Backlinks are the “backbone” of SEO. They could help you show up for competitive terms and can also cause you to lose all of your rankings. So how do you know if your SEO agency, in house team or even outsourced link builders are doing a good job?
Simple, you need to learn what makes a good backlink and what would be considered a bad one. The three sections below will help you and your team evaluate your current links, know if you’re getting your money’s worth and also be able to create a strategy to acquire higher quality links and know where to send them too on your site or blog.
This post is broken out into three parts.
- What a backlink is
- Where should backlinks point to
- What makes a good backlink (This is the really good section of the post)
What is a Backlink
A backlink is a link that points from somebody else’s website to your own website. They can be text based or image based and set as dofollow and nofollow. These links can appear within the header of a website, in the footer, as a blogroll or run of site space or within the content of the site.
Many SEOs feel that in the content and higher up within the page is the best space. My personal opinion is the best space is where it is most relevant and naturally occurs within the content. If there’s no reason to have it there, then it may not appear to be a natural link. This could be bad for you.
(side note: Natural backlinks are links that appear to be placed by the website owner with no incentives. Incentives could be revenue, free product or any form of compensation including a free ticket or pass to an event or a hotel room for a night. Natural links also do not have tracking parameters attached to them. They tend to be copy and paste URLs that go direct to the site. Natural links also do not normally go to category pages. They tend to go to the homepage, a specific piece of content like a blog post or infographic and are almost never keyword rich (keyword stuffed) anymore.)
Where Should Backlinks Point To?
Think about where someone would naturally link to? It normally is not a category page within your site. There’s no real reason for anyone to link to a category so having a large amount of your link profile pointing to a category is a good signal that your SEO team is up to no good.
If you sell a specific brand and the backlink is off of the brand’s name to the brand’s category on your site, this is unnatural. The natural link would have been to the brand’s own website. If you sell magazines and people are linking of a specific magazine’s name to your category page, you are building unnatural links. If you built an infographic outlining the history of that magazine, the centerfolds, backpage ads, etc… that is what could have a natural backlink on your site.
Links normally occur to your homepage, to infographics and informative pieces within a blog or content ideas that provide solutions to problems and issues. If your SEO team is constantly linking into category and product pages, you may want to rethink your strategy and instead have them create interesting, unique and engaging content pieces. From those content pieces you pass the authority from the links to other pages of your site by building an internal linking structure.
The internal links are what will help those pages to rank higher and create a natural flow. Just make sure the internal links are there to provide value to the end user and reinforce the content, not just to have them for SEO.
What Makes a Good Backlink?
This is the part of the post you’ll want to pay the most attention too. Below you’ll find a series of items to ask yourself when evaluating your current backlinks as well as which types of links you and your team are acquiring. Below the bulleted list you’ll find each point again but with more detail about why each is important.
I’ll try to keep this post updated and feel free to leave your own addition in the comments section if there’s something I missed, or if you disagree with one of them. However, if you do disagree, make sure you back up why I am wrong or I will not publish the comment.
- Content Relevance
- Main site
- External Links & SEO Neighborhoods
- Can Anyone Get a Link From The Site
- Guest posts
- Contributors vs. editorial staff
- Submit your content
- How does the site monetize
- Are they in your affiliate program
- Do they use scripts that are part of your affiliate program
- Media Kits
- Human edited
- Relevant sections
- Does it have adult or bad sections
- In relevant categories
- On monetized posts
- Where in the post
- Are you a source or a keyword rich link
- Is it sponsored by another company?
- Footer & Sitewide
- Affiliate Links
- Blog Networks, Influencer Software/Networks and Promotion Networks
- Do Follow vs No Follow
The biggest thing with a backlink is making sure that the site linking to you is content relevant. With a huge site like the HuffingtonPost or CNN, there are hundreds of different topics so it is less important that the entire site is relevant. For smaller sites like blogs, industry news or directories, this is more important. If they write about deals and sales, but you sell luxury goods, this might not be the best because deals and discounts do not match luxury. If their main topic is gluten free food, but you sell machine parts, it’s probably not relevant for the same reason.
So where should you look at for content relevance?
- The main site – If you’re in the main site and the topic is content relevant, the link is probably good.
- Categories – If the category your link exists in is not relevant to your site or the page on your site that it links too, this could make it less valuable or beneficial to your site.
- Posts/pages – If the post or page is not content relevant to your site, then it is probably not going to benefit you and can possibly lead up to a penalty, depending on how many links you have like this.
External Links & SEO Neighborhoods
One thing that many search engines look at is the SEO neighborhood of the sites linking to you. Even if the site passes your content relevant test from above, the link could still be bad for you. Using a site explorer or even a quick search in Google, or the site’s own search box could help you find the links they give to other sites.
If the links go off to porn, payday, pills, malware, illegal products or not so good or relevant topics, this could be bad for your site’s health. If they link to your competitors and lot of sites within your niche from relevant content, then they could be good. Look at where they link to and then determine if the site is quality. This could make the link even more valuable for you.
If you wouldn’t be proud to associate the other site’s URL and homepage in your retail store for customers to see, you shouldn’t associate with it for the search engines either!
Above I mentioned to look and see if the site links to your competitors. If they do and your competitor has good and stable SEO, this might be a good indication that you want this link. Look for where on the site the link to your competitor is and check for content relevance and why they got the link.
You can use this to ask the webmaster to add you to the post (assuming it isn’t sponsored or paid for) or pitch them a follow up post which could feature you as a solution or alternative. Both are great ways to help acquire these links.
Can Anyone Get a Link From The Site
One thing that you need to be cautious of is if anyone can get the link or if you have to earn it through quality content and media pitches. Hard to get links from blogs that do not allow guest posts, high quality news sites that do not allow submissions or automatically post press releases, and even ones that do not allow or have contributors can all be great.
If anyone can have the link or submit and get one, this defeats the purpose of why search engines use backlinks as a ranking signal and the links from these sites could be devalued. If you have too many of them, they could eventually lead up to a penalty from Penguin if you rely on Google traffic. Here’s an old but good post on Google from Matt Cutts about do follow vs no follow. They address this issue as well as others.
- Guest posts – If the site allows guest posters, this could be a good indicator that they allow others to give external links. If the guest posts contain a lot of do follow links that are not relevant to the main topic, keyword rich or they guest poster doesn’t stick to their main topic, this could devalue the sites they link too. If the guest authors are the ones posting your links, this could also make it look like your site is paying for these bad links as well.
- Contributors vs. Editorial Staff – Sounds weird to see this right? If it’s someone whose on the staff at the publication, there’s potentially less of a chance they’d be incentivized to give a backlink or take a bribe. Contributors are much easier to buy exposure from.Crawl through the posts from the contributors or editorial staff and make sure their topics are directly related to you and that they don’t randomly link off keyword or to irrelevant sites. This could be a good warning sign to the search engines that you paid for the link, even if it is from a reputable site. Don’t count out contributor links though. If they write for sites in your niche, their content is high quality and they link to other relevant sites, these can be very good.
- Submit your content – By doing a quick search for terms like “submit your content”, “write for us” or “guest posts/authors”, you can see if the site allows this. If they do and anyone can get the link, chances are you don’t want this site linking to you, unless it’s from the site owner or a very high quality and relevant section. If you notice your link builders continuously bring back links from sites that allow submissions, you may want to rethink who you have building your links and start to undo some of these or disavow them if you’re working on a disavow sheet.
How Does The Site Monetize
This is one not many SEOs think about, but need to start considering. If the site accepts sponsored posts or makes money through content, search engines have no way to know who paid for the content or links. Even if the site owner no follows the sponsors links, but they also have a link to you in the same sponsored post, there’s no way for a search engine to know you didn’t pay for the link (even if the post says “this post was sponsored by XYZ company”).
Because disclosures are now required, this is a really easy way to get mapped and accidentally dinged for bought backlinks, even when you earned them. Here’s a post with different ways that Google can tell if you’re monetizing your content and posts. You’ll also need to look at a few more things.
- Are they in your affiliate program – If the site is an affiliate and using direct links with parameters and placing them without a no follow attribute, this could be a bad thing. Talk to your affiliate manager (and PR/Influencer team) and make sure they’re requiring no follow on any paid links that are out there.
This is an interesting one. A lot of sites will make you email them for a media kit. Some post them in html or a PDF. Both of those are able to be indexed. If you look through them, they may say that links are included in the price of the post. Some will even give a price for do follow links vs no follow or make a comment about how it will help the person paying for the post’s SEO.
Not only is this bad if a search engine would realize that they can crawl this type of link for sale, but all of the sites, even if they got the links before the media kit came out, who have do follow backlinks could get devalued because of this. It probably won’t be the cause of a penguin penalty, but if you add this to other past issues, and you have a lot of errors, then these together could equal a much larger issue and a possible penalization by the search engines.
Directories are tricky. Yes, many are pay to play. Some give do follow links and for the most part, you can get into them fairly easily. So are they bad? That depends.
If they have a real user base and real traffic that is also directly relevant to your business or website (if it’s for wholesalers and the directory is for store owners that buy in bulk, or if you sell yarn and it is for people who crochet and lists yarn stores by city) then it may be good and you may want to list in it.
If you could make an honest case why you’re there like customers are there and come to your site to shop, then you may want to go for it. However, if the directory is not relevant, does not have an actual audience using it and also has links pointing off to sites that you don’t want associated with, this could be bad. Even if there are relevant categories or pages.
There’s a few other things to think about before getting a directory link.
- Human edited – If the directory is properly maintained (no 404 pages, broken sitemaps and external links pointing to sites that no longer exist) by human editors, it could be good. If it is pay for the listings once or pay and renew each year, but there is nobody cleaning, editing and rejecting irrelevant or bad types of sites and content, say no.
- Relevant sections – Does the directory have a relevant section for you. If they do, then that could be good. Make sure that everything in that section is also relevant and that they don’t have broken links, links to sites that are now porn, payday or anything that could be considered spammy.
- Does it have adult, spammy or bad sections – I can’t stress this enough. If the sites are pay to play, allow you to submit content or have contributors and guest posters that link off to sites that could be spammy or are in spammy niches, avoid them.If you wouldn’t be proud to associate the other site’s URL and homepage in your retail store for customers to see, you shouldn’t associate with it for the search engines either! This is something I mentioned above because I wanted it to stand out when you read it again.
There are a ton of rumors and theories about blogs and backlinks. Some SEOs say blogs can give amazing backlinks and others will swear that they will destroy your SEO and hurt you. Neither one is accurate. It all depends on how you’re defining what a blog is and also what the quality of the content is.
If a blog is anything that uses wordpress, then major news sites are considered blogs. This would also mean some retail stores that could be very good links for you. If blogs are considered spammy, thin content sites that sell links and link to everything or don’t have a strict niche theme, then that can be bad for you.
When someone makes an argument about blogs being good or bad, ask them to define what a blog is. This will help you know how to handle the conversation and get everyone on the same page.
If you determine blogs can be good for SEO, then you may want to move onto the bullet points below.
- In relevant categories – Is the category relevant to your topic. Would an actual customer be on this page and if they would click through the post to your site, would they find something that complements the experience of the post (finding a tool for sale mentioned in the post to create XY solution).
- On monetized posts – If the link is in a monetized post, make it no followed. Google has no way to know who paid or if other companies paid to be featured in a post. If it is sponsored or paid for, regardless if you earned the link, ask for a no follow.
- Where in the post – This one is 100% theory, but many SEOs feel that the higher up in the body section or content section of the page, the better the value of the link. Although I’d agree in an article or informative piece, in a blog post it’s where you’re most relevant for the end user or reader. This is just theory and opinion though. For me, being in a spot where your site or products make sense and add value would be more natural and a better link from a blog post.
- Are you a source or a keyword rich link – If your backlink is keyword rich, make sure it is relevant and makes sense why. Although keyword rich links are important, if you have too many of them or they are spammy and the site doesn’t normally link off of keywords, this could lead up to a penalty from some of the search engines. Source links (being referenced, cited or sourced) can sometimes be keyword rich (i.e. photo of polar bears or image of XY products by…). These can also appear more natural and something I wouldn’t worry about as much, as long as you have a good ratio of natural vs. keyword rich links.
- Is it sponsored by another company? – I included this again because it’s important. Even if you did not pay for the link, sponsor the post and the link is natural, no follow it. Many search engines won’t care who paid for the links and won’t take the time to determine it. If they sold the space to someone, you’re also benefiting from the fees they paid and should ask for a no follow.
- Comments – This goes back to anyone can get the link. If the blog is using a service that makes blog comments do follow, this is about the same value as forum spam. Don’t do it and try to get past comment links removed. You can mention your brand and name, but don’t give yourself a do follow link from a blog comment. Years ago this was a strategy many SEOs used, now it is 100% spammy (at least in my opinion) and I never recommend it. It’s also one of the first things we try to clean up when doing Penguin recovery.
Images can be backlinks too (if they’re being pulled and loaded from your servers). Whats great about images is they can also contain alt tags as well as title attributes. These help Google and other search engines determine what the image is about, and what your page or the section of your site it’s being pulled from is about.
If another site uses your image but doesn’t source you as the owner or creator, check to see if you have a do follow link off of the image. If you do, this could be just as valuable as being listed as a source under the image or at the bottom of the post. For the most part, I’d rather have the link than risk them pulling the image because they don’t want to post who created it, then again it goes on a case by case basis.
Years ago this was a good strategy. At some point it turned to grey hat (a much darker shade of grey). You can find many examples where they still work. You should technically no follow the badges in your copy and paste code, but it is up to you and your SEO team to determine that. I stopped using and recommending them years ago, but in some cases, they could be good.
- Website awards – actual awards where there are limited winners who have to earn it.
- Members of a group – this isn’t an “I like something”, it is actual full-fledged members who engage, show up to meetings and share your content regularly. They also probably link to you regularly in their content making the badge not necessary but secondary. In some cases we’ve asked for the site owners to no follow the badges because the in content links were better and we were worried about link spam in the websites link profile.
- Not a majority of your links or compensated – this is the same as the reasons above. If a majority of your links are badges, you should expect Google and some other engines to eventually discover this and they will more than likely devalue your site and it’s rankings. Some of the badges can look like compensation as well. If people are featuring the badge because you’re helping to pay for them to go to a tradeshow or they’re an ambassador (probably have sponsored posts and links as well), you should encourage them to no follow these badges. This could be seen as a sponsored or link that was paid for.
Footer & Sitewide
Unless the footer link is on the same cblock or is one of your company’s brands, this is a spammy way to get backlinks. You’ll see a ton of blogs, hosts and template designers use these, and in many cases it will help them (for a while). However, for ecommerce stores, bloggers and webmasters, this is spammy. The only natural occurrence I can think of is what I mentioned above, when you own multiple sites and brands and want to associate them with each other.
Overtime it looks like many of the major search engines have given less value to these types of links. Unless it’s from one of the most visited and authoritative sites in your niche, it probably won’t help you much. I’d much prefer to have in content and relevant links from an informative article than a run of site or footer link.
- Blogrolls – except when there is engagement and I want exposure
- Sidebar banners
- Header/menu links
I mentioned and addressed these above. If it’s your domain changing, make sure you’ve submitted the new site and fetched as Google. Once everything has moved, re-indexed and cleared, you’ll want to start deleting and removing these, unless they have high quality backlinks pointing to them. If they are tracking links or affiliate links, add no follow attributes to them.
Why is a 4XX error on a post about backlinks? Because if you have sites pointing in and users finding a 4XX page, you’re providing a bad UX. Check your landing pages report in your analytics package and compare your 4XX report from your crawling tools to see if these pages have any visitors. If they do, look how they got there.
If there are good quality backlinks pointing to them, restore the page and use these backlinks to pass authority to content relevant or important pages. If the pages have bad backlinks pointing to them, write to the site owners and see if they’ll remove them. Let them know the site has changed, the content no longer exists and that they are hurting their own visitor’s UX by sending them there.
If you still have relevant products and content, you may want to add the products or content to this page and create a positive UX for the visitors coming in. These can be a golden egg and low hanging fruit, especially if you’ve inherited a site that’s been through a million overhauls.
These are server errors. If you have backlinks pointing to them, you may want to write to the site linking to them and recommend they link to another page on your site if you want the backlink. Before you do that, check to see the type of 5XX error. It could just be temporary and the page will come back up. If it is temporary, wait for a while and see if the error resolves.
If you’re on a major affiliate network, at least Google probably recognizes the links and won’t count them as backlinks. However, lesser known networks, shopping cart links, custom built systems or in house programs are different. Google recently said that all 3XX redirects pass authority. You also have to remember that in many cases, when you change domains and URLs, you use 3XX redirects to pass the authority from the old to the new. If your affiliate links are 3XX redirects, then you may have an issue.
Regardless, it is always now a best practice to no follow any paid links (including affiliate links since you are being compensated). Although it is part of some SEOs strategies for link acquisition, it is easily able to be mapped by the search engines and getting content partners to no follow a few hundred to a few thousand links in the future is much harder than starting the right way from the beginning. You should encourage or require your affiliate network to also have the option to select no follow or apply no follow attributes to all affiliate links that go out from their network, or at least have it in the code when your partners go to get their HTML code.
I wouldn’t make it the highest priority, but it is something to consider or think about, if you’re not on a major network like ShareASale, CJ, Buy.at, Affiliate Window and some of the up and coming who may be on Google’s radar now like Impact Radius and Avantlink. There are other networks that Google and other search engines know about, but this post is about backlinks and not affiliate networks so I’m not listing other ones.
Blog Networks, Influencer Software/Networks and Promotion Networks
This is similar to the media kits section. If the network touts or has check boxes for SEO, backlinks or has different prices for SEO friendly vs not SEO friendly, this is easy to map and can potentially get you penalized. Blog networks, influencer programs and promotion campaigns are for getting exposure, not for getting backlinks. You’re paying to gain impressions, traffic and drive sales. Paying for links is something that may get you penalized by the search engines. The same goes for press release services.
Make sure your PR, affiliate and blogging or influencer team is not using software, networks and programs that have “SEO” value from links and content. This should be a warning signal for you as an SEO. But also remember is it not the network or software’s job to know SEO, they just know what will sound good to a PR, affiliate or influencer marketing rep. It is your job to know the tools they are using and also make sure they are being used in a way that will enhance your SEO, not hurt it. Try hosting a meeting where you walk through links, quality and what can cause damage vs. help a site. This can help to get everyone on the same page.
Do Follow vs. No Follow
I give a very detailed explanation of this on the post I link to above. That post covers pretty much everything. The rule of thumb for backlinks for you is that if it is natural looking, content relevant, from a quality and trustworthy site and an actual customer or end user would come through a click, then try for a do follow. If the above comment is not accurate or is not relevant, then no follow it.
I hope this post about backlinks, what they are and how to determine if they may be good or bad was helpful. Feel free to add your own comments and opinions below. I’ll try to keep the post updated as much as possible, but cannot promise I will since my clients and work come before blog posts. Thank you again for reading. Please also remember that SEO is all theory, things change regularly and this post is just my opinions. Use your own judgement when implementing anything SEO or evaluating your own site’s needs.