What’s a “link wheel”, and what value does the concept have to search engine optimization (SEO) efforts in 2011?

For starters, link wheels are defined a bit variously depending on who’s doing the explaining. But the basic, most universal explanation involves setting up a system of links to your main site using web 2.0, social bookmarking sites like Digg and Reddit, and content marketing sites such as Squidoo or Hub Pages.

You want your content-driven website to rank high on the search engines. So, to give it authority, you plan a series (or “wheel”) of links to your content that includes popular sites. When illustrated as a graph, this system resembles a wheel.

It also resembles a wheel in the sense that you create one original piece of content and then “spin” it into multiple — dozens, even hundreds — of variations, using the same source. These variations on your main piece are what you post on the various web 2.0 sites linking back to your main page.

The concept is a bit old school, but was always felt to perform solidly in search engines. That was then, though, and this is now — and the concept has largely been discredited, and replaced by social media link-building.

Still, if it worked once, isn’t it likely to work again? That leads us to the big question: Do link wheels still work?

How (and if) they work
Again, this depends on who you talk to. It’s obvious that link wheels should work — it’s a solid concept, and it seems to fit the best practices of backlinking that are so important to SEO.

But that doesn’t mean that link wheels do work — or work well enough to justify the elaborate set-up, when the same goals can often be accomplished via social networking sites.

“I don’t see any reason why a link wheel would be any more effective than if you just link a bunch of web 2.0 sites to your money page, since that authority would be retained and would flow through to the money page,” notes online marketing guru Josh Spaulding.

What’s more, a well set-up link wheel is going to require even more upkeep than your main site.

“One thing that people should understand about Link Wheels is that if you don’t want them to fade away, then you’ll have to update them, and drive backlinks to them like you would for any site,” notes online marketer Daniel McGonagle. “I personally update/repost to my link wheels once every two weeks, ping, submit RSS feeds, etc. That way you give the SE’s a reason to come back and index your content.”

McGonagle goes on to recommend posting short (less than 200 words) articles to link back to the money site … and, ominously, also notes that that practice is somewhat “black hat.”

Why you should avoid link wheels
And that’s the biggest risk you take with link wheels: The black hat factor. Besides the facts that the effectiveness of link wheels is largely unproven and is becoming obsolete, the key reason you should avoid using them is that Google considers them a “link scheme” and will penalize against their use.

For that matter, Google frowns on any practice where “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,” the company explains.

Whether or not you can argue that any link wheels you may have worked on aren’t schemes at all, but legitimate SEO exercises, Google is likely to consider them such — and, of course, Google will win the argument.

It may sound like a cliche, but when it comes to growing your business, knowledge is always power. So, it’s important to know what link wheels are. But it’s just as important to stay away from them and focus on the main driver of SEO in Google’s eyes: Unique, fresh content.

Related posts: