SEO often involves a good amount of subjectivity. However, the beauty of a backlink isn’t necessarily in the eye of the beholder; it’s determined by Almighty Google. Knowing what Google values most in a backlink – and being able to identify the difference between good backlinks vs. bad backlinks – can help agency owners zero in on better opportunities for their clients, make sound SEO recommendations, and steer clear of spam.
If you know the components of a high-value backlink, you can theoretically replicate that SEO magic again and again. At least, you can create a checklist of priorities to reference when evaluating link-building opportunities.
Good Backlinks vs. Bad Backlinks: What Google Cares About
Remember the Dean Martin song, “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You?” We may not agree in matters of the heart, but it definitely applies to SEO. Building quality backlinks to your client’s site from domains Google perceives as reputable will act as a vote in favor of your client. Without getting a seal of approval from other websites, Google will have a harder time trusting yours.
Google hasn’t provided a “Good Backlink Manual” for us to follow, but they’ve given us a few hints about the elements they consider to be important.
The website as a whole, as well as the specific page on which a link appears, should ideally be related to your client’s own site. Google cares about providing value, which means the two domains should be related in some way (even if they aren’t directly about the same topic). If the content being linked makes sense for the site’s audience and isn’t much of a stretch, you’ve probably nailed the relevance piece of link-building.
Authoritative websites are viewed as more trustworthy, and therefore their backlinks are more valuable. One of the simplest ways to ascertain this is by looking at the site’s domain rating or domain authority. When an authoritative site links to yours, this signals to Google that the site being linked (meaning, yours) is also reputable if the link is do-follow.
In addition to no-follow vs. do-follow, you’ll want to look at other alt attributes (like rel=sponsored), anchor text, redirects, robots.txt, and other technical factors that may impact how backlinks are evaluated by Google crawlers.
These are the only considerations that Google has chosen to share publicly about how the algorithm reportedly evaluates backlinks. But we don’t believe these are the only ones that come into play.
Hidden Factors SEO Experts Consider
Though we can’t officially confirm it, we also think Google cares about:
- Backlink placement (where the link appears on a page or a piece of content)
- Number of outgoing links on a site (more do-follow links = less link juice being passed, but Google only says that any more than 100 links per page is probably too much)
- Website traffic (high DR sites often have decent traffic, but not always)
We don’t necessarily have a conclusive declaration from Google that it takes these elements into account when determining the value of a backlink. Digital marketing expert Neil Patel tells us that the first natural-looking backlink in a piece of content is more valuable than a branded backlink in an author bio all the way at the bottom of the page. Of course, there’s no way to know exactly how much that’s weighted in the final analysis.
Good Backlinks vs. Bad Backlinks: Understanding the Backlink Value Spectrum
While evaluating the exact worth of a backlink is nuanced and murky, we wanted to give our clients and agency partners a clearer way to think through how “good” or “bad” a link is. Despite the SEO industry’s fascination with black and white, there are many shades of gray.
We’ve found it’s more helpful to view backlinks as falling along a spectrum, ranging from toxic to neutral to helpful.
After all, a backlink can be risky or imperfect without being toxic. Just because we wouldn’t build them for ourselves or our partners doesn’t mean those who do have experienced negative consequences 100% of the time.
A helpful backlink is from a relevant site, likely drives traffic, increases your client’s domain rating, improves brand perception, builds mutually beneficial relationships and boosts their visibility in SERPs.
A good example would be a singular do-follow link from a high-DR website in a relevant niche with good traffic, valuable content, and good practices in using links (i.e., not stuffing its content full of paid-for links).
Toxic backlinks can impede your client’s search results while potentially damaging their brand image. Even if you see short-term gains after acquiring these links, Google will catch up with you eventually – and when they do, you’ll probably be worse off than before you started. These backlinks aren’t merely unhelpful; they can actively contribute to your toxic backlink score.
Common examples of toxic backlinks might include:
- Links featured in spam comments on low-quality websites
- Backlinks from non-indexed websites, link farms, and low-value directories
- Mirrored page links from a network of sites
- Thousands of backlinks to the same domain from every page on a site
- Backlinks that use highly generic, exact-match anchor text
Neutral backlinks fall in the space between helpful and harmful. These backlinks won’t hurt a client’s domain rating or brand perception, but they may not drive a whole lot of traffic to the site or give their rankings a significant boost. Although they can diversify a client’s backlink profile, they’ll give minimal help at best.
A truly neutral backlink would be something like a no-follow link in an author bio on a reputable domain, or a do-follow link from a relevant DR 15 website when your client’s site is already a DR 30. Those links won’t hurt your strategy (and might even help a bit), but they’re also not going to do much heavy lifting.
Your Backlink-Building Checklist
We’ve created this backlink-building checklist to take the guesswork out of assessing backlinks. Check each corresponding box if the referring domain…
- Has a DR of 30+
- Is a trusted source of information with fresh, original content
- Has actual traffic from real web visitors
- Has a vertical that’s relevant to the client’s backlink and/or ranks on relevant keywords
- Will pass link juice (i.e., it’s a do-follow link)
- Is choosy about the links it publishes
- Publishes backlinks near the top of the page or naturally in the body of the content
If you were able to check off at least 5 or 6 of these boxes, it’s likely that your backlink falls into the “helpful” category. If you were able to check off only 3 to 4 boxes, you’re probably dealing with a neutral or marginally beneficial backlink. And if you check off only a couple (or none) of the boxes, you’ll want to dive deeper to discover whether the link might hurt more than help.
Backlink Value Is Subjective… to a Point
In the good backlinks vs. bad backlinks debate, it’s not always easy to take a side. In fact, having an all-or-nothing view of link-building can keep you from pursuing the right opportunities for your clients.
Our Backlink Value Spectrum and link-building checklist can serve as helpful references while you guide your clients down the right link-building path.
And of course, when you work with a white label SEO agency like Semify that has relationships with relevant, high-quality publishers in your client’s niche, that’ll make it even easier to build helpful backlinks for their campaigns.