10 Types of Unnatural Link Building Tactics + 10 Quality Alternatives

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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

So how can you compete when the competitors are building links that are low quality, paid, or otherwise spammy? Here’s a look at 10 types of link building strategies that are spammy, low quality, or unnatural plus 10 quality alternatives.

1. Keyword anchor-text only links.

One of the main goals of link building is to increase a website’s ranking for a particular keyword. A well known way to do this is to build lots of links with the targeted keyword or keyword phrase. Of course, nothing signals to Google that a link profile is unnatural than having hundreds to thousands of links built to a specific keyword or phrase.

Let’s face it – if you took 100 average webmasters and asked them to link to a specific website without giving them directions, do you think they would all do it with your targeted keyword anchor text in mind? Probably not, unless they all happened to be SEO’s. Instead, you would probably see a mixture of the following being linked to:

  • The website or business name as anchor text.
  • The word website as anchor text.
  • Just the URL http://domain.com without anchor text.
  • Just the domain domain.com without anchor text.

If there were some SEO amongst the webmasters, they might actually look at your website, grab some keywords from your title tag or meta keyword listing and go with that. But I would guess that would be a very small amount for a truly natural link profile.

Quality Alternative: Mixing branded & keyword anchor text.

Instead of gunning for only keyword anchor text in your link building strategy, think about the above natural ways people link to websites and aim for anchor text with that in mind. Branded anchor text for your business or website name will typically look natural as that is what most people would likely link to when including a link in a piece of content. Also look for websites that link to others using just the URL or domain – don’t remove them from your list of considerable link opportunities just because they don’t use anchor text.

2. Buying links.

Why is link buying such a big no-no? Because if you have to pay for it, it isn’t natural by definition. Google wants links to be placed because a webmaster or content creator recommends the website they are linking to, not because they were paid to do so.

Quality Alternative: Finding highly targeted, relevant websites and sending personalized, well-thought out link requests.

So how can you avoid buying links? When prospecting, look for websites that would want to link to you. If you have a home loan calculator on your website, look for other websites that link out to home buying resources – your calculator should be a perfect fit! If your website is has useful information for diabetes, find websites that have a list of resources for diabetics. One of the key ingredients to getting quality links without paying for them is to have quality content on your website that you can use as link bait. If possible, create great content or help your client create great content for future link building campaigns.

3. Blogroll & footer links.

If your link building strategy still includes blogroll or footer links, then you probably need to re-analyze your tactics. Blogroll links are OK if you are building links to a relevant blog and you’re looking for more traffic. But the reason that blogroll and footer links are not that valuable is that they are usually the last links in the code. Typical website coding order goes from header, menu, content, sidebar, and footer. The higher your link is on a page, the more value it will have. Footer links especially are about as low as you can go on the page – there’s less likelihood that search engines or visitors will see them or care.

Quality Alternative: In-content links.

In-content links are the holy grail. They tell Google that someone likes a website enough to write about them, or include them in a piece of writing. Generally it will be relevant – a good piece of content linking to a veterinarian’s website is likely to be about pets or local resources. Some great ways to encourage people to link to your website in-content include:

  • Creating link bait on your own website like videos, infographics, top ## lists, and tutorials.
  • Soliciting reviews of your products by offering bloggers a free sample, copy, or trial.
  • Interacting with bloggers on social media and through blog commenting. The more bloggers that know you, the more likelihood that your business will get a mention.

4. Easy to get directory links.

If you can get a link easily, remember that others can as well. Some of the easiest links to get are directories, especially when there is little to no human moderation. If a directory says that your listing will go live immediately after payment, you might want to check around the site. Chances are, you will see a lot of links to bad neighborhoods, specifically those to adult websites, online pharmacies, online casinos, and so on.

Quality Alternative: Aim for human-edited, niche directories.

The harder it is to get into a directory, the better. If the approval process takes a couple of days, this means that a person is checking each submission to assure quality and relevance. That translates to your website link not sitting next to anything seedy or shady. The irony? Many quality, niche directories are going to want payment, but that (so far) does not count on the Google radar as paid links.

If you’re an SEOmoz pro user, you can access a list of quality, niche directories on their Web Directory List. Their current list includes 217 web directories, 188 social directories, and 55 local directories. Some of their listings are questionable because I wouldn’t consider Tumblr, Typepad, or Blogger social directories, but at least you will get some ideas of other ways to build links. If nothing else, you can sign up for a 30 day trial membership to get access to this list and SEOmoz’s pro toolset.

5. Blog commenting for links.

If you own a blog, you probably know how popular blog commenting / spamming is for building links. The “best” part is that you can tell that some are from automated blog commenting software. If you’re using blog commenting solely as a strategy to build quick, cheap links, or using a service that does it for you, then you are spamming, pure and simple. The worst part about this kind of spam-link building is that it can also hurt your reputation. Imagine if you owned a blog, actually shopped at ABC Discount, and then started receiving comments that barely made any sense on your blog from them.

Quality Alternative: Blog commenting for authority.

While blog commenting can be a spammy link building strategy, it doesn’t mean that blog commenting is a bad strategy for online marketing. In fact, blog commenting can be a great way to start blogger outreach. Blog owners / authors love comments where they can tell the comment author read their content and legitimately want to add to the discussion beneath it. By providing valuable, intelligent comments, you can make a good impression on the blog owner, content author, and other readers scrolling through the comments.

6. Generic resource pages and link exchanges.

While perusing websites to request links upon, you have likely come across link exchange pages. These are typically nicknamed resource pages, sites of interests, partners, friendly links, or something similar. What you find out when you get on the page is that the website will happily add your link to their resources page in exchange for a link back to their website from yours.

The downside of link exchanges is that many of them are non-discretionary. You could find a home decor website linking out to an auto parts website or other sites that have little to no relevance. Since relevance is key in link building, having your link on a page with dozens or even hundreds of others isn’t necessarily going to help.

Quality Alternative: Partnering with relevant websites in your industry.

Instead of looking for websites that participate in generic link exchanges, find ways to partner with relevant websites in your industry instead. Maybe you already have partnerships with other businesses such as your vendors, suppliers, or other non-competitive local businesses. For example, as a wedding photographer, there isn’t anything wrong with creating a local wedding resource page for your visitors that helps them find other local wedding vendors (but not other photographers). If you can establish a partnership with other relevant businesses which includes them linking back to you as a recommended vendor or partner, then you’ll have have the best of both worlds – links and referrals!

7. Spinning content to submit to article directories.

Google has been targeting content farms, article directories, or any website that has more advertisements than it has quality content for more than a year. These websites typically lose a lot of their keyword rankings which leads you to assume they have lost a lot of their link value as well. Hence, it doesn’t make sense to take one piece of content, use a software to transform it into more pieces of content, and then spread that content on a network of article directories for a very low quality link.

Quality Alternative: Creating unique content for your own blog, related industry blogs, and niche article sites (that get traffic).

Instead of wasting your time on spun content and submitting it to low quality sites, why not focus on creating unique, quality content and placing it on websites where it will actually be read. Your first stop should be your own blog – having great content on your own website can lead to lots of links. Once your own blog has regular, quality content, you should then focus on spreading more quality content to other blogs in your industry as guest posts which should result in a link back to your website through the author bio. If you’ve exhausted your guest posting opportunities (which should be difficult considering there were 173 million blogs tracked in a study from October 2011), then you should consider higher quality article directories – preferably ones that receive traffic from readers, have high community engagement, and are focused on your niche.

8. Setting up social profiles for links.

Services like KnowEm make it easy for you to quickly set up over 100 social networking profiles, most of which will allow you to link back to your website. If you’re trying to cover up an online reputation scandal such as a negative item in the first page of search results for your business or website, then it may not be such a bad idea. But remember that most social networks prove to be little value (even in search) if you are not using them.

Quality Alternative: Setting up social profiles and using them.

Take the time (and monetary investment) to focus on creating strong social profiles on the top social networks. Then continue building your social strength and authority by using those social presences to connect with your audience. While the link on your social profile may not have a lot of SEO value, your engagement with your audience just might. Think about it – if you tweet a link to your latest blog post to 1,000 of your followers, you might get some retweets that lead to another blogger finding your post and linking to it on their blog. If you could score one natural, in-content link each time you tweeted, that would certainly be worth it!

9. Always and only going after dofollow links.

It’s always a bit surprising to me that there are still SEO’s and clients who have been trained by former SEO’s who will accept nothing but dofollow links. Having all dofollow links is like having all keyword-based anchor text – it will probably signal that there is something fishy in your backlink profile.

Quality Alternative: Stop paying attention to whether links are dofollow or nofollow.

Continuing on the “go natural with links” theme, stop paying attention to whether links are dofollow or nofollow. A better metric to look at (yes, better than PageRank) is to look at getting links in places that will attract clicks. The goal of link building is to boost your rankings in search results so you get more clicks. So why not go after links that will get direct clicks – if you have enough of those, you won’t be so obsessed with your Google rankings because you will have eggs in lots of different baskets.

10. Bulk social bookmarking submissions.

Social bookmarking generally doesn’t sound like a bad thing to invest in, and typically it is pretty cheap to find a service that will submit your link to a mass quantity of networks. But social bookmarking networks can be just like unmoderated directories – if anyone can post a link and there is little moderation on the network, then your great website could be sitting in a bad neighborhood of links.

Quality Alternative: Submitting your link to top social bookmarking websites, niche preferred.

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. Then take the time to build a great profile on that network and submit a variety of links, including your own. Or build a strong relationship with other users on the network and see if they can submit your link. This way, you can capitalize on the traffic from the social bookmarking network itself, especially if you get lucky enough to have your link show up on the first page. Hint: that typically only happens with quality content, not just your homepage, so create some quality content first then jump into social bookmarking.

Corey Northcutt

Corey Northcutt

Corey manages Northcutt, a content marketing agency. Follow him on Twitter at @corey_northcutt or Google+ and subscribe to the Northcutt SEO blog.
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  • Nick Stamoulis

    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.

  • John Crockett

    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.

    • Adam

      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.

      • Corey Northcutt

        Actually as a guest editorial, there was no payment to the writer. But yes, SEJ does give out a lot of great information for free.

  • Mineral oil

    Touche. Great arguments. Keep up the amazing spirit.

  • Lee

    A great selection of do’s and dont’s regarding link building, keep up the good work πŸ™‚

  • Zarko

    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…

    • Corey Northcutt

      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.

  • Tom R

    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?

    • Corey Northcutt

      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 πŸ™‚ ).

      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.

  • Svetlana

    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 πŸ™‚

    Quality beat quantity, oh yeah !

  • Jason Nelson

    Great work on this post Corey. I like how you presented it with alternatives. But the “natural”way is so much harder πŸ™‚

  • Fred

    In other words, let’s shape the web the way Google wants you to…

  • Zankhana

    Re-applying same tactics in a different manner. The point is not to be spammy. Thanks for a good post.

  • Denny

    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?

    • Corey Northcutt

      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.

  • Alex

    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….

    • Corey Northcutt

      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).

      • Matt Beswick

        Corey – first of all, great post! πŸ™‚

        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 πŸ˜‰


  • SamZ

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

  • Glenn Bearsky

    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.

  • David Cooke

    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…

    • Matt Beswick

      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.


  • Tech-

    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!

  • Raheel Mushtaq

    a great article better than the one at SEOmoz where they only cover the 17 types of spam links but no quality alternatives..!

  • Ellen

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

  • William Imhoff

    Great info, I learned a lot. Quality link building is getting harder every day.

  • SEO Andy Manchester

    Great set of tactics, its just a shame most people will read over them and ignore them!

  • Michael

    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.

  • Stan Galway

    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.

  • Sameer Manas

    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.

  • Mike

    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!

  • Steve McLean

    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.

  • SEO Services

    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

  • Stan Galway

    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.

    • Corey Northcutt

      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.

  • Chad Ian Lieberman

    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.


    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 πŸ™‚

    • Corey Northcutt

      Glad to help!

  • Toni Atkinson

    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!

  • Chris

    Thanks the the info. We are a small company starting with SEO.