For the Non-SEO: What is “Bad Link Building”?

SMS Text
For the Non-SEO: What is “Bad Link Building”?

This post is aimed squarely at people who are not SEO practitioners yet but want to learn a little about Search Engine Optimization, as well as to those who feel a bit mystified over how to “do” link building and, (more to the point) what you are and aren’t “allowed” to do.

Lately, link building has become an increasingly volatile mine field, so the first step is to make sure you are know what constitutes “bad” when it comes to link building. And then we can talk about how to do it “the right way”.

Bad Link Building Methods

If you’re talking about link building you are probably talking about SEO and building links in order to improve your rankings on Google (and other search engines of course!). Over the years the practice of link building has included several different strategies which Google has ruled to be spammy and has killed off one way or another.

You do of course have the right to build links to your website in whatever way you want. But if you want to rank well in Google, then you’re going to have to play by their rules. So here’s a quick run-down of the less favorable options.

Anything Auto-Submitted

Submitting to things like directories, article sites, and anywhere where it’s more about volume than quality is pretty much a no-no. There are arguably some directories (maybe three out of several thousand) which still have a little value, but in my opinion these aren’t worth worrying about.

Dmoz screenshot

If you want to submit to directories and similar sorts of sites, ensure they have a very strict editorial criteria. DMOZ is arguably the only directory that matters, and here is a post on Slamdot explaining why.

Paid / Compensated Links

Regardless of what you call it, paying for links is advertising, and when used for advertising purposes that’s great. But if you are paying someone to link to your site for the purposes of improving search engine results you are in a bad territory.

If you want to pay for advertising, that’s fine, but links should be nofollowed if you want to keep Google happy (and like it or not, you do). Furthermore, depending on where you live you may be legally required to declare to visitors that a link is paid for.

Matt Cutts screenshot

And also remember that payment might not be monetary. If you are giving free samples in return for reviews you could be getting into “paid link” territory. This video from Matt Cutts explains how Google look at this sort of thing.

Blog Commenting

Blog commenting used to be a great way to build links, and you could argue that links from blog comments are editorial because the blogger must approve a comment (and link) before it gets published.

The reality though is that blog commenting is not a good way to build links for the purposes of SEO. This is because 99% of blog comments are nofollow and even the dofollow ones are likely discounted by Google.

Comments screenshot

Fortunately, because most comments are nofollow, you are unlikely to get your site penalized by overdoing it. You will just be wasting your time!

With that said of course, blog commenting in the right way is a powerful way to generate traffic, build your brand, and “earn links”.

There is a crucial difference though between link building “for the links” and doing it for more sensible reasons, but we’ll come back to that in a minute.

Guest Posting

Guest posting is a popular topic right now and there is no shortage of blog posts discussing whether or not guest blogging is dead. The simple answer is as a way to directly build links, guest blogging it is definitely not a good idea any more.

But, building links was never the main reason for guest posting anyway. The reason that I wrote this guest post for SEJ was certainly not for an extra back link (at least, not for the SEO benefits).

It’s All About Mentality

The key difference between “good” link building and “bad” is in the mentality with which you approach it. The main similarity of the bad tactics I have mentioned above (and any that I may have forgotten) is they are tactics which build links purely to game the search engine.

So if you’re ever in doubt, ask yourself this:
If this link had zero value for SEO, would I still want it?

You wonder how exactly Google can tell what your intent is, and the answer is that they can’t, at least not directly. But if you only build links for the sake of links, it will quickly reflect in the types of links you build.

The value in “good” link building is generally for the increase in brand recognition, traffic generation, and gained credibility. The actual link may or may not be directly beneficial to your SEO, but if that is the only benefit your link building gets you then you are in trouble.

The Two Ingredients Of Link Earning

The term you may have heard lately is “link earning”, because the only effective way to gain the sorts of links which help you to rank is to earn them. Unfortunately, earning links is really hard, which is why for so long people have been building them instead.

To earn links you need two things:

  1. Content that people actually want to link to (ie, it must be good, helpful, worthwhile)
  2. Attention from the right people, people who actually have the ability to link to you

The first step is not easy, but there’s no reason why anyone can’t develop a solid content strategy and learn to write good, linkable content.

For popular, established sites, this second step is easy. But if you have a small website with little traffic, the biggest challenge is getting the right people to actually find your content and want to share it.

As it happens, my previous post for SEJ was about just that: read how to generate traffic and kickstart your content marketing to learn how to find that vital second ingredient.

Focus on Building Other Traffic

I’m not going say you need to build a successful business without Google traffic, because traffic from Google can be very lucrative. But in terms of off page factors (links, brand mentions, etc…) Google has now got to the point where artificially increasing your rankings is very difficult.

However, all of the activities which are acceptable and effective at improving your rankings just so happen to also be solid marketing strategies in their own rights.

So if you focus your efforts squarely on generating, keeping, and converting traffic from other sources, you will probably see your organic search engine traffic increasing over time too. These activities include:

  • Getting links from websites which can send you traffic
  • Making friends with the people who run those sites
  • Building up an engaged social media following
  • Understanding which activities produce the most traffic
  • Improving your website with a focus on user experience


Image Credit

Featured Image: Evil Duck via Wikimedia Commons
Image #1: Screenshot taken May 2014
Image #2: Screenshot taken May 2014
Image #3: Screenshot taken May 2014

Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson

Owner / Manager at Think Traffic
Alex Johnson is the founder of, a UK based SEO and online PR agency who specialize in working with small businesses. Alex loves helping... Read Full Bio
Subscribe to SEJ!
Get our weekly newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!
  • Karan Rawat

    I read almost evry post of Search Engine Journal , many times i put my comments there in the post. So with every comment i insert my weburl, will it be harmful?

    • Mark Johnson

      Hi Karan. SEJ comments are nofollowed, so in SEO terms, no, commenting won’t hurt you. If your comments are well written and valuable, those comments may help you in fact, but they are unlikely to give you any direct SEO benefit.

  • Jennifer

    Linking building has made remarkable changes in the past couple of years and you’re absolutely right that it has been a minefield. Trying to figure out what is no longer acceptable and what is still okay or what practices are treading a fine line has been difficult for everyone. However, as it seems to finally be settling down I think we all realize that relevant and quality are the keys and that means doing what you do, the best you can, and “earning” the links, as you’ve said. I think you’re right that the focus has now shifted to getting people to notice your site so they’ll want to link to it or share your content or tell others about your site and business.

    • Mark Johnson

      Hi Jennifer. Thanks for the comment. I agree, I think “link building” is maturing as a practice and becoming a more integrated aspect of SEO and online marketing in general. I think it’s quite an exciting time.

  • Vishwajeet Kumar

    Thanks a lot for this awesome post Mark. Yes! In these Days SEO became a challenging task, It is so dynamic that you have to change your strategies with the span of time. But I am still focus on quality content and increase my social media presence. Again thanks for this awesome tips.

    • Mark Johnson

      Hi Vishwajeet.

      Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Stella J.

    Very interesting post. Although, the link building tactics people were following earlier are now old fashioned, but some tactics still have their importance (if they are used in a careful manner). Activities like forums and questionnaire can help you in branding and reputation management of your company.

    I do agreed with you, that blog commenting still holds its importance, if it is not done for link building purpose. Rather than simply commenting on anybody’s post, it is better if you try to add some more information to that blog post.

    • Mark Johnson @ ThinkTraffic

      Hi Stella. Thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the post. You’re right, many old-fashioned link building strategies are still valid brand building strategies – just because they don’t have any direct SEO benefit, doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile if done in the right way.

      Having said that, I’m sure there are still more people doing those things “the wrong way” than the right… Oh well.

  • Robert Traynor

    Your article offers few alternatives to building backlinks apart from the traditional methods, e.g. posting comments on blogs, which apparently aren’t much chop. I tell you, it’s getting harder and harder to obtain that coveted top 5 Google ranking.

  • johnpeter304

    Hey Mark,

    Link Building is the Backbone of Seo But doing spammy linking building is ruined your website. Nice Article You have shared I enjoyed myself while reading this post.

    • Mark Johnson @ ThinkTraffic

      Hi John. Thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • TheIToons

    Straight and Simple article. Loved it. Thanks Mark. 🙂

    • Mark Johnson @ ThinkTraffic

      Thanks for the comment. Glad you liked it.

  • Chery Schmidt

    hello Mark, I Love this, It is not Link Building anymore it is link earning! This is the way it should be too. We all know that blog commenting is a powerful way to generate traffic, build your brand.

    You cannot buy links, perhaps they allowed this in the past but Google got wise to this HUH?

    Awesome Share.. Chery :))

    • Mark Johnson @ ThinkTraffic

      Hi Chery. Absolutely!

      Really I think link earning was always the way, but unfortunately link building is easier (especially for new sites). Now-a-days link building just isn’t effective any more, so any business that wants to do well will have to learn to market themselves better and EARN some links.

      I’m sure there are some cases of spammy links still being effective, but Google is rapidly plugging the holes.

  • dom zimmerman

    Good post, thanks for sharing Mark