If you own a business and have a webpage, you have no doubt received emails from companies promising thousands of links to your site that will guarantee you a spot on page one of any online search. Hopefully, you have relegated those emails to your spam folder because that's where they belong. Google is taking a hard line on unauthorized links, crushing the ranking of some websites along the way. Here are some things Google is looking for and what you can do to avoid problems with your site.
Paid Links – If you're buying links, HALT! STOP! CEASE! Google will penal you. Google is on the lookout for artificial and unnatural site links that are intended to effect page rank. If you suspect you may have been penalized for links you paid for, delink from them as quickly as possible. Go back as far as you need to go back. If you've been buying links for 3 years, go back 3 years and delete all of them.
If you suspect you have links to your site that you do not know about, use a tool such as SEOmoz to check your backlinks. There have been occasions when a website has bought links to a competitor's site, and then reported the site to Google. Using SEOmoz will allow you to see what sites are linking to you. If you find a site that should not be linking to you, contact them and demand to be delinked. If your demand goes unheeded, have the rel = "no follow" attribute added to them.
Once you have cleaned up your site, do not wait out the penalty. It may take longer than you think. Instead, write to Google outlining the steps you took to clean up your site, and ask for reconsideration.
Widget Bait – Have you ever seen an advertisement asking you to sign up for a website counter? You think it's pretty cool, and it's free, so you sign up. There's a good chance that there are hidden links in that widget. In fact, there is a website counter out there with links to a pay day loan outfit. The website owners who posted the widget did not even know there were links associated with it. This is an example of widget bait. If you decide to insert a third party widgets into your site make sure that all the links are clickable, readily viewable, and relevant to your site.
A widget that has links in plain site but is not relevant to your site will not buy you a lot of love from Google. Google is looking for links that conform and are relevant to the editorial content of the site it is linking to. If the link within the widget goes to a totally unrelated site, Google will not look upon it as being author and will not give you the editorial vote you need for a higher page rank.
Reputation Management – Google is on the lookout for sites that appear to use a "reputation management" firm. Many of these firms use spammy links to try to push positive articles on the site. Google is ignoring those links.
As I've said again and again, if you have great, relevant and compelling content on your site, Google will reward you. If you have sites linking to your site because your site is engaging and editorially relevant to the linking site, Google will reward you for that. If your content is unique you will be rewarded. In SEO, hard work and creativity is being rewarded, shortcuts and trying to rig the system is not.