Ranking penalties, as the result of Google algorithm updates, have plagued search marketers and webmasters since the search engine got serious about defeating spam back in the late 2000s. The Penguin update of 2012 and its subsequent iterations were responsible for most of the link-related ranking volatility of recent years, distributing penalties to sites with irregular, irrelevant, or otherwise non-valuable backlink, leaving many to abandon or dramatically overhaul their offsite SEO strategies.
Today, backlink building is still an integral part of any SEO strategy, as a means of increasing your site’s domain authority and making it easier to rank for almost any phrase. While there are modern tactics to build a high quantity of links without earning a penalty from Google, the safer approach is to incorporate a long-term, penalty-proof system of link building, which will keep you safe in the short-term and protect you against any future Google updates.
Step One: Choose Your Sources Wisely
Your first step is to build and maintain and inventory of quality external sources where you can build links. Consulting and abiding by this list will protect you against penalties based on the type of sources you use, and help boost your domain authority even further by increasing your relevance and building meaningful associations.
As a general rule, you should scout for sites that are authoritative (meaning they’ve been around for a while, they have value for their users, and a respectable amount of traffic), and sites that are directly related to your industry. You can find these sites by performing regular Google searches, using an aggregated news feed, or by examining the link profiles of your competitors using a free tool like Open Site Explorer. Collect a long list of these possible sources and begin making requests for your links on a rotating basis.
Be sure to avoid the following types of non-authoritative sources:
Article directories. Article directories exist for the sole purpose of publishing random articles for the sake of building backlinks. Such sites are few and far between since Google began their crackdown, but stay far away from them regardless.
Link farms. Link farms, much like article directories, exist solely to help other sites build backlinks. They publish hundreds of links pointing back to your domain, but all of them are very low quality and will likely result in a penalty.
Payment-based sources. Google has an explicit policy against paid link building, which means that any links you pay for (other than advertising or affiliate links) can earn you a harsh penalty.
Irrelevant blogs or forums. Forums, blogs, and directories can all be quality sources for backlinks—but only if they are relevant to your specific field. Posting a link on an irrelevant forum, or in an irrelevant conversation, can do more harm than good.
Step Two: Post Like a Person
If the search engine giant suspects that your link was built through automation or by a scheme to improve your rank, it will penalize you. So if you post like an ordinary, unbiased user with no ulterior agenda, you’ll be in the clear.
There’s no “trick” to getting past these evaluations of Google’s algorithms. Instead of trying to make your post look like it was posted to improve user experience, bypass that step and post content that is actually valuable.
The biggest key here is relevance. When you find a thread on an industry forum that seems like it might be a good fit for a link, read through it before you post. If your company doesn’t have anything to do with the topic, move on. If there’s a blog post that elaborates on a topic mentioned or substantiates a claim made in the thread, post a link to it! And don’t just post the link and be done with it; take the time to write up an explanation of why you’re posting the link, and why you think it would be helpful to the conversation.
Similarly, you’ll need to ensure that all your guest blogs and offsite content align with the expectations and standards of your offsite sources, and of course, ensure that they are well-written. Keep your hyperlinks to only what’s necessary or what’s helpful in understanding the article.
Step Three: Diversify
Another key in making sure you avoid any penalties in the future is to diversify your entire strategy. You’ll want to include as much variation as possible in every step of the process if you want to hedge your bets against the search engine’s next moves and stay ahead of the game no matter what.
First, you’ll need to diversify your sources. Hopefully, you’ve got a fairly long list of potential sources to draw from; take advantage of its entirety. Rotate your sources regularly, and never post too many links on any one source.
Second, you’ll need to diversify your timing. Don’t post all of your links on one day of the week or even worse, one day of the month. Spread your links out at random times over random days in an irregular pattern. Links look more natural that way.
Finally, it’s a good idea to diversify your link structure. Avoid posting the same link to your homepage over and over again. Instead, use deep links from your interior pages and blog posts to vary your external posts—it will also help ensure that your posts are specifically relevant to the conversation at hand. For good measure, be sure to build a significant number of linkless brand mentions as well. Brand mentions pass authority without garnering the negative attention of excessive backlinks.
Step Four: Audit Regularly
Unfortunately, maintaining solid best practices throughout your implementation isn’t enough to fully protect you against the possibility of a penalty, or even against the possibility of error in your own work. If you want to maintain the quality of your strategy and catch potential problems early on, the best course of action is to audit your backlink profile on a regular basis.
There are a few ways to do this, but the easiest is to consult a link-based search tool like Open Site Explorer, which we mentioned above. Here, you’ll be able to review all the links on the web that are pointing back to your site, and evaluate them for diversity, appropriateness, and authority. If you find any links that are irrelevant or questionable, you can easily get rid of them by asking the webmaster to remove them. If you find that your strategy doesn’t include as much diversity as you’d like, or if you spot too many patterns in your posts, you can adjust your process accordingly.
Put these steps into action for your entire offsite SEO strategy, and you’ll protect yourself against whatever new algorithm updates Google throws at you. Google’s entire motivation in rolling out updates is to make the web a better place with more relevant, accurate content—so if you focus on creating the best possible online experience for your visitors and modern searchers, there will be nothing for the search engine to penalize.
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.