SEO

A quick and simple guide to backlinks, the good and the bad

A quick and simple guide to backlinks, the good and the bad A quick and simple guide to backlinks, the good and the bad
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Justin Greenwood
Director

Your website backlink portfolio matters.

Google is taking more interest in websites whose main links are coming from spammy, low-quality sites with no relevance to that of their own.

Yes, you don’t always have control over some of the sites that link to you. But when marketers or webmasters purposely try and manipulate search engines by getting low-quality links from low-quality sites, this becomes a problem. 

Is your website linking to porn or gambling? You’d be surprised

Backlinks, sourced from quality websites relevant to your industry, have long been important in search engine optimisation, especially for Google.

Google will give more credit to websites that have a good number of quality backlinks, and consider those websites more relevant than others in their results pages for a search query. It considers websites more “trustworthy” and “authoritative” when other quality sites are linking to them. 

This is nothing new. Backlinks have long been one of the most important ranking factors for SEO.

In 1996, when Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed BackRub, the predecessor to the Google search engine, it ranked pages using citation notation. This meant that any mention of a site on another one would count as a vote to the mentioned site. A website’s authority or reliability came from how many people linked to that site, and how trustworthy the linking sites were. We can also assume the name “BackRub” is a reference to backlinks, and not you know, actual back massages. 

What are Google’s other ranking factors?

Today, we know of at least 200 different Google ranking factors.

Backlinking is still considered one of the most important. Google continually tells us that content on your website is, and will always be, the number 1 ranking factor. Securing valuable links from other websites is a close second.

If you participate in practices Google considers especially bad, you can cause permanent damage for your website. If you start to lose rankings and traffic due to an algorithm or core update, you can likely recover them by figuring out what occurred at the time you saw these starting to fluctuate. Google will often give you the information you need on what you can do to recover them following their guidelines.

However, if you participate in techniques Google considers especially heinous, you may receive a manual penalty.

What does this mean for you?

Without an online presence, you could kill your whole business. When this happens, you can either try and start again fresh with a new domain. But this could take you years to start ranking and get traffic, depending on your industry.

Which brings us back to backlinking. Because we are human and can’t have nice things, like with everything, several marketers have attempted to trick the system in ways against Google’s Guidelines.

These are called ‘black-hat’ or negative SEO techniques for getting links. If experience tells us anything, trying any strategy against these guidelines is a strong no. These are some of the worst offenders.  

The very bad backlink strategies that’ll never work In the long-term

Paid links

To be fair, paying for links used to be normal practice in SEO circles through the years. However, Google has been extremely clear on their distaste of those buying and selling of links. Buying or selling links is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and will result in a penalty if you’re caught.

Paid links attract a high level of scrutiny and the risk to reward ratio is seldom worth it. Google specifically states:

“Exchanging money for links or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a ‘free’ product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.”

We often contact websites ourselves in our client’s niche to see if they would be interested in publishing a guest post. We frequently come across those requesting we pay for the privilege. As you can see above, it ain’t going to fly with Google.

Our response? A respectful no.

Blog comments

As the name suggests, this black-hat technique involves commenting on other websites’ posts or articles and including a link back to their site in the comment. Once again, it used to be common practice and it used to work.

But we know that Google’s not silly.

They are going to make you work harder than that. They’ve updated their algorithm to discount any links in blog comments. Now most authoritative sites automatically make blog comments “nofollow”. This means search engines like Google do not follow the link nor pass it any authority.

Anyone still trying to make this work is wasting their time. 

Link farms

A link farm is a collection of websites developed solely for link-building purposes. Each website links out to the site or sites they want to rank higher on search engines. As discussed above, search engines, especially Google, look at the number of links that point to the website as a ranking factor.

By creating link farms, it exploits this by inflating the number of backlinks pointing to a site. 

The thing with link farms is they have crappy content and lots of links. People using these techniques are lazy and looking for shortcuts. They are hardly going to waste their time creating high-quality content for these types of sites.

The links would be designed to contain the keyword they want the site to rank for in the anchor text. Google’s bots are incredibly advanced and intelligent and they can spot a link-farm from a mile away.

Private blog networks

Private Blog Networks are essentially a penalty waiting to happen. They are a collection or “network” of authoritative websites used solely for link building. They are similar to link farms in that they both aim to exaggerate the number of links pointing to a website. As Neil Patel explains on his blog here:

“At some point in the era of SEO, someone figured out how to build a massive amount of backlinks from high domain authority websites without much effort. They did it by purchasing expired domain names that had already established domain authority. Then, after collecting quite a large portion of these domains, they posted basic content to each website and included a backlink to their primary website in all of the content.”

Google has long been targeting websites using Private Blog Networks.

In September 2014, Google started the process of a massive penalty sweep targeting these PBN’s. Sites were either hit with unnatural link penalties. Or for thin content penalties for having “thin content with little or no added value” on these sites.

Like every other technique listed above, there is no advantage to taking these shortcuts. Google is sophisticated in finding these sites and will penalise them accordingly.  

These are just some of the worst offenders; however, there are plenty more that will land you in trouble. Before deciding on any sort of link-building technique for your website, you should always check Google’s Guidelines and follow their suggestions.

Google’s tough stance on black-hat backlinking techniques

Google’s war on low-quality websites and links started with the Panda algorithm in 2011. In 2012, Google officially launched the “webspam algorithm update,” which specifically targeted link spam and manipulative link-building practices. This was later named Penguin.

Penguin became an arsenal in Panda’s war. Don’t be fooled by the cute name. The Penguin Update is ruthless at finding sites doing dodgy things. 

Before the Penguin algorithm, link volume played a larger part in determining a web page’s scoring when crawled, indexed, and analyzed by Google.

But now, it’s link quality before link quantity. It’s not just about getting a link from a website with high domain authority, either. Google wants to see that the website is a trusted website, has authority, and most importantly relevant to your niche.

How to make sure your website doesn’t have any dodgy links pointing to you

As we mentioned before, you have no control over some websites that link to you. Any website in the world could add a link on their site to yours if they so desired.

This becomes an issue if they are low-quality sites or worse.

The other problem is, as we also mentioned above, white-hatted link-building has changed. If you’ve worked with an SEO agency in the past, they might have been using tactics to increase the number of links to your website without checking the quality. It could be completely innocent and standard practice at the time.

Or you’ve partnered with an agency that looked for short-term solutions, instead of strategies sustainable in the long-term.

Using a backlink auditor such as SEMrush can help you evaluate your backlinks and their toxicity.

How do you get rid of backlinks manually?

  • Head to Google Webmaster Tools and export all your website’s backlinks. Click on the ‘Search Traffic’ tab, then ‘Links to Your Site’.
  • On the next page, click on ‘more’, from the module ‘Who links the most’. Then click on ‘Download more sample links’. Google will download all your website’s backlinks in a CSV format.
  • Before continuing, it is always best to try and contact sites to ask if they’ll remove the link in question. If you don’t get a response, which is generally the case, the next step is to submit your file to Google to disavow the link
  • The disavow file is simply a list of domains that you submit to Google via your Search Console account, indicating that you wish for these backlinks to be ignored. By doing so, Google will not take these links into account when determining your site’s authority and rankings.

Backlinking – how to do it

The best way to get quality backlinks is to create great content and cultivate good relationships with websites in your niche.

While backlinks are important, take care of your own website first and foremost, and make sure your backlinking practices are honest.