What Makes a Link Bad for SEO?

Nov 24, 2012
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The Canary
What Makes a Link Bad for SEO?
Posted on January 17, 2016 by Tom Ewerin Tips & Tricks | 23 comments


If you want to receive targeted traffic to your website via organic search engine results, you need to know about SEO. And when it comes to off-page SEO, link building is a technique that has long been considered more important than anything else.

Over the years, however, Google has gotten a lot smarter at identifying websites that appear to have ‘unnatural’ links pointing to them. If Google decides that you have too many of these ‘bad’ links, you may end up being penalised, leading to a drop in rankings, or possibly even deindexing.

In 2016 and beyond, website marketers need to scrap the old, outdated link building strategies altogether and focus on building links the natural way if they want to impress Google. In this article we’ll explore the evidence for ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ links – as defined by SEO experts and Google themselves – and look at how you can get more of the good’uns to point at your site.

Link Building: A Brief Overview
Before we jump into what makes a link good or bad, let’s first look at (1) why links are necessary, and (2) a few important details on where we stand as of now in terms of what Google doesn’t want you to do.

As Moz finely puts it, links are sort of like “the streets between pages,” which the search engines follow them to figure out how one web page relates to another. Search engines will look at a link and use complex algorithms to analyze the web page in order to determine its popularity, authority, trust and spam, so it can rank it in search results accordingly.

You can think of a link as a vote for a website or a web page. When a site or a page gets a link from another site that’s not very old or hasn’t built up any trustworthiness yet, that vote won’t count for very much. On the other hand, a link from a site as authoritative as, say, CNN or the New York Times, is going to count as much a far more influential vote.

The buying and/or selling of links for SEO purposes is one particular black hat strategy that Google frowns upon, as noted in the Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) guidelines. A few more popular ways marketers would often work on their SEO included participating in link exchanges, launching large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns and using automated link-building software programs – all of which Google has really cracked down on over the past few years.

On April 24, 2012, Google rolled out the Penguin algorithm update, aiming to penalize marketers who were over-optimizing their sites by building unnatural links. It’s not entirely clear what factors the updated algorithm since Penguin looks at, but we do know that it specifically targets the type of low-quality, manipulative links that once actually helped with SEO.

What One Google Expert Had to Say About Link Building
In a live Google+ Hangout that took place in February of last year with Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller, he was asked if link building was in any way a good strategy for SEO. His answer, which you can hear around the 55:40 mark in the video, was: “In general, I’d try to avoid that.”

Mueller goes on to say that content should really stand out on its own and that webmasters should make it easy for others to link to it. “We do use links as part of our algorithm but we use lots and lots of other factors as well,” he says. “So, only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your website than it actually helps.”

Despite this important advice, marketers and SEO experts still believe that links are far too important to ignore. According to a survey of over 150 SEO experts, domain-level link features and page-level link features are the top two factors believed to influence Google’s algorithms.


Image courtesy of Moz.

While the days when you could spin one little article 300 different ways and submit it to be published on several different sites and blogs via automated software might as well be over, link building as an overall strategy is far from being completely dead. You can still implement a strategy that works toward a more natural form of link building involving the creation and promotion of original content that adds real value.

More appropriately, link building should arguably be called ‘earning’ or ‘attracting’ links, which is the general term most people associate with the shady, black hat techniques SEO has been known to involve. But what you call it isn’t as important as how you do it.

Regardless of whatever wording you choose to describe it, the fact is that you need to have links pointing to your site that have a genuine connection from the source. You also need to know what a genuine link really looks like and how you can come up with a strategy to get more of them.

The 7 ‘Bad’ Types of Links You Really Don’t Want
Knowing what makes a link bad could mean the difference between seeing your site rank well or having it penalized by Google. According to Search Engine Land, there are seven big characteristics you should be on the lookout for:

1. A Link from a Domain with Low Authority or a Bad Reputation
Not all links are created equal. The more links you get from popular, trustworthy and authoritative sites, the higher you’ll climb in the search results. Don’t expect to get the same results by getting links from hundreds or thousands of low-authority, spammy sites.

In fact, if you build enough links from low-authority sites or sites with bad online reputations, Google will almost certainly catch on and penalize you for it. With that said, if a site with a bad reputation ends up linking to yours once in a while, you don’t have to immediately start freaking out. Remember, Google knows what looks natural and what doesn’t.

2. A Link with No Contextual Connection Between the Source and Your Site
If you’re a plumber in Denver, Colorado and you’ve got links pointing to your site from all sorts of Asia-based travel sites, then that could send a clear signal to Google that you’re probably up to no good with your SEO. The connection is clearly an awkward one.

Context and how closely the source relates to your site is more important than ever if you want to get on Google’s good side. And as the Google algorithm continues to be tweaked, you can only expect it to get better at measuring this factor.

3. Too Many Links from the Same Domain
When it comes to Google and links that look as natural as possible, it only makes sense that an excessive amount of them from the same source might raise a red flag. Another point worth knowing is that once you get that first link from a particular source, every link from the same source afterward decreases in value.

Rather than looking to attract a huge quantity of links from one or two sources, try to diversify your links as much as possible. It looks much more natural and it’s what Google wants to see.

4. A Link That Involves You Linking Back to the Source as a Reciprocal Exchange
“I’ll link to your site if you link to mine” is what website owners used to say to each other all the time in hopes of improve their standings with Google. Trading links with other people who ran websites had long been a popular way to work as a team to boost each other’s SEO, but today, it could get you penalized.

Even if the other site is similar and related to yours, having too many reciprocal links looks anything but natural, and Google notices these things when they get excessive. You’d be much better off by simply contacting website owners and asking if they would consider linking to your site where you think your link might provide real value.

5. A Link with Overly Optimized Anchor Text
Anchor text is the keyword or phrase that you can click on to visit the link. There was a time when putting the exact keyword or phrase you were looking to rank for in Google mattered a lot. Today, that big SEO rule is now pretty outdated.

If you try to build too many links using exact keywords and phrases, Google will see it and interpret it as shady link building. Just like we see nowadays in search query suggestions and results when we perform our own Google searches, Google also applies its intelligent understanding of semantics and context when crawling content too, rewarding links with anchor text that look like they genuinely belong there and add real value to the overall content.

6. A Link in a Random, Meaningless Place Without Supporting Content
Any link that’s posted on its own, away from any other content, is a good way to look like spam. Remember that Google looks at all of the content on a web page and is typically smart enough to understand the bigger picture of what it’s all about.

You wouldn’t publish a new blog post that has nothing to it but a link, would you? Keep this in mind when posting links in blog comment sections, forum message boards, social networks and anywhere else.

7. A Link That’s Part of an Obvious Link Scheme
A link scheme is used to manipulate a site’s ranking by building large quantities of links using varied patterns. Link wheels were once a popular form of link scheming, which would involve maintaining a number of smaller sites or blogs and using them to link back to one big main site (the one that was the target of a search ranking boost).

If Google catches you trying to fool them with your link scheme, you could find yourself in hot water. Link scheming is an outdated SEO trend that isn’t worth trying now or ever again if you want to do everything you can to avoid facing search ranking penalties.

5 Things You Can Do to Get More ‘Good’ Links
Working in a way that attracts more genuine links to your site isn’t impossible to do. And if you’re willing to put in the work, then you’re far better off sticking to Google-friendly techniques rather than putting so much time and energy (and possibly money) into snake oil SEO.

Renowned entrepreneur and digital marketing expert Neil Patel wrote a great post on Search Engine Land, offering marketers advice on what they should really be focusing on to build only the best links that don’t raise any red flags with Google:

1. Publish Guest Posts on Other Blogs
Guest blog posts have been abused by SEO black hatters in the past, but that doesn’t mean that guest posting as we know it is an entirely outdated form of getting links back to your site. It just means that the really spammy guest posts that add no value or are irrelevant to the content and source itself can’t be used for effective SEO.

Bringing value to the site’s audience through your guest post should be your number one priority, and as a reward, you get to include a link or two. Forget this one viral rule, and Google might catch on to what you’re really after: links and nothing else.

2. Create Infographics
Patel notes that while using infographics to attract more links isn’t quite as effective as it was a few years ago, it still works well. And it makes sense – people like it when content is delivered to them in a quicker, more visual way.

If you don’t have the budget to pay someone to create an infographic for you, Canva is a great free tool that lets you easily make them on your own.

3. Start Taking Social Media Promotion More Seriously
The more social shares a piece of content has, the higher the number of backlinks from a variety of domains it will have as well. The social links you get from actually sharing it don’t really count, unfortunately, but the more they’re shared, the higher the chances are that other people will see it and link to it.

4. Reach Out to Relevant People to Ask for a Link
This might seem like some kind of black hat SEO sorcery, but it’s really not if you’re reaching out to site owners and bloggers who might genuinely want to know about your site or a piece of content you created. It may actually be valuable to their audience.

If you mentioned an individual or a business in your content, you could contact that individual or business to let them know, which could result in them linking to your site. You could do the same if you cited someone else’s work or idea.

5. Work on Perfecting and Expanding Your Personal Brand
Growing your personal brand certainly isn’t the fastest way to gain links, but it will pay off over the long run. It isn’t any secret that people who trust and admire someone else will naturally want to promote and link to their content.

You can earn people’s trust and admiration by being genuinely interested in helping them and showing it off any way you can: by creating stellar content, interacting with your followers on social media, being real with your audience, sharing your struggles or imperfections and more.

Links certainly aren’t what they used to be, even compared to just a couple of years ago.

In general, if you put gaining a link before adding genuine value first, there’s a good chance that Google could interpret it as a bad link and penalize you for it. And even if you don’t get hit with that penalty immediately, then it could still happen eventually as the algorithm evolves and becomes even more effective at identifying manipulative SEO practices.

What sort of Google-friendly SEO techniques are you currently using to attract more links to your site? Let us know in the comments section below!