Understanding Link Neighborhoods in SEO – Bad & Unnatural Links
Links are one of the most important search engine ranking factors. They also make up something called the link neighborhood. We’ve put together an explainer about link neighborhoods and why bad neighborhoods in SEO, along with unnatural link building strategies can hurt your website.
Links between websites and between domains are one of the key ways that search platforms like Google or Bing use to determine the quality of a site. Every link from another domain – often called a backlink – acts as a vote of confidence from other sites that deem your site worthy of suggesting to their readers.
Receiving backlinks from high-authority websites is desirable and can give your site a boost in its SEO rankings. However, backlinks must be earned, not bought or gained from fake websites.
How do link neighborhoods factor into the Google algorithm?
Connected to backlinks is a topic called PageRank, which was introduced by Google to help them determine which pages are important by the quality of the backlinks connected to them. They consider these links as “votes” and use those votes to determine the importance of a site. It also analyzes the page that gave the vote.
Votes from high-authority pages are considered more important which then helps other pages become important as well. For example, if a page from site A casts a vote for page on site B, Google will examine page A in order to determine its importance. If page A is deemed important, then page B’s ranking will improve. On the flip side, if page A is labeled as a scam or fake page, page B will then be labeled as less important in the ranking and may result in you being tied to a bad neighborhood.
This description is core to how PageRank helps google understand website authority and how it decides to rank them. As a page collects more and more backlinks (and they are of good quality) then PageRank will measure the sum of these “votes” and rank the page in its index accordingly.
What is a link neighborhood?
A link neighborhood is a collection of sites that are connected by links. Think of it as an actual neighborhood, where the streets are links and the houses are websites. A good neighborhood would consist of nice front lawns and well-kept houses, whereas a bad neighborhood would include overgrown grass and run-down homes. If your house is neat and tidy, but the house next door is messy and old, the value for your house goes down because of it. However, if you live in a nice-looking neighborhood, the value of everyone’s homes goes up.
The same goes for websites and links. If you want your website to be associated with good link neighborhoods instead of bad link neighborhoods, you must associate your website with other good websites.
What are “bad” neighborhoods?
A bad neighborhood consists of websites that have violated the search engines’ guidelines or contain language that search engines avoid. It can also be where domains and websites end up if they try to improve their SEO using shady unnatural link building techniques.
These websites either appear far down in the search results or do not show up at all. For example, websites that contain topics like “gambling” or “pornography” are all grouped in bad link neighborhoods. Because these websites are associated with bad neighborhoods, they will have a negative effect on your own position in the search results if your website is linked to theirs in any way.
So, what makes a “bad” neighborhood?
- Bad links. These links lead to bad parts of the web and are known as bad PPC (pills, porn, and casinos). If your website links to other sites that include links like these, remove yourself from that neighborhood.
- Too many external links. When a page on a website has too many links to other outside sites, it is considered to be in a bad neighborhood. This also pertains to links to sites that are not related to the content the original site is about. Most websites won’t have to worry about too many external links, but if it’s beyond what would be considered a reasonable number, then it might look like your site is being used by other domains for unnatural link building practices.
- Spam. These websites contain unnecessary comments or unrelated content that does not give any value to the site. It is important to moderate spam on a website before unnatural links connect themselves.
- Over-abundance of ads. Websites that clutter their pages with too many ads or unrelated ads from outside sites are optimized less and can be linked to bad neighborhoods. They come across as low quality and may not be focusing on good content.
- Poorly written content. Weak content, or content that is inaccurate and misleading can place it into a bad link neighborhood. Content that includes grammar or spelling mistakes are more likely to show up further down on the search results list, therefore being associated with bad neighborhoods as well.
- Unrelated links that are paid for. An old but outdated strategy for unnatural link building is buying links from other sites to try to help SEO. Although this use to work a very long time ago, Google’s algorithm is now mostly able to detect these and can penalize your site if it thinks you are doing this.
Online business owners and webmasters should make sure that their site isn’t gaining too many links from bad link neighborhoods. One SEO link neighborhood strategy is to disavow bad links. This means telling Google that you want them to ignore those links.
However this step might not be necessary in most cases. Google’s algorithm has ways of automatically suppressing the effect of bad link neighborhoods for many sites.
How does Google’s algorithm handle link neighborhoods?
With Google’s 4.0 Penguin update in 2016, its real-time core algorithm now devalues bad links instead of demoting the destination site. This means that instead of being pushed further down the search results list, Google will now completely ignore the link and not include it on the results page of factor it into your site’s index performance.
If a link on a site is flagged by Penguin as spam or as an unnatural link, it will no longer help the page it is connected to. This can boost the SEO performance of sites with bad quality links.
However because the site no longer benefits from spam links, in some cases the page’s rankings will actually drop. This is why many sites that practices spammy link building strategies can sometimes get hurt months or even years later. If you rely on bad links to gain authority, then you could be in trouble.
Unnatural links are artificial links that are intended to manipulate a page’s ranking in the search results. These may include purchased links or links created by spammers that then attach themselves to your site. This is usually done under the radar and can potentially link your site to a bad neighborhood.
If a website is found to have too many bad links (especially if they appear rapidly or all at once), the entire site may be impacted by the Penguin algorithm and may even receive an Unnatural Links Penalty.
How to get into a good link neighborhood using best practices
Having potentially harmful links connected to your website can be detrimental to your search results and could cause your site to be penalized.
The ideal way to get quality backlinks is naturally.
Many marketers find that the best way to do this is through useful content, like blogs, videos, or helpful guide pages. The more you share these pieces of content on social media or through paid advertising, the more you will draw in visitors who will then share or link to your site, thus creating a quality backlink. Overtime high-quality content will increase the inbound traffic of your site with visitors who are actually interested in sharing your site.
The better your content is the more your backlinks will grow naturally, and the better your site’s link neighborhood will be. That’s all you can do! Just wait to get links naturally.
Here are a few examples that explain how to get quality backlinks which then connect you to good link neighborhoods:
- Trust. When you attach a link in your site and it leads to relevant information, you are considered trustworthy. Same goes for your backlinks. If your backlinks lead to relevant content, then your site will benefit, unlike if you link to scam-filled sites. Buying fake backlinks is harmful to your page and will not help in the long run.
- Relevancy. Including outbound links from other relevant sites that are like your own along with adding anchor text that is relevant gives your site a better chance at being involved in a good link neighborhood.
- Freshness. If you site contains backlinks that lead to old sites or articles, they would not provide as much value as a newer site or article would. With Google’s Freshness Algorithm, which shows the freshest content at the top of the search results, this is especially important.
- Diversity. If all your links are from the same site, your site is not diverse. A diverse link profile will contain links from many different types of websites. Getting links from different types of domains will give your site greater diversity.
- Outreach. In some cases it may be good to reach out to other websites that mention your brand or website. If they talk about your business without linking to your site, you may be able to benefit by asking them to place an anchor-text link to your domain.
The more you practice these strategies when creating your sites content, the more likely you are to improve your SEO. With authoritative, well written, keyword rich content you will slowly but surely build a healthy backlink profile and move your site to a good link neighborhood.
How to check your link neighborhood
Here’s how you make sure your site isn’t in a bad link neighborhood for SEO. Google has given website owners and marketers a free tool to check their site’s status with Search Console.
Set up a Search Console account on your site, or go to your existing account and first check that your site has not been penalized for a bad link neighborhood or because of any unnatural link building.
On the left side menu select “Manual Actions.” If your site has been penalized because of your link neighborhood then it’s possible that you were manually penalized by someone at Google who looked at your site. Check for warning messages about:
- Unnatural links to your site. This means they have detected a pattern of seemingly unnatural, deceptive or manipulative links coming to your site.
- Unnatural links from your site. This means that Google has detected a pattern of unnatural artificial, deceptive, or manipulative outbound links on your site – suggesting that your site might be used for link schemes on other sites.
If you receive warning messages like this than you should seek to fix them immediately. This is an indicator that you have already been busted for being part of a bad link neighborhood, and your SEO could suffer accordingly. In most cases only some pages will be affected, in some cases your whole domain could be affected.
Next scan through your backlinks to make sure you’re in a good link neighborhood. In Search Console go to the “Links” report on the left site navigation pain. Here you’ll be able to see individual reports for both “External Links” as well as “Top linking sites” (other domains that are linking to you the most).
Search Console gives you the ability to export these link reports. You can choose to scan through them in the platform itself and see if they appear legitimate. Under extreme cases, if you see what appears to be too many spammy links, or if you think your site is too far into a bad link neighborhood for SEO health, then you can disavow some links.
Be careful though because disavowing links is an advanced feature – you may run the risk of accidentally removing links that are helping your site. Many businesses don’t go this far and instead trust Google to automatically sort their link neighborhood status, or they hire an agency to monitor their SEO.
Contact Radd for more information on link neighborhoods or to get information on how bad neighborhoods hurt SEO performance. Contact us for a site consultation or to improve your businesses search engine performance.