Backlinks are still a big deal. You can define SEO in two major contexts—onsite and offsite optimization strategies—and one of those, offsite optimization, is almost exclusively reliant on the power of backlinks for development. The more backlinks you have, and the more powerful those links are, the more authority you’ll build, and the higher you’ll rank for relevant terms in user searches.
Unfortunately, not all backlinks are created equal. High quality backlinks are extremely valuable, increasing your reputation, improving your domain authority, and ultimately increasing your visibility in Google. But low quality backlinks can actually have a detrimental effect on your SEO, lowering your authority and earning manual penalties that can seriously compromise your inbound traffic.
Knowing the difference between high and low quality backlinks is crucial if you want your SEO campaign to succeed.
Low Quality Backlinks
Low quality backlinks can damage your reputation with Google and compromise your visibility in searches.
The source you use to build your backlink is the most obvious indicator of its quality. As a general rule of thumb, the lower the quality of the site, the lower the quality of the link will be. Posting a link on a disreputable, very low-ranking, or poorly designed site is going to carry a negative impact. Similarly, posting any link on a source designed specifically to manipulate rank is sure to earn you a penalty.
However, you’ll have to consider more than just the quality of your source; you’ll also have to consider its appropriateness. Anything completely unrelated to your industry could qualify your backlink as low quality due to its lack of relevance to the source.
The intention of your link is also a contributing factor to its quality, and yes, Google has ways of telling why you build the links you do. The biggest thing to watch out for here is the intention to directly improve your domain authority or rank; if Google determines that a link has no purpose other than to artificially generate traffic, it will be treated as low quality.
The structure of your link usually correlates to its intention; for example, if your link is posted by itself in a blog comment, with no introduction or explanation, it will usually be seen as spam. However, if your link is structured in the context of supporting content that’s free from spam indicators like “click here,” you won’t have to worry.
If Google starts to see that you’re posting the same link on all your external sources, such as a link to your homepage, it can be treated as a bad link. You want your links to be relevant to specific conversations and platforms, so avoid relying on one or two common link destinations.
Finally, the frequency at which you post backlinks can determine their quality. If you post backlinks on the same source multiple times a day in different instances, your links could be treated as spam. The same rule applies to multiple sources; if your backlinks suddenly skyrocket with no explanation as to why, you could be seen as spamming and your link quality could suffer.
The bottom line for low quality backlinks is that they serve no function other than to increase the target site’s traffic.
High Quality Backlinks
High quality backlinks will, when accumulated, reward your site with greater domain authority and higher search visibility.
The authority rule works for high quality backlinks in reverse; the higher the quality of your source, the higher the quality of your backlink. High quality sources generally include very reputable sites, with the most credible sites being those with a .gov or .edu distinction. Well-known authoritative sites, like major publishers and sources of information, are also great sources for high quality links.
You can also earn high quality backlinks by using highly relevant sources to your industry. Industry-specific blogs and forums are great opportunities for this, and the more specific your niche, the better.
The primary intention of high quality backlinks has nothing to do with rank manipulation. Instead, the highest quality links are built for a valuable purpose; for example, links that are built in order to establish credibility, elaborate on a point, cite a fact, or connect one important site to another all share a common goal to increase value or provide substance to existing content.
High quality links have a more reputable structure than a standalone link. Typically, they are framed in explanatory text; for example, a link could be introduced in a forum comment with a quick explanation for why it’s being posted, or the link could be housed in the body of a high quality guest blog.
Link quality increases with the diversity of links you use. Simply pointing to a homepage time after time is going to earn you a negative reputation, but high quality links tend to point to very specific internal pages as sources, serving a specific function and getting to a specific point.
High quality links also enjoy a reasonable frequency. They are posted sporadically over time, rather than in fits and spurts, and they are never spammed into one source all at once.
The bottom line for high quality backlinks is that they’re intended to improve a user’s overall experience.
Keep your offsite SEO strategy ripe with high quality backlinks, and avoid those low quality backlinks like the plague. If you’re ever concerned about the makeup of your current backlink profile, or if you’re interested in auditing your current link building efforts, use a tool like Open Site Explorer to analyze your backlinks and watch out for any low quality offenders. It’s a good idea to clean up your profile from time to time, and actively work toward keeping your links as high quality as possible.
Timothy Carter is the CRO for AudienceBloom. Since 1997 he's been helping businesses maximize their sales revenue from websites via content marketing, SEO and Internet Marketing strategies. Over the years he's written for publications like Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications.