The Dark Side of Link Building: How to Avoid Penalties

Link building is one of the best marketing strategies available. It can help you attract more traffic, generate leads, improve brand visibility and recognition, and even improve your trustworthiness. But if you aren’t careful, link building can also work against you. There is a dark side of link building, and one that threatens to harm your business’s visibility and reputation if you don’t know how to look out for it.

Link Building Basics

In case you’ve never heard of this strategy before, link building is the practice of establishing links to your website on external sites. For reasons that will become apparent, this is usually done by including a link in a guest article on another website’s blog.

In any case, the presence of the link combined with its presentation can immediately boost the visibility of your brand and help you build authority in your industry. Readers who encounter the link and find it interesting will be likely to click that link and follow it to your website, resulting in traffic generation. Link building is also beneficial for search engine optimization (SEO), since it increases your trustworthiness in the eyes of Google and other search engines.

The Threat of Link Building Penalties

So what’s the dark side of link building? To put it succinctly: penalties. If you build links incorrectly, or build links in unnatural ways, Google and other search engines treat your link building as an unethical practice. If you’re caught deliberately trying to manipulate your search rank or harm user experience in other ways, you could end up sabotaging your own authority, and plummeting in search engine rankings. In other words, you’ll do more harm than good to your SEO campaign. More than actively negating any benefits you would have received otherwise, you’ll be significantly damaging the reputation of your brand.

Because of this, it’s also possible (though rare) for other companies to deliberately sabotage your brand by using shady link building practices against you. This is known as negative link building, and it’s worth keeping an eye out for.

Avoiding Penalties Proactively

The best way to avoid the dark side of link building and milk the strategy for all it’s worth is to avoid penalties proactively. This is the framework you need to use to do it:

  •   Start with a solid strategy. Before you ever build a single link, start with a solid strategy. It’s on you to understand the mechanics of link building and the terms and conditions of Google and other search engines. You should know exactly what it takes to build a high-quality, natural link, and you should be prepared to follow those criteria exactly. You also should have a documented strategy in place for all your employees or contractors to follow, so you never run the risk of building a problematic link that hurts your reputation.
  •   Work with vetted partners. Many companies struggle to build links on their own, in part because it’s an overwhelming responsibility, both in terms of knowledge and time expenditure. Instead, they turn to the help of link building agencies and contractors. This can be enormously beneficial, but it can also work against you if you choose the wrong partner. Always make sure to vet your partners carefully, and choose people who are going to practice white hat link building tactics.
  •   Use a backlink or website rankings checker. A backlink checker is a tool meant to help you identify and evaluate all the links currently pointing to your website. Other website rankings checker tools allow you to see your current position compared to the competition. When you enter your domain, you’ll populate a massive list of all the links pointing to that domain and where they’re coming from. Here, you can measure the success of your link building campaign so far and pinpoint any links that might be problematic. This is especially helpful if you know you’ve experienced a penalty or a ranking drop; it will help you narrow down the list and identify the source of the problem.

What Makes a Link “Bad”

So what makes a bad link bad, exactly? What’s the difference between a link that helps your organization and one that hurts it?

On an individual level, these are the factors that make a link problematic in most cases:

  •       Awkward, unnatural anchor text. Anchor text needs to fit within the context of the article. If it’s glaringly obvious that your anchor text is simply an SEO keyword, the link probably won’t stick.
  •       Total irrelevance. The links you build should be relevant for your target audience, providing more information or entertainment for readers. If the link has nothing to do with the rest of the article, or the publication, it’s going to get removed or it’s going to get you penalized.
  •       Unnatural placement. The same is true if your links are placed unnaturally. Having a naked hyperlink with no anchor text might have been normal 25 years ago, but it’s mostly unnatural today.
  •       Sneaky redirects. You also need to be careful of sneaky redirects; Google and other search engines don’t like it when you surprise readers by taking them to some place they didn’t expect.

In aggregate, these are also problems:

  •       Spammy tactics. This is one reason why automation in link building doesn’t work. If you spam links, placing them where they aren’t welcome or including them in ways that detracts from the average users experience, you’re going to eventually attract a penalty.
  •       Repetitive links. Your link building efforts should be as diverse as possible. Repeatedly linking to only one page of your website, or using the same publishers over and over again could end up getting you penalized. Try to link to a wide variety of internal pages on a wide variety of publishers.
  •       Repetitive anchor text. Choosing specific anchor text can help you optimize for specific keywords and phrases, but you also have to make sure your anchor text is natural. If your two repetitions with your anchor text, or if your anchor text doesn’t fit, it will work against you.
  •       Aggressive scaling. Even if you have the budget for it, Link building professionals advise against aggressive scaling. In other words, don’t build too many links too quickly. If Google notices an overwhelming number of links being built to your site in a short period of time, it’s going to raise suspicion.

Addressing Penalties

Let’s say your site has been the victim of a specific penalty or a measurable ranking drop. What can you do to address this?

  •   Locate the source of the problem. First, you need to locate the source of the problem. If you’ve gotten an official, manual penalty from Google, you’ll probably have a written explanation of why that penalty exists. This makes your job easy. If your rankings drop, the source of the problem could be any number of things. It could be a piece of content you wrote. It could be the rise of a new competitor. It could even be a shakeup in Google algorithm. But if you rule out these possibilities, the answer is probably a suspicious link (or several). Use a backlink checker to evaluate the quality and naturality of all your links and look for the likely culprits.
  •   Petition for link removal. Once you find where the link is, petition the webmaster for its removal. Most of the time, a simple email is all it takes to get the link removed permanently. It might take some time for your website to recover, but the damage will no longer continue.
  •   Disavow the link. If the webmaster refuses to remove your link, or if you can’t reach anybody, you can also use Google’s Disavow tool to request that the link be ignored. However, you should only use this as a last resort.

Link building is, indeed, a powerful and beneficial strategy, but only if you’re wielding it responsibly. Fortunately, you can evade most penalties and guarantee more value from your link building efforts with a handful of basic improvements to your strategy.


Nate Nead

Nate Nead

Nate Nead is the CEO & Managing Member of Nead, LLC, a consulting company that provides strategic advisory services across multiple disciplines including finance, marketing and software development. For over a decade Nate had provided strategic guidance on M&A, capital procurement, technology and marketing solutions for some of the most well-known online brands. He and his team advise Fortune 500 and SMB clients alike. The team is based in Seattle, Washington; El Paso, Texas and West Palm Beach, Florida.