Understanding Your Backlink Profile

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As SEO’s and internet marketers, understanding and knowing the value of backlinks is one of the key aspects of our job. However, many articles I read and people that I talk to, really don’t understand it’s not just the links that matter.

It’s a variety of factors that make up your back link profile and how much of that “agrees” with other parts that is important. Here are some of those factors:

  • Where is the link on the page, is it in the template or content part of the page
  • Is the link on the home page, a deep page, a page with a lot of outbound links pointing to it (ie a link hub)
  • Does the page the link is on have a strong social profile, is it tweeted regularly, seen on Facebook, mentioned on Google+, or clicked on in Gmail
  • Does the page rank the link is on rank for competitive or high volume terms, and is it sending click through data or toolbar data to Google
  • Is the page the link is on crawled regularly (check the cache date)
  • Is the page the link is on updated regularly (is there a date in the SERP listing)
  • What about the anchor text, is there a natural distribution of phrases to the website/page or is it tightly focused around a few narrow terms so it looks manipulated
  • Are the incoming links distributed around the site with natural looking “clumps”, or is it focused only on commercial pages
  • What about link growth over time, is it slow and steady with a few spikes, or does it spike like someone bought links when a quarterly advertising budget got approved
  • How many of the links to the site are reciprocal
  • Are there links to the sites from older trusted directories, like Yahoo, BOTW, or lii.org
  • Are there links to the website mostly from trusted websites, or low quality splogs and article directories

I’ve been doing SEO for over a decade, and while I don’t know everything, I’ve been around the block long enough to know what a good backlink profile looks like compared to a bad one. When I’m at conference doing a site audit one of the things I look at is a site’s backlink profile using Open Site Explorer or Majestic SEO.I can tell right away when something isn’t up to snuff. In this post I’ll show you some of the key things that should jump out at you right away when you look at your backlink profile.

Paid Links and Link Growth

Full disclosure: search engines consider buying links, with cash or cash in-kind exchanges (like buying someone a new iPad) is a violation of their policies. This violation may cause the link to get discounted on the low end of the penalty scale, or have the site completely removed from the index if Google thinks the violations are flagrant. I’m not going to claim that I’ve never paid for links or be naive and tell you that they don’t work. However I am going to say it’s high risk behavior. If you do it, you should be fully aware of what you are doing, and know the penalty if you get caught.

The problem is most people buy links in a stupid manner. They get a monthly/quarterly ad budget approved, run out to a high profile link broker, and buy a bunch of links, cross it off their to do list, and start playing angry birds.

Instead what you really should do is buy links slowly over a longer period time. Link buyers also put way to much focus on commercial keywords and destination URLs, without mixing them up and creating diversity. It’s incredibly easy to see, with tools available to you today.

Here’s what it looks like when you buy links in an obvious way:






…Now how do I know those links were bought, and not a social media success?

By looking at the anchor text concentration and destination URL.






I don’t have access to the data that Google does, but if those links were natural they would have SERP click through data and toolbar data that matches up with the link growth … and I bet they don’t.

Link Churn

As a link buyer you want to buy permanent links. As a link seller you want monthly income. Link buying is a seller’s market. While links do magically appear, change and disappear across the web, the more link buying you do the more things tend to appear/disappear. This link churn sticks out, and doesn’t help your overall link profile. In fact a significant amount of link churn may cause your website to fall off the map as far as Google is concerned.

Anchor Text and URL Focus

Even if you aren’t buying links, and you are building links “naturally” it’s still possible to have “too much of a good thing” as far as anchor text and destination URL focus is concerned. If your links do come from other people, who do give them to you with no action on your part, there will be a wide focus on inbound anchor text.

Link Sabotage and Poison Link Networks

Recently an article was published here on SEJ where the author claimed it was impossible for someone else to sabotage your website with links. I’m going to say that author is misinformed.

The ability to sabotage someone else is dependent on how strong their link profile is. Trusted websites like CNN, Ford, and Engadget have backlink profiles so strong you will never be able to damage them. But say, a mom and pop dog groomer, you probably could. If the guy is buying some links and not being to careful how he is doing it … depending how close he is to the edge, you might be able to push him off the cliff if you tried, knew the right people, and had access to right tools.

Now I’m not advocating this behavior, I think it’s pretty unethical, and I am a big believer in karma. However hypothetically speaking: with a decent budget, some flagrant link buys, in a short time period, with highly concentrated anchor text, focused at one or two pages, and you will be on the path to doing some real damage to their backlink profile.

I’m going to tell you it’s a dark path that is not easy, and could backfire if you don’t know what you are doing. These aren’t the only things you’ll need to do, but giving you any more information would be professionally irresponsible. So you’ll just have to trust me I have absolutely seen it done, it’s highly effective, and it’s not pretty.

Please don’t write to me, tweet me, or drop me a private message asking for more info or how to do it. Even though I may “know a guy” like I said, I don’t advocate it, and I am not going to help you do it. Anyways the guys who do engage in this behavior have an omertà code, you have to earn your own way in, and like mob activity nobody likes a guy with a big mouth blabbing about who is doing what. Google doesn’t like it, and prefers not talking about it. But if you read their guidelines you see they left themselves an out with the word “almost”.

There’s almost nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organises information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.

So what should you take away from this post:

  • Looking at backlinks is a complicated, holistic process
  • You need to look at factors like placement, age, destination, anchor text, growth, link strength, social signals to name a few
  • When building links try not to focus too hard on any one keyword or page, try to look as natural as possible with lots of variation.
  • Avoid link buying as it violates Google’s guidelines
  • If you do violate the guidelines try to be smart about how you do it and be aware of the consequences of those actions
  • Check your backlink profile regularly. If it looks like someone is trying to sabotage you, let Google know ASAP.
Michael Gray
Michael is owner and President of Atlas Web Service and an SEO veteran who passionately blogs at Wolf-Howl.com. "Gray Wolf" can be routinely found on... Read Full Bio
Michael Gray

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  • Great post, Michael. It’s refreshing to hear someone dispel all the posturing and explain the gray areas of link building. In an industry full of half-truths and incomplete analysis, it’s great to see someone tell it like it is. Your opinions truly merit more respect than most.

  • Links like ” Open Site Explorer or Majestic SEO.” are not working for me. Are they links? It looks like a hyperlink.

  • Great Post! Thanks a million! 🙂

  • Michael – Thanks for pulling that punch and just calling me misinformed. Much appreciated! On to my counter: “you might be able to push him off the cliff if you tried, knew the right people, and had access to right tools” doesn’t seem like much of a guarantee as to the effectiveness of negative SEO. Is it realistic to say that, most of the time, Google devalues these links?

    Also, Greg Boser explained that most of the effect of these negative backlinks is query specific…meaning Google doesn’t ding a good site automatically for bad links in the profile, just that the site could lose rankings for terms associated with the negative link anchors. Is this your experience as well?

    Finally, you mention that competitors who are pushing the envelope are more susceptible. By ‘pushing the envelope,’ do you mean competitors who are buying links? If so, isn’t it possible that what hurt these sites isn’t “negative SEO” but in fact a penalty Google would have assessed anyways? How can you determine which links caused the penalty?

    • Keenan Steel

      I’m glad to have you chime in on the poison links debate, Gray. Unfortunately for the rest of your good points, this debate will probably dominate the comments section.

      How about this, Jason: give me a target. It should be a site that we both agree is better off not ranking, and PR3 or lower. I’ll have it penalized with unpaid links; it won’t show for anything with search volume greater than 10 in the Google tool. When your tools crawl the links, you’ll be able to see what I did.

      • How about SporkMarketing.com?

      • Keenan Steel

        It would take too long – this is why I suggested PR3 or lower. As Michael indicated, the “tipping point” increases exponentially with authority.

      • Keenan Steel

        Also, I like you too much 😉

  • Negative link growth can deliver a devastating blow and doesn’t matter upon the size or style of the site…..

  • Love the ‘give it straight’ attitude here… wish there were more writers putting an effort in producing such no-BS SEO content. Agreed on the potential damage Negative SEO could cause depending on the authority/trust of the victim site – I’ve seen it on some of my ex-clients sites not so long ago.

  • Dude I appreciate your point, I really do, but don’t you see how your comments only support my assertion?

    It’s like saying I’m a black belt, but only when I’m fighting elementary school kids. Knocking off a low ranking site for a relatively low competition term isn’t much to write home about…especially when you can outrank them with tried-and-true positive SEO tactics just as easily.

    Thanks for the love too – the feeling is mutual.

  • Mints

    My backlink profile suddenly jumped to 350% in Referring Domains Discovery this month, which far exceeds our link building efforts (e-commerce, all links manually). Is there any way to discover which links I acquired in August 2011?

    • The tools are mentioned in the post. For your specific query I’d go with MajesticSEO and use find backlinks option by “fresh index”

      • Mints

        Thanks! I now understand my sudden increase isn’t an anomaly and their spider has simply deepened its crawl pushing more and new data into their historic index. Majestic and Open Site Explorer are great tools, i’ve subscribed to both.

  • Outstanding! Loved all of it and especially your comments about anchor text, which for me is the most overrated off site linking metric of all.

  • Nice post, thanks. I just imagine someone trying to do some link sabotage that doesn’t work properly, resulting in better search results 🙂
    Another danger besides the ethical problem.

    • Mark Nunney

      If that happens, the links can be repointed to a site they want to do well 😉

  • It is great to hear the arguments between two obviously experienced SEO veterans – I’ll be interested to check back and see how the debate progresses!

  • I’m curious. What if you put some content on your website, with 2 keyword phrases pointing to 2 pages on your site. And what if a bunch of scraper sites take that content, links and all, and post it on their sites. The result would be a bunch of links created with a high anchor text concentration to only a few pages. The graph would look similar to someone who bought links. Do you think Google would penalize you for something you have no control over?

    • Google is far from perfect and so the answer, IMO is that it could effect a website, depending on the level of its authority/ trust. In most cases however I think Google can figure those links out and it doesn’t lead to any negative effects.

      Two ways Google might be able to figure it out — first, the scraper site has a ‘scraper’ profile and Google most likely understands that it basically scrapes content off and so links/anchors in it shouldn’t cause (in most cases) any negative effect. 2nd, such backlinks are in context of the SAME duplicate content..again, an obvious trait of scraped content and more likely to be identified and treated as such.

  • Thanks for reporting

  • Very complete article about links / backlink :). I myself prefer to /build a powerful and focus content of my blog. Then give the interlink every page to be connected each other. Then submit to the directories and blog with high PR. No buy any money to the software :). All is natural. Then link comes to my blog naturally :).

  • Thanks, isn’t bad, he’s just rough around the edges…and probably wrong too. LOL.

  • Great article! I feel like I am doing the right things now.
    At first, I was getting worried because the site I’m currently working on
    for someone wasn’t getting anywhere. So I started analyzing my
    competitors, slowly but surely I am now on PR 1 Spot #7 for Yahoo/Bing.
    The big G is only giving me PR 2 Spot#7, so there’s more work that needs
    to be done.

  • Quick question would be regarding link building…When building the links should you build them to multiple pages of the site as opposed to always linking to the home page? I currently would mix them up just a bit, but most of the time to the main page. We just redid our site after 10 years and put it on a new address. Thus, I lost the fact that the site was old and had some links attached. Short term this is painful.

  • Thank you so much. Backlinks are really useful for website.