If you’re aiming to rank highly in the search results, building great backlinks is one of the most important things you can do as part of your SEO strategy.
But what are backlinks, and why does your website need them?
As the name implies, backlinks are links from other websites that go back to your website. They’re also called inbound or external links. A website with lots of high-quality backlinks tends to rank better because Google and other search engines see it as an authority source.
Unfortunately, Google doesn’t count all backlinks equally. Over the years as a result of optimizations in the algorithm and responses to incidents, the way that backlinks are considered for Google’s SEO has changed. If you’re getting links from a bad website, Google can penalize your site and lower its place in the search results.
Sounds scary, doesn’t it?
If you want to know how to vet link prospects for SEO, I’m here to help.
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Website Quality Matters
I can tell a lot about the quality of a website just by looking at it. You don’t want backlinks from sites that look spammy, are filled with poor grammar, or are packed with a bunch of annoying and intrusive ads.
Sometimes, though, a site’s quality isn’t obvious at first glance. When I’m checking for quality, I look for:
- Authority: Who wrote the content, and what are their credentials? If the content’s topic is medical, legal, or financial, make sure the authors have expertise in the field. Check the site’s URL, too. Resource pages that end in .edu, .org, or .gov tend to have the highest authority.
- Accuracy: Is the content accurately written? Can you verify the information from other sources? If the content is questionable or just plain wrong, the site won’t be a good source for your backlinks.
- Timeliness: Does the site have recently written, regularly updated content? Or is the latest blog post dated from months ago? Google values fresh content and may push sites that publish regularly higher in the search results.
- Objectivity: Does the site seem biased? For example, a blog post about the best credit cards may indicate bias if the site makes money from credit card application referrals.
- Uniqueness: Is the content on a page 100% unique? Plagiarism isn’t just unethical—Google heavily penalizes websites that steal content or duplicate it from other sources. If you run a website’s content through a plagiarism checker and get bad results, it’s a site you should steer well clear of.
When I’m building backlinks, I look for sources that are topically relevant to the content on the site I want to rank for.
For instance, if your website sells books, avoid backlinks from sites about gardening, politics, pets, and other irrelevant topics. You might feel tempted to look for link opportunities from any source, especially if you’re new to link building, but that’s a strategy that can do more harm than good.
Also—and I can’t stress this enough—do not purchase your backlinks from a guest post link farm! Vetted, high-quality sponsored links have a place in your marketing plan—but that’s not what I’m talking about.
Link farms sell hundreds or thousands of poor-quality backlinks, sometimes for pennies apiece. The content is usually irrelevant to your niche, and if the links are too off-topic, Google can penalize your site and make it go down in search result rankings. Especially considering the fact you can easily find free SEO tools that can give you higher-quality backlinks, link farms should never be part of your consideration.
Here are a few tips to help you recognize a link farm:
- Unoriginal content that you can find on other sites (this includes spun content, or content that was rephrased from the original with minimal changes)
- Anonymous writers with names like “Guest Poster” or “Team Website Name”
- Writer photos that are stock images, not pictures of real people
- Poorly written content that’s full of spelling and grammar errors
- Content that seems generic and doesn’t convey anything of substance
- An overwhelming number of keyword-rich external links scattered throughout the content
Are Link Farms the Same as Private Blog Networks (PBNs)?
I’d like to add a quick note on private blog networks here. PBNs exist specifically to drive content back to a main website, usually a website that’s designed to make money. The goal is to manipulate the search engine algorithm by sending a lot of traffic from many different blogs and websites.
How are PBNs different than link farms? Sites in a farm only link to each other, while PBNs send traffic to a website that’s outside the blog network. Although the purpose isn’t quite the same, PBNs and link farms both spell bad news for your site.
You can use tools like LinksThatRank.com to vet a site. Just enter the site URL to see if it’s bad news.
If Google thinks your links come from a PBN, it might ignore them, meaning they’ll have no bearing on where you end up in the search results. Worse, your site could go down in ranking, or it might even be removed from search results entirely.
If you’re tempted to use PBNs for your site, I have one word of advice for you—don’t.
Check the Traffic
Websites with high traffic give you the best backlinks. Google values backlinks from sites that get millions of visitors a month more than those from small blogs that hardly anyone visits.
You’ll find many free and paid link building tools that tell you how much traffic a site gets. These tools show you important metrics such as unique visitors, pages per visit, bounce rate, and more.
Aim for websites where visitors view multiple pages per visit and spend at least a few minutes on the site before leaving.
You’re also looking for sites with a low bounce rate. If the bounce rate is high, it means users couldn’t find what they were looking for easily, the page title was misleading, or the content was irrelevant to their search term.
Duplicate Backlink Sources
Multiple backlinks from the same website aren’t necessarily bad, but for SEO purposes, it’s generally best to favor quality over quantity.
You want to aim for high-quality sites that get lots of traffic for the best backlinks. If I had to choose between one backlink from an authoritative source or several backlinks from a lesser-known site with mediocre traffic, I’d pick the first option every time.
I know that if a site is ranking highly for keywords that are relevant to my niche, it’s probably going to be a great source for backlinks.
Think about the keywords you’d like to rank for. Let’s say you’re targeting keywords like “best-selling thriller novels” or “self-help books for moms.” Plug those terms into a rank checking tool, and you’ll get a handy list of websites that are ranking well for those keywords.
If you’re not sure which keywords to target, run an analysis on competitor backlink profiles and learn what terms they’re ranking for. Then, you can build better content that’s more useful and engaging than anything your competitors offer.
It’s also important to avoid sites that rank highly for keywords that are irrelevant or spammy. Keywords such as “multi-level marketing,” “no investment required,” and “work from home” are just a few that could have some relation to spam.
Why avoid sites with these keywords? If these sites link back to your own, they could send you low-quality traffic that can make your website plummet in the search results.
Before you put your backlinks on any site, check its outbound links to make sure they lead to sites you’re comfortable with. For instance, you may not want to associate with sites that link to casinos, adult material, overseas pharmacies, and other potentially shady content.
For small sites, you can simply check their outbound links manually. If the site has dozens or hundreds of links, try a link checking tool. Both free and paid tools will alert you to links that are spammy, broken, or lead to pages infested with malware.
Here are some more signs of sites with bad outbound links that you should never ignore:
- Keyword stuffing: This is the practice of jamming keywords into content repeatedly or in places they don’t belong. Look out for weird phrasing, big blocks of text, and keywords that appear over and over again in a way that doesn’t sound natural.
- Cloaking: Cloaked content tries to manipulate search rankings by showing different content to visitors and search engines. For example, a user might expect a page about dog care, but the site sends them to a page for an online casino instead.
- Misleading purpose: These sites claim to offer a certain tool or functionality to trick people into visiting. A visitor might click on a site thinking they’ll find a Spanish-to-English translation tool. But when the page loads, they’re slammed with pop-ups and other intrusive ads—and that translation tool is nowhere to be found.
Now you should have a better idea of how to vet link prospects for SEO. Outbound links, keyword rankings, topic relevance, and overall website quality all deserve equal consideration when deciding where to put your backlinks.
By following my tips, you’ll land high-quality, authoritative backlinks that propel your business’s website in the search rankings. Try them out and see how far link building can take you!