26 Types of Unnatural Links & Link Building Strategies

How to Build a Backlinking Strategy to Grow Your Business

Link building involves creating a content page, gathering backlinks to this page, and hoping these links will enhance your website’s standing in Google search results; several strategies play an essential role in finding link-building success.

With so many strategies around, it is easy to miss when methods become outdated. Missing these could result in penalties from Google, damaging your SEO efforts as a result. Therefore, brands should try to stay updated with changes conducted by Google if they want to avoid violating Google’s Quality Guidelines. The problem is the volume of content on the web providing the wrong information. It isn’t easy to decipher the false from the fact.

Make yourself aware of these 26 unnatural link building methods and avoid them as much as possible.

What is unnatural link building?

Unnatural links became a strong focus for Google after the Penguin update in 2012. It involves manipulating a page’s ranking – such as purchasing links or using spammy links. While not all unnatural links are bad, some can cause detrimental effects, compromising your website’s ranking with Google. If you have built a robust search engine presence over the years, which gains your website a large quantity of organic traffic, penalties can make all of your hard work vanish in an instant.

These penalties don’t have to be massive to put your online business at risk. If your content ranks on the first page for numerous relevant search terms in your industry, and some dodgy links lead to Google penalizing your site, it could push it down to the second page. 75% of users never venture beyond the first page of search results, so avoid falling down the rankings where you can.

If you want to avoid losing at least three-quarters of your organic traffic, take some time to understand the different unnatural links.

1. Guest posting

Marketers consider guest posting, where you share content on external websites, as one of the most effective strategies for attaining those all-important backlinks. If done incorrectly, guest posting can become an unnatural link building method. Consider the content of the blog post. Aim to make a high-quality post full of original content. Low-quality, spammy content results in guest posting strategies that go from helping to hindering you.

Also, depending on which external sites publish your guest posts, problems can crop up if a site does any of the following:

  • Features a large number of outbound links

Outbound links increase relevancy, improve reputation, boost value, and encourage backlinks. Experts recommend using these in moderation. A site with a high quantity of outbound links could distract and annoy readers, impacting user experience. Also, Google views these sites as spammy. Websites should only include relevant and helpful links. If a site appears spammy or manipulative due to unnatural links, avoid reaching out to them.

  • Requests a dofollow link for their website in exchange

As a courtesy for someone incorporating your link onto their website, some may request that you do the same by including their link onto your site. Avoid websites that try to gain a link in return. While this quick and easy method drives traffic, excessive link exchanges risk negatively impacting your site’s ranking. The occasional link exchange shouldn’t harm your efforts – it’s not uncommon for two parties to exchange links. However, proceed with caution. Google discourages this old-fashioned link exchange tactic, as it involves bloggers systematically gaining links. These links only exist cause of this deal, not making them natural. It can lead to Google dishing out penalties.

Plus, building lots of links over a long period could result in you forgetting about many times link exchanges occurred. Therefore, to avoid all risks, don’t guest post on sites that request a dofollow link. Exchanging links wastes your time and won’t bring any additional traffic or boost your site authority.

  • Isn’t relevant to your industry

The site may have high authority and traffic, but you won’t benefit if it isn’t relevant. Asking a food blog to take your guest post with a makeup link appears unnatural to Google and the audience. If it doesn’t make sense from the user’s perspective, don’t pursue the site.

2. Private blog networks (PBNs)

Private blog networks aim to boost link authority artificially. Create a network of authoritative websites yourself rather than reaching out to other sites to share your backlink. With all of the control in your hands, post articles and incorporate links in whatever way you desire. Once you have bought old domains with high authority and start adding backlinks to your site, it improves your ranking and boosts your traffic.

However, this black-hat link building tactic goes against Google’s guidelines as they manipulate the rankings. Therefore, Google hands out manual penalties to any website caught using or building a PBN.

When working with SEO agencies, ask them about the methods they use to build links. If they use PBN’s to create backlinks without your knowledge, it can still negatively affect your site if Google realizes it’s part of a sketchy link building strategy.

While it may seem like a fast and great tactic on the surface, other strategies that take a bit longer won’t result in penalties. With the risk of losing your ranking position, don’t go down this route. Forget about the “private blog” part and only focus on the “network” aspect. Finding legitimate, high-ranking websites rather than creating your own that you can network with always benefits you.

3. Money for links

Money for link

It is possible to buy backlinks. This time-saving method often delivers fast results; some providers even allow you to purchase high-quality backlinks that won’t result in a penalty. However, avoid exchanging money for links. This black hat SEO technique goes against the Webmaster Guidelines provided by Google. Opting for this route risks you finding yourself with a penalty that instantly kills your search rankings.

4. Goods/services for links

Swapping goods/services with the expectation of receiving links in exchange is similar to exchanging money for links. Rather than pay them money, lend a product to someone to review. Once reviewed, they send it back and write an article containing a backlink to your site. Despite being the more natural type of trade, it can still result in you receiving a penalty if Google realizes what is happening.

An unnatural trade involves you giving them a product rather than lending. However, both situations still result in the risk of getting a penalty.

5. Automatically generated links

Building up a solid link profile means gaining a lot of links. Therefore, seeing an email that claims to create many backlinks overnight for specific keywords or an agency offering this type of service may seem helpful. However, this is a case of it sounding too good to be true.

Agencies or freelance marketers use automated programs to generate this large quantity of backlinks and post them on low-quality platforms like forums and article comments. Gaining links this way is one of the most damaging techniques available. Google could throw out punishments, and the links don’t offer value to anybody. The result: you end up paying for a load of useless, artificial links.

6. Press releases

Press Release

Press releases remain a valuable tactic for SEO and marketing in general. Promote something significant within your business, establish a relationship with the media, and build credibility using press releases. Plus, this technique boosts your SEO traffic and customer engagement and helps contribute to your content portfolio.

Gain all this and more so long as you utilize press releases the right way. When businesses abuse this technique, this SEO strategy stops benefitting you.

Some platforms offer to publish your press release – complete with dofollow links attached – across hundreds of different websites. You get hundreds of backlinks and benefit from more traffic and an increase in your SEO ranking. However, this causes two problems for your link building efforts:

  1. You have many links with the exact commercial anchor text.
  2. You have duplicate content across many various sites.

Google views press releases done in this way as a manipulated link scheme technique. If you must have press release links, ensure that you only use one link and use URLs or branded URLs for the anchor text.

7. Commercial anchor text

Google uses anchor text as a way of learning what content the backlink is pointing back to – having an excess of commercial anchor text isn’t a good thing for your website. When it comes to commercial anchor texts, these feature keywords that you are likely targeting with your SEO campaign. While optimizing in this way is beneficial, you mustn’t use the same commercial anchor texts repeatedly. If you have multiple instances of the same commercial anchor text, you could trigger Google’s spam filters and damage your link building.

8. Widget links

WIdget Links

Widgets provide several benefits for businesses, from constantly reminding visitors of your business and services to virtual convenience for customers. Unfortunately, some widget developers attempt to sneak their links within the widget. This means that the developer will receive a backlink for every website that installs and publicly displays the widget. Google does not accept this devious link building tactic due to the unnatural placing of links. Their stance is that they always want natural links, so these types of links violate Google Webmaster Guidelines.

9. Footer links

Footer Links

Including internal links within your footer is not an issue. However, there is an issue when you have a footer link pointing to an external website. This type of link building strategy is popular due to web design agencies. When trying to attract new clients and enhance their visibility, they place links within the footer of their client’s websites. You have likely seen one of those “Designed by” messages followed by the agency’s name.

Google dishes out penalties to agencies using this unnatural technique to acquire backlinks, especially those doing it excessively. If your site currently incorporates a link of this kind in the footer, remove it. Don’t fall into the same trap as the agency that designed your site.

10. Blog and forum comments

Avoid overusing links in any blog and forum comments. You can find comments on many blogs and forums that have little to no relevance to the content in question show. These spammy comments that include links no longer produce anything of value. It can be wise to get yourself known in communities by posting on blog platforms and websites. Yet if you’re incorporating links with every post or comment you produce, it will make you look unauthentic to others and make your ulterior motive clear for all to see. Once Google gets involved and judges these spammy comments, the negative impact only worsens. The 2012 Penguin update meant that any links with the sole purpose of manipulating PageRank violated their guidelines.

Also, avoid having any spam comments appearing on your own site’s blog posts. Some websites don’t allow you to add a URL field in the comment section. Apply this to your site. Fortunately, platforms like WordPress will automatically detect these unnatural comments and ensure comments remain unapproved and unpublished until you review them.

11. Advertorials

Advertorials involve publishing articles on a website as a type of advertisement designed to look and read like an objective journalistic piece of content. They can take on different forms, including reviews, articles, and news. While this content is acceptable, take some caution to ensure you don’t feel Google’s wrath. Don’t tag backlinks pointing back to your website as dofollow. In addition, the publisher should label the content as a “sponsored” article.

12. Web directory links

Web Directory Links

Before search engines existed, web users would use web directories to explore the worldwide web. Web directories still exist despite their popularity falling off a cliff, and people continue to use them. However, their usage is not down to their original intention of surfing the web. Many use them exclusively for farming backlinks.

Specific web directories still hold value. Search Engine Journal has a helpful list of 21 web directories you should utilize, including Google My Business, Yelp, and Yahoo. Correctly use these to enjoy the rewards.

How to correctly use directories

Directories come in all sorts of forms. Some high-quality directories like Google My Business work for most industries. When users search on Google, you could show up in the results if you set up your account correctly. Others are more industry-specific. Problems crop up when people abuse the nature of web directories. They place their backlinks onto hundreds of directories, no matter the quality or relevancy of each one. This doesn’t appeal to the quality control that Google uses to measure backlink quality. If your link portfolio mainly features these types of links, you are likely to grab the attention of their Webspam Team – something no website wants to experience.

13. Sitewide links

A sitewide link features on all or most of a website’s pages. You will typically see sitewide links appear in the site’s footer or the sidebar blogroll, as this appears on most pages. When the goal of link building revolved less around quality and more about quantity, earning links quickly this way worked. Utilizing a couple of sitewide links won’t raise any suspicion. It becomes an unnatural link building technique when brands abuse this feature and create loads of sitewide links.

This strategy risks harming your rankings easily. Some sitewide links won’t harm your rankings, but when sites without the necessary authority receive sitewide links from low-quality sites, they receive penalties.

Ask for a nofollow attribute for any sitewide links or disavow the link to avoid facing the repercussions of SEO efforts of the past. Site and backlink audits can uncover this for you if you find yourself unsure. If you don’t, Google may start to view any natural links you do gain as unnatural. Therefore, the time and effort gone into achieving these natural links were for nothing.

14. Blogroll links

Many website owners that have a blog use a blogroll. The blogroll features links that redirect to other blogs, usually those within the same niche that the blogger wants to share. Some may divide their blogroll into categories and personal preferences. Usually, you can find these in the sidebar because of the easy access. There’s nothing wrong with adding one or two links that point to relevant blogs. The etiquette surrounding this technique involves putting down a blogger’s link if they do the same for you, even if you don’t like the blog in question. Also, thank them for adding you. The blogroll links boost traffic, and so many have exploited this technique over the years. When it makes up a huge slice of a site’s backlink profile, this tells Google that these blogroll links are unnatural.

Google devalues blogroll links, so don’t worry about disavowing any links you have.

15. 100% dofollow links

dofollow links

Nofollow links came out in 2005 because of the problem with spam comments. It tells Google not to vouch for the target link. Just like most techniques, professionals abused this. Therefore, businesses began to avoid nofollow links when building up their backlink profiles. However, as of 2020, nofollow become a hint as opposed to a directive, and as the image above shows, using nofollow isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Marketing experts Moz features a link profile of around 40 million backlinks, with nofollow links making up a third of them. While you don’t necessarily have to gain that many nofollow links for your site, have a sprinkling of nofollow links to go with your dofollow ones.

If your website manages to gain a 100% dofollow link profile or is above 95%, this raises a much bigger red flag with Google. Make sure your link building looks natural by at least having 10% nofollow links when possible. Adding nofollow to some of your links in these instances:

  • In blog comments
  • In forum posts
  • In advertisements or paid placements
  • When you don’t want your site associated with another

16. Links that are geographically irrelevant

This one is particularly pertinent for local businesses trying to build up their backlink profile. Always try and keep your links within the same geography of your business. Consider this example. You operate a pizza restaurant in New York but keep receiving backlinks from web directories used in Germany. This scenario draws suspicion from Google. The links won’t look natural due to the geographical discrepancy. Why would German audiences need to know about a pizza restaurant in New York? Most of the time, they wouldn’t; therefore, this doesn’t hold value for them, resulting in you having a lower quality link. Sometimes it does work. You might reach out to a travel blog with a piece of content about places to eat while on vacation in New York.

Although you may gain more links using irrelevant geographical sites, you won’t earn high-quality links. Quality over quantity matters more, so don’t try this technique in an attempt to earn more backlinks as they won’t help.

17. Links that are contextually irrelevant

Placing backlinks on websites that have no relevance to the niche of the linked site causes more problems in the long run. Going back to the pizza shop in New York example, imagine your website appearing on blogs that cover topics like laptop reviews and local London attractions. Any link and mention of your business is understandably an unnatural one in this instance.

This affects the user experience on the website, resulting in a higher bounce rate, leaving Google with the power to move them down the rankings. The further down the website is on the rankings, the less traffic potentially seeing and clicking on your link. Therefore, make relevancy a priority.

18. Article directories

Article directories were once all the rage. Marketers would head to EzineArticles in their droves, posting whatever content they could throw together with one singular purpose: to insert a dofollow link within their articles. The automated nature of this technique meant many brands and agencies abused this. Article directories polluted the internet by hosting irrelevant and low-quality content, bringing no value to readers or those hoping to increase their link profile artificially. Google had to act quickly to ensure article directories were no longer a positive factor with link building.

19. Spikes in link velocity

Google doesn’t view link velocity spikes in a suspicious light. After all, a momentous event may have happened, which caused various websites to link to your website on a specific day. This might have been a new product launch or a breaking news piece covering a trending topic.

However, some spikes can appear sketchy depending on the situation. If you had a steady stream of backlinks coming in across an entire year, but your referring domains list jumps from an average of 50 to 1,000 and back down again in November, this type of abnormal growth is not good. You could experience short-term growth for your site’s stature on Google, but it won’t be long before they realize some link manipulation has taken place.

20. Bookmark sites

Bookmark sites

Usually seen on social sharing websites, bookmark sites give users the function to utilize personal bookmarks. While this is a valuable tool for users, it didn’t take long for marketers to try and exploit this function for their gains. Google will pick up on this unnatural occurrence of many backlinks coming from bookmark sites and know your site is trying to manipulate them. A short-lived ranking increase may occur until Google realizes what’s up. Then, your ranking drops, potentially lower than it was before.

21. Over-optimizing anchor text

Always avoid going with anchor text structures that are over-optimized. If you have a load of anchors that feature high-value keywords for your niche, Google will naturally suspect unnatural link building is afoot. Make sure to have a diverse anchor text, with a healthy mix of brand links, various phrases, natural links, generic “Click here” messages, and so on. By mixing it up in this way, your link building efforts will look natural to Google.

Stay organized by keeping track of what anchors you have used and how often. Keeping tabs on this ensures you don’t accidentally violate this unnatural link building strategy.

22. Shady redirects

Sometimes you may need to use redirects. A common reason for doing so is when you deleted a page on your website with backlinks pointing to it. Rather than having a user end up on a 404 page – resulting in them leaving your site as quickly as it took to load the page –use a 301 redirect instead. This redirect takes the user to a different page – preferably one relevant to their original destination – enabling you to retain the user’s attention and keep those bounce rates low.

However, black hat spammers utilize expired domains for link juice, redirecting visitors to their current site. This might give someone a short-term boost to their SEO campaign, but those that use redirects in shady ways risk damaging their SEO efforts. Google understandably takes a dim view of this tactic and evaporates any gains quickly.

23. Resource pages

Resource pages fall in the same general area as web directories. Resource pages have different categories where users can find a list of websites – or resources – for a specific topic. For example, a food-based resource page could have a section relating to vegetarian food and access sites dedicated to vegetarian recipes – this is an acceptable way to use resource pages.

The problem occurs when brands exploit these pages for unnatural links and place these links on a load of non-related resource pages. Google knows all the tricks people use to try and gain unnatural link juice from these pages, making this a pointless endeavor – unless you’re a glutton for punishment.

24. Social profile links

Social Profile Links

Google only indexes links built on social network platform links, meaning they won’t directly influence search engine results. However, it can help you spread the word about your content, leading to others sharing your backlink on their sites.

When you create multiple accounts on different social media platforms with the sole intention of including a backlink in each accounts’ profile, Google views this as an unnatural link building process.

25. Mass ping sites

When blogs first appeared on the internet, you could “ping” your website. Brands used this as a way to let search engines know you had edited your site’s content and that they needed to index these changes. In the present day, you can’t ping your website due to the evolution of search engines, but it hasn’t disappeared.

Black hat marketers use pinging to gain backlinks for every blog post or video they publish on a site. We don’t recommend using this tactic. It’s a sure-fire way of ensuring your content vanishes from Google searches.

26. Websites selling links

Google cracked down on link sellers. However, plenty of outlets still use this unethical practice to sell links on their websites. These sites usually have a strong domain ranking, which means you can gain a high-value link as long as you exchange cash. If you don’t keep paying for this link, these websites remove and replace it with a different one. Once Google finds an active link seller, two things happen. First, they close down this operation. Secondly, they may take action on your site due to your involvement.

Conclusion

Knowing the many unnatural link building methods available means not putting your business at risk. If something appears too good to be true, or a marketer is offering to acquire backlinks unusually, it’s best to back away and stick to your ethical link building methods. Take note of all of the above strategies included in this guide. Then, carry out a backlink analysis to see where all of your backlinks reside. If you discover that you have hundreds of links from blog comments dating back years, dedicate time to solving this issue. You might find that the agency you worked with used a PBN and is the reason for your low ranking. As SEO constantly changes, making sure that previous efforts don’t harm your current methods matters. Once you minimize or avoid using these strategies, start focusing on a positive future for your business and move up the rankings the right way. You can learn more about the strategies that can help on our blog.