Relevance is important in today’s search algorithms. Link relevance is so important that Google began treating the nofollow link attribute as a hint in order to harvest more link signals. The reason was to add more link signals to analyze for relevance.
Links contribute to the ranking of a page. They still work. But non-relevant links may have unwanted consequences.
What is Scholarship Link Building?
Scholarship link building is the practice of offering a scholarship for the purpose of attracting links from dot EDU web pages.
Some justify the tactic based on the premise that it is a good way to build good will in the local community. Good will is a good thing and if that’s the case, adding a nofollow to those links (to demonstrate that it’s being done for good will and not to manipulate rankings) is a good practice.
A link within the context of ranking is like a vote. The more links a site acquires the likelier the site is seen as expert, authoritative and trustworthy.
A link from within the context of a scholarship can be seen as a vote. But for ranking purposes, it’s a link related to scholarship and not a vote for whatever the core topic of the business is.
Five Reasons Why Scholarship Link Building Doesn’t Work
- Links from Scholarship Context are Irrelevant
- Scholarship Links Make Businesses Relevant for Scholarship
- Business Scholarship Pages Become Important
- Dot EDU Links Do Not Have Extra Link Power
- Scholarship Links Do Not Help Rankings
Links from the Context of a Scholarship are Irrelevant
A link from the context of a scholarship may be relevant if the link is to a scholarship landing page on the site that is offering the scholarship. That’s relevant.
What’s not relevant is a link from the context of a scholarship that goes to the home page of a website or to an important page about your topic. That is an irrelevant link and may be subject to being depreciated.
A proper link signal tells the search engines what the page being linked to is about. Therefore, the goal of link building should be about obtaining a link from a web page that is about a topic that is relevant to the page that is being linked to.
Ideally, the relevance between the web page that is linking and the page that is receiving the link should be about a topic that is close to what that website is about. As an example, that means that the best link for a personal injury attorney is a link from a web page that is about a car accidents or lawyering up after a car accident.
That’s the gold standard for a link. Less relevant links are at best discounted (they pass a depreciated amount of PageRank) or are ignored.
This might sound counterintuitive, but the Worst case scenario is that the irrelevant links are counted.
How Google Might Depreciate Irrelevant Links
As far back as about 2003 at Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose (in a Session about robots and crawling), a Googler named Marissa Mayer (future CEO of Yahoo) mentioned in passing that Google depreciated the PageRank from irrelevant pages.
That was a revolutionary insight in 2003. It was unheard of that Google could depreciate links because of context.
So in the Q and A session that followed her presentation I asked a follow up question about the depreciation of PageRank, using the example of a web design “powered by” link in the footer of a university web page.
She answered that a link from an irrelevant page such as a “powered by” link on a university website will not pass a link signal to a web design page because the context was irrelevant. She said that a university web page about a course of studies was irrelevant to a web design company.
That comment in 2003 was mind blowing and many of my colleagues at the time scoffed at the idea that Google could understand relevance between links.
Yet the evidence was visible everywhere in 2003 because Google’s toolbar showed PageRank values back then and it was easy to see the link influence from a powerful high PageRank link.
The important insight is that as far back as 2003, Google could understand that the context of a link could determine if PageRank was passed along and how much of it.
Scholarship Links Make Businesses Relevant for Scholarship
Here’s the bad news on scholarship links. What makes scholarship links unfortunate is that the context of the links can be relevant when the links are pointing to a scholarship page, but not in the way that businesses anticipated.
Here’s an example:
Step 1. Google this: personal injury lawyer scholarships (name of a major city)
Step 2. Take the domain name of the top ranked personal injury law firm and Google it (just the domain, like example.com)
BAD RESULT: Some of the sites receive so many links from scholarship related contexts that it can outweigh links to other sections of the site, making Google see the website’s Scholarship Page as an important part of the website.
This is a ten-pack for Search Engine Journal, to show you what a normal ten pack looks like:
This is the 10-pack of a site whose scholarship page is ranked as important:
Business Scholarship Pages Become Important
Google’s algorithm determines what pages are important parts of the website. In my opinion it’s a combination of inbound links and how prominently a page is link to, like from the site navigation.
For example, hosting a scholarship and acquiring links to the scholarship page but without linking to that page prominently from the site navigation will help keep the scholarship link building page from appearing in the ten-pack.
But in my opinion, keeping the scholarship page out of the ten-pack is not solving a problem. The problem is that there are links coming into the site that are telling Google that a part of the site is about scholarships.
Do you think that’s desirable if your site is about personal injury law, dentistry, cosmetic surgery or whatever the topic of your site is?
Dot EDU Links Do Not Have Extra Link Power
One of the oldest myths of SEO is that Dot EDU links have extra power. This is untrue. There was a time when links from dot EDU sites could provide a benefit, but Google’s been increasingly better about understanding the context of a link and deciding whether or not to assign PageRank or withhold it.
Google creates a map of the web called a Link Graph. The Link Graph can be divided by topic in order to give more meaning to what those links are about. This is called a Reduced Link Graph. What the reduced link graph does is organize links by topic, remove links such as advertising and navigation from consideration and then use what’s left for calculating relevance.
I wrote an entire article about it here: Reduced Link Graph – A Way to Rank Links
The point of understanding reduced link graphs (reduced web graphs) is to have a better understanding of how links are judged and ranked. It will make you more resistant to fake link myths about how powerful dot EDU links are.
And if you need to hear it from a Googler (which is good!), John Mueller tweeted a reference to the “misconception” about the value of .edu links:
Because of the misconception that .edu links are more valuable, these sites get link-spammed quite a bit, and because of that, we ignore a ton of the links on those sites. Ideally, they should just nofollow all of those links instead of us having to ignore them.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) September 3, 2018
Scholarship Links May Not Help Rankings
As has been demonstrated, scholarship links can help you rank for terms related to scholarships. But that can be seen as a negative result if your site is not about scholarships.
The ideal is to acquire links that are about your topic in order to boost Google’s understanding of your site as being about that topic. Scholarship links fail in that regard because the context of the link is about scholarships, not on your niche.
Some may fall back on the myth of Domain Authority and Trust. But Google does not use any kind of “authority score” to judge sites as normal. Normal sites are sites that have relevant links from relevant pages. In a nutshell, authoritative and trustworthy sites don’t link to spam and tend to acquire links within normal patterns.
As Mueller said, there is a misconception about dot EDU links and that carries over into the myth of domain authority and trust. Further, you can read what John Mueller said about domain authority here: John Mueller Rebuts Idea that Google Uses Domain Authority Signal.
In my opinion, it’s clear that scholarship link building is a failed link building tactic, for all the reasons I’ve outlined in this article.
Link building is a difficult tactic that consists of expending a lot of effort for little gain and a lot of rejection. That’s why tactics like scholarship link building exist because they’re easier to do. But easier does not mean it will help your site rank.
Should You Disavow Scholarship Links?
Disavowing links is a way to tell Google which links to ignore.
In a recent Twitter poll the majority of respondents in the search community voted no, they were in favor of not disavowing scholarship links. I agree. If a site has not received a manual penalty, it’s probably best to just let it go and focus on building good content and other helpful promotional activities.
Alright, I'm going for it:
Are you disavowing scholarship links?
— Lily Ray (@lilyraynyc) November 20, 2019
Should You Stop Offering Scholarships?
That’s a difficult question to answer. My opinion on the matter is that I don’t recommend it and many prominent search marketers involved with links agree with me. However, there are many other prominent search marketers who believe there is value to the practice.
If it’s being done for altruistic reasons then then keep it up. Helping people is good.
But one may wish to consider avoiding the negative aspects of irrelevant links. Businesses offering scholarships should consider adding the nofollow attribute to any links in order to avoid those links negatively affecting the rankings.
It’s possible that irrelevant links can make the site more about scholarships and less about whatever your business is about, especially if the business acquires a lot of those links and less links that are relevant.
Scholarship Link Building Negatives to Consider
- Scholarship link building is a link scheme
- The links are not votes attesting to your sites relevance to your business topic
- Scholarship links paint your site as being about scholarships
- Doing it excessively and with highly optimized anchor text could in my opinion cause a site to receive a manual penalty
There are so many reasons to not do scholarship link building for ranking purposes. One has to strain and reach for SEO myths to justify this activity for link building purposes.
A good argument can be made for offering scholarships for other purposes like expanding awareness. In that case it may make sense to request nofollows on links.
But this article is focused solely on the practice of offering scholarships for the purpose of influencing rankings.
That said, Google’s algorithm operates as a black box in that nobody knows exactly what is happening. We can only do our best to research and weigh differing opinions, especially those opinions based on what Googlers have said and the knowledge gained from reading patents and research papers. There are many opinions on this topic and I respect that there will be differences.
Absent clear guidance from Google, this is one of those topics where it’s best not to approach it as a zero sum game where everyone has to be wrong in order to be right. Allowing for differences of opinions and being open to that may be a good approach.