Learning The Difference Between a Good Link and Bad Link

Good links for SEO vs Bad Links for SEO

While inbound, outbound, and internal links can all be leveraged to improve your website’s usability and organic search engine rankings, it is important to know that some links are more valuable than others — and some are even considered bad. Here are three reasons some links are better than others:

  • Not all links are good links. A website with misleading, irrelevant, broken, or factory-farmed links will make you and your site look bad to both users and search engines.
  • Inbound links from high-ranking, authority websites are better than links from low-ranking, obscure websites. So a link from www.cnbc.com will mean more than a link from www.weirdcatblog.com. (Hint: Pages may pass some of their page rank to the sites they link to, so be choosy about the sites that you link to.)
  • In industry links will help you more than random links from your friends’ websites. If you’re in the cupcake industry, links from cupcake, frosting, cake decorating, and baking sites will be worth much more than links from your babysitter, accountant, or golf buddy.

Still not sure what I mean?

Let’s look at this like high school: Each inbound link to your website is like a vote for your popularity. So the more votes you get, the more popular you are. And the more popular you are, the more you’ll be in the spotlight, seen by others, attracting lots of attention.

Search engines work just like the high school popularity chain: The more websites that vote for (link to) your website, the more popular your site will be with the search engines. That means it will be seen by more people, you’ll earn more clicks, and gain more website traffic. But before you drop everything and focus your efforts on building tons of inbound links from every place you can think of online, you must understand that some links are better, more savory, and more valuable than others.

Let’s go back to our high school example: The star of the football team inviting you to a party is a huge vote for your popularity and will increase your status among your peers pretty quickly. But on the other hand, an invitation from a relatively unknown, wallflower won’t help raise your social standing at all — in fact, if you go to their party, it may do the opposite! (Sad I know.)

Again, search engines work the same way: A link from a high-quality, high-ranking, authority site is much more valuable and apt to have a much bigger impact on your own site rankings than a link from a random site. So, it’s important to understand that just building lots of links from random places isn’t going to cut it, because it’s not just about quantity — it’s also about the quality of links to your site.

The Difference Between a Good Link And A Bad Link

Examples of Good Links:

  • Links from websites with high page ranks
  • Links from websites with good Alexa rankings
  • Links from website who already rank in the top search results for your target keyword or key phrase
  • Links from other sites in your industry or complimentary industries (i.e. a designer linking to a copywriter)
  • Anchor text links to your website that use your keywords as the link text
  • Natural, non-spammy links that occur without solicitation

Examples of Bad Links:

  • Links to or from link farms or link directories with no useful content
  • Links to or from sites with explicit content or sites associated with spam or unethical practices
  • Links from your website to completely irrelevant websites (i.e. a designer linking to a dog groomer)
  • Using too many links in your content — resist the urge to turn every keyword into a link. It dilutes the important links and can distract the reader
  • Broken links
  • Repetitive links — too many of the exact same keyword link
  • Purchased, solicited, or unnatural links
  • Paragraphs of keyword links in your website footer (everyone knows what you’re doing)

Two Sides To Every Story

If you do any amount of research on links, eventually you will come across a blog post or article by an SEO company or consultant, or even an online marketer, warning you of the dangers of bad links. These articles usually have big warnings, fearful messages, and even threats of what may happen if you use any of the bad link types they mention. And most of them all warm of the potential Google Slap or punishment you will suffer if you have too many of these links.

But there are two side to every story and this is no different. Yes, there are certain link types that have been deemed bad — like those I mention above — and these links types now have such horrible reputations that business owners are almost afraid of them. The problem is that some of those links can actually be beneficial to your business.

Here’s what you need to understand: The importance of links isn’t always about the search engines and SEO. First and foremost your link strategy should be about helping users discover the content they are looking for quickly and easily.

Directory Listings

Pursuing random directory listings just for a quick link is a well-known bad SEO strategy. Most link farms are spam type sites posing as directory sites. These are low-quality links that can be bad for your search rankings. But before you swear off directories forever, know that some directories are good. Some online directories can be considered high-quality opportunities for your business because it gets you in front of an audience of your ideal clients.

Here are some examples of when a directory listing may be a smart business decision:

  • A restaurant choosing to be listed in a directory of local eateries
  • A wedding planner choosing to be listed in an online directory of wedding professionals for a bridal expo
  • A business choosing to be included in the directory for and industry trade association
  • A business being listed in the directory for the local chamber of commerce
  • A local farmer choosing to be listed on their county or city “buy local” directory and promotions

Too Many Links

There is no minimum or maximum number of links you should have on a page. In fact, there are no EXACT guidelines on this topic whatsoever. It is up to you to use your best judgement. But understand that a web page stuffed with links can be viewed negatively by search engines because it looks spammy and seems unnatural. The same goes for a web page that is nothing more than a long list of links. And again, it’s not just about the search engines, cramming a page with too many links makes your content harder to read and it is distracting to your visitors.

Repetitive Links

If you have too many of the exact same link, with the exact same words, this could also reflect negatively on your site because it also looks spammy and seems unnatural. It looks like you’re trying to “game the system” for that particular keyword or key phrase — and everyone who comes to your site knows what you’re doing. This approach is almost as bad as including an entire paragraph of keyword links in your website footer because you think it will help with SEO. Ick!

When you speak and write naturally, not specially for search engines, you don’t use the exact words over and over, you use different variations of the words, and you use them in different contexts. So when you’re working on building your internal website links, don’t sculpt your content to use the exact same keywords over and over. Instead, write naturally, use the words in various forms, add links only where it makes sense.

Advice On Creating And Building Links

You’ll have nothing to worry about when it comes to leveraging good links for SEO and building quality inbound links, as long as you are:

  • Writing and creating content naturally, and not purposefully stuffing your content full of awkward uses of your keyword.
  • Linking to other website and web pages with it is natural and makes sense, instead of trying to force it.
  • Putting the visitor first, focusing on delivering value, and helping them access the content they are looking for quickly and easily.

Now what about you? Have you benefited from good links, or accidentally been affected by bad links? Did you even know there were bad links? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!

About Jennifer Bourn

As Creative Director of Bourn Creative, Jennifer leads all consulting, strategy, and creative projects. She is an award-winning designer, specializing in custom WordPress theme design, brand design, Legos (Yes, Legos), and graphic design for small business.

Entrenched in the world of online business, Jennifer consults with clients around the world on branding, website planning, and marketing strategies that leverage the internet to generate leads, attract clients, and create opportunities. She speaks regularly at live events, conferences, and workshops around the country, as well as on radio shows, teleclases, webinars, and podcasts.

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Comments & Feedback:

  1. Thanks for the clarification about links. It’s useless and usually counterproductive to try to game the system – but on the other hand it’s irritating when the system dings someone who wasn’t even trying to game in the first place. Your tips should help people in that boat.

  2. Distinguishing between “good” and “bad” links is a great way to prevent wasting time or encouraging links from those places that could hinder your progress. I also agree about making every other word a link. I’ve read some of those blogs and not only could it be bad for our “link” strategy, it can also be annoying to the reader.

  3. Wonderful tips Jennifer. Thank you. I learned a lot.

  4. Very helpful tips! I appreciate the advice on not creating a link from dozens of key words. So many websites do this and it is distracting and annoying.

  5. I NEVER understood the whole SEO Link conversations that went on around me. This article was so clear and easy to read for the “Big Bang Theory Pennys” like me, all I can say is THANKS! I finally understand the link conversation!

  6. So helpful! I get a little lost in the land of SEO and these tips really helped clarify things for me. Besides, now I have a great new catch phrase, Google slap! :)

  7. Thanks Jennifer, this was a very thorough explanation and I am bookmarking it to use as a reference when people want an explanation on when to use links and when not to. I use them when it makes sense for the reader to have more information without having to go look it up on their own. As a general rule, I don’t care about SEO or search engines hunting me down, I care about clients loving me and referring me to their friends. But at the same time, it’s always good to know what NOT to do too!

    Great advice!

    • Wendi — Awesome, thanks! We’re on the same page with this approach. People always ask what I do for SEO and I laugh. I just post great content, optimize what I can — staying within the rules — and write keyword-rich headlines!

  8. Wow, I need you. Like Jessica, above, I feel like Penny of Big Bang too when these conversations come up. I’m keeping my eye on you, saving up for you! Grrrrreat advice, thank you so much! Angela

  9. Jennifer you did a great job in explaining the good and bad link differences. SEO is so vital to anyone trying to build a solid business online. I also strongly agree that you need to be authentic, focus on your ideal client’s wants and needs and deliver value. After all we want people to come back over and over again so that they get to know, like and trust us.

  10. Katherine C. H. E. says:

    Great and thorough advice, Jennifer!

    Love, Katherine.

  11. This is great stuff, Jennifer! I’ve been concerned about this whole notion of good and bad links. I’ve wanted to add some links to one of my sites just to offer as resources to my visitors. While I wasn’t trying to boost my SEO with these links, I don’t want them to hurt my SEO either. I’m thinking I should print these links in an ebook or something rather than having them on my site. Besides, you want to keep visitors on your own site as long as possible anyway. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Wow! I learned a lot from this post. I feel grateful that I focus on my writing and what I consider to be important rather than chasing the links. Having said that my big takeaway is to be aware of what constitutes a quality link and how to better utilize that for my site.

  13. Jennifer,
    A well written and informative article on the topic.
    You must keep us up to date on this as it seems like
    the rules change every other month. Thanks,

  14. Well written article Jennifer. Far too often people think of optimization as a crutch rather than a tool. Content sculpting is a bad idea though. Write for sales and conversions and then optimize around that! Google doesn’t buy anything, People do!

    • Marcus — Thanks for stopping by. I wish more people understood that putting your visitors, readers, and consumers first is ALWAYS the best approach. You’re right that people make decisions to hire you, buy from you, or learn from you … not search engines!

  15. I am new to SEO and was feeling overwhelmed by all of the dos and don’ts. I love your advice to let your linking be natural. Thank you!

  16. I just wanted to point out a typo that you probably want to fix. Your profile at the end of the article says “Legos” and I’m guessing it should say “Logos”. :)

  17. Thank you, this makes sense. What is your take on directories, paid and unpaid that may not be niche-related such as Yahoo or Somuch or higher ranking ones?

    • Cathie — I personally would steer clear of any general directories. The niche or geo specific ones, if they are maintained make sense … but the general ones just seem spammy — like you’re just signing up because it’s a potential link.

  18. Jennifer, I really value your opinion as you seem extremely knowledgeable in the SEO realm. What is your opinion on having a hyperlink for website created by in the footer of websites we build? With Google’s new penalties we don’t know if it is hurting us or not to have that. We have always put that on all the websites we have built, but now are wondering if we need to go back and take it off. In your opinion should a person not put a link at all, use a no-follow link, use a link with the business name as the key word, or hyperlink website designed by like we have in the past? I can’t find any authoritative sources that know what to do with this.

    • Jade — we stopped putting links to our site or any mention of our business on clients sites a long time ago. I don’t believe in it to be honest and always thought it was a bit weird. They are paying you to create the site, why should you get to advertise on their site and add a link taking people away from their site just because you designed it.

      I don’t like the practice. I don’t like adding my brand to someone else’s site, especially when it will show up on every page. I don’t like possibly taking people AWAY from my clients sites either. And, with the recent changes in Google approach with search, I’m glad we made that decision! It seems Google and I are on the same page.

      I’d rather have a client love us so much they post about us naturally on social sites, or thank us in their inaugural blog post etc. That is much better … because let’s face it, everyone knows you’re the one who put the link there.

      • Jade Stanley says:

        Interesting. We never really gave it much thought until recently. I see your point for going forward, but I would love to know if you think it is something Google is penalizing for and if we need to go back to all of our previous sites and get our credit removed.

        • I personally would do it, Irrelevant links are being viewed as spam, and lots of links using the same words are being viewed as spammy tactics. Those links to your site would be considered irrelevant if the topic of the site has nothing to do with what you do, and too many all using your business name could also be bad for the way you are perceived by Google.

  19. Hey Jennifer, nice read this was actually one of the first ‘Quality link’ building posts I found easy to digest. I will try this stuff out, tyvm!

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