Link building has been the subject of heavy scrutiny lately. Between advancing iterations of Google’s link-judging Penguin update and some scathing comments from Google’s own John Mueller, many in the SEO community have come to think of link building as a new taboo.
Since the dawn of online search engines, external links have been a major factor in calculating a domain’s overall authority, which in turn influences its ranks for various keywords. Google Penguin introduced a new determination algorithm, which scouted whether or not a link was “natural.” So-called unnatural links would earn penalties or hurt domain authority, while natural links would improve domain authority without issue. To get around this, many search marketers simply adjusted their link building tactics to make their links appear to be more natural, rather than relying on the cultivation of purely natural links.
Now, Google’s ability to detect natural links is more advanced than ever, and with some Google employees insisting that link building should be avoided altogether, it pays to know the real differences between natural and unnatural links.
The Strict Definition
In the truest sense of the definition, and the one Google uses as the basis for its algorithm development, natural links are ones that you had no part in creating. Some neutral third party decided that your domain was worth linking to, so they posted a link somewhere to prove a point or offer a resource.
Unnatural links, on the other hand, are any links that you put into place yourself. That means even your most carefully-placed, intelligently created, authoritatively sourced links are considered unnatural if you placed them with the intention of increasing your rank.
That being said, Google still isn’t all-knowing (though it gets a little closer every day). Its algorithm can only use certain indicators to judge whether or not a link is natural, and as long as your link passes those tests, you won’t be penalized. Learning these indicators can help you understand what types of links are considered natural, and how to structure your own links so they appear to be natural in Google’s eyes throughout the course of your link building campaign.
Types of Sources
First, Google takes a look at the type of source being used to host the link. If the link is pointing to a domain in an industry wholly unrelated to that of the source, it will be considered unnatural. As a result, keeping your links to only the most relevant sources of your industry or business is a wise strategy. On a related note, higher authority sources tend to pass more authority than lower authority sources, so getting a link featured on a major publisher or .edu site is much more natural and much more powerful than stuffing one into an article directory.
Google also looks for patterns in how and where you’re posting links. Essentially, it can tell if a particular series of links have been placed by the hands of a single individual or company. For example, if all your links are confined to only two or three different sources, Google will conclude that you’re either spamming the links or you’ve engaged in some kind of mutual link scheme with those other sources. Either way, your links will appear unnatural—so make sure you’re using a wide variety of different sources.
If all the links pointing back to your domain point to the same page, Google will deem them to be unnatural. For example, if you use your homepage as your primary URL when posting external links, eventually Google will pick up on your habits and penalize you. Instead, use a variety of different link destinations, getting to the deepest pages of your site whenever possible.
There was a time when anchoring your links with keywords or words related to your industry was a good idea. That time has passed. If Google notices too many of your links using the same keyword or keyword phrase, it will become wise to your tactics and judge your links to be unnatural. Instead, try to anchor your links with words that actually describe what your page has to offer, or better yet, let your link sit naturally in a bed of text.
The contextual placement of your link also matters. For example, if you post a link by itself with no explanation as the only comment on an external blog, your link will definitely appear unnatural. If, however, you introduce your link with a thoughtful explanation of why it’s helpful in response to another member’s comment, your link will appear to be natural—even more, it will be natural. Work to frame your links in a real, natural context and you should have no problems building authority.
Your Best Bet
There are two things to consider here. The first is that link building is really only a small factor in what determines your overall authority—your social presence, onsite structure, and content are all far more important.
The second is that “natural” link building can be achieved relatively easily—arguably more easily than by using unnatural tactics. Instead of trying to meticulously plan the placement and structure of your links, let them come naturally. If you’re browsing a forum and you see a way to help, introduce yourself and make your links genuinely helpful. Produce and syndicate high-quality content that will make people naturally want to link to you—doing so will create far more links than you could possibly create yourself, and they’ll all be natural too.
Understanding this, work to perfect your strategy in a way that is most beneficial for your customers, including more SEO tactics than just offsite link building. If you do so, Google will reward you.
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.