What Makes a Link Bad for SEO?

Last Updated on December 21, 2022 by 28 Comments

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What Makes a Link Bad for SEO?
Blog / Tips & Tricks / What Makes a Link Bad for SEO?

If you want to receive targeted traffic to your website via organic search engine results, you need to know about SEO. And when it comes to off-page SEO, link building is a technique that has long been considered more important than anything else.

Over the years, however, Google has gotten a lot smarter at identifying websites that appear to have ‘unnatural’ links pointing to them. If Google decides that you have too many of these ‘bad’ links, you may end up being penalised, leading to a drop in rankings, or possibly even deindexing.

In 2016 and beyond, website marketers need to scrap the old, outdated link building strategies altogether and focus on building links the natural way if they want to impress Google. In this article we’ll explore the evidence for ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ links – as defined by SEO experts and Google themselves – and look at how you can get more of the good’uns to point at your site.

Link Building: A Brief Overview

Before we jump into what makes a link good or bad, let’s first look at (1) why links are necessary, and (2) a few important details on where we stand as of now in terms of what Google doesn’t want you to do.

As Moz finely puts it, links are sort of like “the streets between pages,” which the search engines follow them to figure out how one web page relates to another. Search engines will look at a link and use complex algorithms to analyze the web page in order to determine its popularity, authority, trust and spam, so it can rank it in search results accordingly.

You can think of a link as a vote for a website or a web page. When a site or a page gets a link from another site that’s not very old or hasn’t built up any trustworthiness yet, that vote won’t count for very much. On the other hand, a link from a site as authoritative as, say, CNN or the New York Times, is going to count as much a far more influential vote.

The buying and/or selling of links for SEO purposes is one particular black hat strategy that Google frowns upon, as noted in the Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) guidelines. A few more popular ways marketers would often work on their SEO included participating in link exchanges, launching large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns and using automated link-building software programs – all of which Google has really cracked down on over the past few years.

On April 24, 2012, Google rolled out the Penguin algorithm update, aiming to penalize marketers who were over-optimizing their sites by building unnatural links. It’s not entirely clear what factors the updated algorithm since Penguin looks at, but we do know that it specifically targets the type of low-quality, manipulative links that once actually helped with SEO.

What One Google Expert Had to Say About Link Building

In a live Google+ Hangout that took place in February of last year with Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller, he was asked if link building was in any way a good strategy for SEO. His answer, which you can hear around the 55:40 mark in the video, was: “In general, I’d try to avoid that.”

Mueller goes on to say that content should really stand out on its own and that webmasters should make it easy for others to link to it. “We do use links as part of our algorithm but we use lots and lots of other factors as well,” he says. “So, only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your website than it actually helps.”

Despite this important advice, marketers and SEO experts still believe that links are far too important to ignore. According to a survey of over 150 SEO experts, domain-level link features and page-level link features are the top two factors believed to influence Google’s algorithms.

SEO ranking factors graph

Image courtesy of Moz.

While the days when you could spin one little article 300 different ways and submit it to be published on several different sites and blogs via automated software might as well be over, link building as an overall strategy is far from being completely dead. You can still implement a strategy that works toward a more natural form of link building involving the creation and promotion of original content that adds real value.

More appropriately, link building should arguably be called ‘earning’ or ‘attracting’ links, which is the general term most people associate with the shady, black hat techniques SEO has been known to involve. But what you call it isn’t as important as how you do it.

Regardless of whatever wording you choose to describe it, the fact is that you need to have links pointing to your site that have a genuine connection from the source. You also need to know what a genuine link really looks like and how you can come up with a strategy to get more of them.

The 7 ‘Bad’ Types of Links You Really Don’t Want

Knowing what makes a link bad could mean the difference between seeing your site rank well or having it penalized by Google. According to Search Engine Land, there are seven big characteristics you should be on the lookout for:

1. A Link from a Domain with Low Authority or a Bad Reputation

Not all links are created equal. The more links you get from popular, trustworthy and authoritative sites, the higher you’ll climb in the search results. Don’t expect to get the same results by getting links from hundreds or thousands of low-authority, spammy sites.

In fact, if you build enough links from low-authority sites or sites with bad online reputations, Google will almost certainly catch on and penalize you for it. With that said, if a site with a bad reputation ends up linking to yours once in a while, you don’t have to immediately start freaking out. Remember, Google knows what looks natural and what doesn’t.

2. A Link with No Contextual Connection Between the Source and Your Site

If you’re a plumber in Denver, Colorado and you’ve got links pointing to your site from all sorts of Asia-based travel sites, then that could send a clear signal to Google that you’re probably up to no good with your SEO. The connection is clearly an awkward one.

Context and how closely the source relates to your site is more important than ever if you want to get on Google’s good side. And as the Google algorithm continues to be tweaked, you can only expect it to get better at measuring this factor.

3. Too Many Links from the Same Domain

When it comes to Google and links that look as natural as possible, it only makes sense that an excessive amount of them from the same source might raise a red flag. Another point worth knowing is that once you get that first link from a particular source, every link from the same source afterward decreases in value.

Rather than looking to attract a huge quantity of links from one or two sources, try to diversify your links as much as possible. It looks much more natural and it’s what Google wants to see.

4. A Link That Involves You Linking Back to the Source as a Reciprocal Exchange

“I’ll link to your site if you link to mine” is what website owners used to say to each other all the time in hopes of improve their standings with Google. Trading links with other people who ran websites had long been a popular way to work as a team to boost each other’s SEO, but today, it could get you penalized.

Even if the other site is similar and related to yours, having too many reciprocal links looks anything but natural, and Google notices these things when they get excessive. You’d be much better off by simply contacting website owners and asking if they would consider linking to your site where you think your link might provide real value.

5. A Link with Overly Optimized Anchor Text

Anchor text is the keyword or phrase that you can click on to visit the link. There was a time when putting the exact keyword or phrase you were looking to rank for in Google mattered a lot. Today, that big SEO rule is now pretty outdated.

If you try to build too many links using exact keywords and phrases, Google will see it and interpret it as shady link building. Just like we see nowadays in search query suggestions and results when we perform our own Google searches, Google also applies its intelligent understanding of semantics and context when crawling content too, rewarding links with anchor text that look like they genuinely belong there and add real value to the overall content.

6. A Link in a Random, Meaningless Place Without Supporting Content

Any link that’s posted on its own, away from any other content, is a good way to look like spam. Remember that Google looks at all of the content on a web page and is typically smart enough to understand the bigger picture of what it’s all about.

You wouldn’t publish a new blog post that has nothing to it but a link, would you? Keep this in mind when posting links in blog comment sections, forum message boards, social networks and anywhere else.

7. A Link That’s Part of an Obvious Link Scheme

A link scheme is used to manipulate a site’s ranking by building large quantities of links using varied patterns. Link wheels were once a popular form of link scheming, which would involve maintaining a number of smaller sites or blogs and using them to link back to one big main site (the one that was the target of a search ranking boost).

If Google catches you trying to fool them with your link scheme, you could find yourself in hot water. Link scheming is an outdated SEO trend that isn’t worth trying now or ever again if you want to do everything you can to avoid facing search ranking penalties.

5 Things You Can Do to Get More ‘Good’ Links

Working in a way that attracts more genuine links to your site isn’t impossible to do. And if you’re willing to put in the work, then you’re far better off sticking to Google-friendly techniques rather than putting so much time and energy (and possibly money) into snake oil SEO.

Renowned entrepreneur and digital marketing expert Neil Patel wrote a great post on Search Engine Land, offering marketers advice on what they should really be focusing on to build only the best links that don’t raise any red flags with Google:

1. Publish Guest Posts on Other Blogs

Guest blog posts have been abused by SEO black hatters in the past, but that doesn’t mean that guest posting as we know it is an entirely outdated form of getting links back to your site. It just means that the really spammy guest posts that add no value or are irrelevant to the content and source itself can’t be used for effective SEO.

Bringing value to the site’s audience through your guest post should be your number one priority, and as a reward, you get to include a link or two. Forget this one viral rule, and Google might catch on to what you’re really after: links and nothing else.

2. Create Infographics

Patel notes that while using infographics to attract more links isn’t quite as effective as it was a few years ago, it still works well. And it makes sense – people like it when content is delivered to them in a quicker, more visual way.

If you don’t have the budget to pay someone to create an infographic for you, Canva is a great free tool that lets you easily make them on your own.

3. Start Taking Social Media Promotion More Seriously

The more social shares a piece of content has, the higher the number of backlinks from a variety of domains it will have as well. The social links you get from actually sharing it don’t really count, unfortunately, but the more they’re shared, the higher the chances are that other people will see it and link to it.

4. Reach Out to Relevant People to Ask for a Link

This might seem like some kind of black hat SEO sorcery, but it’s really not if you’re reaching out to site owners and bloggers who might genuinely want to know about your site or a piece of content you created. It may actually be valuable to their audience.

If you mentioned an individual or a business in your content, you could contact that individual or business to let them know, which could result in them linking to your site. You could do the same if you cited someone else’s work or idea.

5. Work on Perfecting and Expanding Your Personal Brand

Growing your personal brand certainly isn’t the fastest way to gain links, but it will pay off over the long run. It isn’t any secret that people who trust and admire someone else will naturally want to promote and link to their content.

You can earn people’s trust and admiration by being genuinely interested in helping them and showing it off any way you can: by creating stellar content, interacting with your followers on social media, being real with your audience, sharing your struggles or imperfections and more.


Links certainly aren’t what they used to be, even compared to just a couple of years ago.

In general, if you put gaining a link before adding genuine value first, there’s a good chance that Google could interpret it as a bad link and penalize you for it. And even if you don’t get hit with that penalty immediately, then it could still happen eventually as the algorithm evolves and becomes even more effective at identifying manipulative SEO practices.

What sort of Google-friendly SEO techniques are you currently using to attract more links to your site? Let us know in the comments section below!

Article thumbnail image by ideyweb / shutterstock.com


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  1. Creating branded IFTTT networks works good too 🙂

    • Good tip, Matt! Glad you’ve found something that’s working for you 🙂

  2. Tom I’m writing a Blog post and adding links to local wedding vendors in my area. I’m adding some of my photos taken at the venues with the business links. I also wrote a paragraph explaining why I created the post and then the links. Is this a bad thing for SEO rating and will I get penalized for adding a dozen links to my post? Thank you.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this article. I was looking for some effective ways to optimize my presence on the internet. This article was of great help to me.

  4. Excellent article! I’ve never been a fan of the link farm techniques, and now I can share this article with clients that still believe that’s what it takes to get ranked high on search engines. I learned a lot about the bad techniques, and will start employing the suggestions under the good techniques. Thank you for making my job just a little bit easier!

    Valerie Cox
    Creative Director
    VEC Creative

  5. I work in SEO for years. It is true that the links are important. But what is important is the content.

    Rule #1 Content is the king: people will interest your content.
    Rule #2 Content is the king: people recommend your content to others
    Rule #3 Content is the king: some of those people will link you naturally!

  6. The best way of getting your page higher in Google = Quality content, quality content and more quality content. The best way of all = Monster blogging. Write very big in depth articles with correct SEO like h2-headings, pictures with alt text, video’s and text that answers the biggest questions visitors have and your article will end up in the top of Google.

    If you build more of those in depth articles and link them with another, you build a [Content Canon] which is one of the best link building techniques and you don’t need anybody else for that. Google loves this!

  7. Interesting… and it’s true that there are a lot of backlinks services out there, a ton on fiverr but all completely useless… Myself i’ve never spent so much time building backlinks, relying more on bing advertisements which is working pretty good so far… but your article is interesting and i am going to spend more time now building some links manually.

  8. Tom,

    Great article. And i like the part where you said “A Link in a Random, Meaningless Place Without Supporting Content”

    i see many site owners doing that. One of the common strategy is to donate to some old junky site for a link. While these sites may be high PA/DA but they do not provide any value to the users visiting the site. There are already thousand of donors.

    And i also believe that the best link is a link which is used by the users.

    Anyways, great post! and i am planning to work on the infographics to get some quality links from relevant blogs.


  9. I stopped worrying about Google and site position in search several years ago. We do write articles from time to time, and we do use a SEO plugin to get the basic structure in place on our site. Other than that we don’t make any off page SEO efforts at all. We have no external link strategy in play.

    Why? Because just like every other marketing technique you apply it cost money to do it right. And if you start thinking about SEO from this perspective, you begin to realize that it isn’t worth the effort to waste money on Google.

    So how do we get traffic?

    Social Interaction.

    This is where the effort and money spent marketing pays off. I have found that moving the marketing dollars we used to allocate for Google SEM and SEO, into social marketing our ROI went from a net negative, to a 3-1 return.

    If your wasting big dollars on chasing SEO and getting no love from it, rethink your strategy and try social marketing.

    Nothing says success like a transaction in the cart and these days direct one on one interactions are your best bet to bring traffic to your site. Especially if your business category is highly competitive.

    • Jerry, that exactly what I do. You’re 100% right! I don’t worry one bit about where I’m at in the search results. I’ve learned that if you just make good content and be friendly with other websites, it will go far. I leave it all up to Google to find/rank me. Like you, I do the basic SEO plugin.
      Social marketing is key. Get more people to interact with your website and it will grow naturally. I always encourage people to leave comments because it shows traffic. I’ve learned that if you have something great, people will come. Like Tesla Motors, they have yet to make a TV commercial. Their fans are their best marketing tool. They love the cars so much they make commercials for them and even build websites that talk about their cars.

      I co-authored a website that generated nearly a million hits per month. We worked with smaller reputable websites, newspapers, and YouTube channels. It wasn’t long until satellite radio, national magazines to TV networks started to call us for interviews. All this was achieved without doing any SEO other than the basics of making the site spider friendly and keeping the content fresh.

  10. Great article! On my blog (craft related) I really focus on content and engaging with my followers. This has naturally evolved into guest posting on other blogs and platforms, which is great. For some reason in mid 2015 I had a lot of trouble and wasn’t getting nearly as many views from Google. I don’t really know why, and it has been a struggle to recover from that. At the same time my Alexa rating went down, but it’s been slowly climbing since then. I guess even when you do everything right and organically you can sometimes somehow get penalized? I don’t know. But the main purpose of my blog is to help and teach, so I still focus on that and hope that Google can see that!

  11. Hi Tom another good post. Thanks for detail analysis on backlinks. I am SEO expert with 10+ years of experience. I am following all white hat SEO techniques from day 1 before google’s major algorithm update in 2012.

    My main technique is to create valuable backlinks from local directories because now a days “Local SEO” matters a lot.

    Second, create own blog and do posting on blog regularly with unique contents.

    Third, Social Media sharing of our own blog posts and do interesting topics posting on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin. Photo sharing on Pinterest.

    Fourth, Guest posting in relevant third party blogs & forums.

    Please share few more SEO techniques/ideas in your future posts. I would like to hear more from yourside on latest google core algorithm updates in last 2 weeks.

    Vishal Patel

  12. Guest blogging is extremely dicey. Matt Cutts of Google posted an important statement against guest blogging two years ago. Guest blogging is the reciprocal link building of the late 2000’s. It’s unfortunate that guest blogging as a link building tactic is still being recommended.

    Many sites were penalized under Penguin for guest blogging. In 2014 the guest blogging “matchmaker” MyBlogGuest was penalized, just to highlight how guest blogging is on Google’s radar.

    Back in the day people justified reciprocal link building by saying they only did it with high quality sites that were relevant. After reciprocal linking fell out of favor link buyers said link buying was ok because they only did it with high quality sites that were relevant. One ten million dollar VC funded link seller claimed that this was Google friendly because it helped Google show high quality relevant sites. And they were banned, too.

    I’ve been in this business for over sixteen years, I’ve seen these trends come and go. If you are going to pursue guest blogging as a link building tactic be very careful. Some have even been penalized for just a single bad guest post.


    • Matt Cutts also said though, that real QUALITY guestblogging is worthwhile. The problem is that too many people automized guestblogging.

      The texts submitted for low-quality guestblogging often only follow the minimum recommendations set by google. In order words: just slightly over 300 words, packed with keywords and one or two links + one generic wikipedia or news site external link, and very little value content that actually offers something to readers. (I know, because I had to apply this technique at work for a while, though I never used it for my own websites.)

      As opposed to high quality guest blogging, where the guest blog entry is primarily about the content and informing the reader. You can immediately recognize those blog entries, since they’ll usually have 1000-1500 words (sometimes even more), very few backlinks (exclusively to relevant external sources of the same topic–not wikipedia!) and then one backlink back to the author’s page.

      Many people can’t see the difference between those two apparently. But having been forced to create the low quality type for over a year, I immediately know what’s up when I see one.
      It just doesn’t look natural, no matter how much the website owners try. I think it’s mostly about the content. As an experienced reader you recognize whether the author actually wants to transfer a message in his/her text, or whether the text is just bla-bla in order to fill the page to ‘hide’ a link. 😉

      Also, a lot of blogs picked up the habit of making every blogpost a guestpost. So you’d have one guestpost after the other. Obviously you don’t have to be a genius to recognize what’s going on there. 😉

  13. I’m finding it hard to keep up with all the different rules for effective SEO as what works one month is almost penalised the next.

    We generally place keyword related back links on all websites we do, but I’m not sure this is a good idea after reading this post.

    How can a link building strategy be put in place, for it to be blown out of the water soon afterwards.


    • You need to follow Google rules for your SEO & Website Structure. I am sure after that your website will not be penalized. I have developed many big websites and have done SEO for them and all are very successful without any penalty from Google. Google has customer oriented approach.

  14. Hello,

    Thanks for the article I learned a lot from this :).
    I have 1 question though. What if I create my own blogs? Both free blogs like blogger, tumble etc and some extra websites on which I start to post blogs. I won’t link to my own site on every article but on like 1 every 5-10 articles. Would google see this as spam even if the articles are still good and provide value?

    • You can create Blog under our own domain (subdomain) or create blog on blogger or wordpress. And maintain it properly with unique content posting. If you’ll create your own blog under your domain then it would help your domain value by more visitor traffic.

      • Thanks, but I meant for backlinks? Is it oke if I would also start some blogs just to create backlinks to my sites.

        • Yes, you can start new blogs for backlinks but make sure about unique content and relevant post on your blogs and share it on social media. You can start photo sharing as well on pinterest.

          • Thanks man 🙂

  15. Thank you so much Tom for this interesting post. I enjoy reading all posts on your site as I find them valuable to someone like me who constantly strives to optimize my web presence.

  16. I am curious. I financially support some good, legitimate organizations. In return, they have a sponsors page with my logo and a link to my site. It seems based on your article this would be bad? Correct? This is all legit and above-board and I must admit I do it in part for the link (small part – the donations I make cost way too much for “link buying”), but more so for the charity and tax right-off. What do you think? Thanks,

    • Mmmh… Drew your comment is interesting… I do something smilier by puttting in the footer of all my recent websites a “Developed by …. link.”
      This has brought me new business by people that visit the site I made and wonder ho made it… But like the article says it looks like for SEO practices this is counterproductive. I have all sort of clients in Real State, small business, schools, etc… Will Google think I’m linking building and penalize me?

      Anybody else has some thoughts on this…?

      • “Developed/Made by” links on footer are good for promotion and getting new visitors/clients, but they are considered spammy if they have a “dofollow” just put a “nofollow” attribute and you will be safe, that’s what i have heard from experts…

  17. Good links, point #1, 2nd paragraph: I love this paragraph. Guest posts to articles like this should bring real value. not just a meaningless post with a spammy link back to their website.

    Good links, point #3 – So using auto-sharing software like Publicize to share posts to connected social media profiles….is this considered spam or black-hat or do these links simply not count as valued authority? If the latter, I am glad you said that it still provides additional visibility. On this subject without getting off point, it is important to note that if one does use this software to autoshare blog posts, don’t forget to go into each of those social media profiles to engage with those audiences individually. Quality – not quantity.

    Bob The Website Builder

    • Hi Rob, Social Sharing is different thing. If you go to “Google Analytics -> Acquisition”; there is 1 separate channel called “Social”. You can check traffic coming from all Social Media here on your website. So basically Social Sharing is not black hat technique. Its just to engage more visitors/users on your website.

      As mentioned in Tom’s post, The social links you get from actually sharing it don’t really count, but more people share it and more people will engage/click on your link and they will redirect to your website. So basically you’ll get traffic from Social Sharing and check it on Google Analytics for better conversion analysis.

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