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What Do Unnatural Linking Strategies Look Like?

Today’s video was inspired by a comment on our guide to Penguin. In that piece, we discussed how Google detects and penalizes unnatural links—links that seem manipulative or spammy. Our commenter, Amy Voss, asked, “What exactly counts as a ‘bad’ link? And is it ever OK to use a competitive keyword as anchor text for a link, or is it always considered suspicious?”

To answer this question, we pulled up examples of good links and bad links, digging deep to see the difference.

Case Study: Bad Link

Bad links are unfortunately all too easy to find. We went to a random directory site and scanned the listings until we saw a link with the suspicious anchor text get cheap web host. It led to the site, a hosting provider.

The link looked a little spammy but we wanted to make sure, so we checked their PageRank. Sure enough, it doesn’t have any PageRank at all—a strong sign that it’s been penalized by Google. This seems to be a perfect example of what Google considers an unnatural link. Now we can look at why.

The tool we use for this kind of research is AHREFS. AHREFS gives a top-down view of all the links pointing to a given site, which is exactly what Google looks at. And with WhoaHost’s links, something jumps out right away: phrases like “get cheap web host” make up a lot of their anchor text.


Specifically, their top link text is get cheapest shared hosting,which makes up 13% of all the links pointing to them. Over 100 pages have linked to them using this anchor text. Does that seem realistic?

In short, no. Get cheapest shared hosting isn’t even grammatically correct. Bloggers don’t use phrases like this and neither do tech journalists. No one is going to say, “We recommend you get cheapest shared hosting” and link to this site. It’s a joke.

The least common anchor text stands out, too. Their actual domain,, is the text for only 2% of incoming links.

So where exactly are these links coming from? AHREFS shows that, too. They have some links from reputable sites, but when you look at these sites you see why. One is just their signature on a profile they created; another is in a vague comment left on a blog. The comment doesn’t add anything to the conversation, but includes another keyword-match link to their website.

Looking at data like this, the problem isn’t just the exact-match anchor text but the strategy they used to get these links out there.

Case Study: Good Link

“Car insurance” is one of the most competitive keywords on the web, but even in competitive markets you can find examples of good linking strategies.

At the time of writing, the No. 1 position in the “car insurance” search results was held by Allstate. We decided to do the same analysis on Allstate that we did on WhoaHost. Here’s what we found:

  • holds a PageRank of 7. That’s a strong site, which has clearly been rewarded by Google; their linking strategy has been deemed a good one.
  • The top anchor text for their links is Allstate. The second most common is their web address, followed by natural phrases like “Allstate claims” and “Allstate insurance” which could realistically appear in neutral third-party articles. Highly competitive keywords like insurance each make up less than 1% of their link text.
  • Many of their links come from reputable websites, and they come from useful content on those sites. For example, a link from Apple comes from the Allstate Mobile app page. That’s quite different from leaving links just in random blog comments.

Making the Cut

Both powerful and also-ran sites will sometimes receive backlinks with top keywords as anchor text. The difference is that unsuccessful sites do this artificially by loading the web with unnatural links. Successful sites create useful content and generate a lot of online discussion, so many of their links are simply their brand name or URL.

So how do you make sure your linking strategy is natural and penalty-free? Only create content that’s readable, useful and valuable to readers. Never spam the web with links, blog comments, junk articles or random directory listings. And most importantly, if you’ve paid for these services in the past—which many companies did before Google wised up—it’s time to work with an SEO company to clean up your online track record and put you back in the game.

EverSpark Interactive offers comprehensive SEO services. Contact us today for a free consultation or download our free SEO Blueprint book below.