was add them to the disavow file. However, if the picture looked good overall, then keeping them should not be a problem. He suggested that a possible strategy for us when removing a manual penalty would be to first file for reconsideration before attempting to remove any scholarship links and see the response of the Web spam team.

That was exactly what we did. Instead of removing the scholarship links, we focused on the links that were obviously low-quality. Not only were we successful at removing the penalty, but today for most of their terms, the site is ranking well.

That being said, does this mean that all of us should be creating scholarships as a way of obtaining links? I think that when it comes to this type of link, there is a real danger involved is this type of link going the way of the guest post link. There was a time in which it was considered that guest posting was and acceptable way to obtain links.

However, this tactic was abused by SEOs as the guest posted on a massive scale, this is what prompted Matt Cutts to say “stick a fork in it – no more guest blogging.” Due to the fact that there are not many scalable link acquisition tactics other than “create great content and attract links” available, I believe that it very possible that Google will begin to seriously look at those who are leveraging scholarship programs on a large scale as a way of obtaining links.

General Scholarship Link Guidelines

I still believe that for certain sites, creating scholarships and requesting universities and colleges to link to their scholarship can be a valid option of obtaining good links. If this is something that you are considering, here are some things I urge you to keep in mind:

1. Is This Link Your Only Kind of Link?

If you site is unable to attract links on its one, or if the only links on your site are self-.made ones, then it may be a bit too risky to get links from scholarship programs. If your site were to be manually reviews and the Web spam team may notice that the only good links you have are scholarship links, then I truly believe that you very possibly would receive a manual unnatural links penalty. Remember as mentioned above, what Jon Mueller suggests is that Google´s algorithms may likely be able to determine that something is off with your link profile.

2. Does the Scholarship Add Up?

Let’s say that I stumbled upon a large amount of veterinarian colleges who have been linking out to scholarships that are external and thought that this seem to be a good link opportunity. Would it make much sense to make a scholarship geared towards veterinary students and post it on my site that sells children´s toys? Perhaps, if I twisted things up a bit I would able to make it relate in some way or another. However when all is said and done, it doesn’t make sense. Only offer scholarships if they actually go hand in hand with what you do.

3. Will you actually be giving the Money Away?

Whatever you do, never consider publish a scholarship in writing only. Sure, Google may never know that it is a fake scholarship, however Google is smart and this move would not be a smart one.

4. Be Careful With the Name of Your Scholarship

If you use a keyword rich phrase in the name of your scholarship hoping to get some great keyword anchor text that points in the direction of your site, that idea is also not a good one. For example, in my case if I were to name my scholarship “The Scholarship for Best Educational Toys,” this would be a red flag for Google basically saying that I created a scholarship as a way of getting links that would help improve my Google rankings.

5. Do Not Go Overboard With Your Scholarship Offers

If you offered a scholarship and got some good links, it could be tempting to offer a few more scholarships related to various niches you serve. If this is something you are doing, it will start to seem as if it is more of a linking scheme and not so much a natural program which is attracting links.

In Conclusion

When considering this type of program, it is my belief that the best question you could ask yourself is whether you would actually consider offering this scholarship, even if not a single link you receive would be helpful to your SEO. By offering this scholarship, are there any other benefits for your company that are real?

Maybe it does make sense for you to help those who are training in your profession. Maybe this would make for excellent PR for your business. Basically my point is that if you are doing this simply for the links, then you are indeed treading on thin ice.

However, I do still believe that for certain companies, using a scholarship program to obtain links can work very well. The point is to not over do it!

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