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  • Natural vs. Unnatural Links: What's the Difference? How to Build a Natural Backlink Profile

    Natural Backlinks vs. Unnatural Backlinks: How to Build a Natural Link Profile

    Natural quality backlinks are a major factor in calculating a domain’s overall authority, which in turn influences its rankings for various keywords.

    Semantic search–including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and natural language processing–help to determine whether a link was acquired naturally or unnaturally.

    Unnatural backlinks earn penalties from Google (both manual and algorithmic) and harm domain authority and trust.

    While natural backlinks help you grow your rankings and overall web traffic.

    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 proper cultivation of purely natural links.

    Let’s dig in!

    Natural Backlinks vs. Unnatural Backlinks

    Natural vs. Unnatural Link Building

    Google’s ability to detect natural links is more advanced than ever, and with some Google employees insisting that link building for SEO 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.

    It’s only one of the reasons we encourage all of our clients to perform a backlink audit as part of our holistic and regular SEO audit services.

    When comparing your backlink profile, we’ll be discussing a number of critical components to ensure your links are natural. In doing so, you will be better able to find the “website equivalent” of the following:

    The Strict Definition of a Natural Backlink

    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.

    Types of Backlink Sources

    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.

    Natural Anchor Text

    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.

    We recommend tools like SEOJet for helping to gauge proper anchor text variability among differing pages of your website.

    For instance, the anchor text variation for your homepage will look much different than the anchor text variation of internal service pages and blog posts:

    mepage should look much different than your services pages and your blog posts:


    Source Diversity

    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. One of the main methods for tracking link diversity is by using third-party link building tools like Moz or Ahrefs.

    For instance, take a look at the Domain Authority (DA) diversity of a client who came to us wanting to build more backlinks from high authority websites:

    Linking Domains by DA

    Contrast this with a popular industry SEO blog:

    Linking Domains by DA - Popular Blogs

    Granted, the data is a bit skewed as our client had not yet reached scale.

    As the scale of one’s sitelinks expands, the backlink profile should begin to appear and more “natural.”

    But link builders need to be aware of where they are procuring their links and at what scale.

    Link Destination

    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.

    Link Context

    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, site 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.

    Anatomy of a Safe, Natural Backlink

    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, quality link building services for SEO can analyze the qualities that make a link seem valuable in Google’s eyes, and provide direction on how to execute a link building strategy that is safe for the long term.

    Location of the Link

    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.

    Type of Link

    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.

    Relevance of the Link

    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.

    Content Surrounding the Link

    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.

    Google’s Stance on Unnatural Link Building (i.e. Building Links to Manipulate Search Rankings and Domain Authority)

    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 backlinks (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.

    What about Buying or Selling 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.” In short, those that work doing anything except for on-site content are deemed “snake oil” salesmen, in the truest sense.

    via GIPHY

    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.

    Link Exchanges & Link Velocity

    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.

    Your links should grow naturally over time like this:

    Large-scale Article Marketing or Guest Posting Campaigns

    Not in large spikes like this:

    Guest Posting Campaigns

    The speed with which you acquire links is often referred to as “link velocity.” Unless your online marketing campaign goes viral, the chances your link velocity looks like graph #2 above is slim.

    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 SEO guest posts are a popular and tremendously effective way to acquire editorial links for your site, and they have many other benefits as well.

    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.

    Characteristics of a Diversified Backlink Profile

    Backlink building has become more of an art form than an exact science, especially since Google’s algorithm updates have all but eradicated the old ways of building links. Today, quality matters far more than quantity, and if you want a chance at SEO success, you’ll need to make sure your SEO backlink profile is as perfect as it can be.

    As a reiteration, these are some ingredients of the ideal backlink profile will help you increase your domain authority and ranks without worrying about the risk of a penalty:

    1. Context. The context of your links are vital. That includes relevance to a particular publisher site or even on the post-level itself.
    2. Social Value. Your backlink profile needs to include links from social channels, and that means syndicating links to your content on social media.
    3. Navigation. It isn’t enough to simply link to your homepage every time you build a backlink on an external source. You have detailed internal pages, so use them in your link building outreach campaigns.
    4. Consistency. Build your links steadily, and stay consistent in your patterns.
    5. Mentions. You’ll also have to work in brand mentions, which are non-linked instances of your brand name on external sources.
    6. Timelines. Like with content, Google favors sites whose sites have recent, quality backlinks acquired.  Timing of your backlinks can also be critical.
    7. Link Velocity. Going from 10 links in a month to hundreds is rarely natural unless viral.
    8. Anchor Text. As previously mentioned, the variability of your anchor text to your various pages matters.
    9. Diversity. The diversity of your backlink strategy is fundamental, and it applies to almost every area of link building. You need a diverse range of sources, a diverse range of link types, and a diverse range of text to back them up.

    Building a great, natural backlink profile takes time, so don’t get discouraged if you have trouble making immediate progress; if it were easy to build authority through backlinks, everyone would be able to do it. Stay focused on these 11 priorities, and eventually you’ll build an indomitable backlink profile that will carry your domain forward for years to come.
    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.

    Unnatural Backlink Practices to Avoid

    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.

    • Don’t believe companies who promise cheap or a huge number of backlinks. In the SEO world, you get what you pay for, and if a backlink building offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Cheap backlink companiess have a habit of building links from low-quality sources, which can get you penalized and take your campaign back to square one.
    • Don’t pay for your links directly. Google’s official policy is that buying or selling backlinks for the purposes of improving page rank is a violation of their Webmaster Guidelines.
    • Don’t exchange links with another company—at least not too often. It’s fine to exchange a link or two with another company when it’s relevant, but if you have too many links reflecting each other, Google will take notice and penalize you.
    • Don’t rely on directories. Some directories, like very specific industry-related ones, are okay to use as part of your strategy, but avoid article directories or anything that looks like it’s low-quality.
    • Don’t repeat your “signature” all over the web. Google detects instances of repeated language, so if you use the same company description or author bio to accompany all your backlinks, you won’t build as much authority.

    via GIPHY

    Types of Sites to Find

    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.

    Types of Links to Build

    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:

    • Relevant to the conversation or topic. Don’t shove your link into a comment just because the thread is somewhat relevant to your industry. Make sure it fits naturally into the conversation.
    • Uniquely written. You should never use the same phrase twice, even if it’s a brief description of your business.
    • Varied in direction. Instead of linking to your homepage, do some deep linking. Link to pages and specific posts within your site.

    Keeping these points in mind, there are some key types of content you can use to structure and support these links:

    • Guest posts are solid opportunities because they give you a chance to demonstrate your expertise, give you a semi-permanent place on the web, and also give you multiple chances to link back to your site. Guest post for different sources, but feel free to post regular articles on any given external site. Search engines favor consistency, so long as you’re producing well-written content, so establish your authority by writing blog content on a regular schedule.
    • Comments are another chance to post relevant links, especially in a forum-style discussion. Make sure your comments are on topic and are not blatantly promoting your site—you could easily be flagged as spam otherwise.
    • Press releases and social opportunities are peripheral means of link building. Your press releases should be comprised of well-written content about a newsworthy event (i.e., don’t make something up just to have an excuse to syndicate a press release). Any time you write or post relevant content, make sure to share it on social media as well.

    Diversity is valuable here too; don’t backlink using any one strategy exclusively.

    Timing and Frequency

    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.


    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.

    That’s where our link building service comes in. And, if you’re an agency partner, you can benefit from engaging our white-hat, white label link building service. We’re the SEO company that other agencies come to for link building for their clients.

    Get in touch with SEO.co today!

    Or check to see how natural your backlink profile is by using our backlink checker!

    Chief Revenue Officer at SEO Company
    Industry veteran Timothy Carter is SEO.co’s Chief Revenue Officer. Tim leads all revenue for the company and oversees all customer-facing teams for SEO (search engine optimization) services - including sales, marketing & customer success. He has spent more than 20 years in the world of SEO & Digital Marketing, assisting in everything from SEO for lawyers to complex technical SEO for Fortune 500 clients like Wiley, Box.com, Qualtrics and HP.

    Tim holds expertise in building and scaling sales operations, helping companies increase revenue efficiency and drive growth from websites and sales teams.

    When he's not working, Tim enjoys playing a few rounds of disc golf, running, and spending time with his wife and family on the beach...preferably in Hawaii.

    Over the years he's written for publications like Forbes, Entrepreneur, Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, ReadWrite and other highly respected online publications. Connect with Tim on Linkedin & Twitter.
    Timothy Carter