Link building has had a rough year. Thanks in part to Google’s John Mueller’s comments that link building, in general, is a strategy to avoid, a number of SEO practitioners have moved away from the practice.
More specifically, they’ve flocked to a more natural form of link building involving the creation, syndication and promotion of thoroughly researched original content; the idea here is to attract or earn links naturally without ever manually building a link on an outside source.
I’m a big fan of this approach. It’s safe, natural and can earn you a ton of links if your content is good enough. However, I still believe there’s a place for manual link building — as long as your focus is on providing valuable content to your readers.
So what exactly differentiates a “good” link from a “bad” link in Google’s eyes? How can you be sure that a link you’ve manually built isn’t just going to get your website penalized?
As long as you can avoid these seven characteristics, all of which can make a link “bad,” you’ll remain in good standing:
1. It’s On A Low-Authority Or Questionable Domain
The higher your site’s authority is, the higher you’re going to rank in Google. Links on already-high authority sites pass far more authority to your site than those on low-authority sites. If your link appears on a site with a poor reputation, it could do active harm to your organic search visibility.
Generally, unless you’re perusing spam sites or blacklisted pages, you won’t have to worry much about this. Google looks for patterns that it can verify with a high level of certainty, so a single low-authority link won’t hurt you; but hundreds or thousands sustained over the course of a month or more certainly could.
Overall, it’s in your best interest to get links on the highest-authority sources you can find, while avoiding disreputable ones.
2. It’s Pointing To A Source Irrelevant To Its Content
Context is important in Google’s modern search algorithm. It’s not enough to have a link pointing to your site — that link needs to be associated with content that’s somehow relevant to your site, as well.
For example, if you’re a manufacturer, and you post a link to your site in an article about hamburger production in a butcher shop forum, chances are it will raise some red flags. Keep all your links context-specific, and pay close attention to the types of sources you rely on — the closer they are to your industry, the better.
3. It’s Repeated Too Many Times On The Domain
Quantity is important when it comes to links, but more links isn’t always better. Diversity is also important. If Google sees too many links pointing back to your domain on a certain site, it may flag that as suspicious.
Instead, Google likes to see lots of links pointing to your domain from multiple sources. Since each link after the first on a single domain suffers a downgrade in value, it’s in your best interest to diversify your link sources.
4. It’s A Part Of A Reciprocal Exchange
If you have a buddy who owns a similar site, it might seem like a clever idea to exchange links between the two in an effort to boost both your domains.
Unfortunately, this could end up harming more than helping. Google is wise to this “reciprocal exchange” scheme, and if it notices an excessive number of traded links between two sources, it could negatively affect your domain authority. Again, keep source diversity toward the top of your list of priorities.
5. It’s Embedded In Suspiciously Keyword-Matched Anchor Text
Back in the days when keyword-focused optimization was synonymous with SEO, anchor text for links was a big deal. It was a best practice to embed your link in anchor text using the exact keyword you wanted to rank for — today that isn’t going to work.
In fact, it’s the quickest way to land yourself a manual penalty that can be extremely difficult — sometimes impossible — to recover from. Google has an intricate understanding of semantics and link context, and it strongly favors links in natural journalistic context.
6. It’s Isolated From Any Meaningful Content
Posting any kind of link without content accompanying it is bad—it doesn’t matter if you do it in a blog comment, forum post or any other medium.
Your links need to have some kind of semantic context to them, and preferably in the body of a detailed, meaningful post. Guest posts on outside blogs are your best friends here. Use them.
7. It’s A Part Of A Scheme
Link schemes aren’t as popular as they used to be, but somehow they’re still floating around. Participating in complex systems like link wheels or link pyramids is a violation of Google’s terms of service.
If you’re caught deliberately participating in a link scheme, you won’t just drop a rank or two — you could earn a bona fide Google penalty.
Thoroughly comb through your existing link profile to make sure none of your links possess these seven characteristics. You can use Moz’s Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs, Majestic or any other tool that functions as a search engine for links.
If you notice any that are questionable, work to remove them. It’s far better to remove a dubious link than leave it and suffer the potential consequences. Then, put safeguards in place to ensure your future link building efforts avoid these factors at all costs.