10 Types of Unnatural Link Building Tactics + 10 Quality Alternatives

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Corey Northcutt
Corey Northcutt
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

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 without anchor text.
  • Just the domain 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 ... [Read full bio]