What is a natural link profile and why do you need one?
Your website’s “link profile” is essentially how search engines look at your reputation online, as indicated by other websites’ willingness to link to you. It encompasses:
- The number of hyperlinks that point to your site (also called backlinks),
- What content they point at,
- Where those links come from, and
- How they have been created.
From its very inception, Google (and subsequently Bing/Yahoo) has used link profiling as the cornerstone of its ranking algorithm, but continued updates to its algorithm have made linking a double-edged sword. Having the wrong link profile will not only fail to improve your search engine rankings…it will actively work against you.
A “natural” link profile is one that represents a good fit for your content, products and services – and, crucially, includes links that are actually useful to both users and to your brand’s goals. Essentially, a natural backlink profile would exist even if search engines did not. In other words, site owners should be linking to and citing your content because it provides a valuable resource for their visitors.
Is your content link-worthy?
An age-old adage of SEO and content marketing: quality of content is paramount. If your content is thin, poorly written or doesn’t engage the visitor, they will not stay long on the page or navigate deeper into the site…and Google will notice*. Before undertaking any link building activity, take a fresh look at your content. Is there a reason someone would want to link to it? Examine your analytics data; time on site, pages per visit and bounce rate are all key indicators.
Check out the user flow – what pages do users access most? How do they navigate through the site? Are some landing pages more popular than others? Address any technical issues, e.g. slow page loading times, as this can not only affect visitor behavior but has been identified as a ranking signal as well.
Bottom line: if your content is not link-worthy, you will never achieve a link profile that will enhance your search engine visibility, be it natural or otherwise.
It’s all about balance
In a perfect world, every link that points to your site would be completely natural, high quality, and unsolicited. Economic reality determines that savvy site owners are going to actively develop additional inbound links, and Google understands this. What’s important is that you achieve the right balance of incoming links, and especially a balance between commercial and navigational links. A “commercial” link uses keyword-focused anchor text e.g. “laptop repairs,” while navigational links use less optimized anchor texts, such as your brand name or domain name, and point to less commercially targeted pages, such as your contact page or home page.
Take a look at your linking data in Google Search Console. If your brand name and URL aren’t near the top of the list for anchor text, then you have cause for concern. Also, you should aim for a good spread of anchor texts using related keywords. If you have an over-reliance on specific keyword links, this can cause your site to rank poorly for those keywords. This is generally referred to as over-optimization, and when detected by Google can cause a ranking penalty to be applied. A good rule of thumb is that only 10-20% of your anchor text links
Your link profile is not just about external (inbound) links. How you structure your internal links plays a role as well. Aim to achieve that same balance of commercial/navigational links when pointing from one page of your website to another. Try to organize links in a way that naturally pass users through the hierarchy of your site – from higher level pages to lower level pages. Link together pages within the same content “silos” more often (this is called a silo structure).
Eliminate low quality links
If you have been actively link building for some time, then righting the wrongs of the past isn’t going to be easy. Modifying or deleting a poor quality link from a site you don’t control will take some effort, but will be worth it. Google introduced a “disavow tool,” in Search Console a few years ago, but SEOs still disagree on its efficacy and when to use it (some suggest it should be a last resort, while others, like Matt Cutts, recommend regularly disavowing suspicious links). The disavow tool is at its most useful if your site has suffered from some penalty from Google.
Within Search Console, take a long hard look at the links pointing at your site. Is the content of the linking page relevant to the page it links to? How many other links appear on that page? Does it use keywords or brand/URL links? Is the site high authority (according to tools like Moz’s Domain Authority or Majestic’s Trust Flow and Citation Flow)? Does the link have a reason for existing other than to boost your search engine rankings? Did you pay for the link?
By asking yourself those questions, you will identify links that will either need to be removed or modified in order to achieve that natural link profile – whether this is through the disavow tool, or by reaching out to webmasters to remove the external link.
Google’s Matt Cutts on effective techniques for building links:
Links have always been important to Google, but ongoing algorithm updates, which change the way your pages and inbound links are evaluated, mean that it’s time to take action and ensure you have the best natural link profile possible.
This article was updated to reflect the latest industry insights on August 25, 2016.
*Google has stated that they do not use Search Console data to determine rankings but state this on their analytics support page…
Bounce Rate: Bounce rate is the percentage of single-page visits (i.e. visits in which the person left your site from the entrance page. Bounce rate is a measure of visit quality and a high bounce rate generally indicates that site entrance (landing) pages aren’t relevant to your visitors.
Google wants to deliver pages to their searchers which are relevant and engaging. It’s simply good sense to align your website’s goals with theirs.