Link building is the most challenging part of SEO for a good reason — most SEO activities are quite predictable in terms of results, which is not always the case with acquiring backlinks.
Apart from that, you can often see digital marketers and experienced SEOs looking for faster ways of link building, and where do they lead? You end up with tons of spammy links that do more harm than good.
To make sure your link building strategy doesn’t turn into a complete disaster, I’ve put together a list of the 8 most useless (read harmful) tactics you should avoid at all costs. After all, caution is the parent of safety, right?
Let’s dive in.
What’s a Link Building Strategy?
A link building strategy is the group of techniques, tactics, and activities that digital marketers use to grow the number of backlinks (links on other sites pointing at yours) that are referring to the number of sites. The best link building strategies should generate a stable flow of high-quality links month over month.
Link building is an integral part of any successful SEO strategy, especially in a competitive landscape where your rivals are heavily engaged in building links, or if you’re up against major industry players like Microsoft or HubSpot.
Apart from that, the quality and relevance of your backlinks (a.k.a. backlink profile) remain one of the top ranking factors for Google. Backlinks serve as a «vote of confidence» for your website in the digital world. Search engines think that if authoritative websites are linking back to your content, then you must be a trustworthy place that is worth ranking higher.
In terms of the techniques and tactics themselves, I will not only list the bad ones for you, but will also highlight some of the best practices to improve the results of your link building efforts.
What’s Wrong With Link Building Nowadays?
The algorithms used by search engines to rank your website are changing. Constantly.
Besides improving the quality of search and the relevance of search results for their users, search engines also update their algorithms to combat spammy content and any other harmful practices that many «black hat» digital marketers use to get more traffic to their projects. I’ve encountered some fellow marketers who managed to earn thousands of dollars through AdSense by creating sites that were hacking the Google algorithm and got millions of visitors per month. I don’t have to tell you that it didn’t end well.
«One common issue I see is that 'legit' businesses like startups get inspired by the aggressive growth of burner businesses like 'MFA sites' (made of AdSense) but completely forget the long-term implications. The same rules are not applicable. 'Legit' companies need to think long-term and minimize risk, while burner sites can take huge risks for short-term gains.» — Kevin Indig, Growth Advisor, ex-Director of SEO at Shopify.
You may also remember that, in the past, marketers liked to overuse keywords in their pages (typical example below) or make link farms (websites with lots of links and low-quality, irrelevant content).
Image Source: Contentwriters.com
Fortunately, the updated search engine algorithms can now detect these sites and penalize such behavior.
The problem with modern link building is that many SEOs still heavily rely on outdated and inefficient strategies, not to mention the tactics Google frowns upon — paid links, generating tons of UGC links, building links on sites not relevant to your niche or those with low-authority, etc.
You might be asking yourself — if Google penalizes bad strategies, why do they still exist? Unfortunately, there is a demand for them since these tactics are relatively cheap and easily scaled. In its turn, organic link building requires time, immense effort, and access to resources.
Another problem is cost-effectiveness — it’s very unpredictable because of the poor scalability of most link building strategies capable of bringing meaningful links. Your SEO experts might spend hours preparing and sending thousands of personalized pitches and only get one or two links back. And even if you don’t bother much with personalization, getting tangible results from your link building campaign can still take two months or more. So, it’s a real challenge to predict the outcomes of an outreach campaign.
Thus, there is no straight road that will lead you to a goldmine of links, but in this article, I want to warn you from taking the paths that can land you in the trap of easy backlinks that bring good short-term results but can harm your website in the future.
8 Reasons Why Your Link Building Strategy Hurts Your Brand
If you’re planning to keep doing business under the same domain without changing it, following the link building strategies below could force you to rebrand and build an entirely new website.
Referring domains define how worthy your site is to be at the top of SERPs. Investing in low-quality links is a slippery slope that may give your website a boost at first, but you can’t expect it to last forever. So, you should only put effort into building links on websites that you would not be ashamed to promote on your social media.
Now, let’s get to our list of eight shady link building tactics to avoid.
Reason #1: Reciprocal links (I'll link to you, you’ll link to me) ?
Also known as link exchange, this practice is against the webmaster guidelines of most search engines for one obvious reason — it is artificial.
A backlink is great if it is organic and represents the value of your website. Organizing reciprocal links does not, by any means, indicate that your content, which the other website is linking to, is useful or relevant.
Link exchange is the process when website A gets a backlink from website B, and website B gets one from website A. If the Search engine detects an ongoing process of link exchanges on your website, be sure that you will get penalties. Google can spot the pattern if you’re doing excessive link exchanges since it’s pretty easy to connect the dots between sites linking to each other nearly simultaneously. Google tracks every time your page gets updated so, as a result, it’s quite easy to capture sites that are updating their existing pages simultaneously to link back to each other.
Reason #2: Excessive use of anchor texts with exact match for the target keyword ?
When other websites link back to your content using an anchor that exactly matches a keyword you are targeting, that might sound great at first, but if you get hundreds of such links, Google may see it as forced and done on purpose.
Constant repetition of exact-match anchors is very unlikely to happen naturally, and search engines know about it very well. Besides, direct anchors may cause a page to stop appearing in SERPs. For instance, take a look at this example of the page with a video marketing guide. The overwhelming majority of anchors in backlinks contain a direct keyword video marketing:
Thus, make sure that your anchors are always diverse if you don’t want Google to stop ranking your website.
Reason #3: Paid links ??
Here I’m talking about the practice of websites offering to add your backlink in their content in exchange for a direct monetary payment.
Just like the previous two practices, this one is completely artificial and goes against the search engines' philosophy of considering backlinks as your vote of confidence.
Despite all the efforts of search engines to detect and penalize this (Google even has a special form for reporting paid links), this practice is still very popular. According to a recent study on paid links by Ahrefs, around two-thirds of the blogs that responded to their inquiry confirmed that they sell backlinks.
Other than the penalty risk, websites selling links don’t particularly bother with growing their brand awareness or traffic, so making such an investment can close your link gap today but stop bringing results tomorrow. And I should tell you — paid links are not cheap. Here is a breakdown of prices by DR according to the same Ahrefs study.
Image Source: Ahrefs
As we can see, you might end up paying around $ 600 for an artificial (and sometimes irrelevant) backlink from a website with a ~50 DR.
Reason #4: Acquiring links from websites with little to no authority (e.g., directories) ?
Our next bad practice is about prioritizing low-quality links. The reason is that it’s significantly easier to get a link from a 0−20 DR website than from a 90 DR one.
Let me be upfront about it — investing in such links is a waste of time and effort since Google stopped taking them into consideration. They are arbitrarily considered as UGC links, though they don’t always include this attribute. Besides, it can take forever to get rid of such links, and they negatively affect your backlink profile. Overall, I’d recommend not building links at all if you don’t have the resources to do it properly. A poor backlink profile is like a bad credit record — it’s a real challenge to get it fixed.
«I fully agree that it’s a bad strategy to invest in links from low quality domains with low DR. But if you analyze any successful website with a natural backlink profile, you will see referring domains with both DR of 0 and DR70+. It means that low-quality links will appear organically, and you want to disavow them (aka get rid of them) to avert negative influence on your site’s rankings.» — Aleksandrs Buraks, Head of Growth at DiscoverCars.com
Reason #5: Link acquisition from websites that aren’t topically relevant ?
Relevance is essential when doing link building, and there are two important reasons behind it.
Natural backlink profile: Search engines perceive relevant backlinks as natural. Thus, you can expect improvements in your SEO from them. If you do original research on banner ad optimization, then lots of digital marketing blogs and professional communities will reference it. Now, imagine if you are still getting lots of backlinks to your research, but they are from car dealers or travel blogs. The difference is evident, right?
Quality referral traffic: Relevant backlinks also significantly increase the chances that website visitors will click on them and land on your website. If you are reading an article about technical SEO and stumble upon a link that takes to a technical SEO diagnosis tool, you will be very likely to click on it. On the contrary, you will likely avoid clicking on a link to a VPN service website if you are on a beauty blog.
«Topicality is essential. Google wants to send people to you and your offers when you can truly help them. Figuring out exactly which subset of its users are truly your audience is foundational for Google and confidently understanding the topics you cover is hugely important here. Links from topically irrelevant sites send a confused message to Google and will dilute, rather than enhance its confidence.» — Jason Barnard, founder at Kalicube .
Reason #6: Inferred links ?
Here I’m referring to the cases when the backlink and its anchor text are an obvious promotion of the website the link takes you to.
To illustrate our point better, let’s look at these two examples.
Image Source: Digitaltrends.com
This is an excerpt from a laptop buying guide explaining computer purchase factors where you can see backlinks to different device websites that naturally fit in the context.
This piece of content is made up for comparison reasons. It is supposed to be from a guide on cleaning monitors. However, the anchor text is obviously promotional and artificial here.
Reason #7: Getting links from low-quality content pages ?
It’s understandable that no one would want to link to the content of poor quality — it doesn’t carry any value to the reader and does more harm than good to your brand, in particular. The same happens when you’re doing excessive guest blogging, trying to get more links, and discarding the quality of the content that carries your name. If you get associated with such content, it will be very hard to clear your reputation without total rebranding.
Some of the aspects that affect the quality of your content include:
- Value. Is it something people find helpful or interesting?
- Readability. Is it easy to read and understand?
- Relevance. Is your content matching the interests of your target audience?
- Originality. Are the ideas and content in your articles original or a copy of somebody else’s work?
One of the bad practices common in our sphere is to create content focused solely on SEO and link building and ignore its quality or the needs of the people reading them.
Reason #8: Focus on quantity (while sacrificing quality) ?
Contrary to many beliefs, link building is more about quality than quantity. Both matter, but quality takes the lion’s share of value among the two.
If your teams are focusing on getting lots of backlinks and increasing the number of referring domains while completely ignoring the trust and authority of the websites these backlinks come from, you might end up with a low-quality backlink profile that signals low trust to the search engines.
That’s a wrap on the harmful strategies I wanted to share with you, but there’s one more part left. Let’s explore the practices you can employ to optimize your link building efforts.
A Link Building Strategy that Works
Link building is an ever-evolving SEO discipline. Strategies for developing your backlink profile change along with the updates to search engine algorithms, but some things remain the same. For instance, it will always be true that if you build links on trustworthy websites belonging to real brands, you’re on the safe side of things.
The list of link building strategy elements that I want to share with you below encompasses all the current trends and best practices in the SEO scene.
Here is what you can consider doing to level up your link building game:
- Instead of bartering links, build long-term relationships with trustworthy websites to get their attention and increase the chances that they will mention you in their content.
- Instead of buying links, invest the money in a writing team to produce high-quality content your readers would consider linking back to.
- Instead of getting links from everywhere, make sure that both the referring content and the referring domain are relevant and related to your website and the page they are linking to.
- Always focus on obtaining quality links, only then focus on adding quantity while maintaining or even increasing the average quality of your backlink profile. Trust me, mediocre links are way easier to acquire organically.
- Instead of producing tons of low-quality guest posts just for the sake of getting fast links, focus your research and writing efforts on a few pieces of content that are valuable and compelling to your readers.
Other than these tips, I would also like to share with you several «white hat» tactics that can help you with your link building efforts, including:
- Broken link building: the process of finding broken links on target websites and offering to replace them with your links. Ahrefs can also help you review broken links on competing websites:
- Unlinked brand mentions: Sometimes, websites will mention your brand without linking to you. You can reach out to them and request to add a link to your mentioned brand. Tools like Mention and Semrush (paid) or Google Alerts (free) can help you with that.
«This is one of my favorite link building methods for established brands that use the non-dictionary brand name (in other words, it may not work for brands with dictionary words like Booking.com or Hotels.com).
That method also works well for my personal brand. «Lukasz Zelezny» is a combination of Czech surname and a Polish name. Quite unique, and thanks to that, I can easily find and target the right website with the right message. A short, polite email can be enough to make an unlinked mention a linked one." — Lukasz Zelezny, Founder and SEO Consultant in SEO.London
- Promoting your linkable content: If you have a piece of content that is likely to attract backlinks (e.g., original research or infographic), then you can consider running paid ads on social media to increase its reach.
There are many more aspects to link building that I have not covered here. In case you are interested in getting more into details, you can check out our list of link building tips.
Link building is essential in the arsenal of any digital marketer. It is one of the key components to increasing your rankings and organic traffic.
However, it is quite easy to do link building wrong and harm your website instead of promoting it. Thus, you can take advantage of the bad and good practices listed above to get the most out of your link building efforts.
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