10 Types of Unnatural Link Building Tactics + 10 Quality Alternatives

With all of the recent news of companies being called out for paid links, Google sending warnings about unnatural links, over optimization penalties, and blog networks getting shut down, it seems link building is becoming more and more difficult. The real challenge is when you are working with a new client or website. Typically the first thing you will do is a little competitor research where you see what tactics other websites are using to rank higher than your client. What you will likely discover in many cases is the competitors are using link building strategies that are on Google’s list of link schemes.

Photo Credit: William Brawley

Corey Northcutt

Corey Northcutt

Corey manages North Cutt, a content marketing agency. Follow him on Twitter at @northcuttSEO or Google+ and subscribe to the Northcutt SEO blog.

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41 thoughts on “10 Types of Unnatural Link Building Tactics + 10 Quality Alternatives

  1. Building partnerships with other websites in your industry, or even local sites within your community, is a great way to get links and build your online brand presence. You don’t need to belong to a spammy blog network or link exchange system. Spend the time it takes getting those low quality links and focus on ones that actually mean something.

  2. It’s fun to read through all the ad copy on this page with their promises of #1 rankings and bulk backlink building. Great irony. The article gets it right and still there are so many SEO companies actively making money from lazy, grey/black hat tactics.

    1. Well, SEJ gives us a lot of great articles for free. If they have ads up to make the money to keep this site going who are we to complain? I assume between hosting, management and writers it costs a lot to run.

  3. Great tips, but why after all those tips, especially after anchor text, tip number 1, you go and use “seo blog” as you anchor in the author box… It’s hard to trust people when they don’t do what they preach… Anyway, kudos on the rest of the article, escpecially the part about spinning…

    1. I don’t believe that anyone said to never use keywords in your anchor text. The intended message there was simply that it’s important to use a natural mix, and not force anchor text into places where it isn’t accurately descriptive.

  4. I am totally with you on the only building dofollow links. That will certain throw up a red flag. But what I am wondering is how should I link my car related website together that I own.

    If Blog sidebar links are out….then is it better to create a links page and link that way?

    1. Sidebars (specifically, the traditional “blogroll” feature) get abused a lot, and people often sell off those links (Google’s organic search team frowns at payment in exchange for links… only AdWords is allowed to do that :) ).

      The examples above are sort of generalizations, but your best case for linking out from a blog is probably to put those links within your posts (in relevant spots). You can definitely still have a links page if it stays relevant/sane. I don’t think that a sitewide link is necessarily going to kill your SEO, but I have to say that I haven’t seen a lot of examples where more than one or two sitewide, external links were actually useful.

  5. Yes, great post !

    Mixing strategies is the best way to increase rankings. Be natural with nofollow, dofollow, blogroll, intext, footer, comments, various anchors… Be creative and innovative for good ROI… and be patient for sustainable results :)

    Quality beat quantity, oh yeah !

  6. Really Great post Corey, I liked the way you presented the article and i can say its of top class giving us the right infact the best alternatives for grabbing natural links. In this regard, have a question to you that is the importance of article submission exists or lost?

    1. Articles can work well, but I would encourage you to get more creative than a lot of the ‘cookie cutter’ / black hat article marketing services out there. Most “article directories” now are spammed with machine-generated articles by software at insane levels, which isn’t doing any favors to the implied quality of those sites.

      We usually split between a few hundred link building methods, and weight it towards what rounds out a backlink portfolio. Articles are great, but think more about places where they’d be useful to get published (case in point, this guest post). Whenever you can supply someone great content for their site, be it some type of text, graphic, video, audio, etc. – it gives them extra pull, and gives them a great reason to thank you with a nice backlink.

  7. I aggree with most of this article, however, and I am not just saying that, because we are an SEO Agency/Marketplace for Backlinks, I do not aggree with #2 though. This might work for really small private websites or really small businesses, but think about those big stores and chains, or think about when it comes to really fierce competition…how can you stand out from the crowd. You can either spend countless days and nights, months if not years to wait for your websites reputation to build up – but hey, by then you won’t be able to pay your staff anymore. You need to be in business, rather than preparing to be in business. So I know this is a touchy subject but no matter what…link buying and selling will be part of this game. And from my experience – you can certainly grab that trophy – you just gotta know how to play….

    1. I see where you’re coming from, and I actually even said the same for most the past five years. The examples of ‘paid links’ in Webmaster Tools are kind of a whole other thing entirely (those spammy footer sections of 25-50 unrelated sites/links).

      My tone shifted has finally shifted on that actually very recently in seeing how much Larry Page’s Google just keeps mentioning paid links every time they roll out an update, and the way that they recently went to war with a hatchet on iAcquire’s rankings (despite the fact that their site didn’t directly violate any of Google’s guidelines; all they did was sell paid links to clients).

      1. Corey – first of all, great post! :)

        One thing from your comment above – “All they did was sell paid links to clients”. In my mind, they got what they deserved. As SEO professionals we should be just that – professional. In any other industry there are consequences to doing things badly, but for some reason SEOs seem to think that they’re immune.

        If I’m a mechanic and, instead of fitting the right brakes, I put some in that are quicker to fit, will work for a while, but have a high risk of causing massive damage then I’d expect a knock at the door when my customer ends up in a lake. By paying for links we’re essentially doing the same thing – those businesses that we’ve bought links for could end up being deindexed, which could ruin lives. I think we all need to remember that we have a responsibility to the people we work for.

        Whoosh! Rant over 😉


  8. Good posts to social networks like twitter can bring a lot of links from web sites that use it as one of content source.

  9. Oh it’s all still just about manipulating the internet and link graph – whether it’s done in ‘Clean’ or ‘Dirty’ – ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ ways. If you’re sloppy about it – you’re a black or gray hatter. If you’re neat and tidy about it you’re a SEO Professional.

    ‘Creative Inbound Marketing Strategies’ – done right are ultimately about getting your customer or fan base to manipulate the link graph for you. This can be done with luscious eye-candy infographics – or cute cat and puppy pictures – depending on your budget.

    For a 1-2 punch: Do the 10 Unnatural things to your competitors, the 10 Quality things to your own site(s). There you have it: The ultimate guide to SEO survival in 2012 – Made easy.

  10. When your competitor has 20,000 + back links from obvious unnatural methods how is one ever going to compete with natural link building methods? Google needs to almost eliminate the back link metric and use something that is not so easily manipulated, like bounce rate…

    On another note G is a publicly traded company which means by law they must maximize shareholder value. I believe that big business does not like small business competition and since they spend millions with G they had some mussel to make G make it harder for the smaller guy to play. Giving the big business all the top rankings it forces small guys to try to out bid each other on ad words, maximizing shareholder value…

    1. David – “When your competitor has 20,000 + back links from obvious unnatural methods” most likely means that the majority of those links aren’t helping rank. It’s going more and more towards quality over quantity and we’ve noticed a huge amount of sites in all industries seeing a drop due to crappy or unethical link building tactics.

      Also, just because you’re a smaller company doesn’t mean that you don’t have the opportunity to rank for some great keywords… it just takes a bit more creativity and persistence.

      Having said that, it’s natural that the bigger guys will rank for the higher value keywords – that’s just business. Complaining that a smaller company that’s just started out isn’t able to be top for a term like ‘health insurance’ is like saying that everyone should have the same opportunity to get a TV ad out at prime time on Sky1.


  11. Most of these methods make perfect sense, and the exclusive tips that have been added are just a cherry on top of the cake.

    One can go far if all these methods are combined and used wisely. Those who usually rely on spamming firstly never get to keep their Backlinks for too long + it is not the best thing nowadays in the eyes of Google. With new updates like Panda and Penguin coming after every few months, only sites with Natural Backlinks are actually making their way into the eyes of Google and other search engines. While those relying on spamming or getting linked from / linking to bad neighborhoods are getting their websites totally plummeted!

  12. Quality content is the important to attract the users to pay a
    quick visit the web page, that’s what this website is providing.

  13. Well I realize what you say is theoretically true but I have studied extensively my competitors link profiles, social profiles and keyword issues over and over. I have no idea what Google does anymore and frankly I do not think anyone does. Yes your advice is good in theory and every one weighing in with YEA YEA we agree is cool and all.

    Yet for every case I look at in detail actually study in detail, links is not even an issue good or bad as much as we want to think. What appears to me is simply useability and really good content which people read !

    I am becoming increasingly convinced that content and useability of the web site far outweighs links which is something which has shifted in recent years.

  14. This is the most sensible advice I have seen post Penguin. I all sounds very common sense now but it goes against many of the practices which were used by most webmasters up to now.
    Despite our grumblings, the end result will probably be that eventually that Google will achieve its aim to have the best sites on top.
    It means that we have to work harder to produce good quality websites and we can’t rely the easy methods that worked up to now or on outsourcing the building of a multitude of links from low grade irrelevant forums.
    It’s blood, sweat and tears from now on.

  15. Hi Chorey,

    The list was very simple and self explanatory to newbie’s like me. However the last part of Social Bookmarks is not clear to me as why you said “Instead of mass submitting your link to just any social bookmarking website, find out which ones are the most popular and fit your industry the best”

    In practice when i need to submit an article of my blog on cloud computing, I can’t find good option for ‘Cloud Computing’ or related categories. The best examples i came across are StumbleUpon and Reddit, they just don’t have the categories i use for my blog.

    So in such cases, isn’t it beneficial to have some more social bookmarks than just a few that suit the criteria ?
    I totally agree with the ‘bad link neighbourhood’, but the chances are that in a social network with no relevant categories a few extra share would be beneficial right ?

    Can you please explain this concept as to how this can be related to non existing categories in social bookmarks. BTW, this is my first visit to SEJ and i already got interested with the link building tips here.

  16. Thanks for the great article. Reading this make me wonder how us part-timers stand a chance. Seems like this link building strategy is a full time job!

  17. Great article. Its always good to be reminded of the best ways to build links and ways we should all avoid. My very first visit to SEJ but now that I see real value in this site (for someone who is genuinely interested in and a very keen SEO’er) I will be back regularly to see if I can find any more great articles like this one.

  18. These tactics are difficult and time consuming but i love to give them a chance and if they show their worth of difficulty and time then i surely love to follow this for all website on which i am working

  19. It seems to me that the best way to rank in Google now is to ignore Google. Forget SEO! Give no consideration to backlinks!
    All the research and advice about keyword density, anchor text with keywords, keywords in domain name etc is now obsolete.
    We now need to concentrate on having a worthwhile website with interesting content and to try to get traffic from diverse sources. Current thinking seems to suggest that Google ranking will automatically follow in time.
    The problem for smaller brands or new websites is that the established big brands already have the advantage in that they have loads of content, numerous links and great visibility already so it will be harder to compete with these.
    Getting just a few good links from high quality websites in your niche is extremely difficult. What good website in your niche wants to link to you? After all you may be a competitor.
    The quicker Google and other search engines can totally dispense with links as a factor in determining their results the better but that is unlikely to happen soon.
    All this is bad news for the SEO “industry” in general as new methods of gaming Google are clearly becoming less effective.

    1. People have certainly been advising these things and branding themselves “white hat SEO’s” since the 90’s. I disagree with them wholeheartedly though, and have built a pretty successful agency and a few very successful businesses thanks to many failures to compete that are derived here.

      I do believe though that having a well-structured site (for humans first, but also for indexing), being generous, and building great relationships around the web, are the two most important aspects of online marketing. Good links are hard work (you’re right). This post is literally case and point. SEJ is a great blog, and it took a lot of doing to put all of this together, and reach Melissa Fach to publish.

      But it does payoff, especially if you raise the bar on quality. And if you need more evidence, consider this. I was drawn back here today, to comment on your reply, by a serious lead asking about consulting, with this blog post showing as the referrer. A blog post that you’ll notice was published a solid 6 months ago, and has cost me nothing to maintain (before you even consider Google, although certainly, our link building has helped there too, and it’s measurable).

      This stuff works.

  20. Reputation management does work. Although negative comments are pushed off the first page and still may be found on the second or third page. When I have a new client, before I charge them anything I will review the situation. I once had someone inquire about my services and the negative link they wanted to remove was from a major newspapers website. I told them it was most likely not going to be realistic to remove it from the first page and would not take the clients money.

    A lot of times the negative reviews come from sites that allow people to give negative reviews to businesses with no merit. I’m not going to mention them by name, but there are tons of them. When I review a individuals or companies situation if I know it can be pushed off the first page we will proceed.

    There is a trust factor when hiring a reputation management company. For example, when I’m hired I will need to create at least one or more email accounts for the client and create some new accounts on the net for the purpose of creating positive links in the place of the negative one. Any company that doesn’t ask for this, I would be suspect of. You have to create new accounts for the client to remove bad links.

    Another strategy that has to be discussed before any work is done, is what kind of links would be acceptable to use to replace the bad links. In short, reputation management does work and is extremely valuable because potential customers will run if they see negative reviews, regardless if they are truthful or not.

  21. Its pretty awesome how you explained it. But the most dangerous looks like the NUMBER 1. After the Penguin update I really needed to be on the back foot for building links with a lot of Anchor Texts. Which certainly hurt some of my clients.

    thanks for the great informative 10 TYPES to Avoid :)

  22. Man, oh man!! Great post! Clear, informative, focused and leaves you with a really good perspective on what to do. It’s been a very overwhelming year in our industry and we are all trying to learn real fast, improve and do good, respectful link building that today is really content marketing that is optimized for everyone, including the friendly bots:-) THANKS! I’d love your feedback on our platform. I have emailed you an invite. It’d be great to make changes that you suggest.
    Keep up the great posting!