At the very least since the last Google Penguin update, webmasters know that backlinks have a significant influence on search engine rankings – but also that these links are checked for quality and “naturalness”. The days of “any link is a good link” are long gone. Nowadays, backlinks can even be penalised by either via Penguin updates or manual Google penalties.
Webmasters who wish to continue generating traffic via organic search should keep a watchful eye on their backlink profiles in order to be able to remove any low value backlinks or disavow harmful links using Google’s disavow facility. It’s not only the quality of backlinks which play a key role, but their context and “naturalness” too.
When analysing your backlink profile, watch out for the following:
Link ratio plays an important role in the eyes of search engines, enabling Google to identify conspicuous or unnatural links. Try and put yourself in the search engine’s shoes and consider whether your link ratio appears natural or not.
Follow : nofollow link ratio
Pretty much every blog and website links exclusively using the link attribute “follow”, which has enabled this attribute to become standard. Even search engines take this industry standard into account when evaluating your links, enabling it to assume that the vast majority of naturally acquired backlinks will be follow links.
If you have backlinks which you have consciously marked as nofollow, Google takes this to mean that the webmaster would like these links to be evaluated more “negatively”, or at least not as highly. This is frequently the case with links placed in blog comments.
If your backlink profile features more nofollow than follow links, then it’s time for action. This type of negative link ratio looks highly unnatural in the eyes of the search engine, since it suggests that most webmasters have actively taken steps to devalue recommendations (links). Even though a nofollow link is not necessarily a bad thing and certainly doesn’t make a backlink worthless from an SEO point of view, nofollow does still represent a conscious change away from the default attribute (follow), which will then be taken into account by Google when evaluating your backlink profile.
It’s impossible to pinpoint a specific value at which a follow/nofollow ratio becomes optimal, so SEO experts are constantly trying to define an approximate figure which less experienced webmasters can work with. It’s safe to assume that a healthy follow/nofollow ratio is about 80:20 – 80% follow links and 20% nofollow links.
Please note: This is purely a guideline. It doesn’t take into account any unique factors appertaining to your website – factors which you should certainly consider in any SEO analysis. Every online project is different and faces different challenges, making it impossible to define a perfect ratio. The 80:20 ratio is there to help webmasters orientate their strategies and goals when working on their link ratios.
Homepage : Deep link ratio
Although the majority of your links (both internal and external) will lead to your homepage, it’s definitely worth having a look at your homepage: deep link ratio. But before analysing this more closely, check and define the nature of the content of your online presence.
By this, we mean: do you run an online shop? Or a job portal? How would you categorise your website? This definition is also taken into account by search engines. With online shops for instance, you are likely to have more deep links linking to specific product pages, whereas a job portal will almost certainly want backlinks to lead straight to the homepage where job-hunters can start their search.
It’s up to each individual webmaster to decide what a natural homepage: deep link ratio looks like for their page. If you find for instance that an online project with lots of content on various different subpages is predominantly attracting links to the homepage, then this could suggest that other webmasters and users aren’t particularly convinced by the quality of content. It would appear they consider the content unworthy of a mention or a direct link. This tells you a lot about your content, too!
Deep links show the search engine that individual pieces of content have been recommended, probably because they are high quality or particularly thematically relevant. As a webmaster, you should try to ensure that you always have more deep links to specific subpages than backlinks which only lead to your homepage. On the other hand, if links only point exclusively to subpages and never to your homepage (which is after all your most important page), Google considers this unnatural.
It’s worth repeating again here that it’s not possible to define an optimal link ratio. Individual factors which are important to your project should always be taken into account when evaluating your backlink profile.
Many webmasters aren’t aware that the time period over which links are accumulated can lead to a backlink profile being seen as natural or unnatural. The older an online project gets, the more likely it is that content is linked (as long as it is good quality content of course). This then means that the overall number of backlinks should gradually but continuously increase over time.
Even if a small number of backlinks are lost from time to time, it should usually be possible to identify a general trend suggesting natural growth. When you first set up a project, it is initially unknown and is only likely to acquire a small number of links in the first few weeks and months. But as more and more content is added over time (which Google can also recognise and index), it will also start to be linked, leading to natural-looking backlink growth.
Anything which interrupts a natural link growth trend can be interpreted by Google as unnatural. A 60% drop in backlinks in the space of a week for example is likely to be spotted by search engines and considered unnatural. On the other hand, if a project which hasn’t published any new content in months suddenly acquires a lot of links in a very short space of time, Google finds this suspicious and unnatural.
Link ratios play an important role here too. Make sure, amongst other things, that your link profile reflects natural growth with regards to the total number of links, the type of links (nofollow/follow, content/site-wide) and a variety of link sources.
Hard anchor texts can exert a significant influence on rankings for certain keywords or keyword phrases, and have therefore been analysed and evaluated closely by search engines since the Penguin Update.
Inexperienced webmasters whose SEO knowledge is perhaps not quite up to date often still believe they are doing others a favour by linking to their content using a single money keyword as an anchor text. But in fact, this can actually put the domain at a disadvantage and, at worst, lead to a penalty. Instead, make sure that your backlink profile features a variety of anchor texts and that other webmasters link to your content using a range of natural, “soft” anchor texts – e.g. whole phrases in text rather than one single powerful keyword.
Analyse your backlink profile regularly to make sure that it is natural and free from unnatural-looking interruptions or anomalies which could be negatively interpreted by Google. “Infected” backlink profiles can suffer severe ranking losses over a long period time and often struggle to recover, so regular checks must be carried out.
Remember that every online presence faces individual challenges and should therefore be aiming for specifically tailored link ratios unique to the project. As a webmaster, identify the ideal ratios for your domain before putting yourself in Google’s shoes and considering what might look suspicious or unnatural.