The reason we want to avoid certain link building practices is because eventually Google could discover what we’re doing — either algorithmically or due to a manual review — and penalize the site, completely removing our ability to rank. Every year we see more instances of competitors or random bloggers outing companies for their shady link building practices, and someone at Google looks into it and penalizes the site.
It is simply not worth the risk of engaging in risky, spammy, or forbidden link acquisition tactics, unless your strategy is to try to rank a site for a few months or weeks and then throw it away.
The following tactics are all against the rules for one reason or another:
- Do not pay/compensate for a link: you cannot compensate a blogger or site owner or article author in any way for a link (you can pay for nofollow links that don’t help you rank, of course). This includes any form of compensation: you cannot offer money for links (JC Penny was famously penalized for this). You cannot give away a free product for a link in a “review.” You cannot offer a discount in exchange for a link (Overstock.com was penalized for this). You cannot offer to tweet their post in exchange for a link (RapGenius.com was penalized for this). You literally cannot compensate a site owner or author in any way for a link, because the whole point of links is that they’re supposed to be legitimate signals that people find your site valuable, without bribery involved.
- Avoid Directory Links: there are hundreds of thousands of link directories where you can place a link to your site for free, or for a nominal charge. There are services that will get you listed in hundreds or thousands of directories for surprisingly little. These are bad links that could hurt you. That said, there are some legitimate industry-specific directories where getting a link is fine. These are easy to identify: they are directories that people actually use and the kind of place that you’d be willing to pay for a listing even if the link didn’t help your SEO. In general, directories are not a valid part of your link acquisition strategy.
- Avoid Social Bookmarking: At some point some SEOs discovered that various social sites (often forums) did not nofollow links within profiles. Next thing you know there are services offering hundreds of social bookmark links for one low price. While a great automated method, these links never helped much and can hurt you now. Feel free to put a link to your homepage in your own profile on sites you actually use regularly, but social bookmarking is not a valid link acquisition strategy. This includes things like Squidoo lenses or Tumblr linking.
- Don’t Do Article Marketing Sites: There are sites where you can submit an article — on any topic at all — and they will host it and link back to you. This was a big automated link acquisition tactic in the early 2000s. It rarely worked back then and it will hurt you now.
- Don’t Use Press Releases for Links: According to Google all links in press releases should be nofollow. This wasn’t entirely practical since tons of large businesses use press releases for legitimate purposes, so Google followed up by just not counting any links from press release sites and removed the ability of most press release sites to rank as well. There are thousands of sites that host press releases, and most of them exist for the same reasons as the article marketing sites – automated acquisition of hundreds and thousands of links. Press releases are not a valid part of a legitimate link acquisition strategy.
- Don’t Guest Blog (many exceptions): Guest blogging was a big strategy in the early 2010s that Google finally shut down. The idea was you went to a blogger and offered to write a post on their site about a relevant topic. You got a link back either in the byline, or by embedding that link into the article. This was considered a legitimate tactic at first, but then lazy SEOs began automating the process (notice a trend here?): they’d outsource the writing, then outsource even the placement. Blogger email was filled with millions of spam emails in broken English asking to guest post. Google finally shut it down by declaring guest posting to be a spammy tactic subject to penalty. Don’t get me wrong: if someone comes to you and asks you to make a post on their blog, by all means do so. If Huffington Post or Ars Technica or the New York Times is going to post your article, that’s almost definitely fine. There are very legitimate guest posting opportunities: they’re the ones at sites everyone has heard of and that are hard to get into. But you should have at most a small fraction of your links from guest blogging.
- Widgets – Use Caution: in the early 2000s widgets were a killer link building tactic. You built a neat little widget that someone could install on their own blog — perhaps an interactive calendar or a quiz to see which Star Wars character you were. When the user put the code on their site, it included a credit link for the widget. Eventually that tactic became hugely manipulative with anchor text links pointing to sites entirely unrelated to the widget, or embedding a dozen hidden anchor text links, as Houzz famously did before being penalized (for that and other shady linkbuilding moves). Google started cracking down on widget links, first removing link value, and even penalizing. That said, Google has made it clear that you can produce a widget that has a credit link, provided that link goes to a legitimate page (it should go to the page about the widget where a user can get the widget code) and does not use keyword-rich anchor text. The anchor text should be the name of your site. So this tactic is valid in small doses if done very carefully.
- Avoid Anything Automated: You’ll notice that the one common thread running through most of these practices that can now get you penalized is automation. (You could well argue that another common thread is that the site did not earn the links). Any time you are offered an automated way to get a lot of links for a relatively cheap price, you can be certain it’s either against the rules and could get you penalized, or it will become against the rules in the near future.
Okay, so that is the definitely bad list. You should not do these things. They are risky and they are against the rules.