3 Rules of Thumb For Safe Link Building

By David Veldt - 05/03/2013

When I was a kid, I was a bit of the daring type. I've been told stories of myself, getting caught playing balance beam on a 2nd story deck railing, wandering off and requiring a search party of a dozen people at the campground (they found me, having turkey dinner with the park owner's family), and numerous bicycle and snowboarding feats gone terribly wrong.

I can't pinpoint when risk aversion crept into my psyche, but it has been especially prominent in my professional life. In digital marketing, that isn't always a bad thing. With Google handing out more slaps than Moe, Larry and Curly, it is usually a good idea to walk on the side of caution.

Link Building Safety

Photo: Stephen Baccon

Yesterday, I was browsing a discussion in a forum for online business regarding an interview Pat Flynn did with an SEO who made some, in my opinion, poor recommendations and definitely came in more on the black hat side of the spectrum. To Pat's credit, he followed the video with his own thoughts on what the SEO shared and definitely didn't endorse his tactics (you can also see the look of bewilderment at times on Pat's face during the interview).

However, the video did unearth some common misconceptions and questions in the forum, and all that black hat talk made some folks nervous about doing any SEO or link building for their site. While some tactics are certainly dangerous, total inaction can be dangerous in its own right.

I posted these rules of thumb for safe link building in the topic thread but I decided to also share them here.  By keeping these in mind while you perform link building, you are essentially future-proofing yourself from unforeseen search engine penalties further down the road and positioning yourself for long term success, as opposed to the short term gains enjoyed by black hats and spammers.

1. If a link requires little to no effort to obtain, it is most likely useless and/or dangerous.

You know the old saying "If it were easy, everyone would do it!" Well, these links are easy, and everyone is doing it---which is exactly what makes them worthless. Included in this are directory sites with thousands of pages of nothing but links, which require 10 seconds to submit your site to.

Additionally, the easiest links to obtain are nowadays nofollowed by default (meaning, rel="nofollow" is appended to the link code, which essentially tells search engines not to pass any value through that link), so comment spam on blogs and forums is a pretty fruitless (and annoying) activity.

These quick and easy links are also likely to bite you in the ass. Say you find a way to get a bunch of easy links---being human beings, you're going to snag them all, right? Before you know it, you have a link profile that is 90% shit, and search engines will take notice. Suddenly, those links have quite an opposite effect on your rankings as you intended.

2. Only pursue links that users will actually find useful and click on.

I'll use directories in another example. Do you really think people think "Gee, I really need to find a new pair of sunglasses, I should visit freecrappylinksdirectory.com and navigate six levels deep to find some sunglasses sites!" Nobody is actually using those sites and therefore those links are shit.

Every day, one of my sites is bombarded with users setting up fake profiles so they can post statuses (which are nofollowed, by the way) linking to their cheap Louis Vuitton bag site or fake Rolex site. The site is about baseball. 'Nuff said.

Seek out link opportunities where you feel users will be glad they found the link, because it provides value. The best example is a link within an article. Someone reading about a topic of interest and at a certain point they reach your link, which provides deeper context into a specific aspect of the topic. *click*

Useful links take many forms, whether it is a citation, an interesting image or graphic, a promotion or even a reputable directory, such as your local Chamber of Commerce website or well-known industry directory.

3. If a link requires pulling out your wallet, don't do it.

Please, don't buy links. But don't just take my word for it---ask Google or Bing.

This isn't just reserved for people paying for directory links, paying bloggers to post links, exchanging physical goods for a links, etc., it also includes some even shadier tactics, such as buying dying sites and pointing links on them towards your primary site, which was recommended by the SEO in Pat Flynn's interview. Little is known about how well Google can detect things like this at present but considering how fast search engines are advancing, it certainly isn't a safe long term strategy.

When I quit the major time-suck that is known as Reddit, the first thing I did was bury the bookmark in a couple folders, so I could no longer mindlessly click on it and would instead notice what I was doing before I got there. Next time you're working on link building and you pull out your wallet, then your credit card and begin to fill in information...well, there should be plenty of opportunities to catch yourself.


I've summarized several best practices and tactics into three simple rules of thumb, but in case you needed it more simplified I'll put it into one: Use good judgement. Seriously, folks, most of us have some sort of moral compass, so reference it often and ask yourself if a reasonable, ethical person would do what you're doing.

There's countless posts out there on great linking building opportunities and what you should avoid, but applying these rules of thumb to your link building activities should protect you from 99% of what Google dishes out in the future. Google wants to serve the most relevant web pages in search, and these tactics ensure you're only seeking out relevant links.

That said, I think I'm going to go do something risky. Not sign up for any article spinning software or anything like that---I'm not that stupid---but maybe ride through a black diamond mountain bike course without a helmet or something.

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Leave a comment


11 years ago

Thought I'd leave an "ironic" comment that will give me a link that was quick and simple to leave 🙂

I do have the odd "easy" link in my link portfolio but mostly just because I think if I"m reading a blog anyway, and I've got something to say anyway, I may as well get a link out of it. I think these days most of these low power links are not followed anyway. I don't believe that no follow = no value - in fact I had a client that only had no follow links from some really big sites and she premiered in Slot 4 with a brand new website for a 2400 exact match keyword a month in a busy retail industry. So I am going to say that they do definitely help but that if you're going after easy win links via comments, you shouldn't expect a followed link these days anyway.

David Veldt

11 years ago

Comment links are harmless if you're contributing to the conversation, or if you leave a link that illustrates a point you're trying to make. They just shouldn't be used as an actual link building strategy.

John Davison

11 years ago

I've been trying to figure out a link building strategy that I can do slowly and methodically, but am concerned about Google. Is there a paid link building "1st steps" that makes sense that is not risky? For instance, is it a good idea to pay for directory listings such as yahoo and superpages, or is that really a waste of time that could be better spent doing something else?

David Veldt

11 years ago


Great question. The Yahoo directory used to be a go-to for SEOs but the value of that link has diminished. If you're going to pay for links in these reputable types of directories, I would do it based on whether you think you'll get traffic and exposure from them - not for the SEO value of a link.

John Davison

11 years ago


Thanks for the quick response. I guess the real question for me would be how would I be able to determine what directories I might get traffic and exposure from. Do you have any recommendations on how to make that kind of judgement? For instance would local directories be something to consider more seriously than a National directory for Local Services such as mine (IT Consulting)?

David Veldt

11 years ago

If you're a local business, part of gaining local relevance is gaining links from other local sources (i.e. Chamber of Commerce) and I would certainly focus on those. However, it certainly doesn't hurt to get some attention from some reputable national directories to help boost the overall relevance of your domain. I would just caution you to apply the 3 rules of thumb mentioned above when reviewing these directories before you submit.