Despite Google taking into consideration over 200 factors when compiling their search engine result pages (aka SERP) for its users, for several years now one of the strongest signals to Google that a page deserved to be ranking high was the number of inbound links (aka backlinks) pointing to it. Unfortunately, as with most things in the SEO community, once this method of boosting your rankings was discovered, it was used and abused until Google stepped in to do something about it. Back in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, webmasters and SEOs could easily create networks of poor quality websites whose sole purpose was to build links to the pages they wanted to rank. This tactic, coupled with leaving promotional and irrelevant comments across the blogosphere, lead to an influx of spam flooding the internet built out purely in an attempt to game the search engines, rather than focusing on educating and/or benefiting the human user.
Fast forward to today, and while backlinks are still a significant ranking factor, Google has become quite adept at identifying unnatural links and continues to penalize websites that partake in this potentially nefarious activity. Yes, Google has gone on the record and stated that companies should generally try to avoid link building, however, when executed in a tactical and strategic manner, link building is a great way to increase your search engine rankings and boost your overall SEO strategy. There are many things to consider when evaluating a potential backlink, and a few red flags that should be avoided at all costs. This article is going to explore every facet of what makes a good backlink that will pass “Link Juice” and what to look out for when undertaking a link building campaign.
At first glance all links may seem equal (after all they’re just words you can click on) but when you really dig down and analyze them, there are many contributing factors:
- Source Authority
- Source Relevancy
- Ease of Acquisition
- Number of Links
- Accompanying Links
- Domain Saturation
- Anchor Text
As I had mentioned in the introduction, back in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s the Internet was being inundated with spam in an attempt to inflate websites’ rankings. One way to do this was for webmasters to leave comments on other people’s blog posts where they could include a link back to their website within the comment, or as a link within their user name. The comments were almost always of no value to the article or its readers, and vey rarely the linked site was even remotely related to the article in which they were commenting on. To combat this, Google’s Matt Cutts and Blogger’s Jason Shellen proposed the rel=nofollow tag as a way to let the search engines not to count these links when processing the target website’s ability to rank. While the logistics to Google’s search algorithm are held in secret by the company, there is some speculation among the SEO community on the influence of nofollowed links ability to help a page rank. Whether a nofollow link passes zero link juice or minimal link juice, for the purpose of a link building campaign it is advisable to avoid nofollow links whenever possible.
Google is extremely good at evaluating the overall authority of a website. Just as they take into consideration over 200 factors when considering how to rank your website, they are doing the exact same analysis on the websites you are trying to earn links from. Given that, it’s important when undertaking a link building campaign that you are targeting websites that are viewed favorably and authoritative in the eyes of Google. Websites such as USAtoday.com and NYTimes.com are both highly reputable sources and have strict content quality guidelines in place, which make it extremely hard to get a link that is undeserved. On the other hand, a website such as GregsCornerStore.blogspot.com is not well known and has a much higher probability of link abuse. Depending on the size of your website’s backlink profile, it may be advisable to avoid any low authority websites when initiating a link building campaign.
Just as Google has a strong understanding of a website’s authority, they are extremely cognizant at deciphering a website’s subject matter. For years webmasters have been utilizing keywords and H1 tags to signal to Google and the other search engines exactly what their particular webpage is about, and while this is still an industry best practice, Google is working diligently to understand the Internet on a semantic level. When conducting a link building campaign it is important that you are targeting websites that are within your niche. Say for example you are an online retailer of workout supplements – Google would factor a link from a health and wellness website much more favorably than a link from a mechanic and woodworking website, regardless if the latter’s authority on the internet is greater than the former’s.
Ease of Acquisition
While I’m not saying an easy link is a bad link, there are several factors that must be considered. A highly abused tactic in the early days of link building was directory submissions, which entailed simply filling out a form with some basic information and your URL and hitting submit. If a backlink is easy to obtain then there’s a good chance that it will hold very little equity in regards to your link building campaign, and this is especially present when considering User Generated Content (UGC). Keeping in line with the previous workout supplement retailer example, let’s assume there’s an online community called HealthFanatics.com that is a place for everyone interested in health and healthy living. This site is an industry leader that hosts a community forum, posts the latest health news, and they even have tons of great resources and videos for their users to educate themselves on workouts and meal prep. There’s even the ability for users to create an “Expert” profile that allows these users to answer other user’s health-related questions, and within your Expert Profile page, it allows for a do-follow link back to your website! HealthFanatics.com is within your niche, an industry leader, and it allows you to get a do-follow link…sounds like a winner, right?! Unfortunately, in addition to the backlink to your website from your Expert Profile, there are 10,000+ other Expert Profiles all with links pointing back to their respective websites, and Google is well aware of. In this particular example, there’s certainly no harm in getting this link, but it certainly won’t hold the same equity as some other links.
Number of Links
Every webpage has only a finite amount of link juice it can pass along, which means that the greater number of links present on a page, the less link juice your link will receive. The equation used in determining the amount varies from search engine to search engine, especially with the introduction of the nofollow attribute, however the general rule of thumb is to avoid webpages that consist of many outbound links. The usual offenders of this are often titled “Links Page” or “Resource Page”. Instead of recommending your site be added to a resource page that already contains 50+ links on it, it would be better to invest in improving your content and reaching out to resource pages that only list 5-10 additional resources.
Very rarely does a webpage have only one outbound link on it, so it’s important that your link is surrounded by other authoritative and relevant websites. If your website link is on a page with links to the leaders within your industry, Google makes the assumption that you, too, are one of those leaders. Conversely, if you get your link placed on the same page as malicious, irrelevant, or low-quality sites then Google will make the assumption that your website is also malicious, irrelevant, or low quality. As the old adage goes, “you’re only as good as the company you keep”.
Once word got out in the late 2000’s that links were the magic ticket to getting your website rankings, it was a mad dash for webmasters to acquire as many links as possible. A popular technique that emerged from this rush is known as Reciprocal Linking, or more simply put – if you link to my website then I’ll link to yours. Often times the linking websites were not related and provided very little value to the other’s audience, placing the only value on the link acquisition for SEO purposes. In addition to the issues with relevancy and authority which we’ve already covered, Google was quick to identify these link patterns taking place and severely discounted the equity of reciprocal links. When working on a link building campaign, the most valuable links will come from websites in which you have not already linked out to.
How good is a piece of chocolate? How about two pieces of chocolate? Three? 10? 100? What I’m getting at is the Law of Diminishing Returns, and it most certainly applies to link building. The search engines love to see a highly diversified backlink profile, consisting of inbound links from a large number of unique domains. All things considered equal, a backlink profile consisting of 10 links from 10 unique websites would be much more impactful than 50 links from only 3 unique domains. This is not to say that you should pass up a link opportunity from Huffington Post because you already have a link from Huffington Post, but it is important to build a backlink profile that is diverse in linking root domains.
One of the biggest red flags to Google and the other search engines that you are participating in a nefarious link building campaign is a sudden influx of anchor-rich inbound links. Google is adamant that links with optimized anchor text can be considered a violation of their guidelines; however our professional experience has shown extremely positive results when building out anchor rich links. When considering anchor text, it comes down to your backlink profile and anchor text diversity. When starting a link building campaign it is advised to ignore your anchor text and focus on authority and relevancy. Once you have established your company as a leading brand within your industry, you naturally would have acquired a large number of editorial links, and then can shift your focus on anchor-rich links targeting your category and other money pages.
Google is a huge proponent of the “natural” internet and has invested countless man hours into tweaking their algorithms to be able to detect artificial link schemes. Naturally occurring content on the internet is generally editorial and contextual (e.g. a New York Times op-ed posting), as opposed to content found within the footer, navigation bar, or sidebar of a website. Given this, the best links come from within context. To take this one step further, the first listed link within an article is generally more heavily favored than the links listed below it; however all of these links outweigh links occurring elsewhere on a webpage. A common tactic for website developers was to place a link back to their website in the footer of their clients’ website layouts; however this tactic has been heavily abused and thus discounted by Google.
Finally, there are paid links, which could include banner advertisements, event sponsorship, contextual link insertion, and paid or sponsored posts/placements. While all of these tactics are a possible way to purchase a link, each and every one of these should be nofollowed, as per Google’s Webmaster Quality Guidelines. Obtaining dofollow links via these means is strictly prohibited by Google and is certainly not an advised way to begin a link building campaign.
Author Bio: Brett Bastello is an SEO consultant at Inseev Interactive, a digital marketing company located in sunny San Diego. He enjoys cheesecake and the Pittsburgh Steelers.