Link Building – How to Attract Quality Links

SEO Guide Step 13

Links Must Be High-Quality

Good links help SEO: They improve rankings, increase PageRank, and support site authority.

Bad links hurt SEO: They destroy rankings, give no PageRank or authority, and can be poison.

And the average site owner cannot tell the difference.

It’s common to get an email offering you followed links on high domain authority websites. Sounds good — the rates are reasonable, and all links help, right?

Well, absolutely, the opposite is true. Google has strict rules about link schemes in its webmaster guidelines (more on that later). For sites that violate those rules, it is only a matter of time, and playing the odds seldom, if ever, wins on the web.

So there is a right way and a wrong way, and we teach the right way to earn links.

In the last lesson, you learned how to structure your website’s internal linking. Now, it’s time to turn your focus outward. Here, you learn how to safely get those all-important external links to your website.

Attracting inbound links

Photo by Les Chatfield (CC by 2.0), modified

Links were the lifeblood of search engine optimization for a long time. Ever since Google cofounder Larry Page invented PageRank back in the late ’90s, links have been a primary way search engines determine rankings. Still, today, getting quality inbound links from other websites (aka “backlinks”) is a crucial SEO ingredient — if they are obtained naturally and safely within search engine guidelines. Links are still important, but far less now.

A pet peeve: “Link Building” is often done external to your own assets with purchased links, spinning content, posting elsewhere, and more. And such link-building is not SEO. Posting onto your own site content worth linking to is SEO. Yes, SEO is also marketing, but not all marketing is SEO. Is buying a billboard ad considered marketing? YES, but it is not SEO. We consider a backlink as a term when another site links to you, but you are surprised by it. If you bought the link then that is marketing (a paid ad), not SEO.

That does not mean backlinks are not valuable at times. It just says you can get links from other marketing activities than SEO.

In this lesson, you’ll learn:

  • Why high-quality backlinks are so valuable
  • How to develop a link-earning strategy rather than a link-building strategy
  • What kind of backlinks to avoid
  • How to attract links that increase your site’s link popularity and rankings

What Are Backlinks?

Backlinks are incoming links (excluding ads) that point from another website back to your own.

Search engines evaluate a site’s backlinks (or inbound links, or external links) to help determine the site’s popularity, authority, and relative importance on the web.

What Is Link Popularity?

Link popularity comprises the number of links and the authority of the websites linking to your site. Search engines recognize when a site is popular based on the links that point to a page on the site from external websites.

Link popularity is factored into search engine algorithms, most famously through the use of Google’s PageRank technology. In Google’s PageRank algorithm, each hyperlink to a webpage acts like a vote of confidence for that page. It’s expected that websites will naturally recommend high-quality resources to their readers. That’s the simple concept behind PageRank (and the link measurements used by other search engines).

For example, a site about fishing would link to a site where someone can get a fishing license. A site about stamp collecting might link to the U.S. Postal Service. And a marketing blogger might link to this SEO Guide.

Because of the emphasis placed on link popularity, increasing the number of quality links to your site can improve your search engine ranking. Research from Backlinko shows that the No. 1 result in Google has an average of 3.8 times more backlinks than positions No. 2 to 10.

But we have seen sites with fewer but higher quality links outrank those sites with more links. Link popularity is not a numbers game anymore. Even more important than the quantity of your backlinks are the quality and relevance of the sites where those links are coming from.

If enough relevant, quality sites link to you, then your site becomes a more trusted authority by association. So you want the best sites, not the most, linking back to you.

Understanding the basics of establishing good links will help increase your site’s link popularity and thus improve its SEO rankings.

Types of Links: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Unlike a popularity contest, the PageRank system doesn’t give every backlink an equal vote. In fact, some backlinks can even have a negative impact on your website’s ability to rank.

In an effort to stop sites from trying to manipulate PageRank and game the system, search engines analyze links and even penalize sites suspected to have unnatural backlink profiles.

In the next lesson, you’ll find out more about search engine guidelines and avoiding Google penalties in particular. But for now, suffice it to say that there are:

  • Good backlinks: Beneficial links come from authority websites in your field, experts who write about your topic or non-spammy sites that have content that relates to your site’s subject.
  • Bad backlinks: Links from unrelated websites (for instance, a dog training website linking to an insurance brokerage) don’t do you any good and could look unnatural.
  • Ugly backlinks: Links coming from link farms, spam sites, sites known to sell links, guest posts or low-quality content (such as pages with lists of random links and no text) can put your site in hot water.

Google defines link schemes as:

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.

The examples listed in Google’s webmaster guidelines in its “link schemes” help file are the kinds of things you want to avoid when thinking about link building.

To be safe, focus on link earning instead of link building. “Never buy links” is something Bruce Clay repeats in every SEO Training class.

Definitely ignore those emails that offer you “20,000 links for $29.00” — otherwise, you will rue the day you burned down your own site rankings for (knowingly or unknowingly) getting involved in a link scheme.

Outbound Links Matter, Too

If you link to quality sites in your field, then your site seems higher quality by association.

However, the destination page and the whole website must be about the same topic as your linking page. This makes sense from a user point of view. The new page must be relevant if the link is going to be useful to your readers. If the two pages are not on a related topic, the link may appear unnatural to search engines and hurt your SEO.

One thing to recall is that the probability of a link being clicked may influence how much PageRank passes through that link to a destination page. In general, links high on a page are more likely to be clicked, and the search engines know it. Google patents imply that they might decrease PageRank transfer if the link is unlikely to be clicked.


Is website ranking really all about links? And is link popularity what search engines really care about the most?

That’s what critics of search engine optimization sometimes claim. This classic video by former Googler Matt Cutts explains.

How to Get High-Quality Backlinks

Links should be a byproduct of having expert content worth linking to. That is our methodology. Links should be earned.

In order to improve your link popularity and earn better SEO rankings among the major search engines, you need to attract links to your website — not beg or barter (or spam) for them. To earn backlinks and stay within search engine webmaster guidelines, here are some SEO best practices for attracting links.

Link-Building Strategies That Work

Flower blooms depicting freshness and quality in content.
Quality and freshness attract links and search engines to your content.
  • Make high-quality content: The key to getting quality inbound links is having expert-level, unique content. Your site will accumulate backlinks naturally over time if people find your high-quality content valuable or enlightening enough to share with others. (See Steps 5 and 6 of this tutorial for tips on creating great content that uses keywords.)
  • Keep your content fresh: A regular supply of new high-quality articles or other content can get people’s attention and help you compete against sites that may have only static, stale content. In fact, Google instructs its quality raters to look for content that’s “added and updated over time” as a sign of a quality site. How can you do this? Posting regularly in a blog, building up an articles section for your site, or adding new support pages are all ways to freshen your content, strengthen your brand, and help establish your website as more of a subject matter authority.
  • Promote your content in social media: Social media posts that link to your website do not pass link popularity in most cases. Nevertheless, social media gives you a way to publicize your content and attract traffic (that is, visitors) to your site. The buzz and traffic you generate from social media, especially if you take time to interact with people there, builds your audience and can net you some worthwhile backlinks as people write about your content — not to mention earning you fans and customers!
  • Link to experts: Within your own website, occasionally include links to reputable sites and subject matter experts in your field. Do this primarily for your users’ benefit, to give them related resources about the subject on that page. Linking to known authorities helps legitimize your website in the search engines’ eyes, too.
  • Use traditional PR: Press release links can no longer pass PageRank directly to your website safely, as they once could. (SEO tip: Make sure to put a rel=”nofollow” attribute on links to your site in your paid press releases, so the search engines won’t look at you suspiciously.) However, you can use press releases to seed ideas that you hope a media outlet will pick up. If a journalist writes about your news, that article will likely have a high-quality link pointing to the original source — your website. For this traditional PR technique, news that’s non-promotional and interesting to many people works best.
  • Create videos, podcasts, and other shareable objects: What topics could you turn into engaging videos or audio podcasts? Videos attract viewers, whether embedded on your website or uploaded to a video-sharing site such as YouTube. Podcasts can also increase audience interest. Infographics, images and other multimedia elements you create can become popular, talked-about and shared on the web. Exciting, rich media content helps make people aware of your brand and result in short- and long-term links to your website. (See Step 11 for tips on optimizing multimedia content.)
  • Be patient, be awesome: Focus your efforts on creating great content, optimizing it for SEO, and building relationships with your target communities online. Backlinks will follow in time.

For more ideas on how to get backlinks, get our e-book The New Link Building Manifesto.

How NOT to Get Backlinks

Webmasters should steer clear of these tactics for obtaining backlinks:

  • Sending mass email requests
  • Participating in link farms
  • Purchasing links (although paid links identified clearly as ads and nofollowed are fine)
  • Having links from irrelevant or disreputable websites
  • Using negative comments to get links (like Decor My Eyes)

Links obtained by any of these activities might be seen as “unnatural” or “spam.” They could cause ranking issues and damage your E-E-A-T (experience, expertise, authority, and trustworthiness).

Where Does My Site Stand Now with Backlinks?

To get a feel for how your site currently stands with link building, you’ll need to look at link reports.

The Links report in Google Search Console lets you export up to 100,000 sample external links. Or you can export the latest backlinks to your site to see recent activity.

Some paid SEO tools do more than just list pages that link to your site. They can analyze how trustworthy they are and much more. Two link tools that we recommend are Majestic (whose link reports are integrated into our SEOToolSet®) and Ahrefs.

Next up! Let’s go deeper into how to avoid Google penalties. You’ll learn how to monitor backlinks to spot any “ugly links” that may be threatening your site and how to get rid of them.


Need more SEO tips?
If someone has done damage to your site’s SEO with low-quality link building in the past, talk to us about our Penalty Assessment & Recovery Services. For additional link-earning tips, check out our book Content Marketing Strategies for Professionals and the articles below.

Related blog posts and articles:

FAQ: What are the consequences of using bad or low-quality backlinks?

Backlinks play an integral part in determining a website’s search engine results page ranking and visibility, but not all backlinks are created equal. In this blog, we explore the negative ramifications associated with low-quality or poor backlinks as well as why link-building strategies must be pursued with caution.

  1. The Downward Spiral of Ranking

One of the most immediate and detrimental consequences of utilizing bad backlinks is a drop in your website’s search engine ranking. Search engines like Google consider the quality and relevance of backlinks when determining a website’s authority. If you associate your site with spammy or irrelevant websites, you risk being penalized, causing a significant decline in your search engine rankings.

  1. Damaged Credibility

Credibility is paramount in the digital world. Backlinks of low quality can severely undermine the trustworthiness and reputation of your website, decreasing sales or trust for it among users who see these questionable sources as links. Building trust takes time, but it can be shattered in an instant if your backlink profile is tarnished.

  1. Increased Risk of Penalties

Search engines continuously refine their algorithms to combat spam and unethical SEO practices. Your website could be penalized if it contains infected links, leading to lower rankings, reduced visibility, or deindexing – these penalties could take some time to overcome.

  1. Lost Organic Traffic

High-quality backlinks can drive organic traffic to your website. Conversely, bad backlinks can deter potential visitors. When search engines push your site down in rankings due to poor backlink quality, your organic traffic is likely to dwindle, resulting in fewer opportunities to convert visitors into customers.

  1. Wasted Resources

Finally, using bad backlinks can be a costly endeavor. You may spend time and resources acquiring these links, only to realize their detrimental impact later. Redirecting your efforts toward building a solid, reputable backlink profile will yield better long-term results.

Bad or low-quality links can have an enormously detrimental impact on a website’s rankings, credibility and success. I advise webmasters to prioritize quality over quantity when building backlinks; doing so is vital for its future success.

Consequences of Using Bad or Low-Quality Backlinks

  1. Backlinks in SEO It is imperative that we recognize backlinks in SEO; their presence can have a hugely beneficial effect on website performance.
  2. Recognizing High-Quality Links: To differentiate high-quality from low-quality links, take into consideration factors like relevance, authority, and reliability.
  3. Conduct a Backlink Audit: Review existing links pointing back to your site and identify low-quality or potentially harmful ones to improve SEO and boost rankings. This can help strengthen rankings.
  4. Remove or Disavow Bad Backlinks: Take action to remove or disavow any harmful backlinks using tools like Google Disavow or by contacting webmasters.
  5. Focus on Content Quality: Prioritize creating valuable and engaging content that naturally attracts high-quality backlinks.
  6. Engage in Ethical Link Building: Develop a strategy for acquiring legitimate, relevant, and authoritative backlinks through outreach, guest posting, and partnerships.
  7. Monitor Your Backlink Profile: Continuously monitor your backlink profile to ensure it remains free of bad links and maintains high quality.
  8. Stay Informed: Keep up-to-date with SEO trends and search engine algorithm changes to adapt your backlink strategy accordingly.
  9. Avoid Black Hat Practices: Steer clear of unethical practices such as buying links or participating in link schemes that can lead to bad backlinks.
  10. Put User Experience First: Focus on creating an accessible, high-quality site with seamless navigation that builds credibility and trust among visitors. This can help build credibility quickly.
  11. Google Analytics is an invaluable tool for tracking the impact backlinks have on traffic and conversions.
  12. Educate Your Team: Make sure all team members understand the potential risks associated with poor links and how to make informed decisions when building links.
  13. Regularly Review and Update: Periodically revisit your backlink strategy and make necessary adjustments to maintain a healthy backlink profile.
  14. Seek Professional Help if Needed: If you’re unsure about managing your backlink profile, consider consulting with SEO experts or agencies for guidance.
  15. Focus on Long-Term Results: Understand that building a reputable backlink profile is a long-term investment in your website’s success.
  16. Prioritize Quality Over Quantity: Emphasize the importance of quality backlinks over the sheer quantity of links.
  17. Build Relationships: Foster relationships with other websites and online communities to naturally attract valuable backlinks.
  18. Educate Yourself: Continuously educate yourself on SEO best practices and the evolving landscape of backlink strategies.
  19. Avoid Quick Fixes: Be cautious of shortcuts or quick fixes that promise rapid results, as they often involve bad backlink practices.
  20. Monitor Progress and Adapt: Continuously monitor your website’s performance and adjust your backlink strategy based on the outcomes.

By following these steps, you can effectively mitigate the consequences of using bad or low-quality backlinks and cultivate a strong and reputable online presence.

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