This is such a broad, huge topic, it really merits its own book. But, I will condense this as much as I can.
What is a backlink?
Of course, if you’re reading this, you understand that websites need backlinks to rank well in Google search.
But you must fully understand the basics of a link. Trust me, I meet SEO professionals, journalists and publishers all the time who do not thoroughly understand.
1. A link is the short word for hyperlink.
2. A hyperlink was invented to easily cite or reference data.
Repeat after me: A link is specifically for citing other data…. A link is specifically for citing other data…. A link is specifically for citing other data….
The history of the hyperlink dates back to 1945, long before the web, and you can read more about it here.
3. Anchor text is the nickname for hypertext.
Nearly nobody other than computer programmers uses the word hypertext anymore. Almost everyone calls hypertext “anchor text”. Anchor text is the text of the link itself.
How search engines used backlinks and anchor text long ago.
In the beginning, there were websites. (I was online in 1992 when we had about 25 websites!)
And before you know it, we had a lot of websites.
Then came web directories (there were some very primitive search engines but the directories were far better for the average user).
Finally, came search engines. As the web exploded search engines began making more and more progress. The owners of Google began their project in 1996. Google was unique as it focused on backlinks for ranking webpages.
Back then, links (citations) basically counted as a “vote” for the page getting linked to. And, anchor text helped tell the search engine what the page was about. The algorithm was simple; more links = better rankings.
Anchor text was heavily abused from 1999 – 2006. Back then you could just link to an attorney for “accident lawyer” and rank them better in search. Aside from the commercial use by SEO agencies, people used “Google Bombs” to poke fun at people such as George Bush. If you haven’t heard of a Google Bomb before, you can read more about the George Bush and Google bomb story here. By 2007 Google adjusted its algorithm on anchor text and they announced the change on their official blog here.
How anchor text works today, and how it will work in the future.
Tela-post is Latin for “the future of the web” (I think). I named my company that because what worked today or what works now is worthless. I want to know what is going to work forever.
Now if you’ve been paying close attention, you may have noticed that every link in this article so far has been for the word “here”. I wanted to prove a point: the word “here” is, hands down, one of the most common occurrences of anchor text in natural backlinks. If you’ve never actually seen a natural backlink portfolio, I recommend you read my article about what natural anchor text links look like. In a nutshell, if you have a site that actually gets natural links, your anchor text will normally be for the page title, for the word “here”, for the word “article”, for the domain name, or for a variation of the page title or a sentence or statistic in the page itself.
Google is now lightyears ahead of allowing basic hypertext to manipulate its search engine. Google understands the context of a link.
Way back in March of 2004, Google filed US patent 8,577,893. In it, they define anchor text spamming:
Anchor text spamming involves obtaining a large number of web documents to link to a particular document using the same anchor text with which the document is to be associated.
Now, and even more so in the future, Google will seek to evaluate the naturalness of a backlink, just the way hypertext worked back in 1996, before everyone began spamming the web. (I’ll get to spam detection more below).
Rest assured, an unnatural number of keyword heavy anchor text links pointing at your site will not help. In fact, it will very likely lead to a demotion in search results, or worse.
In 2007, Google made clear that they’re well aware of link manipulation which occurs in press releases and link building campaigns. They specifically state they pay special attention to “article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.”
Search Engines do not want you building links, but…
Let’s be clear here. Paying for a link, or placing a link anywhere on the Internet in an effort to manipulate your ranking in search results is a direct violation of Google’s rules. If they catch you, they will penalize you, and your site will be erased from their search engine with the click of a button. I’ve seen it happen a hundred times. It isn’t pretty.
Now, on the other hand, if you don’t rank in search, Google has a solution: pay them for ads which get a tiny fraction of the results that ranking organically does.
You must build links in some niches. For example, I work with several personal injury law firms. Look at the top 50 firms in any city and you’ll see that they’ve built links. This isn’t a secret.
This site (telapost) is a great example of a site I’ve never built links to. But, I don’t need to. I’ve been interviewed by Axios, Bloomberg and linked to by local news organizations and broken news many times so I have plenty of natural links. But that’s tough to do for many business owners. If you’re a hairstylist, it’s tough to get links. Same goes for lawyers, plumbers, HVAC repair companies, auto mechanics, etc, you get the idea.
Can search engines detect which sites sell links?
Yes. Most of the time.
Believe it or not I am slightly infatuated with the way algorithms work and I’ve also been building links since before there were search engines. Over the years I have put together a list of 16,500 websites which sell links. (Before you ask, no, it isn’t for sale.)
Anyways, here are some of the ways search engines detect paid links.
1. Spam Reports.
Did you know you can turn websites in to Google which sell links? Yes, you can. Thousands of people report spam. It often looks like Google does nothing with the data. In fact, I am certain that they sometimes do nothing with the data. However, sometimes they do. On their spam report page they clearly state the following, which means that they collect these sites from users.
Google uses a number of methods to detect paid links… …We also welcome information from our users. If you know of a site that buys or sells links, please tell us by filling out the fields below.
2. Search engines detect many sites sell links.
Search engines have been able to detect which sites sell advertising for a long time now. These are incredibly easy to find. For example, just search the web for “sponsored article” “advertise” and you’ll see 155,000 results, most of which are websites which will post your article for a small fee. These are not good places to get links. I also would advise against getting links from pages which say “sponsored content” or “guest post”.
3. The Google Core Algorithm.
In 2005, Google’s head of spam, Matt Cutts, stated:
Google has a variety of algorithmic methods of detecting such links, and they work pretty well.
In another article, he explained that Google manually checked several “spam sites” against the algorithm and the algo had done all of the work for them in most cases.
I’ve heard Matt speak and have met him and read many of his articles. He’s a true engineer and understands Google needs to do this algorithmically. Here’s a pic of when I met Matt. I’m 100% certain he doesn’t remember this or know who I am. lol.
If it were my algorithm, one method to detect paid links would simply be to look at what a website is linking to. There are glaringly obvious footprints on the web for sites that sell links (at least sites that sell links cheap).
4. Spam fighters / human intervention.
In addition to people reporting sites and Google detecting sites which spam, Google has human reviewers manually checking websites. They explain this here:
Google also invests in quality algorithms and manual reviews to ensure that sites don’t rise in search results through deceptive or manipulative behavior.
What happens to sites which sell backlinks?
Now that we have established the fact that Google can easily detect which sites sell links, we need to look at what happens to sites that SELL the backlinks.
Historically, Google has issued unnatural outbound link penalties and manual actions for unnatural outbound links (aka an OBL penalty). If you’ve never seen one of these, here’s a screenshot:
However… I believe that these days Google simply ignores / devalues links coming from sites known to sell links or have unnatural outbound links. That means that Google simply lets these sites go on selling links without telling them. Years ago, Google’s Matt Cutts stated that “link-selling sites can lose their ability to give reputation”. That means that a link from a site which has lost its ability to give any “link juice” or “seo juice” is worthless at best (note that some sites with a poor reputation may even negatively impact the site receiving the link.)
What if I am caught buying backlinks?
There are several answers to this question, and, it depends.
As mentioned above, sites can get a manual action. When that occurs, the site is kicked off of Google’s search results, or demoted to a place where nobody will see it. Some people refer to this as blacklisting or “Google Hell”. This is a screenshot of a message you never want to see:
That makes your site traffic do this:
Obtaining backlinks from sites which are known to sell links may have any one of the following outcomes:
- Manual Action. A manual action results in your website being completely removed from Google search results. Trust me, you do not want to go down this road. Your competitors are watching you. If they’re spending thousands of dollars in SEO every month they may turn you in for an easy win. The good news here is that, in my experience, Google rarely takes action on most websites purchasing links. This also depends on your niche and how bad you’re abusing the system. In some niches manual actions are common.
- Algorithmic rankings demotion. This is, by far, the most common. Google’s algorithm literally does all the work. As of 2019, Google indexes and ranks hundreds of billions of webpages (source: Google). Troubleshooting this is practically impossible unless you’re deep in the trenches of linkbuilding on a daily basis. Your rankings just start to slide and you’re left scratching your head, wondering why – are your competitors better than you? Was it a link? Which link was it? Was it my anchor text? Was it that press release? Should I disavow?
Metrics and evaluating backlink quality.
If you are in a niche where you must build backlinks while attracting as little attention as possible, you must evaluate backlink quality before linking to your website to minimize risk. (Some would argue white hat methods are safer, faster and cheaper).
There are a variety of tools out there to evaluate the quality of a website by giving you “metrics”. Most of these metrics should be ignored.
Here’s how you should evaluate the quality of a site:
- Does the site sell advertising? Go to the contact page. Does it sell advertising? If the answer is yes, avoid it. As mentioned above, search engines can detect this text.
- Does the site link out in their articles? Scan through half a dozen articles. Are they linking out? Are the links abusing anchor text like it’s 2004? What are they linking to? What they link out to is a quality factor.
- Avoid bad neighborhoods. Do a site search for lawyer, locksmith, casino, gambling, accident, and insurance. If the site is linking out to auto insurers or casinos, avoid it like the plague. If it is linking out to lawyers, find out why. Even if this site is performing well, avoid it. It’s very likely to get a poor reputation in the future.
- Is the site known to sell links? This is impossible to tell off hand unless you work in the linkbuilding industry. I have a tremendous database of sites memorized and 16,500 in an Excel sheet. There are some sites, such as TGDaily.com and side.cr, that literally every link vendor in the world is pushing. Some sites have been around for years. If ANY link vendor is selling links for a price, rest assured, you’re one of their many clients, and the site works with several agencies. If you look at authority sites such as WebMD, Healthline, cdc.gov, etc, you will see that they are NOT linking out to HVAC repair companies in Utah.
- Is the site topically relevant to you? If the site is a mommy blog, it isn’t going to link to a personal injury attorney without getting paid. Google wasn’t born yesterday. As a note here, you should probably avoid nearly any site related to health..
- Is the site geographically relevant to you? I wish I didn’t even have to mention this but if the site is in Timbuktu is it really going to mention a Los Angeles car accident lawyer? No, no it is not.
Metrics that most people use and my two cents on them:
- Domain Authority. I love the concept and I almost never use the metric. Sometimes I take a quick glance at the DA of a site. If it’s a DA30 site – who cares. DA60+ I get excited about. But DA often looks at the number of inbound links. I’m the only person to ever document this but many high domain authority sites in many niches were absolutely slaughtered in 2018 by Google’s algorithm updates. DA alone is not a good metric for evaluating outbound link value. There are 50 other similar metrics called things like “trust flow”, etc – same thing. It is indeed wise to at least look at DA but it should never be used as a sole metric.
- Traffic. A really wonderful website can have 10 visitors a week. I personally know a site which gets over 1 million hits a week that I would not want a link from. Traffic depends entirely on the niche they cover. While it is good to look at traffic, and even more so at traffic history, what is more important is rankings. How the articles on a site rank are somewhat of a good metric (as long as the site isn’t at risk for future penalties). I like to dig through the site and find a unique article and Google it in a fresh incognito window and see how it performs.
- HTTPS. In most cases, HTTPS is totally unnecessary. As of July 2019, Google’s chrome browser does label these sites as insecure. And, at least 99.99% of sites on the Internet do not need to be secure. Like my dog’s site. She isn’t asking you for your social security number, so, her site doesn’t need to be secure. (Secure simply means the traffic between the browser and the website is encrypted. Banks, eCommerce sites, financial institutions, etc should all be secure). HTTPS is a very, very tiny ranking factor, and I moved all clients to HTTPS many years ago, but, for a link, HTTP is fine, depending on the site. Don’t hate a site just because it is HTTP. I personally have a whole bunch of sites which are HTTP and that is totally fine.
A word on pages which need links.
It’s tough to believe it, but the best way to reduce belly fat is to work out muscles, such as your leg muscles. (I totally need to start working those quads!)
Gone are the days of needing to link directly to your most important pages. It’s very, very rare you’ll need to do that. And Google knows this. For example, if you’re an injury lawyer, who in the world is going to link to your tractor trailer accident page? Nobody! That’s never happened naturally in the history of the Internet (actually, CNN did link to one of my clients, but that was a unicorn moment). Getting topic relevant links to internal pages of your site is, hands down, the best way to build a solid, long lasting, powerful, authority site. Some of the most competitive pages on the Internet have zero links. As a quick example of this, LuckyGunner sells ammo online. They’ve ranked for “buy 9mm ammo online” for years. Why? they have an awesome blog which attracts tens of thousands of natural links. The site is now topically relevant for ammunition. Google has “categorized” it. (That’s an incredibly competitive term people have been fighting over for decades.)
In other words, links to the host domain (anywhere on the site) are expected, natural and often as good as links to specific pages you’d like to rank.
White hat, grey hat and black hat, oh my.
This section is slightly off topic so feel free to skip it unless you need an explanation:
- White hat link building means obtaining links naturally. For the law firms I work with, this often involves doing something special in real life. Every niche is so different, I could write a huge article dedicated to that niche. But using attorneys as an example, we usually start with submitting them to the legal directories and making sure they have links from their profile pages on the web, such as their AVVO page. Next, if they’re an injury lawyer, white hat linkbuilding may include publicizing a huge case, providing a major survey, promoting a niche scholarship, donating to local organizations, etc. After that, if they’re still not at least somewhere on page 1 for some major terms, we move on to additional link building efforts, some of which are grey areas.
- Grey hat link building is interesting. SEO consultants to larger, Fortune 500 type businesses are vehemently against grey hat tactics. And they should be. Injury lawyers are forced to build links though. So are plumbers, HVAC companies, roofers, real estate agents and pretty much everyone else. When you do something for the link, it could or could not be looked at as buying a link. For example, you could offer a scholarship. Is the scholarship being offered because you’re nice or because you want to rank better in Google? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ In Chicago I saw an attorney donate $50,000 to a local hospital. They got a really nice link out of it. Did they donate the money for the link? Probably! Chicago is a tough niche. Some sites which have good white hat linkbuilding employ some black hat tactics.
- Black hat link building is when you’re just blasting the web with links from well known spam sites or flat out breaking all of Google’s rules. Depending on the tactic chosen, risks can be very high.
Recap and actionable advice.
The more I type, the more I want to add to this article, so I’m going to wrap it up and leave you with some advice.
- White hat link building tactics are adequate in most niches.
They often have side benefits as well and become actual branding or offline marketing. I love that!
- Be careful of the site you’re getting a link from.
If you decide to build links, or are “forced to” due to competitor’s linkbuilding efforts, be very careful of the sites you’re getting a link from. A client recently showed me a link they received from a mommy blog. There’s zero doubt in my mind this is a worthless link. I emailed the blog owner who said she’d give me a permanent DoFollow link for $20. My client had paid $167 for this link. If you’re in a competitive niche and already have a powerful site a link from a DA22 mommy blog is never ever ever ever ever ever going to do anything to help you in Google search.
- Avoid direct match / spammy anchor text.
If you have control over the link in something like a press release, link to your brand name at the bottom of the PR. This is not 2005. We are waaaaay past that.
If you have control over the link on a website, reference something on your site. Over time, you’ll have a very powerful website. (It is still ok to link to yourself with exact match anchor text from your own blog.)
- The cheaper the link, the less valuable it is.
This is a good general rule of thumb. Your SEO agency may be charging you $3000 for 8 links a month but in many cases you’re still getting $20 links. You may be spending $300 on a $20 link. $20 links aren’t going to help you.
- One good link is better than 10 crummy links.
One good, in context link from a topically relevant page is infinitely better than 25 DA30 links from random blogs.
- You do not have access to the good sites.
There are indeed good sites out there which you can place content on. Their direct cost is usually in the $350 – $1,000 range. Tracking these down is difficult since they don’t openly sell advertising. Unless you have been chatting with webmasters for a decade or two, you’re simply not going to have access to these spam-free, legitimate sites. These are smart webmasters – they’re also going to link to you on their terms, using their anchor text – you will have absolutely no say whatsoever how or when they link to you. These are the pros. (They almost always link to you for your URL or brand name).
- Links to internal pages are great.
Any site which survives off of natural links gets 99% of their links to internal pages, not their main “money pages”.
- Hire an expert.
I know of 15 linkbuilding agencies who provide medium quality links. I know them and their networks very well. Use them at your own risk. I’ve never met an agency in my entire life that I am happy with. Good link builders are generally lone wolfs; it’s just very hard to teach others this skillset. If you’re in a low competition niche, yes, any links will probably help you. But the more competitive a niche you enter, the more authority your site will need.
If you need assistance building links please feel free to email me. I have many ideas on link acquisition for all types of companies, especially law firms.