Can Inbound Links Hurt My Rankings?

Many business owners do everything they can to optimize search results for their company’s website. Over the years, different trends in search engine optimization, or SEO, practices have come and gone, adjusting as major players in the search field like Google change the algorithms they use to rank websites. One question continues to plague many webmasters: Can inbound links from other websites harm search standings?

By and large, the answer to this is no; inbound links from other websites cannot directly force your site lower in Google results. However, this does not mean that the quality of sites linking to you does not have an impact on your overall search rating. Google has advised webmasters that there is “almost nothing” not within their own control that could affect their ranking. If inbound links from spammy or dubious websites could force a site’s search ranking down by themselves, many black-hat or otherwise malicious SEO practices could incorporate similar attacks on competitor websites.

By allowing inbound links from sites with a poor reputation to be automatically and directly reflected in search ranking, Google would essentially be opening the floodgates for people to drive down their competitors’ rankings with spammy links. Obviously, this is an unacceptable conclusion. However, it should be noted that spam, scam or deceptive sites removed from Google will certainly not count positively toward a website’s ranking. Therefore, sites whose rankings were artificially inflated with links from these types of sites may see a decline if these domains are pulled from Google’s indexing system.

The quality and type of your inbound links can make a difference as to whether your site rises in page rankings, is considered an authoritative domain or is viewed as a respected site. Therefore, obtaining quality inbound links and minimizing low-quality links should be a priority for webmasters.

Relevant Inbound Links Matter

When search engines examine the inbound links that lead to your website, they don’t only measure the number of links on any site or check the anchor text that leads to the link. Instead, the type and profile of sites that link to you matter a great deal.

A link from a major site like CNN, the New York Times or other widely reputable journalistic sites is highly valuable, far more than many times that number of links from smaller sites, let alone those from link farms or dubious blogs. While it’s unlikely that your site would be directly penalized because a doubtful site linked to it, a lack of relevant, high-quality links may mean that your site never moves up in the rankings despite an increase in link volume.

Every company and every site in your space wants these types of coveted links from high-value sources. Of course, they are also difficult to obtain. However, there are other factors that contribute to the relevancy of inbound links.

Search engines can consume and process vast quantities of text and note contextual similarities. Therefore, legitimate links from other blogs or sites in your particular category of work can be valuable and highly relevant. If the topic of the site that links to yours is similar to the topic of your page, it is a relevant link and, therefore, worth more.

In one survey of experts, 45 percent of respondents noted that they expected the relevance of links by topic to have a marked effect on the performance of a site in search engine rankings. If you are working to obtain links to your site, reach out to writers, news sites and blogs of interest for your community. Obviously, competitors are unlikely to link to you, but reporters who cover the field or adjacent fields may be happy to include links to your quality content.

Link From Trusted Sites: Evaluating Key Metrics

There are a number of metrics that search engines like Google use to measure the value of each link to your site. These rely on concepts that measure the level of trust or authority that should be placed in the linking domain. Here is somewhere that inbound links could negatively affect your search performance: If you only have links from sites considered untrustworthy, this could indicate that your site is also untrustworthy.

This is especially true if these links arise in a strange or dubious manner reflective of purchased links and other outdated SEO practices. Unfortunately, these practices are often used by scam websites that should not be trusted by consumers; as a result, they are penalized by search engines as well.

Google has indicated that some very trusted sites are considered “seed sites.” These include major .gov websites, the websites of educational institutions hosted at .edu domains and major news, media and science networks. Direct links from these sites are the most trusted, and trust could be considered to branch out and grow fainter the further each site is from an initial, highly trusted seed site.

Domain Authority

Domain Authority or DA, is one of the most important metrics in evaluating the quality of an inbound link. DA measures the strength and SEO value of an entire domain. One firm, Moz, developed a numerical scale to assess the value of a domain ranging from 1 to 100. Higher levels of domain authority translate to more valuable search results and link placements.

There are a number of factors that go into calculating a site’s domain authority, including its links, number of total links and relevance to a specific topic. Sites with high-quality external links tend to lead the scale, and all new sites begin with a DA of 1. In general, sites should aim to improve their DA scores, but they should compare scores with their direct competitors rather than attempting to outrank Facebook, Google or university sites.

DA scores may fluctuate, especially as sites change. One domain may be sold or change hands over time, and its DA can change dramatically. For example, one domain with a very high DA score was removed from the Google index for spammy practices, and the sites that it linked to lost the value of those inbound links.

Page Authority

Page Authority is essentially a subset of Domain Authority. Rather than measuring the strength of a domain as a whole, it measures the strength of a particular page. Widely circulated articles and useful resources can gather a significant amount of page authority, potentially more quickly than an entire domain shows a ranking advantage.

Link Location

Over the years, it was often thought that the placement of a link within an article may affect its value. For example, a link in the first paragraph of content might be more worthwhile than one in the last. Modern search engine algorithms do not prioritize location in an article in this way, but the location of a link can still matter.

Site-wide links that do not change from page to page carry relatively little value. These types of links are often credit links or brief advertisements and are found in a site’s footer, header and sidebars. On the other hand, links contained within a page or an article’s content are ranked much more highly. These are likely to be relevant to the surrounding text on a page, a factor that search engine crawlers evaluate when indexing a page and the link that it contains.

It’s not enough just to link from an article; search engine bots will scan the text of the link as well as the initial article to check that they reflect common topics. This has rendered previous practices of placing irrelevant links into other text relatively useless.

In addition, links that flow with the text of content are more highly ranked than links that come from including URLs within the text. Anchor texts should be natural and not just the URL of the receiving site.

Inbound links are also a factor inside your site; you may look to drive customers to certain pieces by linking to them from other pages. In general, it is good to use diverse keywords and anchor texts to link to these pages, rather than repetitively using the same anchor text. The latter could be viewed as a spammy practice to dominate certain common phrases in a search engine.

Content Length Can Help Ranking

Statistics show that Google tends to prefer long-form content when it comes to ranking for a topic and when it comes to weighing link quality. If your site is linked to within a lengthy text or resource, this link may well carry more value with the search engine than one from a short paragraph or snippet. In addition, long-form article links can drive traffic indirectly.

Because articles appearing on the first page of search engine results for a given topic often have over 2,000 words, more people are likely to visit those pages. All of the links on those pages are thus more likely to lead to visitors clicking and venturing on to your site.

This isn’t an arbitrary practice on Google’s part; surveys indicate that people like to see longer resources when they search for information on a topic of interest.

Understanding Different Types of Links

There are two major kinds of links that may point to your website: follow and nofollow links. Most links that you see or make on websites are follow links; this means that they are not marked with a “nofollow” code telling search engines not to include the link as part of their ranking process.

Some sites have a policy of using nofollow links in order to discourage spam on their sites, especially high-quality sites that allow for user-generated content, like Wikipedia. At the same time, a Wikipedia link will never hurt your site; in fact, it is likely to be extremely valuable because Wikipedia is a frequently accessed, high-quality source that drives legitimate traffic to your site. Of course, Wikipedia editing is often closely monitored, and the site’s policies require the use of only relevant links.

Having a lot of nofollow links will not harm your search ranking, even if an excessive number of follow links from untrustworthy sites may hinder your ability to rise in the ranks. While follow links are generally the most valuable for improving search engine results, nofollow links could provide valuable click-through results depending on the originating page.

Practices to Avoid

Being associated with spammy content or untrustworthy domains will not benefit your site’s search engine ranking. There are a number of techniques that SEO advisers have used over the years; some of them have become outdated while others were never truly legitimate. Any form of SEO that aims to push up useless or irrelevant content makes a search engine’s results less valuable; therefore, Google and other engines have an interest in eliminating this type of content.

Link wheels, spam blog content or paid links on random or irrelevant sites are unlikely to improve your ranking. If some of the domains that participate do not host real, relevant content, they may be at risk of losing their Google indexing altogether. Thus, you may find yourself paying a significant sum of money for SEO advice that does little for your business.

In addition, forum links are generally considered to have a lower link quality than those from the main content of a site. Unless that forum page is particularly well-known or widely visited, those links are likely to transfer less authority than those credited to the site itself.

Avoid Penalties, Improve Your Inbound Links

One of the best mechanisms to improve your inbound links and your search engine rating is to produce high-quality, interesting content. When you share your knowledge or expertise with your customers, they will want to share that interesting content with others. You may find clients linking to your site or sharing your links on social media.

All of this can give rise to high link quality, helping your site come up in the rankings. By creating great content, you will give other sites great reason to give your site high-quality, well-ranking inbound links.

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