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What Are Unnatural Backlinks?

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Identifying Backlinks that Are Harmful

Everyone is aware by now that Google can and will take action against what they determine to be in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and of particular interest to most website owners and SEOs is their guidance on any link schemes that can lead to a penalty.  I have not run into a single SEO that is not familiar with Google’s policy on unnatural links however where I have found disagreement and confusion is what constitutes an unnatural link?  To discuss the issue of unnatural backlinking it is necessary to first define what a natural backlink is.  Google considers a natural backlink as a vote for the quality of the site it is pointing to.  Basically, someone finds your site, reads your content and considers it to be of some value to their readers and inserts a link for them to follow.  You would not be aware of this initially and have not requested or paid for them to provide a link to you.  By definition, this is a natural backlink.  Any link that you have taken action to receive, such as payment or reciprocal linking should be No Follow links.

Having worked through several penalty recoveries I will provide my experience on links I most often find that lead unnatural backlink penalties and how to identify them easily.  In the simplest terms, any links that is established for the sole purpose of passing pagerank can be considered to be unnatural.  Links should be developed to drive traffic to your website rather than drive pagerank.  Obtaining pagerank is a natural benefit of good links however it should not be purpose.  One last item before discussing specific links is to keep in mind that links can be established without your knowledge.  Many times another website may include a link or multiple links to your site without you ever being aware of it and lead to you receiving a penalty.  For this reason is it imperative that you conduct a regular review of your backlink profile and continually clean up any possible problems.

9 Backlinks to Be On the Lookout For

  1. Site-wide Linking:  This is one that will catch Google’s attention immediately.  Many times these are placed in a footer or widget that appears on every page of a website.  Unfortunately, many web designers seem to not be aware that these should be No Follow links.  Making them Follow links will ensure they show up in Webmaster Tools as one of those Most Linked Sites so this is the first place you should check for them.  I have seen one case where this resulted in 2100 links, all Follow; a definite problem.
  2.  Buying Links:  This is one that is specifically addressed by Google as a violation of their guidelines if the links pass pagerank.  These type links are usually found on very low quality websites and will have numerous links on the same page.
  3.  Link Exchanges:  If a website has a backlink to you which is passing pagerank and you have a link back to them that also passes pagerank you are obviously in violation of Google’s guidelines.
  4. Use of Blogrolls:  Although this has been identified for some time as a problem area, there are still many sites using this tactic.  Blogrolls are easy to spot: they almost always have no contact information, the articles are not on a central theme, the overall theme of the blog is not relevant to your site, they contain many spun articles and they are most times a simple WordPress site.  Avoid these at all costs.
  5. Blog and Forum Commenting:  This is still a common practice and can also lead to serious problems for the site that participates in this tactic.  Most comments provide no real quality of substance to the article being discussed and the profile of the commenter is linked back to their website.  Another tactic is for them to post a comment with an optimized anchor text link in the post or signature.
  6.  Low Quality Directories:  To identify a low quality directory simply check out their pagerank.  Also check your site referrals to see if you have ever received a visitor from them.  In one case I found 3-4 directories that a client was listed on and over a period on one year they had not received a single visitor from any of them.  If you are an SEO, ask yourself if you have ever even heard of the directory.  Another area to look into is whether they have you listed in numerous categories to provide additional links.  Most reputable directories will only allow a listing in one area.
  7.  Advertisements Links:  Advertisements that link to your site should always be No Follow links.  These are paid links and should pass no pagerank.  Many times these will be site-wide in nature so making them Follow links is sure to draw Google’s attention.
  8.  Links in Press Releases:  Links with optimized anchor text placed in press releases can be considered unnatural and result in a Google penalty.  Google could penalize a web site because it could view the links in a press release as an attempt to unnaturally promote the site, particularly if the press release contains optimized anchor text links.
  9. Over-optimized Anchor Text Links:  Over use of anchor text linking can lead to a Google penalty.  A simple review of your backlink profile to examine the anchor text used to link will identify if you have over used a particular anchor text.  Although the exact percentage of any anchor text is still a subject of debate, a good backlink profile should contain the majority of links to the name or url of the website rather than one or two keywords or keyword phrases.

In conclusion always keep in mind what the overall purpose of your backlink building should be; to drive traffic to your website and not to simply grab all the pagerank you can get.  As long as you follow this tactic your backlink profile should be in good shape.