Sam is an experienced digital marketing consultant with a specialism in search engine optimisation (SEO). He's led, created and managed the implementation of search marketing strategies for companies, big and small, across a variety of sectors.
Links are part and parcel of SEO.
They have been since Google’s PageRank system was first launched. And they will remain so for the foreseeable future. But whilst links were once the most important SEO factor bar none, their value now depends on the website, the industry and the competition.
Their importance has not diminished (far from it), but search engines are much more complex beasts than they once were. You can thank advances in machine learning, neural networks, natural language processing and other fancy-sounding technologies for that.
And in fact, it’s those advances that mean search engines are now incredibly good at analysing links. In short, whether a link is good or bad. Genuine or spam.
Yet, we still see examples of SEO providers building spammy, low-quality links. The result? The links have no long-term effect (or even a negative effect, we’ll revisit this later) and the client starts to get frustrated at a lack of SEO progress, having invested sums of cash without seeing any return.
Naturally, such results foster distrust of both SEO and its community.
We think that’s a huge shame because there are so many SEO professionals who put the effort into achieving great things for their clients.
So, in an effort to combat spammy link-building practices, we’ve created this resource to explain what “bad links” look like. By the end, you’ll know what to avoid with link building and the SEO agencies, companies or freelancers you employ.
What does a good link look like?
First, we’ll take a look at what constitutes a good link so we have something to compare against later.
Broadly speaking, the ideal link comes from a domain which is:
Relevant: the link comes from a website within your niche
High quality: the link comes from a trustworthy, high-value website
For the rest of this article, we’ll use the term ‘source’ to describe a domain/website which links to another.
Here’s an example of a good link from our own backlink profile:
AdZooma researched the average cost of marketing agencies in the UK. We were asked to contribute to the research, along with several other agencies. We were credited in the final article with a link back to our website.
The link comes from a well-known brand in the marketing industry. This means it’s both a relevant and valuable source, matching the qualities we highlighted above.
We should note though, it’s not always possible for a source to be both relevant and high quality. But that’s okay. Hitting at least one of the two would still constitute a good link. It just might not be as beneficial as a link that has both.
For example, imagine if the BBC linked to our website. The BBC is an incredibly trustworthy source of information, so the link would come from a very high-quality domain. But, the BBC isn’t necessarily a relevant source of information in the marketing industry. They deal with a much, much wider range of news topics.
On the other hand, perhaps a marketing blogger comes across this post and thinks “hey this is a great resource, I’ll share it with my readers” (and by the way, if this is you, please feel free ✌️). It’s unlikely the blogger’s website will be anywhere near as established and valued a domain as the BBC, but it will be much more relevant to the marketing industry seeing as they’ve dedicated their entire site to the topic.
Despite the trade-offs, we would still be getting a good link in both cases. And if we had to choose between the two, we’d plump for relevance over quality.
So, to summarise this section:
The best links come from sources that are both relevant and valuable
Links from sources that are either relevant or high-quality can be beneficial too, but typically not as good as sources that are both
In an either-or situation, source relevance is more important than source quality
How many of your site’s links come from relevant and/or high-quality sources?
What does a bad link look like?
To define a bad link, we can simply flip the qualities of a good link. Meaning a bad link comes from a low-quality source with little-to-no relevance to your niche.
A few weeks ago, I was asked by a friend to take a quick look over the link building tactics another SEO agency had proposed for his website. Truthfully, this is what motivated me to write this post.
Here’s the screenshot of the proposed tactics. Face, meet palm.
If you’re a business owner and an SEO provider tells you this is how they’ll get new links for your website, we suggest you run a mile.
To understand why, let’s take a look at each individually.
Tactic 1: Web 2.0/Article Submissions
An article submission site is a website where any user can upload and post an article for free.
They can include links in those articles pointing back to a target website, thus “building links”.
Already, this should be setting alarm bells ringing. If it’s completely free and super easy to create links like this, what do you think happens?
Everyone does it.
Here are the recent articles from a notorious submission site:
Look at the wide range of content posted: Nigerian politics, text-to-speech software, some sort of off-road lighting product, medical insurance trends, and more.
This is clearly not a relevant source of information for any single niche.
And neither is it a high quality source. One reason websites like the BBC are such trusted sources of information is their strict editorial processes. All content is well researched, supported with evidence, checked for accuracy, and more – ensuring that it meets the highest standards.
Can you say the same for a free-for-all like the screenshot above?
Search engines are well aware of these types of sites and they stopped paying any attention to them years ago. In fact, Google suggests links built through such methods are in breach of their guidelines:
The idea with social bookmarking is to post links to your own content on social sharing platforms like Reddit, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, Pinterest and more.
The theory goes that such platforms are extremely popular websites that have built up a lot of SEO value over the years. A link from one of these platforms must therefore be really powerful.
A good idea in principle, but one that does not work.
Any reputable social platform will automatically add a “nofollow” tag to outbound links. With a nofollow tag in place, these sites are effectively saying, “we can’t be in full control of the content that appears on our site, so we won’t vouch for it”. You can refer back to the Google guidelines quote in the section above for why this is important.
And, to put a final nail in the coffin, Google’s John Mueller confirmed the search engine simply ignores any social bookmarking:
I mean, even the name of this one should just jump out as a big no-no, right?
There are hundreds of extremely low-quality sites around the web where you can post an ad for free. So, of course, some “SEOs” spam these sites with links back to their client’s websites.
Here’s an example:
Is a website full of classified ads going to be a relevant source for your niche? No.
Is a website where anyone can post a free ad going to be a high-quality source of links for your website? Double no.
Tactic 4: Local Business Citations
Okay, so this where things become a little vaguer.
Have you ever wondered what happened to the Yellow Pages, the thick book of business contact details that came through the post each year?
It went online and multiplied.
There are now thousands of business directories around the web. Each listing in those directories is called a ‘citation’.
Even Google maintains a directory, called Google My Business. If you want to see it in action, just search for ‘restaurants near me’. You’ll find a map and a short list of local businesses. All of the information shown comes from their directory.
Once directories started going online, SEOs quickly realised that this was a new, free opportunity to create a link. So, they began adding their clients’ businesses to every directory available. This in turn led to more directories, which led to more links.
It worked for a while. But as with any tactic designed to manipulate a search engine algorithm, it was soon clamped down on.
Now, there is definitely value in adding your business details to Google My Business to try and reach any nearby locals looking for your services.
But I can count on one hand the other business directories that still have some SEO value. These are all big, trusted sites, well known for the accuracy of their business information:
Bing Places (this is Bing’s version of Google My Business)
That’s it. Once you’ve got a citation on each, you’re all done with directories. There’s no need to worry about them ever again (unless you change offices, then you just need to update the details).
You certainly don’t need five new business citations a week as suggested in the screenshot of the proposed tactics from earlier!
Note: There are some industry-specific directories that are well worth entering. For example, joining the Legal500 or The Law Society directories would be a smart move for legal SEO.
What happens when a search engine finds a bad link?
In the past, spammy link building practices often resulted in search engine penalties, leading to huge organic traffic loss.
Now, things are more refined. Google representatives have stated on multiple occasions that their systems mostly ignore low-quality links. Meaning any money, time, or effort you invest into these tactics will be in vain, as there is zero value to be gained.
In reality, the net effect will be negative due to the opportunity cost. Whilst you’re wasting time on things that don’t work, you’re not doing the things that do work. The effect of which is amplified by competitors who are taking the right approach.
Also, just because Google is good at ignoring bad links doesn’t mean penalties aren’t still handed out. If a website shows clear evidence of ongoing, mass abuse of a spammy link building practice, it could lead to a penalty. At the very least it will show a website is untrustworthy, which could negatively impact rankings too.
We’re not sure if Bing has the ability to ignore bad links in the same way Google can. It probably does, but we found no official confirmation. However, Bing’s webmaster guidelines state: “abusive tactics that aim to inflate the number and nature of inbound links… can lead to your site being penalized and delisted from the Bing index”. Source: https://www.bing.com/webmaster/help/webmaster-guidelines-30fba23a
In summary, bad links will generally have no positive impact, take your time and focus away from what actually works, and in some cases could lead to a penalty or total exclusion.
Why do bad links happen?
This all raises the question, if such link building practices don’t work then why are they so commonly used?
One explanation is that there is a demand from businesses for cheap and easy methods of acquiring links en-masse. And many providers are all too happy to supply.
The demand stems from a slight misunderstanding on the business’ behalf, which we can’t blame them for. After all, they’re not SEO experts. The average business just knows that SEO is an important marketing channel, and links are an important part of SEO.
Ergo, a logical conclusion is that getting more links will lead to better SEO performance.
But that’s not quite right. Instead, getting more links from high-quality, relevant sources could contribute to better SEO performance (as one part of a balanced, well-planned strategy).
The fault here lies with the SEO professional. As practitioners, it is our job to educate the client. As part of that, it’s also our job to educate ourselves.
It’s all too easy to rely on link building techniques that might have worked years ago because:
Those techniques are incredibly cheap, easy, scalable and quick to implement. An SEO can sell their services based on a guaranteed number of links each week or month, and thus bring in lots of clients (who mistakenly believe they need lots of links, remember) at a price level that completely undercuts the rest of the market.
There’s so much misinformation on link building that despite official confirmation on what does/doesn’t work from search engine representatives, you can find hundreds of articles promoting the “effectiveness” of tactics like article submissions, social bookmarking, classified ads or local business citations.
Modern-day link building is tough. The days of easy, exploitable tactics are over, the tactics that are left require an SEO to commit time, effort and quality to the link building process. Unfortunately, some still prefer choosing the easy option.
But such blissful (or possibly even wilful) ignorance of the truth will only lead to poor results.
For the client, it’s a waste of time and budget.
For the SEO provider, it can lead to high client turnover and a bad reputation.
How can you check for bad links?
Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools both provide free reports on the links a website receives (we call this your ‘backlink profile’).
You can use these reports to find low-quality, irrelevant sources within your backlink profile.
Bing’s report is a little more useful than Google’s as it shows exactly which page each link comes from, whereas Google only shows the domain.
Alternatively, subscription platforms like Ahrefs and SEMrush can provide further information on your links.
What can you do about bad links?
If you find a number of bad links in your profile, then you have a few options:
Ignore them – as we mentioned before, search engines will generally assign a null value to “ignore” any low-quality links, which means you don’t need to worry unless the issue is quite substantial.
Reach out to the linking sites and ask for the link to be removed – if you’re really worried about the impact a link might be having, this is one option to consider. Generally though, because of #1 above, this is a rare course of action – one that you may be more likely to take if the link is bad for your brand, as opposed to your SEO.
Create a disavow file and upload it to Google Search Console/Bing Webmaster Tools – a disavow file basically says “these websites are all linking to us, but we don’t want to associate ourselves with them so please ignore any links from their site to ours”. A disavow file should only be used in the most exceptional of circumstances, so it’s a good idea to seek the advice of an experienced SEO professional first.
How to avoid bad links in the future?
You can avoid bad links in the future by:
Avoiding cheap providers – as the saying goes, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We’re set to publish a separate post on cheap SEO, which we’ll link to here once it’s live, but for now consider this: you would almost certainly wonder what the catch is if someone offered you a house, car, holiday, etc, for a fraction of the market price, so be sure to do the same with SEO.
Asking to see examples of a provider’s link building efforts – you’re seeking evidence of links on sites that are high-quality and relevant to their client’s industry, so be sure to ask for a brief overview of the client too.
Asking for a rundown of their link building strategy – if you see any mention of the tactics we’ve covered in this article, run.
Links aren’t supposed to be easy to get. Sometimes you can do something really amazing and unique which nails the target market’s interests or needs perfectly, leading to hundreds or thousands of links. But most of the time to even hit upwards of ten new links a month is an exceptionally hard graft requiring lots of time and resources.
As such, it’s important you always view any activity where an SEO provider guarantees a certain number of links per month with a huge degree of suspicion.
We hope this article will help you better identify these activities in the future. And when you do come across an SEO guaranteeing links, please don’t be tempted – regardless of how cheap it is. It may or may not cost you much in terms of short-term cash flow, but either way it won’t work and it may even lead to a search engine penalty. And that will cost you much, much more in the long-term.
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