There are a number of ongoing, raging debates about link building in the SEO community, from whether manual link building is acceptable to best practices for a dofollow/nofollow ratio, but there are a few things we all can agree on. First, links definitely have a major influence on your ranks. Without backlinks, it’s virtually impossible to get any domain significantly ranked. Second, some links are better than others, and there are clear, objective traits that make those links better or worse than one another. Links from higher-authority domains are worth more than those from low-authority domains, and so on. Finally, “bad” links can hurt your domain authority, causing your rankings to tumble and possibly (though rarely) earning you a full-blown Google penalty.
All this leads to a deceptively simple question about the nature of links in general. If there are “bad” links, does that mean any non-“bad” links are good links? Are there only two categories of links (“good” and “bad”), or are most links somewhere in the middle?
One of the most important considering factors for a link’s quality is the root domain it’s being linked from. If there’s a link pointing to your site from a scam site, it could compromise your authority. If you have a link from a major university, on the other hand, you’ll stand to benefit greatly. Domain authority doesn’t function in a pass/fail scale—as you’ve no doubt experienced, it’s much more of a sliding scale. There are good sites, bad sites, okay sites, and everything in between out there, so the domain strength can’t necessitate the creation of a good or bad link, exclusively. Imagine a link on an “okay” site, in the middle—could you consider that a good link or a bad link? The answer is “neither” for this factor alone.
Along with domain strength, Google also considers the page strength of the link in question’s source. For example, a link from a Home page or Contact page is automatically given more authoritative strength than a link on a blog, or buried in some far-off hole of your site. Again, this doesn’t necessitate a pass or fail—page authority functions on a sliding scale, and there are no pages that could immediately turn a link into a “bad” link. You could make the semantic argument that if no links can be “bad” links in this factor alone, all other links must be “good”—but do acknowledge there’s a sliding scale of quality.
Anchor text has less middle ground to play with. The text in which your link is embedded speaks volumes about the quality of your link. If you have no anchor text and the link is free floating, the quality of the link dips. If you have irrelevant or spammy anchor text like “BUY NOW!!!” the quality of the link dips. Other than that, as long as your text is relevant to the link and the conversation, you’ll be good to go—keywords in anchor text aren’t as important as they used to be. For this factor, there are definitely “good” links and “bad” links.
Google is sophisticated enough to understand the context of your link. The nature of the site, the nature of the page, the topic, the conversation, and the use of your link are all taken into consideration. If it looks out of place, its authority dips. If it looks helpful and appropriate, its authority rises. As you can imagine, there are very few instances of flat-out “right” and “wrong” here—so this factor functions on a sliding scale.
The diversity of your link profile also comes into consideration, though this doesn’t affect any one link. More links on a wider range of sources is always a good thing, while piling all your links on one source can actually hurt you. Even if that one source has a high authority, participating in a link exchange or funneling all your links to one source can degrade the overall authority of those links.
Truly “Bad” Links
Forget about the strength of the domain, the anchor text, and other “soft” factors for a link’s quality. There are some links that are truly, objectively, and inarguably bad. Google doesn’t hide this—in fact, it does a pretty good job of explaining exactly what constitutes this level of bad link, and exactly what kind of repercussions you can expect to face from trying to build one. Its short version describes any link deliberately intended to manipulate your PageRank, but really what it’s referring to are links you’ve spammed, stuffed, bought, or schemed into existence. This is a major black hat practice, and one you probably (hopefully) aren’t participating in, so these are the most egregious offenders. Chances are, they’re going to earn you a harsh penalty from Google itself.
The Short Answer
The short answer, which you’ve probably figured out if you’ve read any of the other sections, is that links can’t be separated into “good” or “bad” categories. Link quality functions on a sliding scale, much like the quality of content, or food, or movies, or anything else in life. Some links are objectively more valuable than others, but these broad categories are ambiguous and undescriptive. The only exception to this analysis are deliberate spam links, scheme links, or paid links, all of which blatantly and recklessly violate Google’s official policy and can earn you a manual penalty. Stay clear of those types, and aim to build the best possible links you can.
In his 9+ years as a digital marketer, Sam has worked with countless small businesses and enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP and human rights organization Amnesty International.
He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building.
In his 9+ years as a digital marketer, Sam has worked with countless small businesses and enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP and human rights organization Amnesty International. He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building.