Most SEOs know that Google doesn’t show all of your links when you do the “link: your URL” search. There are a number of other tools you can use. Yahoo and MSN both have ways for you to check your back links. If you’ve registered your site so you can use Google’s webmaster tools, Google just recently added a new tab that lets you do a more complete check of links to the pages of your web site. You can also do a Google search for back link checking tools. You may have to try out a number of tools before you find the one that works best for you; fortunately, most of them are free.
Once you know where all of your back links are coming from, you need to take a look at the sites. Whether these are links you have sought out or not, the search engines are going to take a look at them and decide where to put your site in the search engine results pages based on what they see. Ideally, a lot of the places and practices I’m going to be telling you to avoid in this article are ones that you should plan to avoid from the very start of your link building campaign.
First, avoid link farms. You’ve probably seen them; some of them may even be labeled “link farms” or have the phrase as part of the title of the page. Link farms are huge lists of links that may or may not be separated into categories (I’m talking more than 50 on a single page). Link farms used to have a real purpose in the early days of the web, when search engines weren’t very good at finding things. There may be something to be said for humans helping other humans to find things, but this won’t help you get a good place in the SERPs. Avoid them when you’re building your back links.
If you’re trying to build back links, you really need to pay attention to the sites that want to link to you or engage in some kind of reciprocal link agreement. If the site has no connection to your subject matter, you don’t want the link – and why would they want to link to your site anyway? Likewise, some sites that link to your site may put the link on a page that isn’t linked to from anywhere; it’s just floating out there in an attempt to lure you into linking to their site. You don’t need this kind of hassle, and it won’t help you in the SERPs.
In fact, there are lots of ways that sites offering to link to you could set up the link so that it doesn’t really help you. Search engines don’t typically crawl past the third level from the home page, so if your link is put on a page that’s more than that many levels deep, it might as well not exist. The search engines will never find it.
Likewise, some sites will set up your link on a sub-domain in such a way that the page your link is on isn’t really part of the main web site. This means you’re not getting the “vote” of the main site in Google. Make sure you look at the URLs carefully.
Even if the link is out in the open where anyone can see it, there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. Some sites will just show your link without any kind of description. That’s no help at all. No one, search engine or human visitor, has any idea that anyone from the site hosting the link even looked at your site. Thus they really have no clue what your site is about.
The idea of someone looking at your site and reviewing it brings us to directories. There’s nothing wrong with submitting your site to directories; in fact, it’s still a good idea. But there are directories and then there are "directories." If a directory approaches you asking if it can link to you, it’s probably not a directory you want to be in – for the same reason that a real writer’s agent doesn’t need to go looking for authors to represent. Real directories have standards and care strongly about the quality of sites to which they link, so sites are all but competing to get in. You don’t really want to be part of a directory whose only criteria for admitting you is having a live link.
The most obvious bad neighborhood is the one I mentioned at the beginning: a link farm. Even sites that merely look like link farms, with pages and pages of hardly anything but links, are bad neighborhoods. Even if it doesn’t explicitly have the words “link farm” in it somewhere, it’ll have nicely arranged rows of links to sites which might not even be organized in any particular manner or include descriptions of any of the sites. If one approaches you and asks to link to you, just say no.
There’s a variant of the link farm that you should definitely stay away from: free-for-all sites. FFA sites are almost like classified ads for web sites, except you list your site for free. You typically get to include a two-line description of your site along with the link. You might also encounter an FFA blaster, which will tell you that they’ll send your ad and link to thousands of directories, for free – FFA pages, in other words. Well, they probably do send it out to that many sites…but you’re not going to like what you get back.
Since the content of FFA pages is constantly being updated with new ads (many hold only 50 and rotate old ones off as new ones come in), your ad could be on the page anywhere from a few minutes to about a week. So you may or may not get many people to notice you. What you will get is tons of spam in your email inbox! Some people continue to receive spam literally years after a single use of an FFA blaster.
Some “bad neighborhoods” online have something in common with what we’d consider to be bad neighborhoods in the real world. If you own an ordinary e-commerce site, you really don’t want to have a link on a site that is oriented to sex or gambling. Pharmacies are considered to be savory places in real life, but many of them are more than a little shady online. You can probably figure out for yourself what kinds of sites should not link to you. (For bonus points, you might not want to have a link to your site on a web page that links to those kinds of sites).
There are other ways you might find yourself stuck in a bad neighborhood. For example, unless you’re on a dedicated server with your web host, your site is probably sharing space on a server with a bunch of other sites. You may have no idea what kind of sites those are. Ask your web host about the sites, then do a blacklist check. You don’t want to be on a proxy server with a spammer or banned site.
I’ve talked a lot about link farms here and there. Is there a limit to how many links are safe on a single page? Well, for page rank and similar purposes, the lower the better. But the rule of thumb is not to have a link on a page with 50 or more outbound links. Any higher than that and the search engines are liable to assume it’s a link farm.
By the same token, you should stay away from any link pages that use terms like “link partners” or “links” on the page. If the URL has the word “link” or “links” in it, run away. Remember, if you’re trying to build your back links, they need to look natural to help you in the SERPs. Having a link on a site or page that’s totally devoted to links doesn’t look natural to the search engines, it looks like you’re trying to game the system. What does look natural is having a link on a page that features relevant content; then it looks like your site is being pointed to as a resource.
I’d like to make one final note about things you should avoid when building back links. I hesitate to say this, because everyone has to start somewhere, but it’s not worth your time to get a link from a page that has no page rank. If there are going to be other outbound links to other web sites on the same page as your link, that site must have a page rank of at least one below yours to have any value to you. On the other hand, if there aren’t going to be any other outbound links to other web sites on the page, a site with a PR of at least two will afford you some benefit in the SERPs and to your own PR.
Link building can be pretty challenging, but you can’t let links to your site appear just anywhere. If you are careful and don’t engage in the wrong kinds of practices, you can avoid getting penalized by the search engines. Then you will be making sure that every link you get really does count.