It’s no secret that the quantity and quality of your backlinks define whether your SEO campaigns succeed or fail. But no backlinks are made equal, and tons of seeming small details can drastically affect how much value you get from each link. Because of that, today, we’ll look at which backlinks are best and worst in SEO.
Which backlinks are best for you?
Backlinks can make or break your SEO. Get many good links, and Google immediately knows you’re someone whose content people deserve to see. Get many spam backlinks, and watch your rankings go down the drain. But what makes some backlinks great?
Generally, the best backlinks are relevant “dofollow” backlinks from reputable websites, where the link appears in the primary content of the page. Although you should aim for high-quality backlinks, you can still build momentum through medium-quality links but avoid low-quality links at all costs.
Backlinks are used to distribute website authority around. High-quality backlinks essentially signal that the origin website recommends the destination website. They hint that the destination website is authoritative and high-quality on the subject, deserving more visibility.
That’s because backlinks work like “votes of trust.” The quality of the backlink represents the quality of the vote. Together with the number of backlinks you have, this gives Google good insights into the relevance and authority of the linked page. In other words, many low-quality backlinks can strongly suggest that your website doesn’t deserve to be shown at the top. Additionally, it can sometimes outright signal that you’re engaging in link schemes that aim to game the algorithm.
On the other hand, having many high-quality votes signals to Google that you have established a certain level of credibility in your industry. Your reputation, credibility, and general helpfulness matter to Google because it aims to satisfy the end-user. In fact, by focusing on high-quality backlinks, you can almost entirely avoid worrying about negatively impacting your SEO. In other words, there’s no need to worry if you “haven’t done anything wrong.”
But high-quality backlinks are important not just for the direct SEO benefits. They can bring you more relevant traffic and open doors to partnerships with influencers and media outlets. In turn, this can propel all of your marketing efforts as it increases your brand recognition.
9 common characteristics of high-quality backlinks:
Backlinks from websites in your niche
When it comes to backlinks, relevance is critical. Because backlinks work like academic citations for your website, it is always best to be acknowledged by the experts in your industry.
For example, imagine that your website is about fishing. In that case, a backlink from an authoritative website about outdoor living or hunting can still be very valuable. This is especially true if the specific content that links to you is on your subject.
Backlinks from authoritative websites
While there’s no truly objective number we can put on a website’s authority, getting a backlink from a high-quality website is still great. For example, even though it might not be on your niche specifically, a backlink from a high-authority media outlet like Entrepreneur.com can still be very beneficial. At the very least, getting featured by such a media is a big accomplishment – so you can expect to be properly rewarded for it.
Backlinks from pages with high-quality links
Another important factor to consider is whether the page that links to you has high-quality inbound backlinks itself. As you know, backlinks are one of the top factors for ranking in Google, and their value is transferred around. If your backlink comes from an authoritative web page, you can expect some of that authority to be transferred over to you.
Dofollow backlinks that pass their full value
One important factor to look out for is whether your backlinks are dofollow or nofollow. Nofollow backlinks still carry some value even if some SEOs disagree and avoid them. However, dofollow backlinks are known to pass as much of their authority as possible. Because of that, when analyzing your backlinks, consider noting which links are dofollow and nofollow.
Backlinks placed at the top of the main content
Where your backlinks are located on the page matters as well. In their Quality Rater’s Guidelines, Google explicitly asks raters to mark the different content sections of web pages. They define each section based on the type of content present in it. The three types are Main Content (MC), Supplementary Content (SC), and Advertisements/Monetization (Ads). Naturally, backlinks from the Main Content area provide relevance signals compared to links from the Supplementary Content or Ads.
Additionally, while not proven yet, there’s a possibility that backlinks at the beginning of the content bring slightly more value than those placed at the bottom.
Backlinks with keyword-rich anchor texts
Backlinks with keyword-rich anchor texts are known to give more value to your pages. To prove that, take Google’s original explanation:
“First, anchors often provide more accurate descriptions of web pages than the pages themselves.”
Anchor texts aren’t as important as they used to be simply because nowadays, Google is better at understanding the contents of a page. However, they still play an important role. A high-quality backlink from an authoritative website with a keyword-rich anchor can be a major booster for your page’s rankings.
Anchor texts are also a major influencing factor for spam detection. Google can detect backlink schemes that try to game the system by analyzing the website’s anchor texts. Because of that, focus on doing natural link building without trying to push the limits. Your anchor texts should be natural, with the majority being branded anchors or naked link anchors.
Especially when looking at landing pages, having too many keyword-rich anchors can be a sign of spam. That’s because website owners that normally create backlinks aren’t usually keen on linking directly to sales pages. This is also partly why blogging for companies is becoming so popular – it allows you to earn backlinks to content others find valuable and pass that value to important pages through internal linking.
Backlinks from in-depth, valuable content
The more valuable a piece of content is, the more authority its backlinks deliver. A good sign that a backlink is great is whether it already gets any traffic from Google. For example, if the article that links to you already ranks at the very top for a competitive keyword, you can be sure the site is seen as authoritative.
Additionally, if that page already gets a good amount of traffic, the odds are that you’re going to get some referral traffic from it due to the spillover effect.
Last but not least, look for backlinks that are linked contextually in the text. The sentences surrounding your backlink also provide context to both users and search engines, meaning that you benefit from it. Contextual backlinks give the user a reason to explore your content. It can also be a good sign for Google as it helps the search engine narrow your topic and establish the exact search intent your post should rank for.
Example of a high-quality backlink
Here’s an example of a high-quality link I found when analyzing the backlink profile for our website. Following the tips from above, I’ll break down what makes this link good. At the bottom, I’ve also commented on how this link could be better.
The link in question is from the respected website Hubspot.com where one of our marketers collaborated with their writers. In it, we expressed our opinion on some great WordPress plugins. Here’s what it looks like:
Hubspot itself is a very authoritative site. They rank well for tons of keywords in the same industry as us, and therefore, we can assume that Google sees this link as highly relevant.
The link itself is placed very contextually, and the user knows what to expect when they click on it. The anchor text is our brand name, which is perfectly fine. After all, given the context of the article, forcing ourselves to a keyword-rich anchor text would not have been natural.
The page itself is not “thin” and has almost 3000 words of content on it. I used this tool to check the word count on the page. Better yet, the link itself appears from the primary content section, so we’re sure it gives Google the right signals.
Additionally, many high-quality websites link to Hubspot’s article itself:
In fact, there are 115 of them.
Lastly, the link is also “dofollow,” meaning it passes its full potential value to our page.
Can this link be further improved? Yes, and here’s how. You can see that this link goes directly to our front page. This situation is quite normal, and most of the links you get will point towards the home page. Your front page is important because it lifts the authority of your whole website.
However, ultimately, you also want to have “deep links,” which point to other pages than your front page. When the competition on specific keywords is tough, you’ll also need links pointing directly to the exact page you want to rank for.
That being said, you cannot always get a link directly to your important pages naturally. Had we tried to “force” our backlink in there, HubSpot might have rejected our contribution. Additionally, since Google is getting more advanced, they could have noticed a bad linking practice.
Because of that, honesty and truthfulness helped us build a better reputation with HubSpot, which helped our SEO. It’s important to remember that you rarely get “perfect case scenarios” with your links. And in any case, that is not the point of link building. You want a natural and diversified profile with some good links like the one above.
In fact, in a way, Google’s algorithms are diligently looking for too many of those “perfect case scenarios” because they are a clear indicator of a link scheme.
Which backlinks are least important for you?
Generally, many SEOs avoid building nofollow links because they perceive them as unimportant. However, nofollow links aren’t necessarily bad – and to prove that, Google changed how they treated nofollow links in 2020. Because of that, to answer which backlinks are not important for you, should be avoided, or can outright harm your SEO, we need to look elsewhere. A more truthful approach is following Google’s guidelines to determine which links are bad. After all, Google is not against nofollow links. However, they do have strict guidelines for other types of links that aim to cheat the algorithm.
As a general rule, you want to avoid low-quality spam backlinks as they are the least valuable or can potentially hurt SEO. Spam backlinks are generally characterized as being automatically generated – they are often in another language and appear on spam websites with thin or duplicate content.
Nofollow links are a natural part of the internet for many reasons – and often can prove you with value compared to getting no links or mentions at all. Consider this – a big media outlet like Forbes decides to publish one of your contributions. However, naturally, because they are unsure whether your website will be live a year or two from now, they decide to nofollow the link to it.
Such a contribution can be great for your overall brand and bring you more exposure and even clients – great rewards in the long run. However, if you look at it through the “old-school lens of SEO,” because the nofollow link might not present a big enough short-term reward, you can potentially miss out on all the other benefits.
Meanwhile, unfortunately, spammy, low-quality, bad backlinks are unavoidable. Almost every growing website gets one at some point. But fortunately, Google can detect many of those links using its Penguin algorithm. They often remove them as an influencing factor in the index, and you do not get penalized. This means that they do the “link profile maintenance” for you and do not directly penalize you if you get just one bad link.
However, if Google’s algorithm detects that you are still earning bad backlinks after some time – and if it’s able to determine whether you’re doing that on purpose – you can get penalized. Your website used to get marked as suspicious in the past, and the Google review team (consisting of thousands of human reviewers) could take action against it. This was otherwise known as a” Manual Action.”
Nowadays, however, most of the penalties are automatic and applied once certain criteria in Google’s proprietary algorithms are met. To classify a low-quality link easier, let’s look at their most common characteristics.
7 common characteristics of low-quality backlinks:
Links from dangerous or “forbidden” content
A popular tactic to worsen a website’s spam score is to drive many links from explicit content that is unsuitable for all audiences. Avoiding such links is important because they can confuse search engines, making them frown upon your content. These links can be especially harmful if your website is on a YMYL topic.
Links from coupon websites
Free coupon links aren’t necessarily bad for SEO simply because Google has an easy time finding and ignoring them. In recent times, Google has made big efforts to change how they treat spam on the web, including backlinks. This means that while such backlinks could get you penalized in the past, nowadays, Google is simply looking to ignore such signals.
Thin profile page backlinks
While not necessarily harmful, profile backlinks don’t do all that much for your SEO. Generally, profile links can easily be detected and classified by Google, which allows the search engine to simply ignore them. Profile links are sometimes referred to as pillow links because some SEOs choose to build them when trying to diversify the backlink profile of a company. The “pillow,” in this case, refers to the dampening effect of a pillow, which is trying to soften the potential negative effects of unnatural link building. However, whether this is proven to work (especially long-term) is still largely up to debate.
Paid links specifically for SEO
Google is strongly against buying links purely for the SEO value it brings you. In fact, Google is against any link-building tactic where the value revolves around the link itself. Not only do such practices try to game the ranking algorithm, but they also create a dishonest environment for competitors and end-users.
Because of that, avoid backlink schemes that promise great results by paying for links. Instead, try to genuinely provide value to the internet and your potential customers. Doing this will improve not only your SEO but also your overall marketing efforts.
Private blog networks
Like paid SEO links, PBN links are one of the big no-nos for search engines. The premise behind a PBN is simple – it is a network of websites a single person or company owns. PBNs are often kept low-profile to avoid Google’s algorithms discovering the scheme. This definition alone tells you enough about whether you need them. While BlackHat SEOs have continuously confirmed that PBNs can get you ranked, these results are often short-lived. Google’s algorithmic updates regularly ensure that large the ranking effect of many large and small PBNs are wiped.
Irrelevant, low-quality backlinks
Generally, many low-quality backlinks won’t harm your SEO. That’s because Google prefers to ignore low-quality backlinks rather than penalize websites for them. However, low-quality links don’t have a positive effect either.
Over the years, Google’s algorithm has advanced in detecting self-serving backlinks anyone can build. Additionally, the concern of “Negative SEO” has been big in the community, too. Both of these factors have pushed the search engine giant to change how low-quality backlinks affect website rankings. Instead of penalizing websites, they simply ignore the links. However, a penalty is still possible in some extreme cases.
Because of that, avoid building links on irrelevant websites with low-quality content. At best, you’re wasting your time, and at worst, they might get you penalized.
Spam backlinks in other languages
One of the worst types of backlinks you can get is a low-quality link from another language. Usually, these backlinks are mass-generated by tools that promise automatic link building. However, these links are often ignored by Google as they bring no value. In worst-case scenarios, they can even harm your SEO. In fact, some popular SEO tools try to take into account such links when calculating your website’s spam scores.
Example of a bad backlink
As we mentioned, some spam backlinks are unavoidable, and it is out of your control if some automatic website scraper links out to you. No one is “safe” from bad backlinks, and you will likely get a few at some point. This has also already happened to us – and I’m happy to break it down for you. In my strive to be transparent with you, let me show you an example of that with our very own website.
Below, you can see that we have received a backlink from a “free coupons website.” By the looks of it, I’m certain that this link was automatically generated since tons of websites scrape the internet and create pages dynamically.
As you can see, the link is not placed contextually, and there’s barely any content on the page. The content is thin and likely duplicate by being scraped from another website. It’s also absolutely not relevant to the subject (“coupon codes” vs. “marketing strategies”)
Here, you can see that this website is not authoritative in any way. It doesn’t get any relevant traffic from search engines – and therefore, Google doesn’t see it as an authority on any particular topic.
Additionally, the link above is “nofollow.” Of course, usually, I’d prefer a dofollow link, but in this case, I’m happy about the situation. The last thing I want is spammy and irrelevant dofollow links that can potentially hurt our site.
On top of that, no links point to this page either – which means the PageRank value for the page is very low.
And to conclude the breakdown, the website itself is also not relevant to us in any way – they are a free coupons website, and we’re an SEO tool. The bottom line is that this link is practically worthless.
To wrap things up, remember that you can quickly judge the quality of a backlink based on how you feel about it. If you earned a genuine backlink and you’re proud of it, Google will likely give you the benefits. Meanwhile, if you know a particular link isn’t honest and transparent and it only serves your SEO, the odds are that it’s a low-quality backlink.
One simple technique I use to judge the quality of a backlink is this: Imagine that you offer SEO services to a client who expects the best from you. Would you honestly be proud to share the backlink with your client, or would you try to hide it? The answer will lead you in the right way.