Link building, namely quality link building, is one of the cornerstones of any website’s SEO focus. Without links, Google won’t hold your website in very high esteem, it is a simple fact that good, noteworthy websites will be linked to by other good, noteworthy websites. Not all links are made the same or hold the same kind of weight to Google. Not only that, some webmasters who are a bit impatient don’t want to go through the kind of trouble & effort required to have truly shareable content. This of course is what fuels the dichotomy between natural and unnatural links. Which strategies of link building to use and what kind of links are best has spurred debate for years, let’s go over what these links are and what makes them different.
A natural link is one that has been placed out there on the internet somewhere in a way as genuine as possible. Someone posting a link to your site on a forum or social media is a fantastic example of a natural link. It is the anticipated end result of a fully comprehensive and useful site. The way Google sees it, natural links are simply a consequence of all other SEO and other digital marketing practices. Essentially, any genuine link that functions to bring people to your site counts as a natural link. These links are the most desirable kind as they’re exactly the sort of thing a reputable, well-known website has tons of. SEO specialist Bear Newman says that getting high quality, natural backlinks on high ranking websites is the best way to increase your search engine rankings. The thing about natural links is that there is more or less no way to predict at what rate they will come, and having content that people want to share at all is a bit of a rarity in the currently highly-niched website landscape. The most popular websites of all time all have millions of natural links and it shows Google that people like going to that site, encouraging others to go as well, and actually stay on the site themselves.
Now these links have been described differently throughout the years, but essentially any unnatural link is a link that was placed out there for the sole purpose of getting attention to a given website. A practice has emerged online where websites “buy” links from more prominent websites in a bid to be seen more favorably by Google. Other links like those put in the comment sections for the express purpose of getting clicks is also thought to be an unnatural link since the person isn’t talking about the website necessarily because they want to, but because they have something to gain. Unnatural links seek to abuse the Google algorithm into higher rankings for a particular site.
What’s The Big Difference?
So why does it actually matter if a link is natural or not? Well, first and foremost the practice of link building is explicitly disavowed by Google as a breach of their Webmaster Guidelines. Google serves to find properly made & trustworthy sites and serve them up to their users so they can be properly enjoyed. When too many websites make use of shady tactics, Google begins to serve up insanely promotional material that isn’t on the website to inform or educate, but to sell. Google considers any link that was made with the express intention of manipulating PageRank to be a big no-no. If your link profile is 100% natural, it is extremely unlikely that Google will hassle you at all. But if your entire link profile looks sketchy and fabricated, there’s a good chance you’ll get hit with a manual penalty.
The problem with many unnatural links is that they aren’t relevant or topical to the subject matter at hand, and the content surrounding the link is seldom particularly worthwhile.
If you want to build a website that lasts, natural links should be your bread and butter. It isn’t uncommon for a few links to have been bought/traded over the course of an offsite SEO campaign, it is more about the frequency and quality in the eyes of Google. If you are constantly being linked to from websites of low value it is pretty easy for Google to catch on, even without a pair of human eyes. The best practices for making websites that rank well online have always been to make a quality, worthwhile site that people want to visit and talk about. When that is always your focus, you can rest easy knowing you’ll typically be in Google’s good graces. Of course, that’s not to say paid links aren’t as ubiquitous as they have always been.