In short, harmful links are low-quality backlinks that lower Google’s opinion of your site. These links can be described as toxic, manipulative, unnatural and spammy, and the effect is the same whether you created them or not.
Link building is essentially websites giving you ‘votes’ so that Google can understand if you are an authoritative voice in your industry. Backlinks from authoritative sites with content that is relevant to your business can lift your position in search rankings, but irrelevant or spammy links can drag you down. Backlinks are one of the most important components of SEO, since they provide an indication to Google’s web crawlers that the website being linked to contains valuable, relevant and interesting information.
But what is a spammy link? Are spammy links the same as toxic links? Can too many harmful links hurt your site’s ability to rank? There can be some crossover between these definitions, which of course adds to the confusion, so let’s break it down…
- What is a spammy link?
- What is a toxic link?
- What is a manipulative link?
a) Paid links and paid link schemes
b) Bait and switch links
c) Link exchanges or reciprocal linking
d) Hidden links
e) An unnatural backlink profile
f) Too many links from spammy or irrelevant sites
- What does a natural backlink profile look like?
c) Location of referring domains
d) Social media links and mentions
e) Absence of toxic and spammy links
- What to do with spammy or toxic links?
What is a spammy link?
Some SEO’s use the phrase “toxic link” to include the type of “spammy” link that Google says their algorithms simply ignore. But, a spammy link is the type of link no one would actually purposefully build in order to improve rankings, but that most sites accrue anyway.
Usually, they consist of gibberish pages, generally very low Domain Authority (usually less than 20), with irrelevant anchor text. They can also include low-quality directories and low-quality guest posting.
Still, Google knows that if your site is all of a sudden inundated with unusual spammy backlinks with irrelevant anchor text, it’s unlikely that you have been building these to improve search results. For the most part, Google will simply isolate and ignore these in their algorithms.
Put simply, this isn’t as harmful as manipulative link building, however, it certainly isn’t something you want to include in your link building and digital PR strategy. Spammy links are often just more annoying than damaging, but that’s not to say they can’t hurt your website in the eyes of Google if you give them a chance to do so. There’s no good reason to have more spammy links than you will accrue naturally, so when it comes to link building, you need to concentrate on building the most natural and healthy backlink profile possible.
What is a toxic link?
A “toxic” link is generally considered to be a link that has the potential to harm your website’s ability to rank. Some SEO’s will say that any link that would be considered an unnatural link as per Google’s documentation on link spam should be considered “toxic” and could hurt your site.
Many of these types of links, though, have their origin in manipulative link building and black hat SEO tactics, which are unethical attempts to trick Google’s search engine algorithm in order to gain higher rankings. To combat any “SEO cheating”, Google penalises websites they catch using these black hat tactics.
So, what is a manipulative link?
Manipulative links are specifically those that have been made with the intention of manipulating PageRank and other ranking factors to improve Google rankings without regard for user experience or for the context in which it appears. Whether created knowingly or unknowingly, these types of links can do a lot of damage to your website and your rankings.
There are a number of ways to build links in a manipulative manner, but they all have one thing in common: they are aiming to deceive Google’s algorithm into thinking a page or website is more authoritative than it is, so that it will appear higher in the search engine results pages (SERPs).
Some examples of manipulative link building includes;
- Paid links and paid link schemes. These often produce toxic backlinks from spammy sites. Also, if Google finds that you’re using paid links to manipulate the algorithm, you may find that your site is removed from the index. This however doesn’t include affiliate links as long as you use the recommended markup – when there’s financial compensation associated with a link, the link should be declared with the rel=”sponsored” or rel=”nofollow” attributes.
- Bait and switch links. A bait and switch link claims to link to one thing but actually takes the user to something else. This is a huge no-no from both an SEO and user experience perspective! It’s deceptive, unlikely to build any trust with your target audience, and a surefire way to get a hit to your rankings from Google.
- Link exchanges or reciprocal linking. Put simply, a link exchange is when two websites agree to link to one another. The differentiating factor with this type of link building is whether the link and link text make sense within the context of the content in which they appear. If they do, and the link provides value with useful or interesting information, then it should be fine!
- An unnatural backlink profile. If your entire backlink profile is made up of the same types of links, for example, if all of your links are follow links or all nofollow links, all come from high Domain Authority sites, or all link into your homepage, this looks unnatural to Google and can appear manipulative.
- Too many links from spammy or irrelevant sites. When it comes to link building you’d be forgiven for thinking the more, the merrier. But quantity of links alone doesn’t make Google think your site is authoritative, you need diversity and relevance. You’re bound to have a couple of spammy backlinks to your website, but if there are too many, it’ll look as though you’re using those shady SEO tactics to manipulate rankings.
What does a natural backlink profile look like?
The perfect backlink profile differs for every industry and individual website. No two ‘perfect profiles’ will ever look the same. But, above all else, the perfect backlink profile is the natural backlink profile.
Just like it looks unnatural to have the majority of your backlinks coming from low domain authority, irrelevant sites, it looks equally as unnatural if 80% – 90% of your backlinks are coming from high domain authority websites.
The most natural backlink profile will have diversity and variation across domain authority and follow/nofollow links, but most importantly, the majority of links should be coming from topically relevant and niche-related sites.
In short, a backlink profile should make sense for the website.
So, what are the best practices when it comes to building a natural backlink profile?
- Relevancy. The most important factor when it comes to building a natural backlink profile is relevancy. Google considers these to be the links that are genuinely in their natural habitat. When it comes to SEO, Google is constantly updating the algorithm to focus more and more on relevance, including how it measures the value of links. But why, you might ask? It helps Google to get a better understanding of what your business offers, such as industry and services. Also, any increases in web traffic that you do create, are more likely to convert into future customers.
- Diversity. A diverse backlink profile looks genuine and authentic to both Google’s search crawlers and human website users, because it is! When we talk about diversity it covers everything from; the domain authority of linking websites which should include both high and low but generally aiming for a minimum of DA20, a good mix of follow and nofollow backlinks, natural and varied anchor text (including both keyword and branded), and the number of different referring domains. It’s much easier to fake a backlink profile which funnels links from one or two domains, than it is to build relevant content and links from tens or hundreds of referring domains.
- Location of referring domains. Another value-adding metric is if the referring domain is from the same location as your website. This is especially important when it comes to local SEO. It of course looks much more natural, and relevant, if the referring domains are at least in the same country as your business, but even better if they are in the same region.
- Social media links and mentions. It is well documented that links from social media sites don’t provide any significant direct SEO value, but you should certainly still have a handful in your backlink profile. Here’s why: If your content and campaigns are useful for, and resonate with, your target audience then you should expect that social media links and mentions would come naturally; Social signals including shares, linked and unlinked mentions are considered within Google’s off-page ranking factors and with it bring indirect SEO benefits; Social media links still generate traffic, and improving search visibility to increase traffic is the whole reason behind building backlinks in the first place.
- Absence of toxic and spammy links. All sites will naturally accrue a small amount of spammy links and mostly, when they are detected, Google will simply ignore spammy links in the algorithm. However, you certainly still want to avoid building links on harmful sites or using unnatural anchor text in your link building strategy.
What to do with spammy or toxic links?
Google says you should disavow backlinks if you have “a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site”. Google’s disavow tool enables you to inform Google that you do not want those backlinks to be considered when reviewing your backlink profile.
Conducting a backlink audit is necessary to check that your website is in good shape, and your house is in order, before you begin working on implementing a Digital PR link building strategy. This means you need to ensure there are no toxic backlinks, or a considerable amount of spammy links, that could hinder future SEO efforts, or worse, trigger a Google penalty. Even if you have never engaged in any underhanded link building, it is still a good idea to carry out a backlink audit so you can develop a strategy to manage any unwanted links or negative contributions to your wider SEO efforts.
The best way to avoid penalisation is to have an intelligent and strategic approach to your Digital PR and link building, that is informed by your wider SEO and onsite content blueprint. A natural backlink profile, and in turn higher rankings, take time and effort to build correctly. However, sticking to honest SEO practices will only benefit you in the long run. That doesn’t mean though, that you can’t speed up the process with a legitimate method…
If reading any of the above has made you wonder about tackling unwanted spam links and building an authoritative, and very natural, backlink profile; why not let NORTH do the heavy lifting and help maximise your online performance? Drop us a message, we’d love to chat.