Your website is a boat floating in the ocean. Now, picture your site’s backlinks as either a propellor or an anchor.
Good links are a propellor that can lead you to SEO success. They push the boat where you want it to go. They can boost your brand to the top of the Google rankings, sending a huge wave of traffic to your site and leads into your funnel.
Building the right type of links and a healthy backlink profile will get your boat into harbour to all the people (traffic).
However, bad links are an anchor that holds your SEO success in place and keeps you from moving. Even though you’re still trying to go forward, you’re stuck in place and wasting your fuel trying to move with this weighing you down.
In extreme cases, a whole lot of bad links or ‘black hat’ tactics can be a hole in your hull. They’re doing more than just holding you where you are, they’re sinking your ship.
That said, you can also pursue good links too aggressively. That type of link profile gets noticed by Google for the wrong reasons, which is sort of like burning your engine out while trying to go too fast for too long.
Navigating The Uncertain Waters of Link Building
Here is the trickiest part of it: You can’t simply chase the Google algorithm to find your SEO and link building success. Doing that is the fastest way to sabotage your results and drive yourself insane. Even Google says that you shouldn’t chase the algorithm.
5 years ago Google essentially said, “If you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop.” However, here we are in 2019 and if you look at the sites with the most traffic and highest SEO ranking, they all have guest posts.
So, the interpretation of the message becomes, “You can’t do guest posts a certain way anymore.”
If we were to sum up our view of what link building entails in 2019, it would be this: You need to create quality content that earns links.
To help you wrap your head around all of this madness, today we’re going to take two very simple ideas, what is a great link and what is a bad link, and show you all of the factors that could impact their value.
The summations are based on our interpretation of the stone tablets that Google sends down from above (their Webmaster Central Blog and guidelines), as well as our day-to-day experiences as pretty damn good SEOs.
How to Earn Links That Propel You
Link building in 2019 is an umbrella term that encompasses a lot of different tactics. However, at the core of it all is one very basic principle: Not all links are created equal.
There are great links and there are bad links, plain and simple. Google has a sophisticated algorithm to analyze these links and determine their value. Knowing the difference can be the key to making (or breaking) your SEO campaign.
Any given link is weighed based on literally hundreds of factors that are constantly changing. Google gives us a ballpark idea of what their algorithm updates will mean, without ever truly telling us what’s in the secret sauce.
Figuring out the difference is how we spend most of our day, because it’s incredibly complex. Link building is mysterious and subjective. SEO nerds like us make our decisions based on our interpretation of Google’s updates and guidelines, combined with analysing the data.
There are several different software options and tools out there to help you assess the value of a given link. However, even their algorithms are not plugged into Google’s algorithm. They’re based on the interpretations and inferences of SEO nerds like us. That’s why two links that are both scored as a DA 50 by Moz could impact your site in two very different ways.
It’s the organic, authentic, and truthful method of earning links that the Google algorithm deems appropriate.
With that in mind, here are a few of the things that we look at when determining whether or not a given link can help a given site.
Links with a Strong Domain Authority Score
We are huge fans of Moz’s and their patented DA score. To us, this is simply one of the most predictive metrics of success with Google.
It’s often where we start, but far from the only thing we look at. It’s a nice and simple number, but it is still a subjective number. As we mentioned, you could be looking at two sites with a DA score of 50 (which is high), but these two links can each impact your site in two very different ways.
Think of it as house shopping. You could be looking at two houses for $500,000, but only one of them is right for your lifestyle. One is right next to your kids’ school and the other is on the other side of town.
The DA score is often where our research begins, but never where it ends.
Quite simply, when Google’s algo sees that this site is linking to yours, will it be seen as a logical fit. Does it make sense that these two sites are connected? The relevancy of a link certainly appears to be a major factor in determining its value.
Let’s stick with the two sites with a DA 50 example we used above. Let’s say your company makes organic dog food. If one of those links comes from a dog breeder blog and the other comes from a dentist, the breeder link is clearly more logical and relevant, even though both sites have the same DA.
There is a lot of data to support the theory that links appearing early (e.g higher on the page) in the copy are given more weight than ones buried at the bottom.
At the same time, links placed in the actual body copy of a blog or page will almost always be given more weight than ones in the footer or boilerplate of a given page.
Links From New Sites
Let’s say you’ve got two new links to your site, and they are:
- From a site that linked to you a month ago
- From a site that has never linked to you before
There is a strong chance that more weight will be given to the “new” link, as it sends signals to the Google algorithm that your site is gaining new respect from new sources. As a result, that “new” link may give you a bit more of a boost than the “old” link.
However, there are always lots of factors in play there. If you have a choice between a new link from a local business and a second link from the Huffington Post, you should likely go with the bigger fish.
Links From Trusted Sites
This is sort of a quality-versus-quantity thing. It’s trust versus traffic.
How reputable, respected and trusted is this site? The concept of TrustRank playing a major factor in any given site or link’s value certainly has a lot of traction.
A link from a site with a ton of traffic (with low trust) may not be as valuable as a link from a trusted site (with lower traffic).
There are a number of metrics and tools you can use to gauge the trustworthiness of a given site. Both ahrefs and SEMrush each have their own proprietary formula and score for a given link or site. However, it’s important to remember that these formulas (like anything else in link building or SEO) are a very, very educated guess.
Google obviously has their own formula to measure the trustworthiness of a given site, and we’re all just doing our very best to estimate and ballpark what it is.
However, trust is very clearly a factor.
Links From Fresh Sites
Regularly updating your site with fresh and original content is almost always a good thing. It’s showing the Google algo that you’re actively publishing good content, which conditions them to check back more frequently to crawl your site.
It’s also good to earn links from those types of sites. A link from a site that pumps out fresh and relevant content every single day is likely going to help you more than a site that hasn’t published anything new in a couple of days.
Again, no single one of the above factors will make or break a link. It’s always a mixed bag, so to speak, and you have to look at all of them to see the big picture.
For example, a link from a strong DA score from an unrelated site can do more harm than good.
How to Avoid Links That Weigh You Down
Nearly everything Google has done to weed out bad links has been in the name of “providing value” for the searcher.
Unlike the factors we went over in the previous section, any single one of the infractions we’re about to cover could be enough to instantly devalue a link. If a potential link has any of these red flags, you do not want it anywhere near your site.
With that in mind, here are the specific tactics that Google has said will get your links devalued.
Automatically Generated Content
Have you ever clicked on a link and landed on a blog that appears to be pure gibberish.
That’s because it wasn’t written by a person, it was auto-generated by a bot. Or it was translated from another language by a bot, without human editing that would fix the syntax or other language nuances.
This is a shortcut that ‘black hats” sometimes try to avoid going through the trouble of actually creating unique content.
This can mean so many things. Link schemes may include:
- Directory or bookmark site links, AKA link farms
- Buying or selling meaningless links, or exchanging goods or services for them
- “I’ll link to you and you link to me” partnerships that add nothing
- Automated programs or services to generate links for your site
- Hidden links embedded in widgets
- Hiding links in the footer or template of a site
- Hiding links in the comment section of a blog or page
These tactics do not work and have not worked for some time.
Pages With Little Content or Scraped Content
Google wants to see that all of the links pointing to your site are full of original content.
A bare-bones site, or a site with content lifted from other sources, is a red flag. This can also take several forms. Most of it is republishing copy, images or videos without adding new insights or value.
One particularly offensive way to do it is an automated program that simply finds a synonym for every word in the sentence to create a “new sentence.” So, that last sentence would now be:
“A mainly unpleasant method toward complete it is a robotic sequencer that only bargains a substitute on behalf of each expression in the judgment toward produce a “newfangled decree”
It reads like pure gibberish and Google’s algo notices.
Simply put, are you trying to send your users to a completely different page than Google would see when it crawls this site?
The classic example (which Google’s Matt Cutts uses in the video below) is making Google think you’re sending your browsers to a site about Disney movies, but you’re actually sending people to porn.
Cutts stresses that, contrary to what you may have heard, there is no such thing as white hat cloaking.
This does not apply to looking at your user’s IP address and sending them to a French site based on their country of origin. This also does not apply to seeing that your visitor is coming from a mobile device and sending them to your mobile site.
Both of those examples are kosher, but trying to deceive Google’s bots by giving their IP address a different experience in any way is immediately cloaking.
Are you doing something sneaky(ish) with your redirect links? Are you doing a bit of a bait and switch with your users?
This could include:
- Google seeing one page, but users are redirected to something totally different, similar to cloaking
- Desktop browsers to go a normal page, but mobile browsers get a redirect to a completely different domain
Hidden Text or Links
To be honest, this is pretty bush league and we’re amazed that people still do this.
It’s 2019, yet we still see people:
- Hiding white text in white background
- Hiding text behind an image
- Using CSS to position text off-screen
- Shrinking a font size down to an imperceptible 0
- Hyperlinking one small character, like a hyphen or dash
You’re better than that!
This is when you use a bunch of domain or pages targeted to funnel users to a single page. This could be creating multiple domains like:
You can create and own all those domains. However, you need original content on each page and you can’t just send them all to the same domain. That’s bad for SEO.
Affiliate Programs (Without Adding Sufficient Value)
We get asked about this one a lot, and we invite you to read Google’s guidelines if you’re considering adding affiliate links to your site.
Adding affiliate links can be a great way to 100% legitimately monetize your site. However, doing it the wrong way could put you in Google’s bad books.
Here is the simplest version. Let’s say you have a golf blog. You want to earn a bit of income, so you add some affiliate links to the new Callaway driver at Amazon.
These links are good, as long as you’re bringing something new to the table. You need to provide an original review or description of this driver. You can’t simply copy and paste someone else’s content or provide very little of your own.
This will get you classified as a “Thin affiliate” in the eyes of Google because your content is too thin.
If you’re adding affiliate links, make sure you’re adding value.
This is good old fashioned keyword stuffing.
Google can detect words that don’t match anything else on the page and are out of context. They also ignore you if you use a keyword too many times on a page. You may also get dinged for adding meaningless city names that you want to rank for.
This is straightforward. You simply never want your site to be associated with hosting or spreading malware such as phishing, viruses, trojans, or other badware.
Abusing Rich Snippets Markup
If you’re looking to rank for a snippet related to a keyword of yours, test your structured data using Google’s Structured Data Testing tool during development. You can also view the Rich result status reports afterward.
The Google Penguin and its Impact on Links
These waters have penguins!
No other Google update has had more of an impact in determining the value of a given link than the Penguin.
The Penguin was first introduced in 2012 as a way of cracking down on “black hat” tactics that people were using to give their sites an SEO boost. Some of these tactics included things like buying irrelevant links in directories or link farms, or hiding/ stuffing links on a given page.
Over the last 7 years, the Penguin has been rolled out in various stages and grown more sophisticated. Here is a look at how it has evolved.
April 2012: Penguin 1
Google announced that they are taking Another step to reward high-quality sites.
They called out black hats, keyword stuffers and link schemers by name and said they’re taking big steps to weed them out. Of course, they were predictably vague about the details saying:
“While we can’t divulge specific signals because we don’t want to give people a way to game our search results and worsen the experience for users, our advice for webmasters is to focus on creating high quality sites that create a good user experience…”
However, they did confirm that this change will noticeably impact about 3.1% of queries in English, with queries in other languages being impacted slightly more.
May 2012: Penguin 2
Google’s Matt Cutts tweeted that Google just pushed a big algo refresh that impacted another 0.1% of English queries.
October 2012: Penguin 3
Cutts tweeted that another Penguin refresh has impacted another 0.3% of English queries.
May 2013: Penguin 4 (AKA Penguin 2.0)
Another big change. This time it is an algorithm update and not a data refresh, which is why it is dubbed Penguin 2.0. The scope of what is done is felt more broadly and Cutts announced that 2.3% of English queries will see a noticeable impact.
In an attempt to help webmasters keep up with what is changing, Google released a blog and video about what to expect.
October 2013 Penguin 5 (AKA Penguin 2.1)
Google announced an algo update + data refresh that impacted about 1% of English queries.
October 2014: Penguin 6 (AKA Penguin 3.0)
The Penguin 3.0 was actually a data refresh and not an algo update. However, it was rolled out worldwide over a few weeks and impacted about 1% of English queries.
This update was a big help to sites that were dinged by the previous Penguin updates, but did the right things to fix the problem. They would now start to see a recovery.
September 2016: Penguin 7 (AKA Penguin 4.0)
This was the big one.
Google announced that there would be no more updates, because the Penguin is now part of their core search algorithm and will update organically. There would be no more layered releases that incrementally impact sites, it was now realtime.
The good news was that these real-time updates meant that if your site was previously penalized by the Penguin, you could now fix the issues and see your results much, much faster.
This is where we sit today.
Don’t get stranded at sea! Earn the right type of links through high-quality content and organic links.
Good and organic link-building is future-proofing your success. Again, nearly every Google algo update rewards people who are doing the hard work of creating high-value content and earning great organic links, while penalizing the people who take shortcuts and have bad links.
Building links the right way is like being the kid who studied for the test. A new rule saying you can’t bring your phone into the exam room won’t affect you. A no-talking rule won’t affect you, nor will a rule about sitting too close to your neighbour. Meanwhile, kids that planned to cheat to pass are now screwed.
If you want to be on the right side of link-building or have any questions about how to do it, please click here to contact us.