What Everyone Needs To Know About Good, Bad & Bland Links

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:

  1. Links that help SEO
  2. Links that hurt SEO
  3. 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.

 Good links vs. bad links

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.

Normal 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

Anchor Text

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

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.

Directory Links

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.

Article Sites

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

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.

Text Links

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

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.

Forum Posts

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.

Further Reading

 Distribution curve image from Wikipedia

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO | Google: Disavow Links Tool | How To: Links


About The Author: operates Schmitz Marketing, an Internet Marketing consultancy helping brands succeed at Inbound Marketing, Social Media and SEO. You can read more from Tom at Hitchhiker's Guide to Traffic.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


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  • http://twitter.com/ScottyMack Scott McKirahan

    I almost never read these type of articles anymore; they have been done to death. Something made me read this one, though, and I must say that it was excellent. Not only did you describe the “what” but included the “why,” which, to me, is always more important than the “what.”

    Well done!

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisGedge Chris Gedge

    Matt Cutts officially stated while ago that links from PR sites like PRweb do not count towards rankings.

    Also you have posted 12 link tactics that no longer work and 1 that does :(

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrissylvester10 Criss Sylvester

    Your given reasons of “Why not use this type of link” is highly appreciated. But in my opinion, the above methods are still in used by most of the SEO’s and they are ranking top on the search engines.

  • http://twitter.com/TomSchmitz Thomas M. Schmitz

    You picked-up on the truism that formula link building tactics are on the outs. 

  • Martin Murray

    Excellent post. Very comprehensive. 

  • http://twitter.com/nealcabage Neal Cabage

    So … how long until guest blogging no longer works, since that’s the obvious SEO frontier you and others (SEOMoz) are now advocating?  Perhaps in the not-too-distant-future, profile pages and captions below articles will no longer counter either.  Then what?  :)

  • http://twitter.com/TomSchmitz Thomas M. Schmitz

    Push tactics are a lot easier to execute than building an audience and relationships. Agencies can put push marketingSEO methods into a three ring binder and tell employees, “Do this.” It’s easier to show clients or bosses the work you’ve done too. But that type of SEO is diminished and waning. Just look at Penguin and Panda. The trend away from push in favor of pull is clear.

  • http://www.shoppingbasketsplus.com Randy Pickard

    It is a shame that the strategy of link hoarding became do widespread a few years ago. Back in the day, sites were much more generous about including links. The theory that “build it and they will come” is thoroughly dated. The process of link building has gotten dramatically more challenging even when you create good content.

  • http://twitter.com/sharithurow sharithurow

    Hi Tom-

    I think you did an outstanding job. How long did it take to write this article?

    My 2 cents: consider the link placement. Is it a part of a boilerplate/template or is it part of genuine content, where search engines calculate a document’s content fingerprint? 

    Even the boilerplate trickery (varying its content as not to get “caught”) defeats the purpose of a boilerplate element. It confuses users because their mental models are disrupted on a seeming reliable place for a link and its label. And now the site appears less trustworthy

    I approach link development the same way I did before Google was born: if it is a genuinely natural and helpful place for a link, then I’ll send a link request. If my client has a genuine press release? I don’t care that search engines don’t count or devalue press release distribution sites because the intention is a press release, not necessarily a link development “thing.”

    In other words, there is such thing as “natural” link development. It’s pretty hard to define and to explain. 

    I can’t imagine the difficulties the folks at search-engine companies face to validate the aboutness of web documents with so much “gaming” going on.

  • http://twitter.com/SEOdub Chris Rodgers

    Thanks for your post, I agree most these SEO tactics are on the outs.  Overall penguin and panda have made SEO’s take a hard look at how they use their resources, and which tactics they choose to continue to use.  I know more than one agency that has had to shift gears and invest in web and content development to stay ahead of the trend.  SEO has changed, it’s gotten harder.. but this change will ultimately improve the web for everyone.

  • http://twitter.com/rankingsignals Ranking Signals

    This was a great post. That said, all of the blogs I read on link building – including some that I write – over complicate what is ultimately simple. Let’s bring candor to the forefront of SEO. Where’s Jack Welch these days? Maybe we can get him to weigh in on SEO? ;-)

  • http://www.authoritybuzz.com/ Authority Buzz

    Solid link building advice Tom, especially the anchor text section. What about tiered link building?

  • http://twitter.com/pandiyarajan Pandiyarajan

    Can anyone tell whether the sitewide footer link comes from the client websites are good or bad

  • http://ridho.me Ridho Putradi S’Gara

    As long as the links are relevant and valuable for the visitors. Bad links are when it built only for SEO purposes.

  • http://twitter.com/DiviFernando Divi Fernando

    Tom, I liked the way you have put this rather common topic into a smart and interesting read.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    I know most directories are junk these days, but industry associations and local organizations are still great sites to get your business on. They are highly relevant and usually very trusted by the search engines. I think they are especially useful for new sites that are just beginning their link building. You don’t want to build too many too fast but they are a good place to start.

  • http://twitter.com/TomSchmitz Thomas M. Schmitz

    I agree

  • http://twitter.com/TomSchmitz Thomas M. Schmitz

    To be fair, Matt said only that they are thinking about it. I also agree it’s good to learn from mistakes and watch your analytics, rankings, feedback, etc. Let me add to your list, make a risk assessment. While it’s good to learn from mistakes, you do not want to take down your company’s non-paid search traffic in the process.

  • http://twitter.com/TomSchmitz Thomas M. Schmitz

    Thanks Scott. 

  • http://twitter.com/TomSchmitz Thomas M. Schmitz

    Hi Neal. I’m not as hot on guest posting as you might think. While it’s popular now, I find a lot of guest posting practices counter productive. For one, I never respond to unsolicited requests from people I do not know. I think most sites can get better mileage for their efforts by posting great content on their own sites combined with a strong audience development program that includes outreach and networking. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/vinod.duvasi Vinod Duvasi


  • http://www.facebook.com/vinod.duvasi Vinod Duvasi

    Thomas, Great post. The best part anchor text section.
    I agree with Nick ” I think they are especially useful for new sites that are just
    beginning their link building. You don’t want to build too many too fast
     but they are a good place to start.”
    Keep the good work on.

  • http://twitter.com/dibbt Kevin Dibb

    The #1 way to get high SEO is content.  Other things help, some things hurt, but content, content, content is what will help your site.

  • http://twitter.com/egoelectric Electric ego

    Not so good article as is being made out to be. Search engines are not the God of everything on the web. They will not like this, not like that so and so. If Google stopped liking everything, their pagerank technology would have been long dead.

  • http://twitter.com/mothevasuseo Mothe Vasu

    Thank you for  post , we never know what links works for a website unless you have tried it. Getting links varies from website to website  

  • w3origin

    Thanks, i was really needy for this article.

  • http://twitter.com/chuck Chuck

    Great article…great explanation of links and what’s good or bad.  I think its extremely important to keep in mind the industry of the website you are building links for.  Some things that don’t work for someone in health and wellness may work well for someone in entertainment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eldon-Rv/100001614990899 Eldon Rv

    I have more of a question than a comment (so I guess my comment would be that you seem to be a trustable authority on this stuff… ggg) Is it good, or bad, when you find weird store domains linking to your e-com pages (IE- amazon, fyxm, checkreducedgearstore.info, xsmicro.com, nexusrv.com, etc.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eldon-Rv/100001614990899 Eldon Rv

    Oh, and btw, what I am seeing in the comments below re-enforces what we learned in broadcast media: CONTENT is KING.


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