Link building: some love it, many hate it, but few serious digital marketers would say that backlinks are unimportant.

It’s no secret that building links can be a time-intensive, frustrating, fruitless endeavor. It usually involves finding potential link targets and sending cold email after cold email, often with little to no response. Or, if you’re on a more PR-focused team, maybe it means spending countless hours building relationships with publishers. 

Yet we continue to do it, so the juice must be worth the squeeze. But why? 

With Google continuing to head in the direction of prioritizing trustworthiness and authoritativeness, we have reason to believe backlinks won’t be dropped as a significant ranking signal any time soon. Search engines want to send users to popular, authoritative sites. And in their eyes, one major indicator of a site’s authoritativeness is its inbound link profile. 

So there we have it. Time to fire up your computer and net as many links as possible, right? Not exactly. Not all links are created equal, and some will harm your site more than they help it. So in this article, we’re going to give you ten specific things to look for and to avoid in your quest to acquire backlinks. But first, a little background. 

SEO’s Evolution From Keyword Stuffing to PageRank

In the primitive days of search and SEO, ranking in search engines was about cramming as many keywords as possible onto a page. Clever SEOs got quick results for their clients by stuffing their content and metadata with relevant keywords. Predictably, this created a terrible user experience and SERPs littered with sites like this one that Matt Cutts called out back in the day. 

AltaVista and other early search engines began tweaking their algorithms to adjust for these practices when upstart Google came along and shook the search industry with its PageRank algorithm. Named after co-founder Larry Page, PageRank was built on the idea that the more incoming links a website had, the more important it was likely to be. Links were seen as “votes.”

Over the last two decades, Google and other search engines have implemented a wide array of other algorithms that are tweaked many times each day, but it’s widely accepted that backlinks continue to play an outsized role in search performance. 

pagerank diagram

A diagram illustrating how PageRank works

Backlinks as a Social Network

One way to think of links is as a proxy for a real-world social network. In real life, after we meet a new person we often estimate their social status by the number of different people from diverse social spheres that seem to know and endorse them. 

When we see clues that a person has a large, genuine, and diverse network of friends and colleagues who are themselves also highly-regarded, we start forming an opinion about the person’s status. It seems that when search engines see a website with a large backlink profile filled with links (endorsements) from other authoritative and trustworthy sites (people), they begin to do the same kinds of calculations about the importance of the site and the value it delivers.

If you’re thinking this is probably an oversimplification and doesn’t map on exactly to the world of the internet, you’re right. Many links aren’t endorsements of your content but are actually the opposite. And sometimes, they even have malicious intent. But in general, this idea helps as a mental framework for understanding why some links help our backlink profile, some are neutral, and others actively hurt it.

Why does all of this matter? Because, like real-life social connections, not are backlinks are created equal. In life, legitimate endorsements from highly-regarded people are a net benefit. And endorsements from people with poor reputations or that aren’t genuine can actively hurt a person’s reputation. Same goes for websites. 

Moreno's sociogram of a 1st grade classroom

This sociogram by Moreno looks familiar…


So how do we navigate doing outreach and link building knowing what we now know? Here are some best practices we recommend sticking to when vetting backlink targets. Adhering to these rules of thumb will by no means guarantee success in search, but should help you stay on the right track towards building a robust, authoritative backlink profile. 

Inbound Link Building Best Practices: A Checklist

Domain Authority

[] Do obtain links from sites with a strong domain authority – preferably 40 or higher. Higher-authority sites pass more link equity. This applies for the same reason politicians and apparel companies seek endorsements from celebrities and not you or me. Backlinks from higher-authority sites carry more “link juice” because the linking sites are more authoritative. This same concept applies to internal linking: a good way to spread link equity through your site is by linking from more authoritative pages to less authoritative ones. 

[] Do consider the authority of the linking page itself in addition to the authority of the site as a whole. It’s not just the authority of the linking site that matters but also the authority of the linking page. Moz and Ahrefs both have great tools for measuring this metric.

Content Relevance

[] Do obtain links from sites and pages that are topically relevant. A website’s authority isn’t the only thing we want to keep in mind when looking for links. We also want to make sure the linking site’s content is topically-relevant. While a link from a high-authority site in an entirely different vertical may still be valuable, it’s probably not as valuable as a link from a high-authority site that talks about the same stuff your site does.   

Link Anchor Text

[] Do use brand and keyword-related link anchor text. Anchor text clues search engines into what the content on the page being linked to is all about. However, we want to avoid having the keyword text always be exactly the same. Some variation is normal and expected, and having exact anchor text across all backlinks can be considered spammy by search engines.

Website Diversity

[] Do reach out to a variety of different sites, as long as they’re relevant to your product/service/industry. This one’s pretty straightforward. A large and diverse sample size is more likely to convince search engines that your content is the real deal.

Link Position

[] Do obtain links from within the main content of a page, also known as “editorial” links. These links carry more weight than sidebar or footer links. Because footer and sidebar links are plentiful and are often automatically created by a website’s CMS, links used editorially by humans provide much more link juice.

Follow vs. Nofollow Links

[] Do obtain links from websites if the links will be followed. Nofollow links don’t pass link equity and will have little-to-no direct SEO value. Brian Dean provides a concise explanation of follow vs. nofollow links if you’re unfamiliar with how follow and nofollow work. 

Link Building Pitfalls: Stay Away from these Red Flags

Sites that are Spammy or Appear to Have a Poor Reputation

[X] Avoid getting links sites that appear overtly spammy. Red flags include a high spam score, sites that sell links, sites only featuring guest posts, and sites with excessive numbers of in-text links that have exact match anchor text. 

Link Reciprocity Overkill

[X] Avoid “trading links” unless it is with a trusted website with whom you have an existing relationship or connection. It’s fine to link to the website of someone you’re familiar with who also links to your site. In fact, you can each provide great value to your users by doing this. But you’re going to want to avoid doing this in bulk, as this tactic has been abused by black hat SEOs and is considered a red flag by search engines. 

Links for Purchase

[X] Avoid purchasing links. They may add value in the short term but increase the risk of being penalized in the long term. As time goes on, search engines get better and better at detecting these kinds of links, so we recommend not trying to trick them.

It’s Time to Get Started Building Links

We hope this list helps you get started on your way to building authoritative, valuable backlinks. It still won’t be easy, but you’ll be aiming at the right targets and the pool of potential targets will be narrowed down. If you have feedback or think there are items we should add to the list, reach out and let us know – we’d love to hear from you.

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