In our last articles, we went through the basics of link building and why it’s important. We also discussed how link building impacts SEO and a few great ways you can jump-start link building on your own site, but we’re not quite done. We are going to finish our series on link building with a warning: not all links are good!

The Internet is a strange, dark place, and nobody knows this better than Google.

As we discussed in our previous articles, what set Google apart in the early days of search engines was its use of links to evaluate the quality of search results. It turns out that how many other websites are providing their viewers with links to your site is a great indicator of the quality of your site. Indeed, the quality and importance of your site is more or less proportional to the amount of links that refer you traffic. Google treats these links like votes—people out there who are willing to vouch for you. But Google also takes into account who is doing the voting and vouching.

Imagine that you are applying for a job, and your prospective employers asks you for letter of recommendation. Would you rather give them a letter of recommendation from President Obama or Kim Jong Un? Both of them could write you a glowing reference, but that doesn’t make them equal. Obviously you’d rather give your employer the letter of recommendation from President Obama, not the infamous North Korean dictator, because President Obama is TRUSTED. Politics aside, everybody can agree that the President of the United States is a great reference.

Likewise, Google will evaluate both the quantity and the quality of the links you receive. If you can build good links, good things will happen to you. But if you are building bad, spammy links, Google will punish you.

What Does Google Consider To Be A “Bad Link”?

When links began having meaningful influence over Google search results, it didn’t take long for conniving hoards of disreputable SEO firms to begin looking for ways to beat the system.

Firms such as these would create links for their clients by using content farms, open forums, and the comment sections of blogs. And this was a great way to get good search rankings for about a week, until Google developed a way to tell the difference between these fake, spam links, and genuine links. Nowadays, link building is only beneficial if it is done correctly. Building links incorrectly will result in penalties against your site, so you need to be careful to avoid the following types of links.

  1. Directory Links & Link Networks

So, if the end result of linkbuilding is that Google counts the number of links to your website with a certain anchor text, why not simply make a separate website and fill it with thousands of links to yourself? Unlimited link building!

Well, there are companies that do this. They have vast networks of web pages that serve no other purpose than to store tens of thousands of links, in hopes of improving Google search rankings for themselves and for their clients.

Here’s the problem: Google hates it. This sort of black-hat manipulation of their algorithms makes it very difficult for them to control the quality of their search results, so when they find one of these link strongholds, they will penalize the associated sites heavily. They may even go so far as to un-index a site like this all together! However, that’s the worst-case-scenario.

  1. Link Exchanges

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about exchanging links. A link exchange is constituted when site 1 links to site 2 in exchange for site 2 linking back to site 1. It’s the classic “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” arrangement. The problem with this is that, just like link networks and directories, it’s not genuine.

The reason Google uses links to determine search rankings is because it’s trying to get a read on who you actually are. What makes you relevant? What is your reputation? Any action that you take to try to fool Google into thinking that you are anything other than what you are, is a risky move. If Google finds out, you will be penalized.

  1. Links On Comments Of Forums or Blogs

Often times, entrepreneurs will take to the blogosphere or the world of online forums to get the word out about their new company, product, or site. They will litter any and all “Comments” sections with links to their website. As you may have been able to guess, this too is frowned upon. Providing unsolicited links to your website to strangers on the internet is spam.

Think of these “Comments” sections as actual conversations that are taking place. If you’re going to join a conversation, you should have something relevant to say. If you barge into a conversation and say “hey everybody look at my website,” like a child showing off their new toy, you’re going to be punished.

  1. Do-Follow Paid Links

When Google reads a link to your site, it will default to factoring that link into its calculations about you (“dofollow”). However, if you don’t want Google to take this link into account, the term “nofollow” needs to be put into your code. This tells Google to ignore it when making decisions about your search rankings.

If you are paying for a link, then it should carry the “nofollow” tag. Google will penalize you for trying to gain SEO benefits from paid links. Paid links should only be used to gain web traffic. So if you are paying for a link, and the webmaster has not implemented a “nofollow” term into the code surrounding it, you should contact them so that it can be fixed.   

  1. Dead, Broken, or Irrelevant Links

As URLs change, and the topography of the web changes, it’s pretty normal for links to break over time. In moderation, dead or broken links aren’t harmful, but building up too many of them can begin to harm your search rankings. However, the functionality of a link is not as important as its relevance.

Google is getting smarter, and it can now tell if you are receiving links from unrelated sites. These sorts of unwarranted, unexplained links have a negative impact on your SEO, so try to keep your link building relevant.

  1. Keyword-Jammed Backlinks

Imagine that, instead of searching Google, you are actually having a conversation with somebody about your search terms. Realistically, how often would those terms be said and/or repeated during that conversation? The answer is not that many times. Once an idea is introduced, you don’t need to keep saying the keywords over and over again. The person you’re talking to understands!

In an ideal world, the anchor text for each of your links would flow as naturally as possible. You don’t get brownie points from Google for saying your keywords a hundred times on each page. Google is smart enough to understand the first or second time! Using your keywords an unnatural amount of times is manipulative. Google will notice, and—you guessed it—penalize you!

What Happens If You Receive a Google Penalty

If you receive a penalty from Google, there are essentially 2 things that you are going to lose: traffic and trust.

Your web traffic will likely take a sharp nose-dive because you’re going to be pushed back in the search rankings. In order to regain your traffic, you’ll need to regain Google’s trust, and this can take time. Count on at least 6 months before your penalty expires, but in extreme cases, penalties can hold for much longer. How long your penalty lasts depends mostly on the severity of your infraction.

How To Check If You’ve Been Penalized

If you wake up one day and notice that your traffic is taking a turn for the worst, don’t panic just yet. There could be many reasons for this drop, but let’s be honest here: Google doesn’t hand out penalties without good reason. You probably already know whether or not you’re doing something sketchy to try and trick their algorithms.

There are basically two ways that your site can receive a penalty from Google. Penalties can be handed out automatically by Google’s algorithms (Algorithmic Penalties), or they can be handed out manually by members of Google’s Spam Team (Manual Penalties).

If want to know for sure whether or not you’ve been penalized, you’ll have to log onto Google Webmaster Tools and check.

First, you’ll want to check and see if you’ve received any Manual Penalties. These are less common, but it’s easy to tell when you’ve gotten one. All you have to do is go into your Webmaster Tools, click “Search Traffic” and go to “Manual Actions.”  

Algorithmic Penalties are more difficult to confirm. For this you will need to look at the latest release dates of updates to Google’s algorithms (Penguin & Panda). If the release date corresponds to the date when you traffic took its nose-dive, then you’ve most likely been penalized.

What To Do If You’ve Received A Google Penalty

  1. If you’ve received a Manual Penalty, you can submit a reconsideration request. However, you should not do this until you have fixed the problem! Unfortunately, if you’ve received an algorithmic penalty, there is no appeal process for you.

  2. If you have unnatural links directing traffic to your site, you either ask their webmasters to take them down, or disavow them as soon as possible.

  3. If you have any spam links on your own site (that means links that somebody may have paid you to put there), either get rid of them or convert them to “nofollow” links.

  4. Get back to the basics! You have some time to kill before your penalty is lifted, so use that time to make the changes your site needs! You want to be able to hit the ground running when your penalties are lifted.

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