Links: the good, the bad, and the ugly—Part 1 (SEM 101)

Lord Alfred Douglas once said, “All good poetry is forged slowly and patiently, link by link, with sweat and blood and tears.” He could have just as easily been talking about high-ranking websites (had he known about them — his quote pre-dates the 1920s!). The way to search engine optimization (SEO) success is neither fast nor simple (not that it has to be hard, though). But the accumulation of valuable, relevant, inbound links from authority sites to your site is a sure-fire way to improve your site’s ranking with search engines.

Links are an oft-misunderstood commodity in the world of SEO. Do they matter? Sure, if you want to rank highly in search engine results pages (SERPs). The rank of two sites on the same topic offering equally good, original content will be differentiated in the SERPs by the inbound links they get externally, and to a lesser extent, the outbound links they make to external sites.

Just to be clear, we’re talking about external inbound and outbound links to pages on other websites, not intra-site, mailto, or scripting links. Let’s take a look at what makes some links good or bad.


Think of links as a de facto endorsement. When you link to a site, you are endorsing that site. A site that links to your site is endorsing you. These links implicitly state that, “I, webmaster of my site, believe the value of the content at the site I am linking to will be useful to my customers.” That’s optimally why sites link out to one another, which is a good thing.

If you don’t feel you can endorse the quality of the content at another site, you shouldn’t be linking to them. And you shouldn’t seek links from sites who’s content is not worthy of endorsement, either. After all, you probably wouldn’t endorse Charles Manson as citizen of the year, and I doubt you’d want his endorsement, either. That would be bad.


Frankly, when seeking an endorsement with an external, inbound link, the theme of the site you want to link to yours should be relevant to your site’s theme (or at least relevant to the theme of the page you want linked to). Same goes for those external sites you link to. Relevance is key to lending credibility to both your site and the other site, regardless whether it is an outbound or inbound link.

Instead of you thinking like a webmaster who’s trying hard to manipulate your search engine rank, just for a moment, put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Will they really benefit from clicking on that outbound link? Will they learn something new that is relevant to the current page they are on? To illustrate this point, let’s say your site is all about women’s fashion and you have a page on how to select the right handbag. Linking to relevant pages on sites like Chanel or Jimmy Choo would be a useful strategy. The key point is to enhance the customer experience that starts with a search query, includes finding your site, and then going from there. If your site facilitates that process, that’s good!

Here’s another angle: let’s say a back-alley thug walks up to you in the parking lot of a funeral home and says, in a menacing way, that he knows of a great restaurant that you needed to try. That endorsement seems wildly out of place because of the context. And would you be inclined to respect his recommendation? Probably not (especially after he’s gone!). So this is bad.

Quantity vs. quality

This is a leading misconception among many webmasters. They naturally assume that if one inbound link is good, ten are great, and 47,500 must be fantastic! All things being equal, that might be true, but it is very rare that all things are indeed equal. Just go and try to find 47,500 high quality sites that are relevant to yours. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Instead of making the mistake of focusing on quantity, you’ll be far more successful if you focus instead on quality. A small number of highly relevant, inbound links from sites with solid reputations can do more for you than a ton of junk links. Attempting to boost the quantity of inbound links by artificial means, such as link exchanges, is old-school thinking. That’s bad.

Relevance is the word today, and that helps distinguish the quality of links. If you run a local restaurant and you get an inbound link from a site that sells Internet marketing services, do you really believe that will influence potential customers to dine at your restaurant? Probably not. But what if you got a link from a well-respected foodie blog or restaurant review columnist? Now that will likely make a lot of folks sit up and take notice. That’s really good! Search engines understand this and take this into account in their rankings.

There’s more

The list of factors that go into determining what makes links good or bad is extensive. And when things are done with the intent to deceive search engines, things can quickly turn ugly. We’ll continue this discussion in Part 2 of this post later in the week.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, feel free to post them in our SEM forum. See you again soon…

— Rick DeJarnette, Bing Webmaster Center

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