What Are Good Backlinks Vs. Bad Backlinks?

March 19th, 2019 by Emily Borne

Backlinks are one of the many components of behind-the-scenes SEO strategy. A backlink is essentially a link on a site that leads users to a different site. Think of backlinks as a continuous chain that links websites to one another; some chains are firm, strong, and reliable (good backlinks) and others are rusty, neglected, and not doing their job (bad backlinks).

The Role of Backlinks in an SEO Strategy

Before diving into the nitty-gritty of backlinks, let’s differentiate between backlinks and internal links. While both sound similar and have substantial SEO value, they play different roles. An internal link is clickable text (a.k.a. a hyperlink) on your site that leads to another page within your site. We go into more detail about internal links and their juicy SEO power in our past blog post. (See? I just made an internal link!)

A backlink is a hyperlink that lives on another site and links back to yours. WPBeginner points out that backlinks are one of the many tools used by search engines to calculate search result rankings. (And just like that, I gave a backlink to WPBeginner’s site!). Think of backlinks as an approving nod from one site to another. When used correctly, backlinks acknowledge the authority of another site.

Dr. McCoy and Captan Kirk nodding in agreement about backlinks

Google has used backlinks as a ranking signal for keyword searches for almost two decades. Google didn’t really differentiate between the quality and quantity of backlinks until their Penguin algorithm update rolled out in 2012 to closely monitor backlinks and prevent spammy “black hat” SEO backlink tactics. This update gave the SEO world a clearer picture of what Google considers legitimate backlinks that actually add to sites’ authority. Now, the strongest backlinks come from authentic, well-known sources, such as newsworthy press releases, trusted editorials, news articles, or webinars.

For the sake of consistency, we’re going to focus on Google’s backlink policy and how sites are affected in Google search results in the remainder of this post. Because backlinks can have a significant impact on search rankings, we’re going to explore what separates strong backlinks from rusty ones.

What Is a Good Backlink?

A good backlink is a relevant outbound link to a trusted, authoritative site. Generally, a site is viewed as trustworthy if it has lots of strong backlinks pointing to it. Google views these backlinks as one way to confirm that your site contains helpful, quality content.
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Now, let’s break down some key factors of a good backlink.

It Comes From an Authoritative Site

Earlier we mentioned that a backlink should link to an authoritative site, but what exactly does this mean? An authoritative site provides trustworthy, well-sourced content that is updated regularly. It’s considered an expert in its field. For example, readers interested in sustainable building requirements may read multiple online blogs or articles on the topic, but they would likely consult the Environmental Protection Agency’s site, epa.gov, to reaffirm this information and treat it as the most authoritative source on the topic.

Not all quality backlinks have to come from a source as renowned as the EPA, but keep in mind similar characteristics when searching authoritative sites.

The Anchor Text Is Specific

Hyperlinking to a page with clear, specific anchor text is a big win for both the user and search engines. Concise anchor text will give users an idea of where this link will bring them if they choose to click on it, while search engines will use the keywords in said anchor text to figure out the topic of the page it lives on.

Let’s put this advice into action—which anchor text would you feel more comfortable clicking?

  1. Click here!
  2. Dive even deeper into why anchor text matters in backlink strategies.

I hope you went with number two.

Barack Obama gif related to importance of anchor text in backlinks

It’s Relevant to On-page Content

Backlinks aren’t just there to take up space and serve as an SEO metric—they should enhance the reader’s experience. Backlinks need to be relevant to the content they’re in and actually provide supplemental information. Think of it from the reader’s perspective—backlinks won’t add any value if they’re bringing readers to completely unrelated sites.

Google aims to provide users with helpful, rich content that answers queries. Unrelated, distracting backlinks just get in the way of that. Google considers relevant backlinks to be much more valuable than a backlink from a random, unrelated site. A dermatology clinic site that links to a used car Q&A forum would probably send a red flag to Google (and also confuse readers browsing the site).

What Is a Bad Backlink?

Don’t let anyone tell you any backlink is a good backlink; it’s simply not true. Since Google focuses mostly on quality over quantity, they track and evaluate backlinks to flag potentially spammy practices.

Here are a few clues that a backlink may be rusty and untrustworthy.

They Come From One Site

The well-known saying “variety is the spice of life,” may not be referring to backlinks, but it’s a mantra we can use here. If a site has a plethora of backlinks, but almost all of them come from one site, this will look spammy to Google. You should actively strategize to build strong backlinks from a range of relevant sites.  

It’s Hidden or Paid

Yes, a hidden backlink is basically what it sounds like—it is invisible to a user and Google. Sounds sketchy, right? It is. A backlink that is hidden—whether by manipulating text and background colors or hiding the link in a punctuation mark—is a “black hat” SEO strategy that clearly defies Google’s best practices.

Gif of Homer sliding into bushes after violating Google's linking policy

Paid backlinks are a grey area because some methods of paid links are viewed as legitimate. Just because a link has been paid for doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad. Since this a gray area, you should be highly selective with paid methods. If the site’s content is related to your industry, you won’t be penalized for paying for ad space. Paid directory business listings are also fine, as long as they’re reputable.

It’s Sourced in Spammy Forum Comments

New call-to-actionThis relates back to the importance of backlinks being relevant and actually helpful to readers. Linking back to your site from off-topic discussion forums just for the sake of a backlink will look suspicious. Like most things in SEO, the intent of posting links to forums may have originally been authentic, but this strategy can too easily turn from trustworthy to spammy.

Acquiring Good Backlinks and Ditching the Bad

Congratulations, you’re now armed and ready to differentiate good backlinks from the not-so-good! Because strategic link building is so effective for search rankings, it can be one of the most challenging SEO strategies. But great news—you don’t have to do it alone! Search Influence can help increase your website’s authority by building a strong backlink strategy that’s relevant to your business. Our range of SEO services can also help increase your online presence and ability to reach customers. Let’s start a conversation about how we can help you.

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Lock and chain

Star Trek

Barack Obama

Homer