Most search optimizers, understand the basic benefits of link building; it’s one of the cornerstones of an effective SEO strategy, as inbound links are one of the strongest determining factors for a site’s domain authority, which in turn strongly influences your organic search rankings. Correlation studies from Moz and Searchmetrics reveal that more links are the strongest factor that lead to higher search rankings, along with the benefits of referral traffic and increased brand visibility, while a survey I conducted indicates that only 62% of marketers are currently engaging in a link building campaign. So why aren’t more marketers pursuing the strategy?
The biggest reason is fear that the links they build will cause their site to be penalized by Google, reducing their visibility rather than increasing it. This is a real, but somewhat overblown possibility. Thanks to Google’s Penguin update (and other link-specific algorithm updates), if you build links that appear to be unnatural, or those that violate Google’s terms of service, you could see a major dip in your search visibility and rankings. If you know the difference between “good” links (ones that verifiably increase your authority) and “bad” ones (ones that could potentially earn you a penalty), you can reliably improve your SEO rankings.
So what types of links earn penalties?
Links on Bad Sites
First, there are links on known spam sites or other low-authority sources. The value of a link depends on the authority of the site it came from; in a positive sense, this means as you build links on sites with higher and higher authority, you’ll earn higher resulting authority for your site. However, if you build links on sites that are considered to be spam, or sources of ill repute, it could cause your site to be considered equally spammy. In fact, this is a major source of negative SEO — the practice of intentionally building links that damage a domain’s authority as a means of sabotage.
Contextually Inappropriate Links
Google’s algorithms are advanced enough to detect the natural use of language, and a general sense of how content fits to serve an audience. If a link is considered contextually inappropriate, it may be flagged as a “bad” link — not to mention, the publisher hosting the link may be inclined to remove it and/or prevent you from publishing on their site again in the future. If you want an example of a contextually appropriate link, check out some of the ones I’ve embedded in this article so far; they either back up or elaborate upon points I’ve made, and their material falls in line with the topics of link building and SEO. Something contextually inappropriate would be a random aside, calling out a link that has nothing to do with the piece.
The anchor text of a link is the wording that the link is embedded in. In the previous sentence, “anchor text of a link” is literally the anchor text of the link that’s embedded in it. It was once common practice to include target keywords in the anchor text of your links; doing so would help Google associate those keywords with your site. However, this tactic became so badly abused that Google began fighting back against it by penalizing links that overtly stuffed keywords into links where they didn’t belong or weren’t descriptive. It’s fine to optimize your anchor text — but only if it’s contextually appropriate for the link.
Any links that appear to be “spammed” (which is a catch-all term) may be associated with a penalty. For example, if you post a comment on a forum with a link to your site and no other content, this would raise some spam-related red flags; with no additional content surrounding it, the link’s main goal is probably to attract cheap traffic. You can also be suspected of spamming if you post links to the same pages of your site over and over on outside sources, so be sure to diversify your campaign by linking to multiple different interior pages.
Links From Schemes
Any link you’ve built from a clear scheme will probably be subjected to a penalty. There are a number of different links schemes out there, including link exchanges (which encourage two sites to link heavily to each other) and link wheels (designed to pass authority to sites within the wheel in a circular pattern of exchange). Google has some clear standards about what it considers to be a “link scheme,” so if you’re confused, feel free to read their article on the subject. As a general rule, if the tactic sounds like a get-rich-quick scheme with links, it’s probably grounds for a penalty.
Any Other Clear Attempt to Manipulate Rank
Google’s main goal in its link penalizing efforts is to reduce the possibility for webmasters to artificially manipulate their site rankings through the use of links. As long as you’re using links in ways that benefit readers and are appropriate for their source sites, you have nothing to worry about. However, if you’re buying links, stuffing them where they don’t belong, or otherwise being sneaky or shady about it, you’re lining yourself up for a Google penalty. Trust your intuition on this; if it seems sneaky or deceptive in any way, avoid that tactic.
There’s one more thing to remember about links that earn penalties, and it stems from a misconception about what penalties actually are. An official Google penalty is a manual action, akin to blacklisting, and it’s what generates the mass amount of fear around the possibility. However, manual penalties like these are reserved for egregious, intentional offenses. The colloquial Google “penalty” is actually just a small decline in rankings and visibility, and is usually fully reversible. Avoid building these dangerous types of links, however, and you won’t have to worry about any kind of penalty.