What does a “natural backlink profile” actually look like? 4 ways to test yours

As far back as 1999, Google’s longtime webspam authority, Matt Cutts was advocating the benefits of a ‘natural backlink profile’ and decrying artificial backlinks.

What is a ‘Natural Link’?

Unfortunately, no simple affirmative definition to what a ‘natural link profile’ actually is was ever provided. Rather, the commonly referenced line in Google’s Quality Guidelines is that a ‘natural link profile’ does not have “Any links [which are] intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results”. Put simply, Google’s official position is that your website should not seek out links with the primary purpose of increasing the amount of traffic that Google will send to that website.

Unfortunately, that seemingly straightforward instruction is actually far more complicated in practice. That’s because the line between seeking links with the intent to ‘manipulate’ your site’s ranking, and simply engaging in successful web marketing is blurry at best.

For example, if your website’s content is consistently salacious (think e.g. linkbait) and created for the purposes of garnering widespread public attention, it’s a virtual certainty that the content will generate links. Are the links that result from that content, ‘unnatural’ or natural and editorial in nature? Similarly, if you decide to do a guest post on a website whose readership includes your potential customers, is that ‘unnatural’ or just good marketing? And if you’re publishing an infographic and including with that infographic HTML for the reader to easily copy and paste the infographic onto their own site, is that ‘manipulative’, or just smart natural marketing?

The point of these examples, is to demonstrate that while we can all find extremes to point to and say “Aha that’s manipulative” or “Aha that’s purely editorial”, the vast majority of links obtained by a website are less clear. Thus, if any part of your business is based on receiving SEO traffic, then the commonly cited trope that you should just have a ‘natural link profile’ isn’t particularly helpful or informative.

Looking at Other Websites’ Backlink Characteristics is More Productive

Instead, it’s a good exercise to regularly examine the backlink profiles of a few leading websites for hints at what Google might actually mean when they say they’re looking for a ‘natural link profile’ and compare that to your website’s backlink profile.

In this article, we’ll look at four factors that likely contribute to a ‘natural link profile’ from the perspective of a search engine and how you can compare those factors against your own backlink profile.

Anchor Text

When another website links to yours they can do so via an image, iframe, redirect or most commonly via a text link. The text that comprises that text link is called the ‘Anchor Text’. Search engines use anchor text as an indicator of the subject of the web page being linked to, and the accumulation of anchor text sends a strong signal to the search engine of what topics or keywords your particular website relates to. Thus, attempting to manipulate the anchor text pointing to one’s website in an effort to increase one’s rankings for a particular keyword or phrase is a common ‘artificial linkbuilding’ technique. In order to understand what might be considered ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ when it comes to anchor text, it’s helpful to compare examples of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ backlink profiles.

 

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Using these two examples, it’s evident that a “natural anchor text” profile consists primarily of “Other Anchor Text”. That is, anchor text which is so widely varied that no single anchor text phrase comprises enough of the pie to show up on a chart. And the largest sets of consistent anchor text phrases which do appear are branded text variations relating to the name of the company (e.g. “New York Times”, “The New York Times”, “NY Times”). By contrast, the unnatural link profile shows a rather even distribution across approximately 10 different sets of keywords, only one of which “2009 Tax” is at all branded to the website or company name.

So What is ‘Natural’?

Based on this analysis, a rule of thumb for a ‘natural backlink profile’ might be that ‘Other Anchor Text’ comprises greater than 50% of the total anchor text pointing to a website.

How To Check Your Anchor Text:

Checking your anchor text is incredibly easy with Majestic Site Explorer’s Tool (freemium).

2. Linking C Block Variation

Link wheels, link carnivals, and blog networks are all scalable unnatural link building techniques that search engines would like to identify and remove websites relying on these techniques from their search results. That’s in part because the inherent scalability of these artificial link building techniques makes the risks they pose to achieving non-spammy search results so high. One common characteristic all of these techniques have in common is that the websites that comprise one of these groups of networks are often concentrated on a single server or small set of servers. As a consequence, search engines regularly check for high concentrations of links coming from a small number of linking c blocks as an indicator of an ‘unnatural backlink profile’.

So What is ‘Natural’?

These examples, ranging from the largest to the smallest websites, indicate that maintaining a C block diversity ratio over 25% but lower than say 65% is within the range of a ‘natural backlink profile’.

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How To Check Your C Block Variation:

Checking your website’s linking c block variation is simple with Moz’s Open Site Explorer Tool (freemium).

3. Link Velocity

One of the surest ways for a search engine’s users to stop using the search engine is for it to begin displaying complete web spam in the search engine’s top results. Thankfully, one of the easiest identifiers for search engines to use to identify web spam is link velocity, and that is because spammers typically think short term, whereas legitimate websites think longer term.

Link velocity refers to the speed at which a website accumulates significant numbers of backlinks. As is evident in the velocity comparisons below, a more ‘natural backlink profile’ is a website which has a more consistent velocity over time. But, how, one might protest, is it ‘unnatural’ for a piece of well written content to ‘go viral’ and generate a flurry of links. The short answer, is that even websites that thrive off of linkbait (see e.g. Mashable.com below) which by its nature seeks out high velocity link spikes, has some additional link velocity when compared to the New York Times, but the velocity variability certainly looks more like the Times and less like the web spammer listed as ‘unnatural velocity’ below.

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So What is ‘Natural’?

This is harder to define, but for a rough rule of thumb, based on the examples above, one might conclude that anything above, say 10% of your total link profile accumulated in a month might be an indication of ‘unnatural’.

How To Check Your Link Velocity:

Checking your website’s link velocity is simple and free with Majestic Site Explorer’s Tool (freemium).

4. Inbound No Follows

‘No-Follow’ is a link attribute recognized by search engines as far back as 2005. Put simply, if you link to a website and your link html includes “rel=nofollow” you’re essentially telling search engines that you do not vouch for that link, and as a consequence, the search engine will largely not count that link when tabulating how highly to rank that website in the search engines.

Given that a website that is aggressively pursuing artificial link building methods primary goal in obtaining a link is to improve their search engine rankings, one might expect that an ‘unnatural backlink profile’ includes a lower ratio of ‘no followed’ backlinks, as that linkbuilder is going to seek out only places they can obtain a backlink which does improve their website’s rankings. By contrast, a website that is obtaining their links more editorially, and thus has a more ‘natural backlink profile’, might accumulate nofollow links in greater numbers.

Thus, ironically, the rel=nofollow link attribute, originally created for webmasters to indicate a linked website they might not trust, has come to serve as an indicator of a more natural backlink profile.

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Note that the key to this analysis is ratio, as even the aggressively unnatural link builder accumulates some NoFollow links either by accident, or in a nod to maintaining a more ‘natural’ profile. Contrasted with a large website (NYTimes.com) that is almost exclusively relying on truly editorial link building, however, the differences in NoFollow ratios as a proportion of total links is obvious (22.5% vs. 4.5%).

So What is ‘Natural’?

Using the examples above, a ‘natural backlink profile’ might have ‘no follows’ inbound links in the 15 to 25% range relative to their total inbound link count.

How To Check Your Inbound Link NoFollow Ratio:

Checking your website’s inbound

link NoFollow is simple and free with SEMRush’s Domain Analytics Tool (freemium).

Conclusion

The mandate is clear, to stay in the good graces of search engines a website should have a ‘natural backlink profile’. What that means in practice, however, is far less clear. Thus, the best tool a webmaster has to determine what a ‘natural link profile’ looks like, is to compare the ratios of leading websites who you know to be relying on purely editorial linkbuilding as a rough guide for what, in the eyes of search engines, constitutes a ‘natural backlink profile’.

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Author Bio

Brad Martin is the CMO of Soar Payments, a merchant services provider that specializes in eCommerce, MoTo and other high risk industries. You can read Brad’s latest writing on topics like SEO, Marketing, credit card processing and merchant services, all via the Soar Payments Facebook page.