It’s no secret that the quantity and quality of your backlinks determine whether your SEO campaigns succeed or fail. But no two backlinks are the same, and tonnes of seemingly small details can drastically affect the value you get from each link. Therefore, today we will look at which backlinks are the best and worst for SEO.
Which backlinks are best for you?
Backlinks can make or break your SEO. Get lots of good links, and Google will know right away that you are someone whose content people deserve to see. Get lots of spam backlinks and watch your rankings go down. But what makes some backlinks great?
In general, the best backlinks are relevant “dofollow” backlinks from reputable websites where the link appears in the primary content of the page. While you should aim for high-quality backlinks, you can still build momentum through medium-quality links; avoid low-quality links at all costs.
Backlinks are used to spread website authority around. High-quality backlinks essentially indicate that the originating website is recommending the destination website. They hint that the destination website is authoritative and of high quality on the topic and deserves more visibility.
That’s because backlinks act like “votes of confidence.” The quality of the backlink represents the quality of the vote. Together with the number of backlinks you have, this gives Google good insights into the relevance and authority of the linked page. In other words, a lot of low-quality backlinks can strongly indicate that your website does not deserve to be shown at the top. In addition, it can sometimes outright indicate that you are engaging in link schemes aimed at tricking the algorithm.
On the other hand, having many high-quality votes for Google indicates that you have reached a certain level of credibility in your industry. Your reputation, credibility, and general helpfulness matter to Google, as it focuses on satisfying the end user. By focusing on high-quality backlinks, you almost don’t have to worry about negatively impacting your SEO. In other words, don’t worry if you “didn’t do anything wrong.”
But high-quality backlinks are not only important for the direct SEO benefits. They can bring you more relevant traffic and open doors for partnerships with influencers and media outlets. This, in turn, can boost all of your marketing efforts as it increases brand recognition.
Nine common features of high-quality backlinks:
Backlinks from websites in your niche
When it comes to backlinks, relevance is key. Since backlinks work like academic citations for your website, it’s always best to get recognised by the experts in your industry.
For example, imagine that your website is about fishing. Then a backlink from an authoritative website about outdoor living or hunting can be very valuable. This is especially true if the specific content linking to you is about your topic.
Backlinks from authoritative websites
While there is no real objective number we can put on a website’s authority, it’s still great to get a backlink from a high-quality website. For example, while it may not be specific to your niche, a backlink from a high-authority media outlet like Entrepreneur.com can still be very helpful. Being featured by such a media outlet is a huge accomplishment, so you should be fairly compensated for it.
Backlinks from pages with high-quality links
Another important factor to consider is whether the page linking to you itself has high-quality inbound backlinks. As you know, backlinks are one of the most important ranking factors in Google, and their value carries over everywhere. If your backlink comes from an authoritative web page, you can expect some of that authority to be transferred to you.
Dofollow backlinks that pass on their full value
An important factor to pay attention to is whether your backlinks are dofollow or nofollow. Nofollow backlinks still have some value, even if some SEOs disagree and avoid them. However, dofollow backlinks are known to pass on as much of their authority as possible. Therefore, when analysing your backlinks, consider noting which links are dofollow and nofollow.
Backlinks placed at the top of the main content
Where your backlinks are on the page also matters. In their Quality Rater’s Guidelines, Google explicitly asks raters to mark the different content sections of web pages. They define each section based on the type of content contained within it. The three types are main content (MC), additional content (SC), and advertising/monetization (ads). Of course, backlinks from the main content area give stronger relevancy signals compared to links from additional content or ads.
In addition, although not yet proven, there is a possibility that backlinks at the beginning of the content have a little more value than those at the bottom.
Backlinks with keyword-rich anchor texts
Backlinks with keyword-rich anchor texts are known to add more value to your pages. Take Google’s original explanation to prove that:
“First, anchors often provide more accurate descriptions of web pages than the pages themselves.”
Anchor texts are not as important as they used to be simply because Google is better at understanding the content of a page these days. Yet they still play an important role. A high-quality backlink from an authoritative website with a keyword-rich anchor can be a big boost to your page’s ranking.
Anchor texts are also an important influencing factor for spam detection. Google can detect backlink schemes that try to trick the system by analysing the website’s anchor texts. Therefore, focus on natural link building without trying to push the boundaries. Your anchor texts should be natural, with the majority being brand anchors or naked link anchors.
Especially when looking at landing pages, having too many keyword-rich anchors can be a sign of spam. That’s because website owners who normally build backlinks usually don’t like to link directly to sales pages. This is also partly why business blogging is becoming so popular: it allows you to earn backlinks to content others find valuable and pass that value on to important pages through internal links.
Backlinks from deep, valuable content
The more valuable a piece of content is, the more authority the backlinks bring. If a backlink is already receiving traffic from Google, it’s a good sign. For example, if the article linking to you is already at the very top for a competing keyword, you can be sure that the site is considered authoritative.
Additionally, if that page is already getting a lot of traffic, chances are you’re getting some referral traffic from it because of the spillover effect.
Last but not least, look for backlinks linked contextually in the text. The sentences around your backlink also provide context to both users and search engines, meaning you benefit from them. Contextual backlinks give the user a reason to explore your content. It can also be a good sign for Google, as it helps the search engine narrow down your topic and determine the exact search intent your post should rank for.
An example of a high-quality backlink
Here is an example of a high-quality link I found when analysing the backlink profile for our website. Following the tips from above, I’ll break down what makes this link good. At the bottom, I also indicated how this link could be improved.
The link in question comes from the respected website Hubspot.com, where one of our marketers collaborated with their writers. In it, we shared our thoughts on some great WordPress plugins. Here’s what it looks like:
Hubspot itself is a very authoritative site. They rank well for tonnes of keywords in the same industry as us, which is why we can assume that Google considers this link highly relevant.
The link itself is placed very contextually, and the user knows what to expect when they click on it. The anchor text is our brand name, and that’s fine. After all, given the context of the article, it wouldn’t have been natural to force ourselves into a keyword-rich anchor text.
The page itself isn’t “thin” and has nearly 3,000 words of content. I used this tool to check the word count on the page. Better yet, the link itself appears in the primary content section, so we’re sure it’s sending Google the right signals.
In addition, many high-quality websites link to the Hubspot article itself:
There are even 115.
Finally, the link is also “dofollow,” meaning it passes its full potential value to our page.
Can this link be improved? Yes, and here’s how. You can see that this link goes directly to our front page. This situation is quite normal, and most of the links you get point to the homepage. Your front page is important because it increases the authority of your entire website.
But ultimately, you also want to have “deep links,” which refer to pages other than your front page. If the competition for specific keywords is tough, you also need links that point directly to the exact page you want to rank on.
That said, of course, you can’t always get a direct link to your important pages. If we had tried to “force” our backlink into it, HubSpot might have rejected our contribution. Furthermore, as Google becomes more sophisticated, they might have noticed some poor linking practices.
That’s why honesty and truthfulness helped us build a better reputation with HubSpot, benefiting our SEO. It’s important to remember that you rarely get “perfect case scenarios” with your links. That is not at all what link building is about. You want a natural and diversified profile with some good links, like the one above.
In fact, in a way, Google’s algorithms are diligently looking for too many of those “perfect scenarios” because they are a clear indicator of a link scheme.
Which backlinks are least important to you?
In general, many SEOs avoid building nofollow links because they consider them unimportant. However, nofollow links aren’t necessarily bad, and to prove it, Google changed the way it treats nofollow links in 2020. Therefore, to answer which backlinks are not important to you, should be avoided, or could downright hurt your SEO, we need to look elsewhere. A more truthful approach is to follow Google’s guidelines for determining which links are bad. After all, Google is not against nofollow links. However, they have strict guidelines for other types of links that aim to trick the algorithm.
As a general rule, you want to avoid low-quality spam backlinks, as they are the least valuable or can hurt SEO. Spam backlinks are generally characterised as being automatically generated; they are often in a different language and appear on spammy websites with sparse or duplicate content.
Nofollow links are a natural part of the internet for many reasons and can often prove you have value compared to no links or mentions at all. Consider this: a major media outlet like Forbes decides to publish one of your contributions. However, because they are unsure whether your website will be up and running in a year or two, they decide not to click on the link.
Such a contribution can be great for your overall brand and bring you more exposure and even customers—big rewards in the long run. However, if you look at it through the old-school lens of SEO, as the nofollow link may not be rewarding enough in the short term, you may be missing out on all the other benefits.
Meanwhile, spammy, bad, and low-quality backlinks are unfortunately inevitable. Almost every growing website gets one at some point. But luckily, Google can detect many of those links using the Penguin algorithm. They often remove them as an influencing factor in the index, and you will not be penalized. This means that they do the “link profile maintenance” for you and don’t directly penalise you if you get just one bad link.
However, if Google’s algorithm detects after some time that you’re still receiving bad backlinks—and if it can determine whether you’re doing so on purpose—you could be penalized. Your website was flagged as suspicious in the past, and the Google review team (consisting of thousands of human reviewers) was able to take action. This was also known as a “manual action.”
Today, however, most penalties are automatic and applied once certain criteria in Google’s own algorithms are met. To classify a low-quality link more easily, let’s take a look at its most common characteristics.
7 common features of low-quality backlinks:
Links to dangerous or “prohibited” contentA common tactic for lowering a website’s spam score is to generate a large number of links to explicit content that may not be appropriate for all audiences. Avoiding such links is important because they can confuse search engines, causing them to disapprove of your content. These links can be especially harmful if your website is about a YMYL topic.
Links from coupon websites
Free coupon links aren’t necessarily bad for SEO simply because Google can easily find and ignore them. In recent times, Google has been making great efforts to change the way it treats spam on the web, including backlinks. This means that while such backlinks could penalise you in the past, today Google simply tries to ignore such signals.
thin profile page backlinks
While not necessarily harmful, profile backlinks don’t do that much for your SEO. In general, profile links can be easily detected and classified by Google, allowing the search engine to simply ignore them. Profile links are sometimes referred to as “pillow links” because some SEOs choose to build them when trying to diversify a company’s backlink profile. The “cushion” in this case refers to the cushioning effect of a cushion, which tries to mitigate the possible negative effects of unnatural link building. However, whether this has been proven to work (especially in the long term) is still largely up for debate.
Paid links, especially for SEO
Google is strongly against buying links purely for the SEO value it brings you. In fact, Google is against any link-building tactic where the value revolves around the link itself. Such practises not only attempt to mislead the ranking algorithm, but they also create an unfair environment for competitors and end users.
Therefore, avoid backlink schemes that promise great results by paying for links. Instead, try to provide real value to the internet and your potential customers. Doing so will not only improve your SEO but your overall marketing efforts as well.
Private blog networks
Like paid SEO links, PBN links are one of the big no-nos for search engines. The premise behind a PBN is simple: it is a network of websites owned by a single person or company. PBNs are often kept low-profile to prevent Google’s algorithms from discovering the scheme. This definition alone says enough about whether you need them. While blackhat SEOs have consistently confirmed that PBNs can rank you, these results are often short-lived. Google’s algorithmic updates regularly wipe out the ranking effects of many major and minor PBNs.
irrelevant, low-quality backlinks
In general, many low-quality backlinks will not hurt your SEO. That’s because Google would rather ignore low-quality backlinks than penalise websites for them. However, low-quality links also have no positive effect.
Over the years, Google’s algorithm has progressed in detecting self-serving backlinks that anyone can build. In addition, concern about “negative SEO” is also high in the community. Both factors have pushed the search engine giant to change the influence of low-quality backlinks on website rankings. Instead of penalising websites, they just ignore the links. However, in some extreme cases, a fine is still possible.
Therefore, avoid building links on irrelevant websites with low-quality content. At best, you’re wasting your time, and at worst, you might get a fine.
Spam backlinks in other languages
One of the worst types of backlinks you can get is a low-quality link from another language. Typically, these backlinks are generated in bulk by tools that promise automatic link building. However, these links are often ignored by Google because they have no value. At worst, they can even hurt your SEO. Some popular SEO tools even try to account for such links when calculating your website’s spam scores.
An example of a bad backlink
As we mentioned, some spam backlinks are unavoidable, and you have no control over them if an automatic website scraper links to you. No one is “safe” from bad backlinks, and you’re likely to get some at some point. This has already happened to us, and I am happy to explain it for you. In my effort to be transparent with you, I will show you an example of this with our own website.
Below, you can see that we received a backlink from a “free coupon website.” From the looks of it, I’m sure this link was generated automatically, as countless websites crawl the web and make pages dynamic.
As you can see, the link is not contextually placed, and there is hardly any content on the page. The content is thin and likely to be duplicated by being scraped from another website. It is also absolutely irrelevant to the topic (“coupon codes” vs. “marketing strategies”).
Here, you can see that this website is not authoritative in any way. It doesn’t get any relevant traffic from search engines, which is why Google doesn’t consider it an authority on any particular topic.
In addition, the above link is “nofollow.” Of course, I usually prefer a dofollow link, but in this case I’m happy with the situation. The last thing I want are spammy and irrelevant dofollow links that could potentially harm our site.
In addition, there are no links pointing to this page either, which means that the PageRank value for the page is very low.
And to wrap up the breakdown, the website itself is also in no way relevant to us—they are a free coupon website, and we are an SEO tool. The bottom line is that this link is practically worthless.
To wrap it up, remember that you can quickly judge the quality of a backlink based on how you feel about it. If you’ve earned a genuine backlink and you’re proud of it, Google will likely give you the benefits. Meanwhile, if you know that a particular link is not fair and transparent and only serves your SEO, chances are it is a low-quality backlink.
A simple technique I use to judge the quality of a backlink is this: Imagine you’re offering SEO services to a client who expects the best from you. Would you be genuinely proud to share the backlink with your client, or would you try to hide it? The answer will lead you on the right track.