How to build links, by ex-Google engineer

Last updated on November 28th, 2019. First published on March 15th, 2017 at Medium.

In light of Google’s manual link penalties and Google Penguin algorithm, a question often asked by website owners is: “Should we still invest in link building and if so, how?”

The short answer to this question is: Absolutely! The more the better, but with the focus on traffic converting links.

Link building

How Google looks at link building

Since the beginning of the Google search engine, first known as Backrub, links have been an integral part of the algorithms. Primarily at first just to discover new content and by using the PageRank algorithm to calculate the authority of a document and compare it to the rest of the known web, in a similar way academic references in academic papers worked. The more referenced, the higher the authority. Nowadays it is primarily used for discovery of content and prioritization of crawling, as there are over 200 other ranking factors that play a bigger role in ranking than just PageRank.

As part of Google’s efforts to prevent and tackle web spam, the Google Search Quality team under the leadership of Matt Cutts, Google published their Webmaster Guidelines, highlighting the best practices of building websites. Part of these guidelines also highlighted Google’s view on link building, a view that has not changed much over time.

“[Don’t] Participate in link exchanges for the sole purpose of increasing your ranking in search engines.” (August 15, 2001)
Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. […] Additionally, creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links, can be considered a violation of our guidelines.” (November 15, 2016)

As the Search Engine Optimization industry evolved, more and more website owners were looking for quick wins and exploiting the holes in the Google algorithms in order to rank higher than their websites should be ranking by engaging in Google Webmaster Guidelines violations. The launch of the Google PageRank indicator in the Google Toolbar did not help, as it gave the SEO industry a point of measurement and a massive link buying and selling industry was born. As a result, the SEO industry has effectively broken a number of normal methods for link building on the web, such as:

  • Guest posting
  • Widget links
  • Press Releases
  • Article Marketing
  • Link Exchanges
  • Advertorials
  • Directories
  • Blog Comments
  • Forum Posts
  • Social Media Posts
  • Bookmark Sites

And the list goes on. The Google Search Quality team, of which I was a part, responded by penalizing websites that violated the Google Webmaster Guidelines. And Google still requires links to be vouched for by the site’s owner or not pass PageRank. Most notably Google has also restricted the descriptive nature of the anchor text, because of the abuse by the SEO industry with over-optimized commercial terms in an effort to manipulate rankings.

Over time Google improved its algorithms and detection methods and in 2012 the Google Penguin algorithm was born and the disavow tool in Google Search Console (previously known as Google Webmaster Tools) was launched. Website owners have since been able to distance their websites from low quality websites or links believed to be in violation of the spirit of the Google Webmaster Guidelines by uploading a disavow file. The disavow file is also an effective method of preventing negative SEO attacks on innocent websites, although these are rare. Since Google Penguin 4.0, these type of negative SEO attacks are basically ineffective, according to Google.

Since the beginning, Google’s point of view has been to avoid building links for the purpose of increasing ranking in search engines or manipulate PageRank. A lot of SEO’s and website owners have wrongly interpreted this policy and the link penalties resulting from this policy as “Google is against link building”. To clarify, Google is not against link building and never has been! Google is against link building for the purpose of manipulating the rankings in its search engine. That last part is a very important distinction to remember.

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Links are the crucial pillar of the World Wide Web

Are links important? Yes! The original proposal for the World Wide Web that Tim Berners-Lee distributed at CERN in 1989 focused on building a universal linked information system, using HyperText and HyperMedia. As links connects the HyperText and HyperMedia, the links actually become more important and are therefore a crucial pillar of the World Wide Web. Without links there is no World Wide Web. The word “Web” in “World Wide Web” refers to the inter-connectivity that links provide. Links allow for browsing from document to document, additional documents to be referenced and new documents to be discovered. The link was the invention that started the World Wide Web as we know it today.

Growing visibility with link building

There are several ways a website’s visibility, profitability and brandability can be grown with link building. The most notable and measurable way is building convertible traffic links. This means, links that are placed strategically on other websites and increase the visibility and brandability of a website and result in traffic coming to the website which result in conversions, no matter what the conversion is defined as: mailing list signups, product sales, time read on page, etc. Every website and every page needs to have a unique sales proposition which sets it apart from other pages within the same site as well as from competitor sites and give the user a reason to stay there and convert.

So let’s completely forget PageRank when building links. What matters are not the dofollow links, but the links which bring convertible traffic to the website. In order to avoid link penalties applied by Google and other search engines it is important to adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Utilize branded or navigational, non-commercial, anchor text, e.g. “” or “Brand Name”.
  • When in doubt, apply rel=nofollow annotation on the link or redirect the link through a part of the website which has been made unaccessible for search engine bots with robots.txt, e.g. is blocked from crawling in robots.txt with *?*aid=*

It can be easy to drive a lot of traffic to a website that does not convert, for example promoting a furniture online retail website on an adult or torrent website. It may drive traffic, but is unlikely to result in profitable conversions. Going forward, only build links that drive traffic to the website which convert. The last part is super important! Utilize the following guidelines when building links:

  • Get to know your audience and carefully choose which link placements to pursue and focus on where your audience also resides. Explore partnerships, collaborations, buying strategic placements, etc.
  • Have an awesome website and make sure to define conversion goals and set up conversion goal measurements (e.g. in Google Analytics).
  • Utilize URL Parameters to measure incoming traffic and conversions from specific links built.
  • Always be linking! This includes employee email signatures, business cards, photo opportunities, sponsorship, word of mouth, customer support, community participation and contribution, ad placements, etc.

The more a website is visible in the space where its primary audience is present, the more organic mentions the website receives on the World Wide Web and increased positive user signals for branded and non-branded search queries search engines records associated with the website, which in turn are likely to result in a long term steadier and higher visibility in search result pages. In the meantime, while visibility is growing, conversions are made on the website and the business can invest in further growth.

There is no doubt: Links are still super important on the World Wide Web, including for search engines like Google. However any penny or cent spent on building links that do not directly drive convertible traffic to the website is thrown away money.

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Courtesy of

Frequently Asked Questions

Depends, if done for convertible traffic and you do not care about the PageRank, then this is no different from direct linking. If you do this for passing PageRank purposes then NO, this will not be the primary method of linkbuilding and can/will likely get you into trouble.

You can explore partnerships where the budget is minimal and everyone wins. Think of a sport club which is trying to sell tickets/space and works together with a local newspaper and a local school. This approach is absolutely not limited to large budgets only.

Dofollow links refer to being the opposite of nofollow links. In other words, links that pass PageRank/linkjuice, relevant to Search Engines.