FocusON: What Makes a Good Link in 2013?

Posted by James Whitelock

July 5, 2013

This month’s FocusON is Link-Building.

There is a lot of ambiguity in the industry at the moment about what constitutes a ‘good link’, and equally, what constitutes a ‘bad link.’ Google’s stance on the subject seems to be open to interpretation. I recently attended SAScon and even a meeting of some of the best SEO minds in the country couldn’t produce a conclusive definition. Nobody knows for sure how to build ‘future proof’ links. Maybe we shouldn’t be ‘building’ links at all anymore. I have even heard suggestions that links won’t matter in future. So I’m not going to try and sell this post as a ‘definitive guide’, just my interpretation of what makes a ‘good link’ and the signals I look for when assessing whether or not a website is a suitable target for my client.


Image from

Note: These are in no particular order.

Link profile

Looking at the link profile of a site can give a good indication of its quality. There are a number of tools available to inspect the link profile of a site and everyone has their own poison, but the big hitters (which you are almost certainly familiar with, but I’m going to list them anyway) are Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO and Ahrefs. I find OSE and Majestic together give me enough data for most tasks, but for this purpose OSE on its own is more than adequate. Domain authority and linking domains are generally good indicators of the quality of a website, but they are not perfect so it is always a good idea to dig a bit deeper. A quick glance at the link profile can give you a better overview of a site. A good site will normally have a natural link profile with a diverse range of links from different domains, anchor text (50%+ branded), and follow and nofollow links. Good sites link to other good sites, so links from other high authority domains are a good indication of a quality website.

Social presence

A good site will usually have a strong social presence, the two tend to go hand-in-hand. The number of ‘followers’ or ‘likes’ is often superficial and easily faked, I’m not interested in that alone. I look for engagement. An influencer should have a voice and be engaging with relevant people in their industry. A website or author that produces interesting, high quality, and relevant content is likely to replicate this on their social media accounts, and vice versa. Therefore it is a good quality signal.


Sometimes it can be too easy to install the Mozbar and just identify link targets based on their domain authority without even looking at the site yourself. This is a mistake a lot of SEOs make. Numbers only tell part of the story, you need to look at the site with your own eyes and use your own judgement. Is the content good quality? Is it relevant to you? Is it engaging? Is it evoking discussion in the comments? Is it being shared? Is it updated frequently? Can you contribute something of value to the site? Do they have any guest content on the site? If so, what kind of topics are they covering? Are they actively looking for guest posts (this is always a bit of a red flag for me)? Once you have been link-building for a while you can quickly pick up on these things and make swift decisions.


Authorship is the buzzword of the online marketing community at the moment. Google is pushing for content to be tied to verified online profiles and has even said that it will become a ranking factor in the future. Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, confirmed this earlier this year, saying:

Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results. The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.

Authorship allows you to verify that the content on a site has been written by a genuine person. If a website has good quality content written by an influential person in the industry with a large and engaging online following then it is obviously going to be a great place to approach. It also gives you a real person to build a relationship rather than a faceless email address.

Those are the main factors I look for in a good link in 2013, it may well have changed in a year’s time. I would recommend analysing all of the above points to gain a clear overview of a potential link target.

What do you look for in a good link?

  • Kieron Hughes

    I think it comes down to the signals that Google (and others) are using. People are quick to discount link building tactics such as infographics and guest blogging ‘post-Penguin’ as they have a high correlation with sites that have been penalised. But you can still get great links via either of these methods if they are executed properly.

    In terms of finding good (genuine) sites to get links from, it’s easier to have a criteria to define sites where you wouldn’t want a link from. For example a blog which links out with keyword anchor text (i.e. ‘men’s jeans’) every other post is a pretty easy indicator that they probably don’t care too much for their editorial standards. Likewise if the site is packed with advertising (Adsense, etc), then it’s likely on Google’s radar as a site which perhaps isn’t the most high quality.

    The problem with just using metrics is that you can blinker your vision. A link target might have a good domain authority, a load of social shares, etc, but yet it could be a ‘bad’ link in the sense that it’s got all of it’s own links via low quality methods, and perhaps doesn’t care as to which sites it links out to.

    When I’m shortlisting link targets, I look for things such as:

    – How popular the site is (not just link metrics or social shares, but whether it has genuine activity, such as comments, etc)

    – Whether they editorially link out to relevant sites (i.e. you want a site that is sharing similar resources to your own, and not just linking out at every opportunity)

    – Who is running the site (i.e. is the site run by a genuine person/team that can be found listed, or is it a bunch of anonymous articles)

    I’d add more but it’s late on a Friday night and I should have better things to be doing…

    Good topic for discussion. Look forward to reading other replies.


    • James Whitelock

      Hi Kieron, great post. I agree with all of your points.

      It seems from the comments that generally we are all looking for the same signals. It would be interesting to hear if anyone has a different view.

  • Will O’Hara

    Hi James, enjoyed the post. Links will always play some part, I think that’s going to have to be the case. Google still needs to crawl the web and links are the way to do that. It just so happens that the number of links pointing to a site and the distance that site is from a trusted source seem to correlate well with the ‘quality’ of that site. That’s an oversimplification of course, but the more links you have, the more of these links that come from trusted sources/nodes/seeds – the higher quality your site *probably* is. Google knows that. It knows there are many exceptions, but to find another ‘signal’ or metric that could replace links would be very hard. The only thing in recent years to come close would be social signals – shares/likes, tweets, pins, etc.

    In terms of what we look for in a link, I’d say the quality of the content on the site, how it looks and how much traffic it appears to get (no. of comments, social signals, etc) are just as important – if not more important – than the DA or the PA. Those are bonuses. But again, it depends on what you’re looking for. We’re focused on the long term, building brands, fostering trust and creating communities. If you want rankings now – chase the DA/PA metrics, linking root domains 😉

    • James Whitelock

      Hi Will, I agree – I think links will always be a factor.

      Thanks for sharing your tips. I too think it’s dangerous to pay too much attention to PA/DA, I much prefer to assess the quality of the site myself. But I do still like to use it as a reference.

  • dsottimano

    Very timely post on a very important subject. 3 years ago, we would have had very different definitions of good/bad links, and it was much easier to identify a “poisoned” link (think of the big 3 P’s). These days, we’re seeing bloggers remove relevant, contextual links to fellow bloggers for fear of being penalized – I personally think it’s already out of control. Other than the things you’ve mentioned, I look for signs that the site is editorially reviewed (edits on content, conversation, regular updates), exposed whois information, and the ability to find out who’s running the site (real people, real social proof). Yet, even all the factors in the world still won’t tell you if that link was paid for or not 😉

    • James Whitelock

      I agree there is a lot of confusion at the moment and I think Google are exacerbating the problem as people are now scared to link to stuff – even good stuff! Thanks for sharing your tips, social proof is definitely important.