Do you know why some think link building is no longer effective as a ranking factor?
Once upon a time, link volume became the greater determinant of the rank of web pages on Google’s SERP. Before long, some unscrupulous marketers figured out how to manipulate the search results in their favour through methods that weren’t in the best interest of the user, or Google for that matter.
This meant that low-quality content could rank higher than that which was more deserving. Since Google’s policy was to do no evil and give priority to the best, it decided to put an end to the manipulative practices.
And so in 2012, the search giant rolled out the “webspam algorithm” update, which later came to be known as the Penguin algorithm. Its purpose was to weed out link spam and discourage manipulative link building tactics.
By understanding the process, the algorithm was able to identify suspicious activity and clamp down link building. Many websites lost their former ranking while some of those which were previously hidden got exposed to web users who needed them.
To this day, Google rewards compliant websites with a higher ranking. However, those which engage in unethical link building practices are heavily penalised.
The following are the most common types of links that get them in trouble.
Types of Links That Google Will Penalise You For
Before we begin, it’s important to remind you that outbound links from your website are just as important to consider as are backlinks pointing to it.
Apart from the obvious contribution to user experience, outgoing links have been found to be an actual ranking factor, contrary to popular belief among webmasters.
A study conducted by Reboot Online is among the first pieces of evidence we have that relevant links to authoritative sites may help yours rank higher on Google search results.
Since it’s established that outgoing links impact SEO, some of the points below will look at what happens when this impact is negative.
Let’s get to it.
1. Links from user-generated content
This includes links from:
- Blog comments
- Forum discussions
- Social media sites
Blog comments are one of the most abused tactics in the history of SEO. And link builders didn’t waste their time.
It was easy. All you had to do was say something (anything) under someone else’s blog post and sneak your link within the comment. You had your backlink.
To reverse the ensued abuse of the comments section, Google introduced the <rel=”nofollow”> meta tag which allowed webmasters to tell its crawlers which links to ignore when assessing their link profile.
Whenever that tag is used, the host page doesn’t pass PageRank to the destination, making the link useless, from that standpoint.
What if the link is dofollow?
According to former Spam Team leader at Google, Matt Cutts, commenting isn’t an effective link building technique. A few backlinks from comments made on relevant topics are good for your SEO but not enough to cause significant impact. On the other hand, a large number of blog comment backlinks sends a negative signal — that you’re a spammer.
Backlinks from forums work the same way as blog comment backlinks. They are just as easy to generate and, usually, just as useless. Links from social media sites are usually nofollow. Social bookmarking links are also highly discouraged.
To be clear, there are ways to gain from user-generated content. Link-building is just not one.
2. Unnatural links
This includes links coming from such practices as:
- Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
- Reciprocal linking
- Automated link building
- Footer links
These links are similar in the fact that they appear unnatural to users, and Google can sniff them out for this.
PBNs were once a great black hat technique for manipulating PageRank and search results. The process of ranking from PBNs is quite involved.
The link builder sets up a network of sites that publish content and link to each other. These may be old abandoned sites that the webmaster buys and freshens up with some new content.
Each site in the network has the advantage of getting backlinks from every other site. This link strength is then funnelled to other money sites.
Despite all this work, it doesn’t take long for Google to detect the unnatural connections. Some may take longer, but in the final analysis all PBNs fall.
Reciprocal linking involves swapping links for backlinks. Eventually, when you build a reputation and develop relationships with other site owners you’re going to do some reciprocal link building. Even when you’re starting out, no one’s to say that you can’t leverage your connections to get your site off the ground.
Reciprocal linking becomes unnatural when it’s done excessively. If you’re linking to that one site in every new blog post and the owner is doing the same with yours, it’s bound to get suspicious.
Others use automatic link building programs. These programs run 24/7 and can create a lot of backlinks for your website. However, Google will eventually find out and penalise you for it.
Footer links are important for navigation and spreading around the domain authority of the homepage. However, some web developers use the section to try and pass juice unnaturally by linking to another website using anchor text like “built by me”.
Google is opposed to this and depending on how you see it, it may be unfair. Users who want to know more about the website developer are denied the chance, for instance. However, currently, that’s how things stand.
If you see such a link on your website better “nofollow” or remove it entirely. If you’re a developer, you also don’t want multiple sites linking back to you with the same anchor text.
Over-optimisation for search engines seems unnatural. This includes keyword stuffing, using exact match anchor text, anchor text overuse, over-using H1 tags, using domain names with keywords, and over-using meta keywords.
Google wants users to be guided naturally through links that are relevant to what they are searching for. If you’re suspected to be acquiring backlinks for other purposes contrary to this goal, you will be penalised.
The easiest way to get caught is through unnatural links.
3. Broken and hidden links
Broken links can affect you whether they are outbound or inbound. Google doesn’t want you pointing people to broken web pages. Similarly, it doesn’t want people to end up on a dead page on your site.
You don’t want these things either.
However, for outbound links, you may not always know when a page is no longer available where you left it. This is where a link checker comes in handy.
If your site is small, a tool like Check My Links extension for Chrome can help you manually review your pages individually and expose broken links — both internal and external.
If you have a large site, some of the tools to use include Ahrefs, Sitechecker, and InterroBot. Once you find the broken pages, update the link if it’s on your website or, for external websites, link to a different page.
Apart from being navigable, the links on your site should be visible. A hidden link reeks of malice even when you meant no harm.
A few tips:
- Don’t make your links the same colour as the background.
- Make sure the font is uniform or large enough.
- Provide enough characters for the anchor.
4. Paid and low quality links
Google detests the buying and selling of links. In the past, a number of high-profile websites have been made examples of by being penalised for involvement in the practice.
This doesn’t mean all paid links are bad. In fact, you can buy all the links you want. They just have to be nofollow so they don’t pass PageRank.
So, what’s the use? A link, paid or not, when used naturally in the right context has the potential of boosting your business, be it dofollow or otherwise. If it’s placed on an authoritative website with a large number of your target audience, you stand to gain organic traffic, brand awareness, and credibility.
With these benefits in mind, many marketers can’t resist a great link placement if it means some money out of their pocket.
Low quality links include those from websites of poor ranking and those which are to and from irrelevant websites.
A bunch of links from low quality websites are obviously going to be of poor quality. At best, they won’t affect your ranking. At worst, they’ll be seen as an attempt to pass authority cheaply and get you penalised.
Same is the case with links to and from websites which aren’t relatable to yours. For instance, a website in Ireland that publishes in English isn’t going to get much from a backlink coming from a site that posts its content in Russian or Swahili.
Paid and low quality links seem like an obvious attempt to manipulate the search results. If you want to appear as genuine as you are, strive to earn high quality links for your site, let the growth happen organically. In the end, you’ll be pleased you did.
Link building isn’t dead or dying. The only reason why Google has gone to so much trouble developing updates to its algorithm is that it understands the essence of links on the web.
Any business that cares about SEO is concerned about link building.
However, there is such a thing as negative link building. A sufficient amount of bad links will do just as much damage as good links will provide value. At worst, they will undo all your efforts.
Although Google insists it can ignore bad links when crawling your site, it’s expedient to learn how to recognise and remove any links that might hurt your chances.
A penalty may be in the form of a manual or algorithmic action. Use a tool like Monitor Backlinks to keep an eye on your link profile including when you get a new backlink or someone removes your link.
Have you ever been penalised by Google for a link? How did you regain your position? Let us know in the comments.