Your guide to SEO backlinks: The good, bad & ugly
Having a good quality SEO backlink strategy can be a powerful way for improving your website ranking in the search engines. However, the consensus among SEO consultants is that backlinks are the most “unscrupulous” area in their field.
Many websites have risen to power then fallen from grace just as dramatically through backlinks. But what exactly are backlinks and why is there a questionable reputation for their use in SEO.
What are backlinks?
Google uses around 200 ranking factors in their algorithms when deciding which pages and websites to send to the top of their search results. Backlinks, which are also known as links, linkbacks, inbound links, incoming links, external links, inlinks, and inward links, have for many years been a major component of Google’s algorithms. They are links placed on other websites pointing to your site.
Google for a long time looked upon these backlinks as votes of trust for your site. If website owners thought highly enough of your site to send traffic from theirs to yours then much like any recommendation it increased your credibility. Backlinks are a good indication that a website is popular.
However, in the early days of search engines when it became obvious backlinks could increase rankings of sites, it was the start of a race to rival the Melbourne Cup. SEO consultants were rushing to get SEO backlinks for their clients’ sites and while many were legitimate, there were dodgy practices.
Black hat and white hat SEO practices
Before we get into SEO backlinks strategies, which can only be described as questionable at best, a brief understanding of black hat and white hat SEO practices is needed.
When I was a kid, I’d love watching old western movies with my dad. The terms black hat and white hat as they relate to SEO originated from these classic western movies where hat colour would distinguish the characters.
The villain always wore a black hat, while the hero wore a white hat. In SEO land, black hat techniques and strategies are used to get higher search rankings and break search engine rules. They’re used mainly by people looking for a quick return on sites rather than a long-term investment based on trust and credibility. Some techniques used in black hat SEO include:
- keyword stuffing
- link farming
- hidden texts and links.
Consequences of black hat SEO can result in your site being banned from a search engine and de-indexed as a penalty for using unethical techniques (see further down).
In contrast, white hat SEO refers to using techniques and strategies targeting a more human audience opposed to trying to merely trick a search engine. Techniques typically used in white hat SEO include using keywords and keyword analysis, doing research, rewriting meta tags to be more relevant, link building to quality sites as well as writing quality content for human readers. Those who use white hat SEO expect to make a long-term investment on their website, as the results will last a long time.
What are black hat SEO backlinks?
The Online Co managing director James Parnwell says in the early days of search engines and the SEO industry, black hat SEO backlinks were rife and even remain a problem today.
“Backlinks are the most scammed place of SEO,” James says.
“Especially in the early days, websites were getting thousands of links to push up their SEO rankings.
“There were even whole businesses built around building websites to provide links to other websites.”
James puts the black hat backlinks into what he terms SEO 1.0 category.
“Businesses were even paying money, often even big money to have backlinks to their sites,” he says.
“They would be irrelevant backlinks but the more links to a site often the higher the ranking and of course a high ranking on Google for a term could make a business.”
How Google cracked down on black hat backlinks
So just as websites rose to the top of Google rankings, they fell as dramatically with some disastrous results for businesses.
To understand how this happened, we must realise just how far search engines, especially Google, founded in 1999, have progressed.
“Over the years, Google has solidly dispensed with their competitors one by one and they’ve become the doorway for millions of businesses to be found and grow worldwide,” James says.
“Google’s implemented numerous algorithm updates which have in effect cracked down on black hat SEO tactics including dodgy links.”
We won’t go into details about all these updates. However, some of the most significant to crack down on black hat SEO practices include Panda and Penguin. The first Panda update came into effect in early 2011 with regular updates continuing to ensure quality sites will rank higher.
Google’s former head of webspam Matt Cutts has said that with Panda the search engine took a big revenue hit with partners but its implementation has been a necessary crackdown.
“I believe it was the right decision to launch Panda, both for the long-term trust of our users and for a better ecosystem for publishers,” he says.
Webmaster Guidelines further worked to halt unscrupulous SEO practices trying to cheat the system and encourage good or white hat SEO practices.
“The Penguin update was rolled out in 2012 as basically a crackdown on users who insisted on prohibited SEO techniques like keyword stuffing and inappropriate link building,” James says.
For those sites considered by Google as trying to beat the system and in violation of their webmaster guidelines, the penalties hit hard.
Deindexing and penalties – Businesses hit hard
As James says the days of SEO 1.0 and trying to game the system are now over. Businesses practising in unscrupulous SEO methods have been met with harsh penalties by Google.
“Penalties can include Google putting you from the front page of search engine results to page 20 or even completely removing or deindexing the site,” James says.
“Google’s computing power and resources are vast. They know everything about your website and every other website on the net and how they fit together.”
His view is shared by Business Growth Digital Marketing founder David James, who in his ebook How to rank on the first page of Google admits to using black hat tactics in the early days of SEO.
“Back in the day, there were a lot of SEO tactics I used that contributed to spam but it was generally accepted in the SEO community and it worked,” David says.
“It was an era where many SEOs would do whatever they could to manipulate Google’s search results without considering the impact it would have on users’ experience.
“People were buying automated link building software to get 10,000 links in a day or using use article syndication software, paying for links and even publishing low-quality guest posts to obtain links on directories or article sites built purposely as link farms.”
David says it wasn’t until Google launched the Penguin and Panda algorithm along with other manual penalties that SEO consultants started to pay attention.”
“I’ll admit I was one of those people in the SEO crowd. “
David says he has seen many sad stories of businesses who’ve had their websites penalised.
“I’ve worked on several websites to remove penalties so their business will get back on track again,” he says.
I wanted to hear from businesses affected by Google penalties for their link strategy. There were many sad stories shared, including of businesses who took a long time to recover.
One such business hit hard was printing, design and online marketing services giant Snap, which had its website just disappear from Google.
In investigating why Snap was penalised marketing manager Cindy Haylen says the company made some important discoveries.
“Many toxic links were found to be the result of negative SEO,” Cindy says.
Negative SEO is another black hat practice of putting backlinks to a competing site to increase its probability of being hit with a penalty and consequently drop in search engine ranking.
“Other bad backlinks had been added on behalf of Snap by SEO consultants who were following widely accepted pre-Penguin SEO practices.
“Guest blogging, which is essentially syndicating company generated and attributed content onto third-party sites through well-known intermediaries, caused a lot of damage too.”
Cindy says Snap engaged SEO firm Area Ten to their site out of the ditch and back up on Google. Each link to the website was manually assessed for quality and relevancy to their website with careful attention not to remove any good backlinks.
“Google guidelines were used to manually assessing each link,” Cindy says.
“Removing a harmful link involves either using the Google Disavow Tool or directly contacting the webmaster to request its deletion.
“Either of these can take months, and there’s no guarantee they will work but we had to try.”
Ultimately, after removal of all the bad links, snap.com.au recovered its enviable Google search ranking.
Cindy says Snap has now implemented a strategy to prevent future problems including:
Analysing new links appearing on the site and addressing any threat identified before it can escalate to a penalty. Analysing links is important because of the unfortunate reality of negative SEO which businesses like Snap have no control over so can only monitor and respond to these threats as they appear.
The Snap website was redesigned to ensure every landing page was useful and relevant to its visitors, and that it loaded quickly on any device.
Following Google guidelines by only providing content that is relevant and fresh, along with a user experience that includes live chat support and a postcode-based office locator.
“The experience was a painful reminder that bad SEO can do much more harm than good,” Cindy says.
How to avoid backlinks dramas
Having your site penalised by Google can be a major and expensive drama for any businesses so in this case prevention is the best cure.
All the consultants interviewed for this piece recommend ensuring you only link out good quality and relevant sites.
“Having an experienced SEO consultant monitoring your site periodically you can also ensure dodgy sites are not linking to yours, again risking penalties by Google,” James says.
He also recommends a few tools you can use yourself to check and remove backlinks to your site starting with the Google Search Console (previously known as Google Webmaster Tool).
“It’s free and should already be enabled for anyone working on SEO for their website,” James says.
His other favourite tools for checking backlinks include SEMrush and Majestic.
While David is also a fan of the tools David mentioned, he also suggests Ahrefs, Rmoov and Link Research Tools.
“Probably my favourite is Ahrefs as it provides the most exhaustive list and is well-regarded in the SEO industry,” David says.
What to do if hit by a Google penalty
Discovering your site has lost its Google ranking or at worst removed from the search engine all together can be a devastating and costly blow for any business.
You may have received a Google manual penalty notification in your Google Console or noticed your website traffic suddenly take a nosedive. But if you have been penalised by Google what do you do?
Well, the first thing is to clear up your site from black hat SEO links. Clearing up your site can be a big and difficult job so you’ll probably need to enlist someone with experience.
If you feel you’ve done as much work as possible to remove spammy or low-quality links from your website, you can request Google to disavow the remaining links. In other words, you can ask Google not to take certain links into account when assessing your site.
You must then request to have your site re-indexed by Google.
“Basically, you’re writing an apology to Google with an assurance of not using black hat SEO tactics which are against their rules in the future,” James says.
“But for anyone who has gone through the pain of a Google penalty I’m pretty sure they’ll be careful to use white-hat SEO strategies in the future.”
David has written a useful article on 60 white hat SEO link building tips.
Some of these have already been mentioned in this article but other great ones include:
- Contributing to web forum discussions.
- Mentioning and citing experts (one-way anchor text backlinks).
- Contributing to question and answer forums like Quora.
- Pitching to journalists.
Remember, while backlinks are a great way to build authority and credibility on your website they can take time to build. Rushing in and using black hat tactics are not worth the risk. As James says everyone should now be thinking about adopting a reputable SEO backlinks strategy or as he calls it an SEO 2.0 approach: “If it feels wrong then it probably is wrong.”