In April 2012, Google launched its Penguin algorithm and link building changed forever.
Overnight the landscape of countless search phrases changed – a lot of sites that played it fast and loose with their link building strategy and paid the price.
Despite how Google continues to roll out updates and get better at detecting link spam, some folks are still building links like nothing has changed.
The truth is that things have changed in a big way, and a lot of what worked back then can cause devastation now.
Here’s what happens when link building goes wrong:
In this post, I will help you adopt a forward-thinking strategy that will stop Google from bringing the hammer down on your rankings.
Below you’ll learn what to avoid and solutions to common link building issues.
#1 – Using outdated and spammy link building tactics
If you want your website to rank now and in the future – using outdated tactics is huge.
Examples include links from:
- Article directories – When was the last time you went to an article directory to learn about a topic?
- Low-quality web directories – The key word here being “low quality”.
- Low-quality guest posts – Again, the key word here is “low quality”.
- Wiki links – I cringe thinking that this is still happening.
- Forum marketing – If you’ve ever run your own forum, you’ll know how annoying this is.
- Blog comments – This is just nasty.
- Social bookmarking sites – There are countless social bookmarking sites built just to get people links, they typically have names like “bookmarking4backlinks”.
The above list isn’t exhaustive, but it covers most of them.
So whatever the case – avoid using any of these spammy tactics.
If you’ve used these types of tactics then it’s worth doing some link removal in advance because Google tends to apply penalties retroactively.
Remember – Google can still see all of the links that were created in the past.
#2 – Creating content that nobody wants to link to
The best links are the ones that are given editorially – essentially this is link earning.
A lot of people still create content for search engines, but that’s going to do more harm than good.
If you want to earn links naturally, you need to create super high-quality content that is created for users first and search engines second.
Chances are that user-focused content will end up ranking better anyway because Google does look at engagement metrics.
When a user clicks on a link from search, and they find content that’s terribly written or resembles spun content, they’ll pogo-stick to the search engine results page. Rand Fishkin gives a great explanation and some solutions here.
The important thing to remember is that content quality isn’t the only consideration here because user experience comes into play in a big way.
For example, if your page load times look like this, you’ve got a problem:
It’s worth considering:
- Are there too many ads?
- Is the page slow to load?
- Is the content easy to read?
- Is the content usable?
- Is your content engaging?
- Does it solve my problem?
- Is the information correct? (If your content isn’t evergreen, consider updating it)
So here’s the bottom line:
Create hyper useable content that solves your user’s problems and present it with a focus on readability and user experience.
#3 – Waiting too long to take action on nasty backlinks
Even if you haven’t done any link building, you could have potentially harmful links pointing to your site.
There are websites that exist just to scrape the content of others – they’re low quality sites full of stolen content.
Then there’s the possibility that a competitor could have used negative SEO against you. Unfortunately, this happens.
Whatever the reason for bad backlinks, Google won’t know the difference. They’ll just bring the hammer down.
Recovering rankings is challenging and time-consuming so the sooner you remove potentially harmful links, the better.
So how do you find these harmful backlinks?
You can then pile all of the links into a spreadsheet, remove duplicates and checking for low-quality links.
Sure, you could use a tool to identify which links might be harmful but since they’re not made by Google, they can only estimate whether links could hurt your rankings. Checking for toxic links manually is the best approach.
Once you move onto the next step, you may notice some ranking drops but once Google refreshes it’s algorithm you’ll be glad you did.
Now it’s time to contact site owners and ask for links to be removed
Tools like RMoov can automate this process partly by finding contact details and sending emails for you but the process still has to be managed which can be quite time-consuming. Still, it’s easier than taking the manual approach.
It’s important to remember that some site owners won’t respond, others will say no and others will ask for payment (never pay someone to remove your link!).
But you will get some links removed which is worth doing to help future proof your search rankings.
#4 – Using a blog network that claims to leave “no footprints”
If you haven’t come across this term before, a blog network is a large number of sites that are leveraged to influence search rankings.
Most networks leave very obvious footprints which Google follows – then they deindex the network and penalize the sites with links pointing from to their sites.
Sure, some people have great success with blog networks, particularly private networks but Google are pretty good at finding footprints.
Whenever a network claims to leave “no footprints”, Google makes an example of them.
#5 – Focusing 100% on the SEO value of backlinks
Due to all of these spammy tactics, link building has gotten a bit of a bad rep.
But the fact is that backlinks existed long before Google, and there is more to them than just the SEO benefit.
Backlinks connect the web and when done right help to make it a better place.
They also help make content more useful.
Have you ever tried reading a blog post with no external links?
Maybe it’s a list of WordPress plugins; you’re reading through and think “This plugin looks good, I want to try it”.
But there’s no link…
You can’t find what you want, and then you’ve got to go and find the links yourself.
It takes up more of your time and removes all of the usability out of a blog post.
Links help the web to stay connected because an isolated website isn’t much use to anyone.
But what other benefits are there?
Links from other sites are a great way to drive relevant traffic, this means people visiting your site are more likely to convert.
On my blog, I’ve noticed that if a visitor finds my site via a link on a relevant site, they’re twice as likely to join my email list.
Then there’s authority – when someone mentions you on a popular site in your niche, it will build your authority.
Once you’ve got some authority, people are more likely to listen to what you have to say, and if you have a service to sell, people are more likely to sign up as clients or buy your products.
It also helps to build your brand and opens the doors to opportunities that you’d never get otherwise.
#6 – Using over optimized anchor text
Let’s say you’re targeting the keyword “desktop printers”.
If you get a lot of links using “desktop printers” as the anchor text, Google will soon torch your rankings.
While a few exact match anchors will probably be a good thing, if the overall proportion of exact match anchors is too high, that’s when problems occur.
Ultimately, be careful with anchor text and focus on diversifying anchor text when possible.
For a primer on anchor text, check out this page by Moz.
#7 – Throwing relevance out of the window
Relevance is essential.
If we forget relevance, then links are no help to anyone.
It’s common sense that if we wanted to build links to a blog post about WordPress, we wouldn’t approach a travel blog, but people do it.
It’s usually because they’re using automated software that usually does more harm than good when it comes to link building.
Here’s the bottom line:
Don’t sacrifice relevance, even if you think you may get a link from a decent site.
It’ll hurt both your rankings and your reputation in the long run.
#8 – Thinking nofollow links can’t hurt your rankings (well, there’s a bit more to this one)
The rel=”nofollow” tag is used to tell search engines not to crawl specific backlinks.
It was originally used to combat spam comments but it never really worked that well.
Now it’s typically used to identify content that you don’t trust or to highlight paid links.
But can a link from a website that uses the nofollow tag hurt your rankings?
Most SEO’s will say no and I’m not saying they’re wrong because in small doses, nofollow links shouldn’t be a problem.
Where they do become a problem is when these types of links are pointing at your site in very large quantities.
A client of mine was gaining traction across their target keywords in a competitive market – great!
Then their Yell listing was scraped by a spammy directory and republished.
In most situations that wouldn’t have much of an impact at all but then…
The listing was added to a huge number of categories which were then duplicated across over 500+ subdomains.
In total, there were around 55,000 backlinks pointing to my client’s site from 500 or so subdomains.
I dug into the backlink profile and quickly found this spam directory and noticed all links were nofollowed.
Fortunately, the owners of the directory were responsive and quickly removed all of the links.
A few days later, rankings returned to normal.
So what does all this mean?
A lot of people say that nofollow links won’t hurt your rankings, and that’s mostly true.
In small quantities, nofollow links shouldn’t cause any issues. After all, the idea is that they tell search engines not to count links.
However, when they are in large quantities and they’re also very low quality, they can be an issue.
#9 – Not monitoring new backlinks
Earlier I mentioned how there are websites built just to scrape and republish content from other sites and how some companies engage in nasty tactics such as negative SEO.
You need to be proactive and keep an eye out for new backlinks.
Now, there are tools that provide backlink data such as Ahrefs and Majestic but the reality is that you can only run a search at the time.
You can see when a backlink was found but they’re not built for the kind of monitoring we need.
Fortunately, there is a tool called Monitor Backlinks which is built specifically for this task that works great.
It provides alerts as soon as new backlinks are found, it tracks rankings and provides an easy way to disavow potentially harmful links.
This type of early warning to potentially harmful links is the key to ensuring that you don’t get any nasty surprises.
Note: you can also get alerts for new links in Ahrefs.
Link building isn’t the same as it was in 2011 – times have changed, and they’re continuing to change.
Google’s algorithm is continuing to evolve, and it’s getting better at detecting spammy links.
With a focus on relevant backlinks that make sense and proactive removal of potentially harmful links, you’ll be in a far better position when Google next updates its algorithm.
But, as the landscape of SEO continues to change, remember that neither link building nor any aspect of SEO should be used as a standalone tactic. And they haven’t been replaced with social or content marketing.
They’re just another piece of the same puzzle – a smart marketing strategy.