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Link Building and Ethics: What You Need to Consider for SEO Efforts

Link building is arguably the most important area of focus for SEO.

In fact, 72 percent of SEO professionals believe backlinks are a significant ranking factor. The hard truth is that building quality backlinks is really difficult.

This leads desperate marketers who want quick results to use sketchy practices that can be questionable and even damaging. This is where ethics play an important role.

What Is Ethical SEO? 

SEO tactics require a lot of time and effort, and as humans, especially ones who have tight deadlines and high expectations from senior leadership, we want results yesterday. This might guide some marketers to partake in linking schemes, which Google strongly advises against.

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. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.

Notice the language used here: Attempting to manipulate ranking is a direct violation. In terms of ethical SEO, you should be using practices that follow the laws from the Big G (aka Webmaster Guidelines). You want search engines to deem your practices acceptable.

But more importantly, you should have a moral compass of how you conduct SEO strategies for your audience. For example, if you’re stuffing keywords, your content likely sucks. Readers will be confused by your repetitive use of words and phrases that don’t make sense. 

Here is an example that Google provides when describing keyword stuffing and the use of irrelevant keywords:

“We sell custom cigar humidors. Our custom cigar humidors are handmade. If you’re thinking of buying a custom cigar humidor, please contact our custom cigar humidor specialists at custom.cigar.humidors@example.com.”

Another example of lacking an ethical approach to SEO is providing links to spammy sites with irrelevant content.

As a reader, I will get frustrated if I’m reading your blog post on human development and I click on the anchor text “financial well-being,” and I’m sent to an article on car maintenance. I discredit you because you’re not creating an experience that benefits me and sets me up for success. 

Bottom line: white hat SEO tactics are your best bet for sustainable, long-term growth. 

What Is White Hat SEO? 

Before we dive into white hat SEO, let’s first define its counterpart – the menacing black hat tactics. 

Black hat SEO consists of bad practices that can lead to a number of penalties from Google and other search engines. As shown above, keyword stuffing and link schemes are just a few common sketchy practices a lot of webmasters still try to get away with. 

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HubSpot’s definition of black hat SEO highlights the most important element of optimizing content in a negative way – the human experience.

They say, “Black hat SEO is a practice against search engine guidelines, used to get a site ranking higher in search results. These unethical tactics don’t solve for the searcher and often end in a penalty from search engines.”

The user experience is what stands out the most here. If you’re not solving issues for searchers, frankly you don’t deserve to be ranked high in search engine results pages (SERPs).

The fact that black hat practitioners still exist is the reason why businesses looking to work with agencies need to fully understand exactly how the agency plans to boost their rankings.

If agencies promise guaranteed SEO results, first off, know that they’re lying. No one person can promise big results in search rankings.

Second of all, you should pause and ask yourself, “What are they going to do on our site to drive SEO results?” Timelines matter in this consideration too because SEO requires a lot of time and effort for at least a few months to see results.

Patience is a virtue in the marketing world too, people. Don’t kick dirt and pout when your four new blog posts don’t immediately get your site ranked in relevant search queries. Take a breath, and stick to white hat SEO instead. 

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White hat SEO is the best approach. These practices are in line with webmaster guidelines and put the user experience as top priority. Some of the most important white hat tactics include the following:

  • Optimizing your site for mobile devices.
  • Building an easy-to-navigate website.
  • Creating keyword-targeted content that rules.
  • And of course, the reason you’re here reading this, building high quality links.

Before we cover white hat link building, let’s cover the no-nos. Avoid the following link building tactics:

  • Inserting links in blog comments.
  • Using “spun articles” to publish on external outlets as a guest contributor.
  • Working with private link networks.
  • Working with low quality directories.
  • Hiding links in sites.
  • Buying or selling links.

Got it? Ok, good. We don’t need any more spammy content creators and digital marketers. They give us a bad name.

Now, let’s cover the top white hat link building tactics you should be doing:

    • Ask for links on unlinked brand mentions.
    • Create awesome content to reclaim links that are broken.
    • Sponsor good causes you’re passionate about.
    • Spread the word about your content (but make sure it’s relevant and awesome for the sites you’re reaching out to).
    • Submit valuable answers to HARO queries.
    • Reciprocate backlinks only when you believe in the authority of the author and the quality of the content.
    • Reach out to thought leaders for expert roundup-style content.
    • Maintain meaningful relationships (to ensure sustainability). 

There can be a lot of gray area in certain link building techniques. In fact, there’s an even a term for that too! It’s called, you guessed it, gray hat SEO.

These tactics are often riskier than white hat practices, but they’re not directly breaking the laws of search engine land. They might be considered shady, slightly unethical, and could even become banned as search engine juggernauts catch on. 

This is why you should always consider the guidelines of ethical link building with each opportunity you find.

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When you’re faced with a link building opportunity, it’s important to reflect on the ethics of it. Consider the following guidelines of ethical link building: 

Follow Webmaster Guidelines for Each Search Engine.

Each search engine has their own list of rules and regulations. Check these resources and revisit them as updates roll out:

These resources provide plenty of helpful information on the rules of all things SEO. They include technical recommendations to ensure proper indexing, lists of techniques you should avoid, types of content each search engine wants to serve to users, and general content quality rules.

Put the User Experience First.

Create links that deliver more value and are relevant to readers. The best way to measure value and relevance is by researching the audience of certain outlets. 

For example, if you’re a distributor of airplane engine parts, you’re not going to reach out for links on mindbodygreen, a wellness website. You would instead target sites like GE Aviation, where your target audience likely seeks information.

Assess the Linked Content to Ensure It Meets Your Standards. 

Remember, a link is a vote of confidence, so when you’re linking or prospecting to gain a link to a piece of content, make sure that piece of content is high value. You might, for instance, receive a link to a piece of content that is thin and outdated.

Would you really want to send your readers to that? Can you give your stamp of approval for useless drivel?

I didn’t think so. And great marketers don’t do this either, so if you’re not thrilled about a new blog post you wrote, don’t ask for links to it. You’ll get denied or, most likely, ignored.

Link Building Done Right 

You can’t afford to ignore link building, and you really can’t afford to get penalized by operating outside ethical SEO guidelines. Your site will suffer costly consequences, and it's hard to rebuild a damaged reputation. 

Stick to your ethics and start building backlinks the right way – by putting your readers first and respecting webmaster guidelines handed down by the search engine gods. This is the best way to develop a truly sustainable link building process.

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Jeff Previte

Jeff Previte

I am a Content Manager at Bluleadz. I enjoy spending time outdoors -- camping, hiking, hammocking, and everything in between. I also love reading, writing, and learning how to play guitar.