SEO is a funny art. You try to follow best practices and watch your site’s rank slowly grow. Then Google updates its algorithms like it does hundreds of times a year. Suddenly, your whole strategy is turned on its head.
Penguin 4.0, announced in September, is a great example of this. The update has changed the game, and now it’s time for SEOs to adapt.
Thanks to Penguin, it’s more important than ever to check your site’s backlinks regularly. Read on to learn why.
The Role of Backlinks in SEO
Google has hundreds of factors it uses to rank pages in search. We know little about the details to them, and SEOs like to argue about which ones have the biggest impact.
But when it comes to links, Google’s spokespeople have been quite clear:
Links are one of Google’s top 3 search ranking factors.
This is a verified fact.
Now, they are talking about both the links on your site (internal) and the links pointed to your site (external). But external backlinks give search engines an important message.
You have control over your internal links — how many there are, where they are, what their anchor text reads. Backlinks are a different story.
Increase Website Authority
Since external links come from other people, Google sees them as like third-party endorsement. Search experts agree that 70% of a site’s ability to get good rankings comes from the sites that link to it. With 9.2 trillion links on the web already, it’s an opportunity to take advantage of.
If others want to link to you, then your site must offer value. Get a lot of high-quality backlinks pointed at your site, and Google will see it as social proof. Backlinks can give your pages a higher domain authority and higher rank in the process.
And the more domains endorsing you with links, the better. Recent research from Backlinko analyzing 1 million Google search results confirms it:
Checking your backlinks will help you keep track of how many referring domains you already have and help you develop a strategy to get more links from more sites.
Indicate Website Relevancy
Google uses the anchor text on these external links to determine the relevancy of your web pages. Anchor text are the blue highlighted words that people click on to get to your page from another site:
If these links have a lot of keywords related to your niche, it will help Google better understand how to rank your pages.
So it’s not only the number of quality backlinks you have but also the context of those links that can affect how your pages rank in search.
Google has cracked down on the use of exact match keyword anchor text, but it does still have a strong impact on search rank. So having relevant backlink anchor text is a good idea, as long as you keep it varied.
Not All Links Are Created Equal
In the good old days of SEO, the more backlinks you had, the better. It was easy to improve your site’s rank using link building services like link exchanges or buying links.
Backlinks weren’t a very good signal of a site’s quality anymore, so Google made major changes. Now it considers the quality of the links pointing to your site. In other words, some links are good, and others are bad.
What Makes a Good Link?
If you want Google to see a link as good, here are the factors that matter most:
Simply put, links that come from a trustworthy domain with high authority are more likely to improve your rank. For example, a backlink from the New York Times will give you more “link juice” than one from your uncle’s fantasy football hobby blog.
Google also determines quality by looking at relevance. If you have an electronics e-commerce store, a link from a tech blog is relevant. Again, your uncle’s football blog, not so much.
According to Marketing Charts’ latest survey of search experts about future trends in search ranking factors, 45% expect topical relevance of links to become more important.
Where your link appears on the page will also influence how much value Google gives it. Google’s Gary Illyes revealed in a recent podcast that the algorithm labels links, for example:
- Penguin real-time
Site-wide links that appear in the footer or sidebar, for example, don’t have a lot of link juice. Contextual links in the page’s body content will also be worth more than a link placed in an author bio.
What Makes a Bad Link?
As far as Google’s concerned, unnatural “bad” links are those that appear to be artificial, deceptive, or manipulative. More specifically, bad links can be:
a) Paid or exchanged links
Sites around the web will sell you links. This is against Google Webmaster Guidelines. There are also plenty of link exchanges — groups of people who will link to one another’s sites.
b) Links from aggressive link building tactics
This involves leaving your links on forums and in blog comments across the web–usually using software to automate the process–or on low-quality directories. Here’s an example of a low-quality directory that only exists for link building purposes:
Large scale link distribution with spammy guest posts is another example of an aggressive tactic.
c) Irrelevant links
A link on a page with no real context can be seen as unnatural. For example, a link about payday loans on a German automotive directory.
d) Links with over optimized anchor text
If you’re linking around the web using an exact match keyword, Google may see it as an attempt to manipulate search.
Use a link research tool like LinkResearchTools, Majestic, or ahrefs to check your site’s backlinks and make sure you have a healthy link profile. Then, you can keep building the kind of links Google values while avoiding potentially harmful backlinks.
Bad News for Bad Links
Some links are worth more than others, but the bad news is, some links are actually bad for SEO. Have a lot of low-quality links pointed at your site and it can hurt your search rank, or worse.
In 2012 Google rolled out the Penguin algorithm. Its main job since is to kill the rank of sites that used unnatural linking strategies to build low-quality backlinks.
And the crackdown doesn’t end there. The search engine is also issuing site penalties manually for unnatural links. Meaning: instead of an algorithm sweep, Google will flag your site specifically for a penalty.
They can flag certain pages of your site or the whole thing. A manual penalty can either bury your site in the deepest depths of search results or remove it from search altogether.
The impact of Penguin or a manual action penalty can be severe. A few years ago, Expedia famously lost 25% of their search visibility because of unnatural links:
Meanwhile, TripAdvisor’s search visibility in the same period went up!
Luckily, it is possible to overcome algorithmic and manual action penalties, but it’s not easy. You’ll need to sift through every one of your backlinks, find the ones Google doesn’t like, then get rid of them.
Even if you do a good job, it could take a long time to get back to where you were in search rank.
On the other hand, auditing your site’s backlink profile regularly for harmful and toxic links can prevent a penalty from happening in the first place.
Protect Your Site from Negative SEO.
You might think to yourself:
I’ve never used black hat SEO and never will, so there’s no reason for Google to penalize my site.
And you’re wrong.
The Penguin algorithm is known to penalize sites that have ‘bad links,’ even if you did nothing black hat to get them.
SEO’s know this, and so do your competitors. As a result, there are very affordable services out there that will bulk link from spam sites to another site of your choice.
I just checked, and for $5 on Fiverr, people will blast a site of your choice with tens of thousands of low-quality auto-links:
This is called “Negative SEO,” a shady tactic some webmasters will use to kill their competitors’ rankings. And unfortunately, it works well.
In one case study, Jellyfish, a digital marketing agency, saw a serious drop in SEO visibility after years of steady growth:
Someone had suddenly pointed nearly 2,000 low-quality backlinks at their site, effectively destroying their link profile. The spammers even optimized their anchor text for maximum impact:
Maybe you don’t have a competitor out to get you with negative SEO. But you can still build plenty of bad links naturally over time if you don’t check your site’s backlinks regularly.
Regular Audits Can Quickly Improve Rank
There is some great news in all of this. As mentioned above, Google just released Penguin 4.0 with some serious changes.
In previous versions, if you cleaned up your bad backlinks, you had to wait around for Google to run the algorithm to see any benefits. In fact, sites penalized by the last Penguin update had to wait more than 700 days to recover.
Now Penguin 4.0 as part of their core algorithm, so it filters your link profile in real time. So if you get some bad backlinks, your rank will be affected quickly. And if you remove your bad backlinks, your rank can improve quickly.
That’s the big reason why you should run regular audits of your site’s backlinks using popular analysis tools:
It isn’t just about protecting yourself from algorithms, manual penalties, and the prospect of negative SEO. It’s also an opportunity to maintain the best link profile possible and improve your ranking and traffic.
Links have always mattered in one way or another, and they always will. We’ll need to keep adapting to Google’s constant changes. The best way to do that is to follow Webmaster Guidelines to a tee, and take advantage of opportunities to improve your strategy when they come along.
If you don’t have the skills or time build a healthy link profile, take advantage of a link audit service to get the job done.
Right now, the biggest opportunity out there is to pay closer attention to your backlink profile, keep it healthy, and reap the benefits for search rank.
What do you think Penguin 4.0 means for the future of link building?