+ Natural vs. Unnatural Backlinks
+ Anatomy of a Safe, Natural Backlink
+ Do’s and Don’ts for Link Building
+ Google’s Stance on Unnatural Links
+ Writing Natural Content for Natural SEO & Link Acquisition
Since the dawn of online search engines, external links have been a major factor in calculating a domain’s overall authority, which in turn influences its ranks for various keywords. Google Penguin introduced a new determination algorithm, which scouted whether or not a link was “natural.” So-called unnatural links would earn penalties or hurt domain authority, while natural links would improve domain authority without issue. To get around this, many search marketers simply adjusted their link building tactics to make their links appear to be more natural, rather than relying on the cultivation of purely natural links.
Google’s ability to detect natural links is more advanced than ever, and with some Google employees insisting that link building should be avoided altogether, it pays to know the real differences between unnatural and natural links and why you should be working to build backlinks naturally.
In the truest sense of the definition, and the one Google uses as the basis for its algorithm development, natural links are ones that you had no part in creating. Some neutral third party decided that your domain was worth linking to, so they posted a link somewhere to prove a point or offer a resource.
Unnatural links, on the other hand, are any links that you put into place yourself. That means even your most carefully-placed, intelligently created, authoritatively sourced links are considered unnatural if you placed them with the intention of increasing your rank.
That being said, Google still isn’t all-knowing (though it gets a little closer every day). Its algorithm can only use certain indicators to judge whether or not a link is natural, and as long as your link passes those tests, you won’t be penalized. Learning these indicators can help you understand what types of links are considered natural, and how to structure your own links so they appear to be natural in Google’s eyes throughout the course of your link building campaign.
First, Google takes a look at the type of source being used to host the link. If the link is pointing to a domain in an industry wholly unrelated to that of the source, it will be considered unnatural. As a result, keeping your links to only the most relevant sources of your industry or business is a wise strategy. On a related note, higher authority sources tend to pass more authority than lower authority sources, so getting a link featured on a major publisher or .edu site is much more natural and much more powerful than stuffing one into an article directory.
Google also looks for patterns in how and where you’re posting links. Essentially, it can tell if a particular series of links have been placed by the hands of a single individual or company. For example, if all your links are confined to only two or three different sources, Google will conclude that you’re either spamming the links or you’ve engaged in some kind of mutual link scheme with those other sources. Either way, your links will appear unnatural—so make sure you’re using a wide variety of different sources.
If all the links pointing back to your domain point to the same page, Google will deem them to be unnatural. For example, if you use your homepage as your primary URL when posting external links, eventually Google will pick up on your habits and penalize you. Instead, use a variety of different link destinations, getting to the deepest pages of your site whenever possible.
There was a time when anchoring your links with keywords or words related to your industry was a good idea. That time has passed. If Google notices too many of your links using the same keyword or keyword phrase, it will become wise to your tactics and judge your links to be unnatural. Instead, try to anchor your links with words that actually describe what your page has to offer, or better yet, let your link sit naturally in a bed of text.
The contextual placement of your link also matters. For example, if you post a link by itself with no explanation as the only comment on an external blog, your link will definitely appear unnatural. If, however, you introduce your link with a thoughtful explanation of why it’s helpful in response to another member’s comment, your link will appear to be natural—even more, it will be natural. Work to frame your links in a real, natural context and you should have no problems building authority.
There are two things to consider here. The first is that link building is really only a small factor in what determines your overall authority—your social presence, onsite structure, and content are all far more important.
The second is that “natural” link building can be achieved relatively easily—arguably more easily than by using unnatural tactics. Instead of trying to meticulously plan the placement and structure of your links, let them come naturally. If you’re browsing a forum and you see a way to help, introduce yourself and make your links genuinely helpful. Produce and syndicate high-quality content that will make people naturally want to link to you—doing so will create far more links than you could possibly create yourself, and they’ll all be natural too.
Understanding this, work to perfect your strategy in a way that is most beneficial for your customers, including more SEO tactics than just offsite link building. If you do so, Google will reward you.
Google’s algo updates have made the process of backlinking more complicated and more demanding, but for good reason: it’s almost impossible to spam links these days without facing some sort of consequence for it.
Still, the hardworking business owners trying to build more links for their site’s authority are finding it harder to define exactly what makes a link “natural” and safe from potential penalties. Fortunately, we can analyze the qualities that make a link seem valuable in Google’s eyes, and provide direction on how to execute a linkbuilding strategy that is safe for the long term.
There are good places and bad places to post links. Watch out for article directories, which are low-quality sites designed to aggregate links from all over the web. Since their sole purpose is to collect and exchange links, Google views these types of sites as ugly and irrelevant, and any links you post there will be counterproductive for your campaign. However, there are some industry-specific directories you can use to build links. Just make sure the directory appears to be a high quality site within your specific niche, and ensure your link is relevant to the thread, conversation, or topic where you post it.
The best places to build backlinks are these industry-specific sites, industry forums, and other resource sites that allow guest bloggers. The closer a website is to your industry, the more likely it is that your links will be seen as relevant and natural.
One easy way to find quality places to build your backlinks is to take advantage of the competitors who have already done the work. Moz offers an excellent, free tool to search for existing backlinks. Search for your main competitors’ URLs and find out where they’ve been posting. As long as they’re in the same industry as you are, it’s highly likely that those same sites will allow you to post your links as well.
When you post a link, it’s important to make sure it is relevant to the conversation. For instance, if you’re posting in a forum thread about solar panel installations and that’s only one of your service offerings, it’s better to link to your “Solar Panel” page than it is your homepage. Linking to various pages deep within your site is a solid strategy to diversify your link portfolio and improve your chances of being seen as “natural.”
One option for backlink builders is using a “no-Follow” link to drive traffic without interfering with Google’s algorithms. The HTML tag “Rel=nofollow” tells web crawlers not to follow the link that follows it, turning it into a “no-follow” link. The advantage here is that users will still be able to see and click your links. No-follow links are useful because you can essentially use as many of them as you want without fearing consequences from Google. Essentially, you’ve made your links invisible to them, while still generating traffic to your website.
The relevance of your link is extremely important, not just for Google, but for the owners of the site you’re using to post. Any links that are deemed irrelevant to the conversation will be flagged as spam, and could get you banned from the site or penalized by Google. For example, if you own a restaurant and you post links to your site on a forum about movie production, it will be an obvious cue that the link’s sole purpose is to improve your page rank.
To ensure your link is relevant, first make sure you are posting or commenting on a site that is relevant to your industry. There are hundreds of niche industry-specific sites available for this purpose. Second, make sure your post is relevant to the conversation or to the themes present on the site. The best way to do this is to read the content that has led up to your post and respond to it in a natural way. Don’t link back to your homepage every time; instead link to an internal page of your site that best fits with the conversation. The greatest rule of thumb here is to post links when they’re actually going to be helpful for your audience.
Your link should be a part of a well-written piece of content or comment, and should never appear by itself. Google can detect natural language use, so if you’re writing fluff for the sole intention of throwing words around your link, Google will notice and could penalize you as a result. Your content, whether it’s a guest post or a comment, should be interesting and engaging to the people reading it, and should explain why you’re providing the link as part of it. This will make the link appear natural to users as well as Google.
You also want to make sure your links and the content surrounding your links are not repeated. Some business owners try to cut corners by copying and pasting the same link and comment multiple times on different sites, or by using their guest post across multiple blogs. This is a bad idea because Google can detect the use of repeated language, and could penalize you for spamming the same message. Vary the language you use, even if only slightly, every time you post a link.
Optimizing a keyword phrase by embedding a hyperlink in it used to be a valid means of improving your rank for that specific keyword. However, now that Google is straying away from keyword-dependent ranking algorithms, it’s better to include links plainly or as part of a more natural phrase.
Now that you know the qualities that are responsible for determining whether or not a backlink is seen as “natural” by Google’s algorithms, let’s take a look at some examples of high-quality, Google-safe backlinks:
Another great way to build links pointing back to your site naturally is to create something that naturally encourages links. For example, you could create a unique infographic for your industry, or an entertaining video with the chance to go viral, and share that visual content on your social media channels. If you put effort into it and time it right, your followers, customers, and similar businesses will all value your creation and link to it on their own. Sometimes, the best way to build natural links is to let it happen naturally.
Here’s what Google’s document now says about manipulating PageRank:
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
What does Google mean when they say, “any links intended to manipulate PageRank”? According to Google, any links you (or someone on your behalf) create with the sole intention of improving your PageRank or Google rankings is considered unnatural.
The quantity and quality of inbound links have always been a crucial part of how Google’s algorithm determines PageRank. However, this fact manifested manipulative link building schemes that created nothing other than spam across the Web, which is something Google has been working feverishly to eliminate since it launched it original Penguin algorithm in April 2012.
Now, Google is much better at differentiating true editorial links (ie, natural) links from manipulative (unnatural) ones. In fact, Google now penalizes Websites in the search rankings that display an exceptionally manipulative link profile or history of links.
Google says, “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.”
If people found out that their favorite politician had in some way purchased a majority of his or her votes, how would they feel about it? When we purchase (or sell) links for a website, we are essentially doing the same thing.
Google has made it clear that purchasing links violates their quality guidelines. However, many companies continue to do so, and some companies have severely lost search rankings and visibility as a result.
Google is getting better at understanding which links are purchased in a wide variety of ways. They also have a team devoted to investigating web spam, including purchased links.
Google says, “Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.”
A few years ago, it was a common for webmasters to exchange links. This method worked; as a result it started to become abused at large scale. As a result, Google started discounting such links. Now, Google has officially added this to its examples of unnatural link building tactics.
Large-scale Article Marketing or Guest Posting Campaigns
Google says, “Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.”
This, in particular, has a lot of people wondering, “can you still engage in guest posting as a way to get inbound links?” The answer depends on how you’re doing it.
A few years ago, it was a common for SEOs to engage in large-scale article marketing in an attempt to quickly get tons of inbound links. Many were using low-quality, often “spun” content (mixed and mashed, sometimes computer-generated nonsense) to reduce time and content production costs. The result was a surge in nonsensical articles being published around the Web for the sole purpose of creating inbound links. It was a true “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” approach to online marketing; some publications rejected these submissions, and others approved them without any editorial review. It was all a numbers game with the hopes that some of the content would get indexed, and thus, count for the link.
Google responded by launching its Penguin and Panda algorithms to penalize businesses that were creating this mess; Penguin targeted websites with many inbound links that were obviously unnatural, while Panda targeted the publishers that published the content without any editorial review. As a result, most of the large-scale article marketing links became worthless.
After people started to realize that large-scale article marketing campaigns were no longer working, they turned to guest posting as an alternative. Unfortunately, what many considered “guest posting” was simply an ugly reincarnation of article marketing; the only difference was the publishers and the extra steps of finding websites open to publishing guest contributions. Many continue to use low-quality content in mass quantities, and wonder why they still get penalized by Penguin.
Does guest posting still work for building inbound links? Yes, but only if you publish high quality content on relevant, authoritative sites. High-quality guest posts are a popular and tremendously effective way to acquire editorial links for your site, and they have many other benefits as well. For more information on how to use guest posting as a safe, effective link building tactic, see my article “The Ultimate, Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your Business by Guest Blogging.
Automated Link Building Programs
Google says, “Using automated programs or services to create links to your site.”
A few years ago, during the same time period that article marketing and spinning was all the rage, a market developed for programs and services that would automate the steps involved in these processes. These tools and services became popular because they were an easy way to get huge numbers of links to your site quickly. Most importantly, they worked. Unfortunately, they only accelerated the permeation of low-quality nonsense that pervaded the industry at that time.
Google now hunts down sites that have these sorts of inbound links, denying them any benefit.
Backlinks are still a vital component of search engine optimization, but in order to build your domain authority without suffering a penalty, it’s important to ensure a safe and natural-seeming backlink profile.
First, let’s take a look at what you should not be doing. If you can avoid the most common “dangerous” backlinking practices, you’ll be halfway to building a backlink profile that is safe, natural, and valuable for your brand.
Now that you have an idea of what to avoid, you can start looking for some high-quality sites to use for your link building. One of the most important factors for your backlink profile is going to be diversity. If you only have one or two different sites pointing to yours, or if you only backlink using industry directories, eventually you’re going to find problems. Instead, focus on using a wide range of different sites for your backlinks.
The most authoritative sites to use tend to be official sites and trustworthy education sites, such as those that end in .edu or .gov. However, as you might imagine, it’s somewhat difficult to find backlinking opportunities on these sites. It’s worth a bit of extra effort to link on sites like these, but don’t shy away from other opportunities. As mentioned above, it’s wise to avoid low-quality link directories, but look for niche-specific directories. They’ll give you ample opportunities to post meaningful, quality links.
The best sites to use, in general, are ones directly connected to your line of work. Any forums, resources, directories, or community pages that are relevant to your industry are perfect places to start building a backlink profile. Just be sure to vary it up by using multiple sources.
The key to building a good link is to make your build relevant, with unique high-quality content. If you repeat the same phrase or use the same link over and over again, Google will take notice and penalize you. Instead, make sure all your links are:
Keeping these points in mind, there are some key types of content you can use to structure and support these links:
Diversity is valuable here too; don’t backlink using any one strategy exclusively.
In the world of backlinking, patience is vitally important. Posting hundreds of links as quickly as you can was how you built ranks quickly back in 1999; today, that spike of activity almost guarantees a penalty. There’s no objective rule for how many links you can post within a given timeframe, especially when each company has a different budget and a different set of goals. However, it’s important that your efforts are seen as reasonable by major search engines. For most businesses, that means a handful of guest posts per week, and a few comments per day.
It’s also important to space your efforts out. Instead of posting all your links within a short timeframe, make link building a long-term strategy. Your backlink profile will appear to be much more natural if it grows steadily over a period of time.
One of the best ways to help your backlink profile appear natural is to let others take care of the work for you. By leveraging the power of viral content and social media, you can make people actively want to link back to your site. Use your blog to write consistent, compelling content, and use social media channels to syndicate it to the masses. Once people are hooked, they’ll start linking to you as an authority—and you won’t have to lift a finger.
Similarly, you can work on an infographic or an interesting video. It might cost some money up front, but if you create a visual piece that’s highly shareable, you’ll attract hundreds or even thousands of potential linkers.
Overall, successful and natural link building comes down to three things: relevance, diversity, and patience. Your back links should be spaced out in terms of both timing and location, and your content should mean something to your audience. Keep your strategy consistent, don’t go overboard, and eventually you’ll establish a perfectly natural,Google-safebacklink profile that will boost your rankings and authority for years to come.
Here’s a hint: If you are writing primarily with the goal of impressing the search engines, that is just the opposite of writing naturally. If all you do when generating content for your website is intended to please good old Google, chances are you’ll end up writing a piece that is not only of little value for your readers, but one that’s likely to flop in terms of ranking as well.
Now more than ever before, Google advocates doing things naturally. This has always been what they sought from website and content writers, but the emphasis has become even stronger.
In the not-so-distant past, SEO was as simple as using keywords early in the page title, in the first part of the content, in the subheadings, and in links to pages that used exact match keywords as anchor texts; and by building a host of links from external sources.
Today, many SEO experts will tell you that’s the old-school way of doing it. Does the old-school way of doing SEO still work these days, especially when the Penguins and Pandas are roaming the highways and byways of the Internet?
Some old SEO strategies may still work for Bing, Yahoo!, and various other small search engines. You can rank a site for noncompetitive keywords fairly easily, even without doing some off-page optimization. But let’s face it: Google is still king of the SEO hill, and it continues to claim a huge chunk of the all the searches performed on the Internet.
And you know what Google delivers. It aims to provide users not with the most optimized content, but the most relevant content.
Many news articles and high-quality web content such as you find on highly reputable sites like Forbes.com and Mashable are no longer concentrating on keyword-optimizing their content. Instead, they strive to publish content in a natural way that readers can easily relate to. This is because the search engines have become more skilled at determining whether a site is trying to spam by overly optimizing web pages with keywords and displaying little regard for readability.
Again, the focus these days is not so much on how much you should optimize your content for certain keywords, but how relevant your information is.
So if old-hat optimization tricks are considered a form of over-optimization, and/or they are potentially detrimental to your rankings, what do you do? How should you properly optimize for search?
Make your content Google-friendly
We all hope to make our sites Google-friendly. But precisely how do you do that nowadays?
Do you remember Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI)? Google and other major search engines have moved away from exact-match results in favor of relevant results. This means you shouldn’t over-optimize your content with exact-match keywords. Instead, shift your energy toward the use of variations of your keywords.
In the past, using exact-match keywords very early in the title was the norm. For example: “Roofing California: How to Hire Roofers in Los Angeles” (when “Roofing California” was the keyword). Today, however, variations such as “How to Hire a Roofing Company in California” are going to be more successful.
Try to mix up your anchor texts by employing other related key phrases. Also, don’t be too concerned about inventing subheaders that include your keywords. If inserting a keyword in a subheader creates a phrase that sounds clumsy or just doesn’t make sense, dump the keywords and write something that more accurately expresses your thoughts.
Also, be sure to make every page unique, with focused and detailed content.
More on semantically related terms
You can reap various benefits from using terms that are semantically related to your main keywords. By identifying terms that are similar to your keywords and using them in your content, you’ll get higher rankings from the search engines.
You may also be able to target keyphrases that you might not have otherwise considered. These have the potential to bring in more traffic that happened to be searching for those related keyphrases.
Consider the following example. The phrases below can all be used as related terms for the acronym SEO:
You don’t have to use all of these related terms. But as a part of content intended to read naturally, it would not be unusual for at least some of the above phrases to appear in your writing.
Okay, so semantically related words are tactically useful for today’s site optimization. But how do you go about identifying those semantically related terms for the keywords you want to optimize for?
Using the thesaurus will give you a decent start. But a more contemporary approach would be to take a direct look at the number of searches entered for particular keywords and their related terms. You would do well to make use of keyword research tools such as Google’s own AdWords Keywords tool.
Modifiers and junk words
In addition to using words that are semantically related, it makes sense to use words that are common modifiers. For example, common buying / shopping searches might include words like bargain, inexpensive, discount, cheap, and so on.
And then there are modifiers and terms that SEOs regard as junk words. Apart from using semantically related terms, you can use modifiers and junk words as anchor texts when directing your visitors to a link. These words include free shipping, click here, buy, purchase, shop, search here, visit here, etc.
The key is to focus on creating natural content that appeals primarily to readers. When setting out to create a proper piece of content, think about how it would appeal to you, or how you would like it to read if you were to target yourself.
Don’t worry too much about all those keywords, modifiers, and semantically related terms at first. Just write your content with the topic and the target audience in mind. You can go back later and modify it so that it includes the ideal array of keywords and related terms. If you stop to think about it, SEO is actually much simpler now than it was before. And it’s better for the target audience too.
So, why is Google waging a war on unnatural links? For years, many SEOs effectively manipulated their rankings using the methods described above, along with others. However, the types of links and content that people created as a result provided no value to people; only clutter. They cause search results to display nonsensical, confusing content, which makes Google look bad to its users. Furthermore, they cost Google money as its bots spend time scraping and indexing nonsense rather than good, quality content.
Google continues to work to keep low quality content out of its index as well as the search results. Now, they’re becoming more transparent with their goals as they refine and clarify their webmaster guidelines.
Although these changes created quite a stir across the industry, it’s really just the same message that Google has been trying to convey for years. Create quality content that people want to read and share; the inbound links will come as a result, and you won’t need to worry about unnatural ones bringing down your website in the rankings.