Google Update — Google’s July 2021 Link Spam Update

Updated 15 Dec, 2023 | SEO

Google launched a new core algorithm update in July 2021. The Google Link Spam Update targets dodgy backlink tactics and caused a significant dip in the search traffic of some sites. Here’s what you need to know about the update and what to do if you were affected or want to avoid being affected in the future. Check out this article or listen to the audio.

Worried woman looking at a computer surrounded by hazard and warning symbols. The image features the text ‘link spam’.

Links are a primary way for search engines to understand which content may be helpful to their search users. When you don’t follow Google’s Quality Guidelines and participate in link schemes without qualifying the links, that results in link spam.

Here are some examples:

  • Buying backlinks to your site — or accepting payments in exchange for giving backlinks (payment doesn’t have to be money either, it could be products or services too)
  • Linking to someone in exchange for them linking to you
  • Inserting unnatural links into your content
Computer surrounded by icons that symbolise qualifying links including a padlock inside a shield.

Notice I said ‘without qualifying the links’? The key to preventing link spam is to appropriately qualify any links you add to your content, and to ensure that any backlinks to your site are also appropriately qualified.

You can qualify links by adding a little piece of code, called a rel attribute, to the hyperlink.

The code for a normal hyperlink looks like this: ‘My favourite type of exercise is <a href="">yoga</a>.’ When you add an attribute, it looks like this: ‘My favourite type of exercise is <a href="" "rel=sponsored">yoga</a>.’ And you can add multiple attributes if you need to, e.g.: ‘My favourite type of exercise is <a href="" rel="ugc,nofollow">yoga</a>.’

Here are the attributes you can add:

  • Sponsored. If you’re adding a link in exchange for payment, or are paying for backlinks, the link should be tagged as rel="sponsored". This applies to ads and links in sponsored posts, as well as standard content where a paid link is being added. As an example, affiliate links should be tagged with the rel="sponsored" attribute. And Google can issue a manual action (penalty) if you don’t.
  • User-generated content. If you have a forum or allow comments on your content, it’s a good idea to apply rel="ugc" to the links. However, you can remove the attribute from links posted by trustworthy contributors. If you’re using WordPress, that attribute will be applied by default.
  • Other content you want to avoid rewarding. If you’re including links to any other kinds of content that you don’t want to boost the rankings of (for instance, if you’re linking to content as an example of something you don’t recommend), you can tag it with rel="nofollow".
Computer showing a fictitious loading screen for Google’s link spam update. Other parts of the image are there to show that the update is designed to keep search users safe and prevent them succumbing to dodgy authority-granting tactics.

The Link Spam Update helps Google better identify and nullify link spam. If you previously relied on link spam to improve your search rankings, you may have noticed your search rankings deteriorate. If you try to use spammy links to build your search rankings now, or in the future, you’ll likely get poor search rankings.

Note, if you publish spam links, you could be issued with a manual action that’s unrelated to the update.

A computer screen showing search listings with a downward trending graph symbolising search ranking deterioration.

If you were previously relying on link spam to boost your search rankings, it’s time to start following linking best practices and find other ways of promoting your site. (Note, you’ll still be able to attract traffic via things like affiliate links and backlinks from guest posts etc. They just won’t boost your search rankings.)

Here’s what you can do:

  • Invest in quality backlinks that are appropriately tagged and will drive direct traffic to your site (this will boost traffic without having much of an impact on your search performance)
  • Publish high-quality content on your site that naturally ranks well for the keywords you want to target and attracts backlinks naturally as part of an overall branding strategy (this will boost your search performance)
  • Use other organic methods of promoting your site and resources, such as posting on social media and including links in email newsletters (this can have an indirect impact on your search performance, but it’s mostly a method of increasing traffic independent of organic search)
  • Invest in other paid promotion tactics, such as paid search and social media ads, paying for placement in email newsletters, or paying influencers to naturally promote your content and brand, including with appropriately tagged backlinks, (this won’t impact your organic search performance, but it can result in good paid search performance as well as attract traffic that’s independent of search)
Computer screen with a shield and a tick, an upward trending graph and other icons that symbolise the importance of Google’s link spam update is.
  • If you pay for links, or accept payment for links, that aren’t tagged with a sponsored attribute, you’re producing link spam
  • If you try to use link spam to improve your search performance, you’ll get the opposite result due to the Link Spam Update
  • To recover from a search performance hit, you need to improve the quality of your published resources, so you can naturally improve your search performance
  • You can compensate for lost traffic as a result of a search performance hit by investing in quality paid or organic promotion tactics like social media, PPC ads, email marketing, and influencer marketing