Most business owners that have websites know that getting links is important, and that getting the wrong kinds of links can get you in trouble with Google. Here’s how to check your backlink profile for some common problems.

Search engines normally see and follow links from one website to another to learn what’s on each site and how important the site seems to be. The idea is that if there are lots of websites that have links to a particular web page, it must be a really awesome page. They are like votes of popularity, and search engines are alert to the possibility that some website owners may try to stuff the ballot box.

Google, Yahoo! and Bing are getting better and better at checking to make sure that websites are complying with their webmaster guidelines. Google pushes out an estimated 500-600 updates to its search engine algorithm each year, of which about 4 of them can be considered major updates. SEOMoz has a continually updated chronology of Google’s updates over the past several years that you can use as a reference.

Penguin, an update released in April 2012, focused on “unnatural links” including link farms (in which poor-quality websites are created for the sole purpose of building up links to specific websites), reciprocal linking, and other shady forms of link building that Google has been trying to discourage for a long time. Catch up on Penguin by reading our update, and watch a video on the subject posted by Google’s Matt Cutts.

It’s always a good idea to follow Google’s webmaster guidelines on this stuff, but some understandable frustration is seen in the comments area of this video. One viewer wrote, “You guys created the problem in the first place by basically rewarding all links, whether or not they were natural.”

Some business owners have reported getting the dreaded unnatural link warning from Google in their Google Webmaster Tools account. Within a few weeks of the warning, the business drops in search results and takes a big hit on site traffic.

If you have a website, here are 5 easy ways you can check your own backlink profile to make sure you don’t get that e-mail from Google.

1. Learn to spot the “no-follow” links

Plugin Quirk SearchStatusNot all links can help you show up better in search results. Regular links pass some of the source web page’s “link juice” or authority to the page the link points to. A “no-follow” attribute on a link asks search engines not to pass that authority.

There is a complicated story explaining all this, but the gist is that websites with good authority can lose some of that authority if they put too many of the regular kind of link on a page. Well-known news sites often make their links “no-follow” because of this. Readers can still see and click on no-follow links, but search engines mostly ignore them.

A Firefox plugin called Quirk SearchStatus can help you see the no-follow links on a website. There are other plugins that do the same thing, but I like this one because I can easily activate it with a right-click while viewing a page.

Once you download and install it, right click on the little blue Q sign in the lower right corner of Firefox, then choose “highlight no-follow links”.

Reload the page if you don’t see any links change, just to be sure. The no-follow links will turn pink.

Here’s an example of a no-follow link:

No-follow links highlighted

The pink-shaded links are “no-follow,” meaning they do NOT pass link juice.

2. Don’t focus on “votes” – focus on “voters”

We SEOs like to use a tool called Majestic SEO Site Explorer to get a better view of a website’s backlinks.

In addition to the total number of backlinks, it’s also important to have them come from many different sites rather than just a few. Think of the voting analogy again – it’s more meaningful to have one vote each from 500 people than 50 votes each from only 10 people, right?

Search engines feel that way, too, and it’s easy for them to know the difference. To find out, go to Majestic SEO’s website, then type in the website’s domain name – just the basic part of the web address without all the www’s and the ending slashes. Example: cnn.com, mlive.com, nj.com, irs.gov. Then click the orange magnifying glass and watch the numbers roll out. You’re looking for “referring domains” – the total number of websites that are sending links to your website. Even with websites that have great backlink profiles, the ratio of referring domains to backlinks will never be 1:1. Check out CNN’s profile:

Backlink report for CNN.com

As you can see, CNN’s ratio of backlinks to domains is 254:1, so don’t feel bad if yours is similar. The idea is to diversity and build your links naturally and over time, from a variety of places. Some directories make great link sources as long as you follow their rules for submitting appropriately. Infographics and unique, topic-appropriate articles can be part of an effective diversified link building program.

3. What the link reads – does anchor text still matter?

Anchor text is the words that make up the visible part of the link. It might be anything from the website address itself to “click here,” “website,” or even “report about dogs.” SEOs once tried to get specific keywords into the anchor text of their backlinks, to provide clear hints to Google about which keywords they wanted to be found for.Backlink anchor text

Part of the Penguin update now discourages this – too much repetition of a specific keyword phrase for anchor text can actually make Google suspicious of “unnatural” link building tactics.

In the example here, a defense attorney in Columbus, Ohio, has several obvious keyword phrases repeated in the anchor text of backlinks, one of which is “columbus defense lawyer”.

4. Where the link comes from – good vs. bad link neighborhoods

This one is especially important if you’ve been working with an SEO to improve your rankings. Link building is a normal part of an SEO campaign. Done appropriately, it’s like adding an engine to your train.

Done incorrectly, it can actually drop you in the rankings. Google’s Penguin update focused on rewarding “natural” link building and not rewarding “unnatural” link building. So what’s the difference?

Google has identified a few ways that website owners can cheat the system. They include:

  • Using the same keyword phrase hundreds of times in anchor text
  • Paying for placement of do-follow links in content
  • Participating in complex link wheels involving lots of websites
  • Creating fake blog sites on which to place links

Checking for these poor quality links is as simple as looking up your Trust Flow in Majestic SEO’s site explorer or Open Site Explorer. Shown below are Trust Flow from Majestic and Domain Authority from Open Site Explorer, proprietary scoring systems showing where a website stacks up from 1 to 100. Although these scores vary, generally a score lower than 20 out of 100 in either system means that the domain either doesn’t have enough good links or has some bad links, or both.

In our office, we use Majestic to drill down into which links are which. Each domain that links to a specific website has its own Trust Flow, and if a lot of them have low Trust Flow, so will your website. SEO experts talk about avoiding “bad link neighborhoods” – this is what they mean.

Scoring of domains

Majestic SEO’s Trust Flow and Open Site Explorer’s Domain Authority, ways of scoring the power of a website.

5. Know your competition: How many links are enough?

If your website is optimized with well-researched keywords and it just doesn’t seem to be rising in Google’s organic search rankings, perhaps the website doesn’t have enough links compared with your competitors.

Competitors in search are different from competitors in brick and mortar business. These are the other websites that are showing up well for the same search terms for which you want to be highly visible. You can learn a lot by comparing total number of backlinks and Trust Flow for several related websites serving the same target region.

Make a list of the other websites with good visibility in the same searches. Then enter them into a tool like Majestic SEO to see how many links each has and what their Trust Flow is. Where is the website in this pack? If close to the bottom, there is work to be done to help the website be more powerful in search.