As web designers, we have always enjoyed the perk of being able to add a “site by” credit to our web design projects. Usually discreetly placed in the footer, this credit serves a dual purpose – to provide visibility to future clients, and to get an SEO-boosting backlink to your portfolio site. Generally, this has worked out very well for everyone involved. Then Google rolled out its Penguin update, followed by Penguin 2.0.
The Penguin updates are for the most part a step in the right direction for white hat SEO practices. One of its main targets is unnatural link profiles, and unfortunately for us, footer links tend to fall squarely into that category.
In order to get to the root of this problem, we need to consider what Google’s main agenda is. They want to remain the world’s most relevant search engine, and in order to do that, they must keep their end users in mind. As site owners, we are not their end users. The people that visit our sites are. Google is always looking out for signs that a link might not be fairly earned, thus of inferior quality. Footer links set off a few alarms at once, for multiple reasons.
Problem 1: Footer Links are Sitewide
When you place a credit link in the footer of a client’s website, by default, that link will appear on every single page of the site. Google knows that sitewide links are not editorial in nature, so they automatically devalue them. This has long been the case, but many speculate that since the Penguin updates, Google has devalued sitewide links even further, rendering them mostly useless when it comes to passing along any “link juice” to your portfolio site. Not only that, but in some cases, having too many sitewide links can actually get your site penalized.
A simple solution to this problem would be to only include the credit link on the site’s homepage. Most SEO experts agree that the single homepage link would count for more than a whole site full of duplicate links. If you really wanted to include the link on every page for branding purposes, and to attract more future clients, you could always just add the “nofollow” attribute for the link on all interior pages. This would still allow your site the visibility that a sitewide link can offer, without opening you up to the sitewide link penalty.
Problem 2: Repetitive Anchor Text is “Unnatural”
Most web designers tend to use a standard phrase in their credit link that they use for every site they complete, such as “website by XYZ Design.” It only makes sense to be consistent, right? Well, as it turns out, it’s a huge mistake. If you have designed 100 websites with 100 pages each, all with the same text linking back to your site, that’s 10,000 identical links. Needless to say, that raises some major red flags for Google. Again, they are looking for natural links. Natural link profiles are widely varied with many different anchor text phrases, such as “web designer,” “website design company in Dallas,” and more general terms such as “click here.” When an abnormal amount of links to your site contain the exact same text, they begin to realize that others aren’t linking to you, but rather you are. Boom, that’s a penalty.
Whether you decide to place your credit link on the entire site, or just on the homepage, you should really consider writing a new phrase for each site you complete. One site could use the phrase “Site design by XYZ Design,” and the next could be “Website by XYZ Design, Dallas, TX.” The more variations you can come up with, the more natural your link profile will look to Google.
Problem 3: Relevancy is Key
When you look at all of the websites you have designed for clients, how many of them are relevant to the topic of web design? I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s roughly 0%. I have web design clients in the restaurant industry, in the tech sector, the travel industry… you get the idea. When Google looks at links, they look for relevancy. That is to say, they want to see some kind of connection between the page the link is on, and the page it links to. It makes sense when a travel blog links to a cruise ship company. But what about when a cruise ship company links to a web designer’s portfolio site? There’s not much of a connection, is there? Google quickly does the math that it is probably not an earned editorial link, and they devalue it.
This tactic won’t work with every client, but it’s always worth a shot. If the website design includes a blog section, ask your client if you can write the first blog post. That post would basically serve as an announcement of the new site (or site redesign in that case.) If you phrase the post in such as way as to make it about both your client’s company and the topic of web design, you have successfully bridged the gap between your business and theirs. In other words, you have created relevancy. If you link to your portfolio in the body of the blog post, that’s a great relevant, editorial link.
You can take it a step further, even, and include a sitewide credit link that will point not to your site, but to that blog post. This will drive more potential clients to the post, and hopefully to your portfolio site in the end.
If your client won’t go for this, then you can always include the standard sitewide credit link that would go to a page that you can set up on their site. On this page, you would just include the same text you would have included on the blog post that establishes relevancy between your site and theirs, and of course, a single link back to your site. Just make sure the anchor text you use varies from site to site, and you will be well on the right track to making the most of your credit links.
Wes McDowell is the Principal and Creative Director for The Deep End Web Design, Los Angeles. In addition to client work, he also runs The Deep End’s blog, and co-hosts a popular graphic design podcast called “The Deeply Graphic DesignCast.” Follow Wes on Google+