18 Popular Link Building Tactics You Should Actually Avoid
Google has been whittling away the value of links since the beginning of the search engine.
The reason Google chooses to ignore certain kinds of links is that those links do not represent a true recommendation.
As far back as 2005, I was told by a Googler at a conference Q&A that Google depreciated links from pages that are irrelevant, like from a footer “powered by” link.
That’s an example of Google removing irrelevant links from what they count as a link signal for ranking purposes.
A true link signal is when a publisher links to a webpage because it is relevant to the topic and therefore useful. What all of the following tactics have in common is that they do not result in a true link signal.
1. Historical Data Link Trap
This is from a patent about historical data that covers inbound links, outbound links, how fast links are acquired, how often content is updated and so on.
One of the factors that are relevant to link building has to do with adding links to a page without the page actually being updated.
Google is on record stating that just because something is in a patent or a research paper doesn’t mean it’s in use.
Additionally, the older the patent the higher the possibility that another algorithm was developed that made it obsolete.
That said, we don’t know whether something like this is in use. It’s something to take note of.
This patent is called, Information Retrieval Based on Historical Data.
Google has snapshots of the web, including snapshots of the state of the linking patterns.
The most common and easily detectable mistake is adding a link to an existing webpage.
This patent dates from 2003. Matt Cutts, then head of Google’s spam fighting department, is listed in the patent as one of the authors. That’s a good sign that this patent has a strong anti-spam component.
The Algorithm That Tracks Link Additions & Removals
Among the various things this patent covered, one of them was tracking changes of links on a webpage:
- How many links are added.
- How often links are added.
- How often links are removed.
This patent covers a wide variety of changes to links on a page and links to a webpage.
Here’s a sample of the things this patent covers.
The section below discusses identifying how new links that are associated with a document are and assigning scores (weights) relative to the newness of those links and then using those scores to rank a webpage.
26. …assigning weights to the links based on the determined measure of freshness, and scoring the document based, at least in part, on the weights assigned to the links associated with the document.
27. The method of claim 26, wherein the measure of freshness of a link associated with the document is based on at least one of a date of appearance of the link, a date of a change to the link, a date of appearance of anchor text associated with the link, a date of a change to anchor text associated with the link, a date of appearance of a linking document containing the link, or a date of a change to a linking document containing the link.
Now, this section of the same patent discusses issuing penalties.
First, it discusses determining time based link information (claim 54) and in claims 55 and 56, it discusses penalizing rankings based on time related link patterns.
54. A method comprising:
…determining longevity of the linkage data;
deriving an indication of content update for at least one …or more linking documents providing the linkage data; and
adjusting the ranking of the linked document based on the longevity of the linkage data and the indication of content update for the linking document.
The next section (claims 55 & 56) are sub-sections to claim 54 above. The following part describes how Google can alter ranking scores with time based link information:
55. The method of claim 54, wherein the adjusting the ranking includes penalizing the ranking if the longevity indicates a short life for the linkage data and boosting the ranking if the longevity indicates a long life for the linkage data.
56. The method of claim 55, wherein …adjusting the ranking further includes penalizing the ranking if at least a portion of content from the linking document is considered stale over a period of time and boosting the ranking if the portion of content from the linking document is considered updated over the period of time.
What that section appears to cover is obtaining links from content that hasn’t been otherwise updated.
Link selling was a multi-million dollar business in those years. Prior to Penguin, around 2007-2009, Google was able to identify which links were paid and began devaluing them.
I know this because an executive from a link selling business told me that many of the links they sold were increasingly no longer working.
There were multiple theories of how Google was catching links added to pages that weren’t otherwise updated. In retrospect, something like the Historical Data Patent could be used to easily spot paid links in addition to other paid link signals.
The importance of the patent I cited is that Google monitoring historical link information is possible. There is a solid basis for the possibility.
The patent shows that it’s possible that Google could detect paid links by monitoring the inbound/outbound link changes within a domain over time.
Webpages change all the time. But there are some rates of changes that don’t happen on normal sites. So a site that’s selling links from within existing webpages could have the power of those links penalized.
Adding links to previously published articles in an attempt to influence Google may backfire. A person reported to me in early 2019 that he purchased links from an existing page and his page lost rankings within two weeks.
Was it the fact that the page was an old existing page that was not updated? Or was it something else?
It’s hard to say. I’m just putting this information out there for your consideration.
2. EDU Discount Link Building
The offer a discount link building technique can result in a penalty. Don’t do it.
This is an example of a sketchy link building tactic. Offering something in return for a link is a paid link. Overstock.com was reported to be penalized by Google in 2011 for offering discounts to university students in exchange for links.
Overstock.com apparently was offering university discounts in exchange for links to their product pages. A university published a PDF document with discounts that were intended for students.
Unfortunately for Overstock.com, the document apparently contained the text of the outreach with instructions for how to link to the Overstock.com product pages. The PDF doesn’t exist anymore but Archive.org has a snapshot of it here.
Beware, some SEOs are still recommending discount link building. As you can see from the link above, this tactic violates Google’s guidelines and if that matters to you then don’t do it.
3. Free Products Link Building
This is another variation of a paid link. The interesting thing about this tactic is that it can actually be illegal because it may violate FTC rules against publishing reviews that have been paid for with products, samples or other compensation.
The official guidelines are here: FTC – Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising
An easy to read FAQ about endorsements is here: FTC – Endorsement Guides: What People Are Asking
4. Content Marketing Links
This is not about guest posting. This is about a different form of content marketing.
Content marketing is a lot of things. A valid version focuses on publishing articles on one’s own site to establish the site as a thought leader and create a useful resource that generates goodwill and links.
Another version of content marketing is hiring a writer to publish an article on a third party website, with a link to the client from within the article.
These kinds of article links do not typically contain a disclosure that a payment was made to the writer for the article and the link. This is advertising.
When money or other consideration is exchanged for a link, that is considered an advertisement done for promotional purposes.
This may violate the FTC Guidelines cited above. A relevant section is here:
“Your spokesperson should disclose her connection when promoting your products outside of traditional advertising media (in other words, on programming that consumers won’t recognize as paid advertising). The same guidance also would apply to comments by the expert in her blog or on her website.”
The following FTC guideline states that if the advertisement cannot be disclosed (as in a hidden arrangement), then that advertisement should not exist.
“If a disclosure is necessary to prevent an advertisement from being deceptive, unfair, or otherwise violative of a Commission rule, and it is not possible to make the disclosure clearly and conspicuously, then that ad should not be disseminated. This means that if a particular platform does not provide an opportunity to make clear and conspicuous disclosures, then that platform should not be used to disseminate advertisements that require disclosures”
5. Viral Link Campaigns
How Viral Link Campaigns Can Be Useful
Viral link campaigns can be useful. A viral link campaign can be useful if it is highly targeted to the demographic of people who would become purchasers and results in links from relevant webpages.
In my opinion, some of the value in viral link campaigns lie less in link creation and can be in awareness building. Building awareness for a company has value.
How Viral Link Campaigns Fail
The more off-topic a viral link campaign is, the less likely it will result in relevant links. In that scenario, there is no value for ranking or awareness building.
A viral link campaign is useless if the reason people are linking has nothing to do with your core business model or your keyword phrases.
Viral contests and other forms of viral stunts for links tend to result in irrelevant inbound links. Google discounts irrelevant links.
The page and/or the immediate context of the link must have a meaningful relevance to the site being linked to. If the relevance of the link is for the topic of the viral campaign, then those links may help rank that site for that topic.
A friend shared with me the anecdote of a company that ran a campaign for their real estate company. The campaign was a contest to about the world’s worst real estate agent portrait photograph. For years afterward, the real estate site failed to rank for meaningful phrases but it did receive a lot of traffic for phrases like world’s worst real estate agent.
Now imagine bloggers and news organizations linking to a toy retailer website because the toy retailer created the world’s biggest teddy bear. All the links have the context of the World’s Biggest Teddy Bear. The landing page they’re linking to is the viral link page about the world’s biggest teddy bear.
That site may rank for the world’s biggest teddy bear. But those thousands of links will not help that site rank for their important search queries because none of those links come from the context of a specific toy nor do they link to a specific toy.
So how can that site rank for yo-yos when all their links are about the world’s biggest teddy bear?
It won’t. They never do.
I gave a presentation at an Internet marketing conference several years ago and one of the audience members was confused at why his wildly successful viral link campaign failed to increase rankings and sales. The above description is why irrelevant viral link campaigns fail in terms of creating a lift in rankings and sales.
Don’t overlook the value of building awareness with a viral link campaign. Viral linking as a strategy can be useful. Just don’t expect an off-topic viral campaign to result in a change in rankings.
Redirect Viral Links Page to Another Page
While we’re on the topic of viral links, this is a strategy that no longer works. This strategy dates back to the days when Digg was popular. The scheme was to build a ton of viral (irrelevant) links to a viral link page. Then months later take the page down and do a permanent 301 redirect to the home page or to a product page.
This no longer works and hasn’t worked for many years. Google will not assign PageRank or relevancy signals through a redirect (or canonical) if there isn’t a one to one relevance between the two pages.
6. Sponsor Links
In my opinion, it is very unlikely that a philanthropic event will generate links from a meaningful context. This is similar to a viral link campaign. The best links are from a context that’s related to your topic to a page on your site that is about that topic.
This kind of link is convenient and expedient. That’s why some SEOs recommend them. They’re easier to acquire, which is good for the link builder and not so good for the client.
It’s not really the kind of link that will move your rankings. I say this from personal experience. I and others experimented with these around 14 years ago. This is nothing new. They simply do not move the dial on rankings.
And if that’s not good enough for you, here’s what Google’s John Mueller said about charity sponsorship links in a Webmaster Hangout:
“…if with your website you’re sponsoring… different clubs and sites where it looks like the primary intent is to get a link there, then that’s something the web spam team might take action on.
…So I’d try to take a look at the bigger picture there and think uwhether or not this is really something that you’re doing systematically; like going out and sponsoring other sites or products with the intent of getting a link or if this is something that’s essentially just a natural part of the web.”
7. Scholarship Links
PageRank and link ranking algorithms look at how the web interconnects.
Google builds a map of the Internet then likely creates what’s called a Reduced Link Graph, consisting of mostly non-spam links and pages.
Then as part of the ranking analysis, it organizes the web into neighborhoods by topic.
Scholarship links are great if your goal is to rank for [keyword phrase] + scholarship. The problem with these kinds of links is that they have an irrelevant context.
Most sites that do scholarship link building aren’t about scholarships. They’re about things like personal injury lawyers.
There is no relevance between a link from a school to a personal injury lawyer for the purpose of ranking for personal injury lawyer search phrases.
The link is relevant for things like “personal injury attorneys scholarship.” Google will rank these kinds of pages for those scholarship search phrases and that is the extent of the value.
This is useless for business owners because the links aren’t about their business, they’re about scholarships.
If a personal injury lawyer attained links that are relevant for the search phrase, pizza restaurants, they will rank for personal injury pizza restaurant.
But a pizza restaurant link is not desirable for a personal injury lawyer website. The same kind of relevance problem applies to scholarship links.
An SEO may say that a link from a .edu will help increase the domain authority of a page, that it will increase “trust” and that Dot Edu links are special.
That’s wrong in three different ways.
I think we’re done with scholarship links.
Now let’s move on to an even more useless link building trick.
8. Badges for Links Trick
One of the oldest and out of date link building tricks around is the Badges link building strategy. The Badges for links strategy is a variation of the Awards strategy as well as the Widgets strategy.
The idea is to create a fake award then award to websites that will display your image badge that proclaims them a winner. The trick is to give them the badge and the code which contains a sneaky link back to your website.
Run as fast as you can from any SEO who tells you the Badges trick is a useful link building tactic. This link building strategy is so stale that if you breathe on it it’ll crumble and blow away.
The badges link building technique is similar to the widgets technique, which Google explicitly called out in 2016.
It’s similar because in both cases the link builder is giving something of value (an award, a visitor counter) and forcing the link back to the original website.
The tactic relies on people linking to your site for reasons other than your content. Those kinds of links have been devalued since at least 2004 when Google stopped passing PageRank from pages that are irrelevant to the page they’re linking to.
The idea is to create an awards page and have the badge link to that awards page. The idea is that the link will pass PageRank since the context of the link is similar to the context of the webpage.
One of the failures of the badge for links strategy is that unless your site is about awards, the link is useless. All it’s going to do is help your page rank for “Keywords + Awards). How does that help you? It doesn’t.
9. Blog Comments
Blog commenting is such a bad link building tactic that the search engines created a link attribute called “nofollow” in 2005. Should anyone really consider a tactic that was already burned in 2005?
Even though the “nofollow” attribute is now a hint, that’s no excuse to start comment spamming like it’s 2004.
Does anyone believe Google would make the nofollow into a hint without being able to handle a 2004 link building tactic?
10. Buying Websites
Buying a website is an edgy tactic. Redirecting the domain in order to parasite the link signals doesn’t work anymore. The reason is that Google will not pass link signals from one page to another unless the pages are a close match.
Creating a separate website only doubles your work because now you’re link building and content writing for two websites.
11. Charity Link Building
This is a variation of the sponsorship link building tactic. The problem with this tactic is that the links are irrelevant.
An SEO will try to convince you that domain authority, trust, and Dot EDU magic will help a site rank better. But those excuses have already been documented as untrue.
12. Content Syndication
This is a variation of guest posting, only worse. Content syndication is creating content and letting others publish it in exchange for a link.
Former Google engineer Matt Cutts warned the SEO community in his famous post about guest blogging called, The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO.
13. Contests for Links
This is a variation of viral link building. It creates a situation where other websites are linking to a site for reasons that have nothing to do with the relevant topic. Off-topic links are never good.
14. Widget Links
Widget links are one of the oldest forms of scaled link building.
Many years ago in the early 2000s, the top ranked site for Mesothelioma was a lawyer site that distributed visitor counters for universities to use at the bottom of their webpage.
Placing the page counter code resulted in a link to the lawyer site. It worked for years and then it stopped working.
When WordPress gained popularity many people started using other forms of useful widgets for people to add to their sites.
Plugins for things like a weather display, news, RSS feeds and other useful functions were created so that they resulted in a link back to someone’s site.
Google formally published a blog post to warn against this technique.
15. Press Release Link Building
Press releases are useful for announcing important news about a business. The value is in a news organization publishing a news story based on the press release.
The value is not in the links embedded in the press release. Sites that syndicate press releases tend to be of low quality.
Google may also choose to ignore the links in duplicate content because it’s painfully obvious that links in duplicate content do not represent the quality of being a true link signal.
Google’s John Mueller is on record as stating that press release links are something Google tries to ignore.
So if common sense and logic aren’t enough to convince you that is a low-quality tactic, then perhaps a Googler’s statement will.
16. Profile Link Building
As the moderator of the Link Building Forum at WebmasterWorld and being friends with many forum owners, I can tell you right now that online community administrators know about link builders who sign up to a forum in order to drop a link from their profile.
Just don’t. It’s a low-quality link with zero context and zero relevance. It’s not a true link.
A forum profile link is about as useless and spammy as a link can get. There is ZERO context for a ranking signal to a webpage. It’s silly to consider such a link as a link building tactic.
In my opinion, anyone who recommends this tactic has a credibility problem.
17. Forum Spamming
Forum administrators and moderators are on the lookout for link builders who post a couple useless “me too!” posts and then answer a question with a link to another site saying, “And there’s more information at this site!”
Sorry, but most forum admins and mods consider that spam. The mods will trip over each other to delete those kinds of posts.
If you want to publicize your business in a way that puts it in a bad light and generates buckets of ill will, have at it.
18. WordPress Theme Link Building
“Powered by” links in the footer stopped working over fifteen years ago. Just stop.
Being fashionable is about going along with current trends. Like fashion, link building tactics have many trends, sometimes driven by how easy they are.
When it comes to link building, it’s good to understand the history behind certain tactics. It’s also useful to understand how search engines use links.
Knowledge will help keep you from making avoidable mistakes.
Don’t let anyone tell you that knowing about patents or research is useless. Knowledge is useful. Understanding how search engines treat links can save you from needlessly tanking a website’s rankings.
There are so many ways that a link building strategy can go wrong. These are, in my opinion, a few of the link building strategies that are a waste of time and money.
Featured Image: Paulo Bobita
Screenshots taken by author, November 2019