Can Link Building Hurt Your SEO? Yes, and Here’s How

Can Link Building Hurt Your SEO? Yes, and Here’s How Blog Banner

Link building is arguably one of the most crucial steps to building a company’s SEO and dominating search results. After all, a strong correlation exists between a site’s search engine positioning and the total number of backlinks.

Backlinks are the website version of social proof. The more backlinks your site has, the more credible it seems among users and the more authoritative you become in Google’s search ranking algorithm.

Don’t believe us?

According to Andrey Lipattsev, a senior executive at Google, links are one of the three primary search ranking factors. In other words, link building and SEO are tightly intertwined.

But can link building also harm your SEO? Unfortunately, yes.

Google is very particular with its link spam guidelines. Some link-building mistakes can result in irreversible damage to your SEO and, in extreme cases, even to your website.

In this article, we’ll uncover how the links that build your SEO can also be the ones to destroy it. Keep reading.

The Basics of Link Building

Look. This article is not meant to incite fear among companies engaged in link-building efforts. 

There is absolutely no doubt that building backlinks positively impacts a site’s SEO. However, risky link-building practices expose your website to negative SEO and Google’s heartbreaking penalties. 

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of our topic today, let’s first revisit the basics. 

Check Your Backlinks

Get an Instant Insight Into Who Links to Your Site

What is Link Building, Again?

To those who need a quick refresher.

Link building is the process of acquiring backlinks from external websites leading back to your website. These backlinks, otherwise called inbound links, provide access for users to navigate between the source and linked websites. Moreover, these hyperlinks transfer link juice from the source site to the linked web page, influencing the target link’s “authority.”

Of course, we diluted the definition of link building and backlinks above. Here are additional information every marketer should keep in mind:

  • Link building focuses on inbound links: You’re specifically interested in links that point to your website, not links you place to other sites.
  • Link building prioritizes quality over quantity: Not all links are created equal. In the context of SEO, high-quality, relevant links from reputable websites are more valuable than a large number of low-quality links.
  • Link building ≠ internal linking: Link building typically refers to acquiring external links pointing to your website. Internal linking, while crucial for SEO and website navigation, is a separate concept. 

Why Does Link Building Matter?

In the earlier texts, we glossed over the importance of building backlinks for search engine optimization. But what exactly are the specific benefits awaiting companies that actively engage in link-building efforts?

Improved search engine rankings

Link building is one of the pillars of search engine optimization. Google considers the quantity and quality of links pointing to a website as a symbol of trust. 

Research tells us that position #1 on Google has 3.8x more backlinks than succeeding positions, on average. That means, more high-quality backlinks translate to a more favorable rank on search engine results. 

There’s just one issue: Many marketers mistakenly tend to hold backlinks on that basic standard— a search ranking factor. What they often overlook is that backlinks are also a function of content. 

Without high-quality content, getting backlinks is no more than an empty wish. Meanwhile, attempting to build backlinks without any respectable content to compensate for them can harm your SEO. 

Sure, you can always pay for backlinks from high-DA sites. But do you think Google won’t notice authority websites linking to thin, generic, watered-down, content-producing link farms? Think again.

"Think About It" Meme

With SpamBrain, Google has doubled down on its link spam detection mechanism with the help of artificial intelligence.

Screenshot of Google's SpamBrain announcement

Increased website traffic

Aside from better SERP ranking, building backlinks is also known to boost a website’s organic traffic. The surge in website visitors may come from two particular sources:

  1. SERP traffic: Backlinko found that higher positioning on search results influences the amount of traffic a website receives. After all, how many times have you scrolled past Google’s page 1 results when searching for something? Exactly. 

Position #1-3 gets the lion’s share of traffic, and this number tapers down exponentially with every succeeding search result. 

  1. Referral traffic: Backlinks are also known to drive referral traffic when users click through the links leading to your site. When external websites link to your content, they’re essentially recommending your website to their audience. This exposes your brand to a new group of potential visitors and, hopefully, customers.
Trend of Organic CTR for SERP Positions #1-10

Enhanced domain authority

Domain authority (DA) is a hypothetical score developed by Moz to indicate a website’s overall credibility based on its backlink profile. 

Domains with links coming from high-authority websites tend to have a better DA. Moreover, the higher your domain authority, the more likely you are to rank well for competitive keywords in search queries and attract high-quality backlinks. 

In the SEO space, domain authority is parallel to “perceived” authority or how a user views the authoritativeness of a website. As a result, off-page SEO specialists often contact high-DA sites for link-building collaborative opportunities, like link exchanges or sales. 

Check Your Backlinks

Get an Instant Insight Into Who Links to Your Site

During these cases, a fine line separates what Google allows and what Google penalizes. Unfortunately, getting caught in the latter may not only hurt your SEO but also your domain entirely. We’ll talk more about this later.

But since we’re on the subject, what other ways can link building hurt your SEO?

6 Ways Link Building Can Harm SEO

As not all links are equal, not all link-building practices are too. While Google does offer a level of lenience toward some link-building efforts, they impose strict penalties when users abuse the search engine’s kindness. 

Below are some ways link building can harm a site’s SEO.

#1 Sponsored links

Sponsored backlinks, or paid links, are tempting solutions for a quick SEO boost— and for good reason! We all know that search engine optimization takes time. With backlinks being a search ranking factor, buying inbound links seems more practical than writing exceptional 5,000-word articles, right?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because Google understands that buying and selling links is a normal aspect of the web economy. 

No, because while Google allows the sale of links, sponsored backlinks must be qualified with the appropriate rel attribute.

Screenshot of Google's Spam Policies

Otherwise, Google may see the link purchase as a manipulative trick to build links, and we know how Google feels about that. When sponsored backlinks are not qualified properly, you are basically using them to artificially inflate your website’s ranking. 

In retribution, Google may devalue the paid links, affecting your website in the process. Moreover, when Google detects a pattern of unnatural backlinks, your site can be in trouble, resulting in a drop in search rankings and traffic.

One might say, “I’ll just qualify sponsored links with rel=’sponsored’ attribute to avoid Google’s penalties and still receive that luscious link juice?

Sure, you may avoid Google’s penalties, but are you certain you’ll still get equity from the linking website? Let’s take a look at how Google really feels about sponsored links:

Screenshot of Google's guidelines on qualifying links

Google’s preference for using the rel=’sponsored’ attribute on paid links likely reflects their desire for greater transparency in link-building practices. 

However, dissecting Google’s words, we may interpret sponsored links and no-follow links as two peas in a pod. While rel=’sponsored’ is the new standard, webmasters may opt to use rel=’nofollow’ to flag paid links. In other words, there is not much of a difference between the two as far as link juice is concerned.

In that case, if no-follow links give you zero link equity, expect sponsored links to also give you a smidge of a ranking value. If you ask me, paying for links that provide minimal SEO value is a poor waste of resources.

Check Your Backlinks

Get an Instant Insight Into Who Links to Your Site

Speaking of no-follow links…

#2 No-follow backlinks

Contrary to what people might think, no-follow links themselves generally don’t directly harm a site’s SEO. As a matter of fact, they can have some indirect benefits to the linked page. 

For example, links with rel=’nofollow’ attributes safeguard websites from Google’s penalties. And while no-follow links don’t pass link juice, they can still drive referral traffic, resulting in brand awareness and valuable visitors.

However, there can be particular instances when no-follow links bring negative consequences for SEO. Here are a few instances:

  • Negative reviews or comments: Comments are user-generated content and often have a nofollow tag (if not rel=‘ugc’). While not directly impacting SEO, these negative reviews or comments with nofollow links can still damage your brand reputation.
  • Paying for no-follow links: Google allows linking domains to use either rel=‘sponsored’ or rel=‘nofollow’ for paid links. If you paid in exchange for a do-follow backlink and the sneaky seller did not follow through, the resulting no-follow link still wouldn’t harm your SEO… but it would sure hurt your SEO budget (and pride!).

The main thing to remember is that no-follow links are not inherently bad. While they offer absolutely zero link juice to the targeted link, no-follow links are also good referral traffic sources and help keep a balanced link profile.

#3 Low-quality backlinks

Google looks at backlinks holistically. That means they look beyond the quality and quantity of your backlinks, but also investigate the quality of websites linking to you. 

Backlinks from low-quality websites with thin content send negative signals to search engines. These links may suggest your website might also be of low quality and untrustworthy. As a result, your domain authority and SERP ranking suffers.

Unfortunately, Google doesn’t always stop with a slap on the wrist. Given Google’s stance on manipulative link-building practices, if they detect a pattern of unnatural backlinks from low-quality sites, they may penalize you in return. Penalties can range from lower SERP rank to de-indexing your page, and even a full-blown domain de-indexing.

Remember that the value of backlinks is measured by how much link juice it transfers. Low-quality backlinks hardly have any link juice to offer. In the worst-case scenario, they might even dilute the value of your good backlinks.

From a customer’s perspective, being linked to a website with a poor reputation may build negative associations, which damages your brand and deters potential customers.

#4 Backlinks from unrelated sources

Backlinks from unrelated sources may refer to two things: (1) inbound links from websites with completely different niches or; (2) pages that talk about different topics. 

While not inherently harmful in small quantities, a large number of unrelated backlinks can negatively impact your SEO in a few ways:

  • Confusing relevance signals: Context and relevance are two parameters used by search engines to analyze backlink quality. Backlinks from websites that are relevant to your niche tell Google that your content is valuable to the targeted readers. Conversely, unrelated backlinks may create mixed signals, causing search engines to speculate that you engage in link-building schemes.
  • Reduced link juice value: Unbeknownst to many, link juice is not only a function of the source website’s DA but also its topical relevance. When you build backlinks from unrelated sources, the topical relevance will also determine the amount of link juice your site receives, regardless of the linking site’s domain authority.

#5 Engagement in PBNs

According to Google’s link spam policies, any link intended to manipulate SERP rankings is classified as link spam. Unfortunately, engaging in spammy link-building practices puts a website on Google’s naughty list. 

Screenshot of Google's Link Spam Policy

Private blog networks or PBNs fall within this category. 

PBNs are networks of websites that someone creates (or manages) specifically to link back to the main website and manipulate search engine rankings.

Usually, PBNs consist of low-quality websites having thin content and are filled with links pointing to a main website. While the target domain initially enjoys the benefits, the surge of low-quality backlinks raises red flags for Google, thereby inciting penalties.

What many users don’t realize is that what makes PBNs an issue is the manipulative intent behind the network

In other words, an entity doesn’t need to “create” a group of websites for it to be called a PBN. 

Even an SEO agency may be considered PBN if they manage several websites and indiscriminately interlink them with one another to manipulate search rankings.

Still, what is considered PBN is highly nuanced. Managing several websites that purposively interlink with each other isn’t inherently bad for SEO if done properly. It can also be a legitimate strategy if it satisfies the following:

  • Websites have a clear purpose: Each website has its own unique content and target audience, providing value to users beyond backlinks.
  • Upholding natural linking patterns: Links and content between the websites are relevant and contextual, not keyword-stuffed attempts to boost rankings.
  • High-quality content: Each website focuses on creating valuable, informative content that attracts organic traffic and engagement.

#6 Link exchanges

Ever since the dawn of civilization, the barter system has been a way to establish relationships and exchange cultures between global societies. Up until 20 years ago, link exchanges have been like a hack for SEO specialists to boost the SERP ranking of their managed websites.

Today, Google categorizes excessive link exchanges as a form of link spam. Take note of the term “excessive.”

Screenshot of Google's link spam policy on link exchanges

Link exchange, also known as reciprocal links or traded links, happens when two websites trade backlinks to boost SEO by exchanging site authorities. If “excessive” link building is a problem, then Google must have a defined threshold of allowable link exchanges, right?

Perhaps. Only Google knows.

All Google’s spam policy tells us is that excessive link exchanges done exclusively for the sake of cross-linking are bad. How Google detects these malicious link exchanges is beyond our job description. 

Nevertheless, despite our lack of access to Google’s true ranking algorithm, we can infer that link exchanges are not inherently bad. Only link exchanges done solely to manipulate search ranking are problematic. Meanwhile, natural link reciprocation between two websites is considered acceptable.

Pro tip: If you really want to succeed in your SEO efforts, I suggest you steer clear of anything remotely triggering for Google. Indiscriminate and mismanaged link building can hurt your SEO without you knowing.

Beware the Wrath of Google

In the search engine optimization world, Google is the overlord and all websites are its humble servants. We exist to follow the rules to escape Google’s wrath and bathe in the lucrative benefits of staying in Google’s index kingdom.

Analogies aside, Google’s penalties are a force to be reckoned with. And the days are numbered for websites engaging in black-hat backlinking efforts. 

While some penalties are lighter, like SERP rank devaluation, other cases may force Google’s hand to impose heavier punishments like page or domain de-indexing.

For that reason, webmasters, businesses, and agencies have to be extra careful of their link-building practices. Armed with the essential toolkit, you can safeguard your site from problematic backlinks, ultimately, preventing getting penalized by Google.

Essential Tools to Protect Sites from Backlink Disaster

Here are some tools that can help protect your website from links that can harm your SEO:


Screenshot of Linkody's user interface

Linkody is an all-in-one backlink monitoring tool designed to give users a comprehensive view of their site’s backlink profile. Like Google, the tool is equipped with web crawlers that reveal all the links at your disposal including other relevant information, like:

  • The linking page’s URL
  • The anchor text used
  • The backlinks’ rel attributes
  • Moz DA score
  • Spam score 
  • Site’s ranking

This allows you to manage all your backlinks in one place. Linkody also comes equipped with a disavow tool to snip your site’s connection from bad backlinks. 

Without a backlink monitoring tool, you might get blindsided when competitors engage in SEO attacks against your domain. For example, they might inflate the number of bad backlinks leading to your site. Linkody can detect these issues for you, so you can proceed with the appropriate, data-driven action!


Screenshot of IndexCheckr's user interface

IndexCheckr, as the name suggests, is a tool that allows you to check the indexing status of websites and pages. However, its value extends beyond simply knowing if a URL is in Google’s index. The tool can also help you manage your backlinks and prevent penalties from happening.

Since unindexed pages are invisible to search engines, backlinks from these pages pass zero link juice and may even disrupt your backlink profile. In extreme cases, unindexed backlinks may trigger Google’s spam policy, resulting in a penalty.

IndexCheckr enables users to proactively identify unindexed backlinks and take steps to address them. Equipped with automatic alerts, you can stay on top of potential issues and react accordingly when previously indexed backlinks get de-indexed.

Backlinks Only Hurt When Left Unmanaged

I’ll go back to what I mentioned at the beginning of this article. 

Backlinks do matter, and will continuously remain a ranking factor for the years to come.

However, there are inevitable times when backlinks will do more harm than good for your SEO. In most cases, these are the results of our mismanagement and oversight. 

But with the right information and essential toolkit at our disposal, we can weather the storm before it escalates into a bigger catastrophe.

Happy link building (and, please, be extra careful!).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *