The Dark Side of Link Building: How to Avoid Penalties

Link building is one of the best marketing strategies available. It can help you attract more traffic, generate leads, improve your brand visibility and recognition, and even improve your reliability. But if you’re not careful, link building can also work against you. There’s a dark side to link building, and it threatens to hurt your business’ visibility and reputation if you don’t know how to go about it.

Link Building Basics

In case you haven’t heard of this strategy before, link building is all about building links to your website on external sites. For reasons that will become apparent, this is usually done by including a link in a guest post on another website’s blog.

In any case, the presence of the link combined with its presentation can immediately boost the visibility of your brand and help you build authority in your sector. Readers who come across the link and find it interesting will likely click on that link and follow it to your website, which will drive traffic. Link building is also beneficial for search engine optimization (SEO) because it increases your reliability in the eyes of Google and other search engines.

The Threat of Link Building Penalties

So what is the dark side of link building? To sum up: the penalties. If you link incorrectly or unnaturally, Google and other search engines treat your link building as an unethical practice. If you’re caught deliberately trying to manipulate your search rankings or otherwise harm the user experience, you could end up sabotaging your own authority and plummeting search engine rankings. In other words, you will be doing your SEO campaign more harm than good. In addition to actively denying benefits you would have otherwise received, you will significantly damage your brand reputation.

For this reason, it is also possible (although rare) for other companies to deliberately sabotage your brand by using shady link building practices against you. This is called negative link building, and it’s worth watching out for.

Proactively avoid penalties

The best way to avoid the dark side of link building and get the most out of the strategy is to proactively avoid penalties. Here is the framework you need to use to do this:

  • Start with a solid strategy. Before creating a single link, start with a solid strategy. It’s up to you to understand the link building mechanisms and terms and conditions of Google and other search engines. You need to know exactly what it takes to build a high-quality natural link, and you need to be prepared to follow those criteria to the letter. You should also have a documented strategy in place for all of your employees or contractors, so you never run the risk of creating a problematic link that damages your reputation.
  • Work with approved partners. Many companies struggle to build connections on their own, in part because it’s an overwhelming responsibility, both in terms of knowledge and time. Instead, they turn to help from link building agencies and entrepreneurs. This can be extremely beneficial, but it can also harm you if you choose the wrong partner. Always be sure to vet your partners carefully and choose people who are going to practice White Hat link building tactics.
  • Use a backlink or website rank checker. A backlink checker is a tool to help you identify and evaluate all links currently pointing to your website. Other website rank checker tools allow you to see your current position against the competition. When you enter your domain, you populate a massive list of all the links pointing to that domain and where they came from. Here you can measure the success of your link building campaign so far and identify any links that may be causing problems. This is particularly useful if you know you have suffered a penalty or downgrade; this will help you narrow down the list and identify the source of the problem.

What makes a link “bad”

So what makes a bad link bad, exactly? What’s the difference between a link that helps your organization and one that hurts it?

At the individual level, these are the factors that make a bond problematic in most cases:

  • Clunky and unnatural anchor text. Anchor text should fit within the context of the article. If it’s obvious that your anchor text is just an SEO keyword, the link probably won’t stick.
  • Total indifference. The links you create should be relevant to your target audience, providing more information or entertainment to readers. If the link has nothing to do with the rest of the article or post, it will be removed or you will be penalized.
  • Unnatural placement. The same is true if your links are placed in an unnatural way. Having a bare hyperlink with no anchor text might have been normal 25 years ago, but it’s mostly unnatural today.
  • Sneaky redirects. You should also watch out for sneaky redirects; Google and other search engines don’t like it when you surprise readers by taking them somewhere they weren’t expecting.

All in all, these are also problems:

  • Spamming tactics. This is one of the reasons why link building automation does not work. If you’re spamming links, placing them where they’re not welcome, or including them in a way that detracts from the experience of average users, you’re eventually going to get a penalty.
  • Repetitive links. Your link building efforts should be as diverse as possible. Linking repeatedly to a single page on your website or using the same editors over and over could get you penalized. Try to link to a wide variety of internal pages on a wide variety of publishers.
  • Repeating anchor text. Choosing specific anchor text can help you optimize for specific keywords and phrases, but you also need to make sure your anchor text is natural. If your two repeats with your anchor text, or your anchor text doesn’t match, it will work against you.
  • Aggressive scaling. Even if you have the budget for it, Link building professionals advise against aggressive scaling. In other words, don’t build too many links too quickly. If Google notices an overwhelming number of links to your site in a short time, it will raise suspicion.

Process penalties

Let’s say your site suffered a specific penalty or measurable ranking drop. What can you do to fix this problem?

  • Locate the source of the problem. First, you need to locate the source of the problem. If you have received an official manual penalty from Google, you will likely have a written explanation of why this penalty exists. It makes your job easy. If your ranking is dropping, the source of the problem could be a number of things. It could be a piece of content that you wrote. It could be the rise of a new competitor. It could even be a redesign of Google’s algorithm. But if you rule out those possibilities, the answer is probably one (or more) suspicious link. Use a backlink checker to assess the quality and naturalness of all your links and look for likely culprits.
  • Petition for the removal of the link. Once you find where the link is, ask the webmaster to remove it. Most of the time, a simple e-mail is enough to have the link permanently removed. It may take some time to recover your website, but the damage will no longer persist.
  • Disavow the link. If the webmaster refuses to remove your link, or if you can’t reach anyone, you can also use Google’s Disavow tool to request that the link be ignored. However, you should only use it as a last resort.

Link building is, indeed, a powerful and beneficial strategy, but only if you use it responsibly. Fortunately, you can avoid most penalties and secure more value from your link building efforts with a few basic improvements to your strategy.

Nate Nead

Nate Nead

Nate Nead is the CEO and Managing Member of Nead, LLC, a consulting firm that provides strategic consulting services across multiple disciplines including finance, marketing, and software development. For over a decade, Nate has provided strategic advice on mergers and acquisitions, capital sourcing, technology and marketing solutions for some of the best-known online brands. He and his team advise Fortune 500 and SMB clients. The team is based in Seattle, Washington; El Paso, Texas and West Palm Beach, Florida.

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