Links are always a popular topic, and this year has proven no exception including Penguin, links vs. social media, negative SEO and disavowing links. Recently, someone asked me to distinguish between good links and bad links.
First, there are really three types of links:
- Links that help SEO
- Links that hurt SEO
- Links search engines ignore
Google and Bing have been clear, search engines do not use every link as a ranking signal; they ignore many links.
While they are not going to tell webmasters which specific links matter and which ones they ignore, the search engines do share generous amounts of information concerning what types of links they deem beneficial, manipulative or ineffective.
We can also apply our understanding of how search engines operate to apply a little deductive reasoning. Pretty much anything you can quantify, you can place on a distribution curve.
Search engines can apply statistics to the link data and other SEO signals they collect to tell which websites are within a normal range and which websites exceed or lag behind what is natural for a particular ranking factor or group of signals.
For example, if the mean percentage of phrase-match anchor text for wedding jewelry is 17%, then a document with 5% phrase-match anchor text lacks relevance and a page with 30% phrase-match anchor text exceeds the norm to the point it’s probably over-optimized or manipulative.
- With positive SEO signals, a site should be above average, but not to the point of exceeding reality.
- For negative SEO signals, anything from zero through normal is likely okay, but exceeding what is typical may hurt your rankings.
I am not going to get into standard deviations, types of ratios or degrees of freedom. There are many different statistical tests search engines might choose from, the bell-curve being a simple example. One or two outliers likely will not mark a website as being manipulative either unless it is something egregious or that search engines are sensitive about.
Naturally occurring exceptions can be expected. It is more probable search engines look for suspicious trends across multiple statistical signals before exacting a penalty. Remember, I’m hypothesizing here.
As a practical example, a few paid links most likely will not hurt your rankings. They could be part of a legitimate advertising campaign. Google and Bing will likely ignore them.
At some number of paid links, though, the search engines will observe that you have exceeded what is usual or normal and apply a penalty. This could apply to reciprocal links, links in badges or any type of links they consider dodgy.
Another reason I believe search engines look for patterns across different types of signals is to prevent negative SEO. It would be easy to buy text links and point them to competitors. Creating a portfolio of many different types of negative links from a large variety of sites would be far more difficult to accomplish.
A Closer Look At Different Types Of Links
Keywords in anchor text, the words in a link, are not a link type, though it is worth including. This is a signal of relevance. If enough sites link to your document about baseball with the word baseball, the search engines take it as a signal that other sites consider you page useful and relevant about baseball.
In the real world, people do not always use keyword specific anchor text. Often they will use your brand or company name. They may use the title of a page or article. They might use text that they believe readers will find useful or something generic like click here. Keywords in anchor text is a great thing to have.
Use strategies like including a keyword prominently in your H1 or article title. However, do not obsess. You want anchor text to vary. Too many links with your exact or phrase-matched keywords eventually becomes abnormal.
Reciprocal links or link trading is one of the oldest SEO strategies around. It was one of the first types of links search engines warned us off, too. If anything, there is too much fear around reciprocal links. You should do what is right for your business and website. It makes sense for businesses that work together or share relationships to link to each other.
For example, in many communities, antique stores offer free maps of all the antique shops in town. It makes sense to recreate this map online and for stores to link to each other. What does not make sense is for an antique shop to link to a car dealership, especially if it is in another city, state or country.
Reciprocal links may not help with competitive keyword rankings, but that does not mean you should avoid them when they make sound business sense.
What you should definitely avoid are manipulative reciprocal linking schemes like automated link trading programs and three-way links or four-way links. This is when site A links to site B, site B links to site C and site C links to site A. I can think of no legitimate reason to do this and search engines see these patterns.
Directories are another greatly maligned source of links and with some justification. When you see a site named Free SEO Link Directory or a network of directories, “Pay $25 to get instant inclusion in 25 different directories with custom link text,” the red siren light should be spinning.
Search engines do their best to ignore these. These are a waste of time and money.
Should you be in directories? Yes, when they serve a legitimate purpose. If you are a lawyer, it makes sense to be included in lists of local attorneys. If you have a wedding business, you want to get included in popular bridal directories.
Always consider the source. Is it a professional organization? Will the visibility enhance your status? Will it send relevant traffic?
Links in Content or Blog Networks
Content networks were popular among some SEO sects for quite a while, until Google unceremoniously began taking away their ability to rank.
The practice included cheap articles and article spinning. Write a bunch of articles, upload them to a central management program and have them published on a bunch of different blogs or websites. Smart SEOs used content networks as part of advanced schemes like link wheels. Less savvy users linked content networks directly to pages they wanted to rank.
I can think of few reasonable uses for content networks. They are easy to uncover too. All you have to do is identify one blog or site then look for other websites that link to the same websites.
With a little effort, one can unravel the whole thing, so it should be no surprise search engines built an algorithm to accomplish this. Another downside to content networks is that once your content is published, you may have no way to take it down when Google sends you a suspicious link notification.
There are a few carefully curated, high quality content networks out there. If you have one or get invited, count yourself lucky.
Another old school link building tactic is publishing articles on free article sites. Write different versions of the same thing, put it on different article sites and get links. With luck, other websites will copy your articles and links onto their websites. Search engines stopped counting links from article sites long ago.
Further, copies of articles on other websites can be easily identified and the ability of those pages to pass PageRank or link authority turned off. This is another waste of time.
Press Release Links
While press releases are still popular and part of many SEO strategies, I believe they are over-hyped. Many experts feel that the search engines ignore links in press releases, on press release sites, because they amount to pay-per-post content. It probably does not help when blogs or scrapper sites pick-up and re-publish press releases either. Like article site content, press releases on additional websites are duplicate content.
The proper way to use press releases is as part of a true media relations campaign. When bloggers and journalists write original stories based on your press release or outreach efforts, the resulting links can be valuable. This is why PR , Social Media and SEO teams or departments must collaborate.
Blog rolls can be good for traffic and publicity, but they have limited SEO value. Most blog rolls appear in sidebars and on every page. Without knowing exactly how search engines count blog rolls, it is probably safe to consider these as one link per site. Chances are good that search engines count them, but greatly depreciate them.
Avoid off-site text links outside of content, especially in sidebars and footers. Site wide text links are especially ominous. Imagine how having Colorado Fine Silverware link to your website from the footer of every page on numerous sites looks to search engines.
Legitimate text link ads do exist. Search engines try to ignore these, but probably have limited tolerance. Buy too many ads and it begins to look like rankings manipulation. If search engines identify your text link ads they will not help SEO, but buy too many and it could hurt.
Badges and Apps
Creating badges or small apps with links in them may seem like a clever way to build authority, but search engines found the links are usually more about SEO than relevance. Some prominent websites have lost their rankings when Google began ignoring badge or app links. This can be a good promotional tool, but I suggest adding NoFollow to any links.
Recently, Google announced it may suppress infographics from passing PageRank. This is not surprising as most infographics are created more for link building by regurgitating content and information that’s already out there from original sources. If you rely on infographics heavily, start looking for new tactics.
Social media is a great source for links. You need to consider the relationship each site has with search engines.
For example, Google+ is part of Google and links from people in your circles can appear in your personalized rankings and search results.
Bing has relationships with Facebook and Twitter. They prominently include links by your Facebook friends and Bing plans to increase the visibility of Twitter content.
Microsoft’s Aya Zook recently wrote to me about Twitter:
Yes, the Twitter partnership is ongoing. In the current Bing experience, there are two areas where Twitter results are prominently displayed.
- News: The results appears beneath the most recent news results on the right-hand side. Try searching for a timely topic – “Katie Holmes” for example – and if you click the News vertical, you will see public tweets related to the topic.
- Sidebar > People Who Know: We identify experts or people that are enthusiasts or authoritative on various queried topics based on a) blogs, b) Twitter, and c) other social networks like Google+, Quora and LinkedIn. Our algorithm considers factors like the number of tweets and re-tweets, number of followers, blog readership, recency of shared content, etc. to help ensure people we surface are influential on a topic. After connecting Bing to your FB account, when you type in queries related to topics where experts might exist – e.g. “photography” or “wine” – authorities on the topic will surface under “People Who Know” in the Sidebar experience. As we keep expanding the topics that trigger the experience, more and more experts will be served from across a myriad of social channels beyond Twitter.
Yes, [Twitter] coverage is low still but should rapidly ramp up over the next few months.
Even when search engines do not have a relationship with social media sites, they will crawl content outside of the firewall, but their ability to crawl and index is limited. Most links on social media sites are NoFollow and do not pass traditional link authority.
Links in forums can be tricky because spam is rampant within many communities. Consider the quality of the forums.
For example, a popular forum on a product manufacturer’s website will be far more likely to pass authority than some forum where everyone is self-promoting with links in most posts. Assume search engines will ignore links in signatures.
The key is to participate in forums to help others, not to add links. Forums can be a good place to build relationships with people who will naturally share your content and links.
EDU and GOV Links
It is worthwhile mentioning .edu and .gov links. While links on university and government sites continue to be highly prized, search engines give no special consideration given to these sites. They can pass high authority because they enjoy large numbers of off-site links, often of good quality.
Black hat SEOs have cracked their way into these websites ever since people began looking for off-site link authority. Search engines vigilantly lookout for links that appear out of place and remove the ability to pass PageRank from those pages. It makes it easy for Google and Bing to identify potential link spammers too.
If you can get a genuine link from a .edu or .gov, by earning it, do so! Keep an eye out for opportunities on these sites, but do not force your way in with hacking or trickery.
Links in Content
Content links are the best links on the Web. These are links to your pages from quality blog posts, content pages, resource lists, white papers, eBooks, Word documents and other file types the search engines crawl and index.
We love to talk about natural links and you can read plenty of articles on content marketing and influencer marketing or link bait. All content links need not be 100% organic and unsolicited. Getting natural content links is spot-on goodness, but you need to be strategic and tactical too.
For example, before you publish an important article or link bait, email your blogging friends to give them a heads-up and ask them to write something about it. If you do not have blogging friends, reach out to bloggers and websites you admire and build a network from scratch so you can turn to each other.
Just as you help members of your network, and they help you, offline, build and use your online network. Trust me, the top bloggers email each other before they publish content they want others to share. You still need to publish quality content and your network cannot repost or parrot what you write. They need put an original spin on it when they link to you.
- Matt Cutts Interviewed by Eric Enge
- Matt Cutts On Penalties Vs. Algorithm Changes, A Disavow-This-Link Tool & More
- What if links aren’t as important as you think?
- Learn link lingo, and the low-down on link lust
- Read about the Circle of Concern vs. the Circle of Influence in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.