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8 Types of Bad Links to Avoid



8 Types of Bad Links to Avoid

Have you ever wondered why your website isn’t ranking despite having quality content? Well, it could be because of the links you’ve been building.

In the world of SEO, links are a crucial ranking factor. With that comes a temptation for many website owners and marketers to resort to manipulative tactics to acquire links, which can lead to link spam.

This harmful practice can result in penalties from search engines, losing you both traffic and revenue. To avoid being penalized by search engines, it’s crucial to be familiar with the various types of bad links that fall under the umbrella of link spam.

In this article, we’ll provide you with the lowdown on link spam and eight types of bad links you should avoid at all costs.

Bad links are those that violate Google’s spam policies. In Google’s words, if the links are intended to manipulate rankings in Google Search results, they may be considered link spam. 

Bad links mainly fall into two categories: (1) spammy, waste-of-time links and (2) those that are potentially dangerous to your site.

Why are bad links a problem?

Bad links can trigger a Google penalty, which means a significant drop in rankings and organic traffic. Your site may even be removed from the search results altogether:

Sites that violate our policies may rank lower in results or not appear in results at all.

But even if Google doesn’t penalize you, bad links are often a waste of time and money because many have no positive impact on rankings or traffic.

When to take action

Google has consistently said it’s very good at identifying and discounting spam links algorithmically. Therefore, you do not need to worry about finding and removing every single bad link.

Google’s disavow tool allows you to discount links to avoid link-based penalties. But this tool can be incredibly damaging to your site, especially if you do not know what you are doing. 

Warning from Google's disavow tool

You shouldn’t disavow links haphazardly because you risk disavowing links that are actually helping you to rank. Just because you think a link is spammy doesn’t mean Google does.

With that in mind, there are only two instances where you should worry about bad links:

  • If you have received a manual action against your site for unnatural links.
  • If you know (or strongly suspect) a site has previously participated in shady link building.

Recently purchased a site or taken over the SEO of a site for a new client? If you know (or strongly suspect) those previously responsible actively participated in shady link building—such as PBNs—then it’s time to clean house. 

So what types of links are considered link spam?

Link spam definition

From Google’s definition of link spam, it could be argued that any link you land from link building is effectively link spam. After all, you are actively looking to acquire backlinks to improve your rankings in the search engine results pages (SERPs). 

So doesn’t that mean you are trying to manipulate rankings? 65% of SEOs agree.

But this is probably not what Google means. In fact, Google legend John Mueller has even previously praised quality link building acquisition methods like digital PR, stating they are just as crucial as tech SEO.

The examples Google gives of link spam are all things that most of us would consider crafty tactics that make the web a worse place. So these are basically what Google doesn’t want to see and those that you should avoid. 

Let’s look at some examples:

Types of bad links

1. PBNs

Private blog networks (PBNs) are made up of many websites you own linked together to manipulate search engine rankings.

How PBNs work

These link networks can be massive and mean building multiple topically relevant sites solely to link to one another. They’re designed to give the impression that links have been “earned” to create trust signals artificially. 

Why should you avoid these types of links?

If Google doesn’t catch you, then yes, PBNs can work and move the needle. The problem is that it’s hard to build an “undetectable” PBN unless you’re an experienced spammer. 

A truly sophisticated PBN needs to look and act like a real website, with genuine content and regular posting. It also needs to have different ownership, domain, and hosting providers to avoid being detected. 

Quite honestly, if you are going to put that much work in, you may as well spend that time and effort on quality link building instead.

How to check if you have any

PBNs can be difficult to detect. However, if you suspect a website you just took over previously used PBNs to build links, then there’ll likely be some key giveaways.

One big one is websites that are all hosted on the same network, meaning they are all coming from the same IP address. 

With Ahrefs’ Site Explorer, you can find if multiple sites are linking to you from the same IP address with the Referring IPs report. 

Links by referring IP, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

It’s important to say that just because multiple sites are on the same IP alone doesn’t confirm that sites are part of a PBN. They can be using the same hosting service (the examples above are all using Cloudflare).

However, if the websites also have these:

  • Little to no organic traffic 
  • Little content/no keywords
  • Links to each other
  • Spammy appearance and/or default themes

Then they can be key indicators of a PBN.

2. Paid links

Paid links are where you “buy or sell links for ranking purposes.” It’s important to mention that this doesn’t just include buying links for money. Exchanging links for goods or services or even buying a bloke a pint in return for a link all qualify as paid links.

However, not all paid links are a problem as long as they have the right attributes. Google even states:

Google does understand that buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web for advertising and sponsorship purposes.

However, any link that falls under those examples should have either a “nofollow” or “sponsored” attribute. 

Why should you avoid these types of links?

If you buy links from a site or one of the many “dear sir club” link builders, you’re going to get very little value from those links. 

Offer message about link building services

The reason is they will sell these to anyone. This makes the site an absolute spam fest and completely dilutes any link equity you could acquire. It also means these links are worthless at best and, at worst, could land you with a penalty. 

How to check if you have any

From my experience, it’s often easy to identify these links based on the anchor text. Most paid links will use exact match anchors and, on top of that, they are usually from low-quality sites with poor content.

Using Site Explorer, you can see all of the links to your site, including the anchor text. 

Example of an anchor text, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Of course, not every link with an exact match anchor will be a paid link. But you can get an idea of the quality from the URL of the linking site and the domain traffic. If these aren’t looking good, you can click through and check out the page directly. 

You don’t necessarily need to worry about removing these but, rather, avoid acquiring paid links in the first place. 

3. Hacked links

Hacked links involve someone gaining access to a site and inserting content into existing pages. This means that search engines can see it. But as this is done within an existing page, it is often harder for website owners to detect. 

Why should you avoid these types of links?

Hacked links are completely unethical. Yet unfortunately, they still exist. These don’t fall specifically under link spam but under Google’s general spam policies

Google's hacked content policy

If you have links pointing to your site that were placed by hacking, the owner of the hacked website can report your site to Google and to your domain and hosting provider, resulting in your site being taken down. 

Hacking is also illegal in many countries, including the U.S. (under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) and in the U.K. (Computer Misuse Act 1990). 

Adding hacked links could be considered “hacking for notoriety” in order to appear as an authority on a particular topic which, in most cases, is illegal. 

How to check if you have any

There are instances of website owners paying link building agencies for guest posting services only to find the links they’ve acquired are indeed hacked after the hacked website has reported them. 

Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways to ensure that a link to your site was placed knowingly by the referring site. The best course of action is to be proactive and ensure that you either take charge of all link building activities yourself or use a reputable link building provider. 

4. Hidden links

Hidden links are another thing that falls under Google’s general spam policies and is, again, totally unethical. 

These types of links can be done in many different ways:

  • Using white text on a white background
  • Hiding text behind an image
  • Using CSS to position text off-screen
  • Setting the font size or opacity to 0
  • Hiding a link by only linking one small character (for example, a hyphen in the middle of a paragraph)

Why should you avoid these types of links?

Like hacked links, these can be done without either the website owner or the linking site having any knowledge of these link placements but can land both sites with a Google penalty.

Unfortunately, I have personally worked with clients who have had this happen to them. In this instance, a link building agency they have previously worked with has had access to their site and placed hidden links to all their other clients’ websites, using them like a PBN. 

Hidden links example
An example of multiple hidden links placed in the footer of a website.

How to check if you have any

These links can be difficult to detect unless you already have a suspicion that they exist. 

I’ve found that one of the best ways to identify these links is by looking at the anchors and surrounding text. 

Usually, the link will have a very specific anchor, e.g., “we buy houses” for a realtor site. However, this will be surrounded by other random specific anchors and usually from a referring page that has no relevance to your own.

Here is an example from the Backlinks report in Site Explorer:

Hidden link found using Ahrefs' Site Explorer

The above image shows a link with the anchor “we buy houses easley.” However, this is clearly surrounded by other keywords, which are also most likely anchor texts to other sites (policy solver, kw white label seo, etc.). 

These links also come from a website about Japanese shoguns with no topical relevance. 

This is enough to cause suspicion, so we should click through to the website and check if we can clearly see the links. 

In this case, no external links are visible on the page. However, with Ahrefs’ SEO Toolbar, you can see there are more than 50 similar outgoing links hidden on the page.

Outgoing links found using Ahrefs' SEO Toolbar

5. Link exchanges

Link exchanges or reciprocal linking is when two sites agree to exchange links with each other. Although link exchanges generally aren’t against Google’s guidelines, “excessive link exchanges” and “partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking” are.

Why should you avoid these types of links?

Reciprocal link building happens naturally on the web all of the time (study). After all, it makes sense that you talk about other sites in your niche, and they talk about you.

Bar graph showing how common reciprocal links are

Linking out is also a great way to get the attention of other high-quality sites in your niche. If they return the favor by linking back in the future, then that’s definitely going to help your site.

But if you are going around contacting hundreds of sites and asking to exchange links, then that’s eventually going to cause you some harm.

Therefore, there is a fine line with this one. You must tread carefully not to be perceived as participating in any link exchange schemes. 

How to check if you have any

You can see if you have multiple domains that have both outgoing and incoming links from your domain with the help of Site Explorer and Google Sheets. 

In Site Explorer, head over to Backlinks profile > Referring domains and export all of the data. Then head over to Outgoing links > Outgoing links report and, again, export the data. 

Referring domains report, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Add all of the exported data into a Google Sheet and look for duplicate domains. You can use a Google add-on like Remove Duplicates. This will highlight any duplicate domains so you can see which domains you have links both to and from.

Note that the key here is excessive link exchanges. Having a handful of reciprocal links isn’t going to send out red flags. However, if you have 30 or 40 (or more) reciprocal links to a single site, you may need to look at dialing those down.

6. Automated link building

Automated link building is where you use tools to build links at scale to your website with the touch of a button. 

Usually, these are in the form of tiered links. This means that you build links directly to your site (Tier 1) and then build additional links to the sites linking to yours (Tier 2, Tier 3, etc.). 

Flowchart showing how tiered link building works

Mostly, these automated programs build spammy links from poor-quality web 2.0 blog sites (yes, they’re really still a thing) and pile on some social signals for good measure. 

Why should you avoid these types of links?

Not only will the links these tools build do absolutely nothing for your site, but they are also clearly defined under Google’s link spam policy. If detected, these will likely land you with a penalty.

Often, these types of links are offered as very cheap link building services on platforms like Fiverr, usually advertised as things like “foundation links.” You should avoid these services at all costs, as they are even more risky when you are not in control of the automation process. 

Example of "foundation links" service

How to check if you have any

These are often easy to spot as, usually, there are a mass of different referring domains linking to your site all with the same (or very similar) titles and anchor text. 

Automated link building example

Again, these aren’t really something to worry about removing. These spammy links are easily identified and ignored by Google. They are simply better to avoid in the first place, as they won’t do anything for your site.

7. Forum and comment spam

Forum spamming is another link building tactic where someone posts their website’s link in forums. Comment spam is where a person (or bot) leaves an irrelevant comment on a website with a link.

Why should you avoid these types of links?

There are two ways to spam forums. First, you can simply create multiple profiles and put your link in there. Secondly, you can place links in actual forum posts, either in the signature or in the body of the post.

The only way links should be used in forums is if they advise someone of something as part of a discussion.

Links in a forum comment
An example of how links should be used in forums.

If you run a WordPress blog, you’re probably already familiar with comment spam:

Example of comment spam

Comment spam blasts rely on the fact that:

  • Many sites allow comments to be posted without moderation.
  • Others just simply let spam comments slip through the net.

And that happens a lot…

Same comment spam found on multiple websites

Multiple sites with the same comment leave a pretty clear footprint of suspicious links for Google to pick up on and happily penalize. 

Both forum and comment spam violate Google’s quality guidelines and can lead to a penalty.

How to check if you have any

In honesty, I wouldn’t even waste time checking these. If you have links from comment spam, Google will likely automatically discount them. It’s more important to avoid acquiring them in the first place.

8. Low-quality directories

Creating profiles on high-quality directory sites like Crunchbase is a great way to build an online presence for your business. However, when you start building these at scale on low-quality sites, it becomes spammy.

Why should you avoid these types of links?

It’s easy to fall into a trap with this one, especially for new business owners. Of course, you want to get your name out there, but this is all about quality over quantity. That’s why it is especially important to avoid link building services that do this at scale.

Example of "spam directories" service

This kind of low-quality, bulk-directory submission hasn’t worked for at least 15 years. These days, a forum blast such as this is likely to get your site penalized. 

So stick to well-known directory sites and avoid low-quality ones that will do nothing for your business and simply waste your time. 

How to check if you have any

You can usually spot directory links pretty quickly in Ahrefs’ free backlink checker, as the title of the referring page will most likely include your business name. 

Again, I wouldn’t worry too much about checking to see if you have these; simply avoid them in the first place. 

Final thoughts

A healthy backlink profile with high-quality links is an incredibly important aspect of SEO. Ensuring you use white-hat link building techniques and avoid actively acquiring bad links is key to preventing you from being penalized by Google.

But it’s also important not to be too reactive when dealing with link spam. Basically, if you’ve already received a manual action, then you need to perform a link audit and use the disavow tool to remove any suspect links. But if you haven’t, it’s better to be proactive and try to avoid bad backlinks in the first place.

If you want to learn how to build awesome links the right way, check out our advanced link building course.

Got questions? Ping me on Twitter.

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Google Discusses Fixing 404 Errors From Inbound Links




Google Discusses Fixing 404 Errors From Inbound Links

Google’s John Mueller responded to a thread in Reddit about finding and fixing inbound broken links, offering a nuanced insight that some broken links are worth finding and fixing and others are not.

Reddit Question About Inbound Broken Links

Someone asked on Reddit if there’s a way to find broken links for free.

This is the question:

“Is it possible to locate broken links in a similar manner to identifying expired domain names?”

The person asking the question clarified if this was a question about an inbound broken link from an external site.

John Mueller Explains How To Find 404 Errors To Fix

John Mueller responded:

“If you want to see which links to your website are broken & “relevant”, you can look at the analytics of your 404 page and check the referrers there, filtering out your domain.

This brings up those which actually get traffic, which is probably a good proxy.

If you have access to your server logs, you could get it in a bit more detail + see which ones search engine bots crawl.

It’s a bit of technical work, but no external tools needed, and likely a better estimation of what’s useful to fix/redirect.”

In his response, John Mueller answers the question on how to find 404 responses caused by broken inbound links and identify what’s “useful to fix” or to “redirect.”

Mueller Advises On When Not To “Fix” 404 Pages

John Mueller next offered advice on when it doesn’t make sense to not fix a 404 page.

Mueller explained:

“Keep in mind that you don’t have to fix 404 pages, having things go away is normal & fine.

The SEO ‘value’ of bringing a 404 back is probably less than the work you put into it.”

Some 404s Should Be Fixed And Some Don’t Need Fixing

John Mueller said that there are situations where a 404 error generated from an inbound link is easy to fix and suggested ways to find those errors and fix them.

Mueller also said that there are some cases where it’s basically a waste of time.

What wasn’t mentioned was what the difference was between the two and this may have caused some confusion.

Inbound Broken Links To Existing Webpages

There are times when another sites links into your site but uses the wrong URL. Traffic from the broken link on the outside site will generate a 404 response code on your site.

These kinds of links are easy to find and useful to fix.

There are other situations when an outside site will link to the correct webpage but the webpage URL changed and the 301 redirect is missing.

Those kinds of inbound broken links are also easy to find and useful to fix. If in doubt, read our guide on when to redirect URLs.

In both of those cases the inbound broken links to the existing webpages will generate a 404 response and this will show up in server logs, Google Search Console and in plugins like the Redirection WordPress plugin.

If the site is on WordPress and it’s using the Redirection plugin, identifying the problem is easy because the Redirection plugin offers a report of all 404 responses with all the necessary information for diagnosing and fixing the problem.

In the case where the Redirection plugin isn’t used one can also hand code an .htaccess rule for handling the redirect.

Lastly, one can contact the other website that’s generating the broken link and ask them to fix it. There’s always a small chance that the other site might decide to remove the link altogether. So it might be easier and faster to just fix it on your side.

Whichever approach is taken to fix the external inbound broken link, finding and fixing these issues is relatively simple.

Inbound Broken Links To Removed Pages

There are other situations where an old webpage was removed for a legitimate reason, like an event passed or a service is no longer offered.

In that case it makes sense to just show a 404 response code because that’s one of the reasons why a 404 response should be shown. It’s not a bad thing to show a 404 response.

Some people might want to get some value from the inbound link and create a new webpage to stand in for the missing page.

But that might not be useful because the link is for something that is irrelevant and of no use because the reason for the page no longer exists.

Even if you create a new reason, it’s possible that some of that link equity might flow to the page but it’s useless because the topic of that inbound link is totally irrelevant to anyting but the expired reason.

Redirecting the missing page to the home page is a strategy that some people use to benefit from the link to a page that no longer exists. But Google treats those links as Soft 404s, which then passes no benefit.

These are the cases that John Mueller was probably referring to when he said:

“…you don’t have to fix 404 pages, having things go away is normal & fine.

The SEO ‘value’ of bringing a 404 back is probably less than the work you put into it.”

Mueller is right, there are some pages that should be gone and totally removed from a website and the proper server response for those pages should be a 404 error response.

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Site Quality Is Simpler Than People Think




Site Quality Is Simpler Than People Think

Google’s John Mueller, Martin Splitt and Gary Illyes discussed site quality in a recent podcast, explaining the different ways of thinking about site quality and at one point saying it’s not rocket science. The discussion suggests that site quality could be simpler than most people know.

Site Quality Is Not Rocket Science

The first point they touched on is to recommend reading site quality documentation, insisting that site quality is not especially difficult to understand.

Gary Illyes said:

“So I would go to a search engine’s documentation.

Most of them have some documentation about how they function and just try to figure out where your content might be failing or where your page might be failing because honestly, okay, this is patronizing, but it’s not rocket science.”

No Tools For Site Quality – What To Do?

Gary acknowledged that there’s no tool for diagnosing site quality, not in the same way there are tools for objectively detecting technical issues.

The traffic metrics that show a downward movement don’t explain why, they just show that something changed.

Gary Illyes:

“I found the up-down metric completely useless because you still have to figure out what’s wrong with it or why people didn’t like it.

And then you’re like, “This is a perfectly good page. I wrote it, I know that it’s perfect.”

And then people, or I don’t know, like 99.7% of people are downvoting it. And you’re like, ‘Why?’”

Martin Splitt

“And I think that’s another thing.

How do I spot, I wrote the page, so clearly it is perfect and helpful and useful and amazing, but then people disagree, as you say.

How do you think about that? What do you do then?

How can I make my content more helpful, better, more useful? I don’t know.

…There’s all these tools that I can just look at and I see that something’s good or something’s bad.

But for quality, how do I go about that?”

Gary Illyes

“What if quality is actually simpler than at least most people think?

…What if it’s about writing the thing that will help people achieve whatever they need to achieve when they come to the page? And that’s it.”

Martin Splitt asked if Gary was talking about reviewing the page from the perspective of the user.

Illyes answered:

“No, we are reframing.”

Reframing generally means to think about the problem differently.

Gary’s example is to reframe the problem as whether the page delivers what it says it’s going to deliver (like helping users achieve X,Y,Z).

Something I see a lot with content is that the topic being targeted (for example, queries about how to catch a trout) isn’t matched by the content (which might actually be about tools for catching trout) which is not what the site visitor wants to achieve.

Quality In Terms Of Adding Value

There are different kinds of things that relate to site and page quality and in the next part of the podcast John Mueller and Gary Illyes discuss the issue about adding something of value.

Adding something of value came up in the context of where the SERPs offer good answers from websites that people not only enjoy but they expect to see those sites as answers for those queries.

You can tell when users expect specific sites for individual search queries when Google Suggests shows the brand name and the keyword.

That’s a clue that probably a lot of people are turning keywords into branded searches, which signals to Google what people want to see.

So, the problem of quality in those situations isn’t about being relevant for a query with the perfect answer.

For these situations, like for competitive queries, it’s not enough to be relevant or have the perfect answer.

John Mueller explains:

“The one thing I sometimes run into when talking with people is that they’ll be like, “Well, I feel I need to make this page.”

And I made this page for users in air quotes…

But then when I look at the search results, it’s like 9,000 other people also made this page.

It’s like, is this really adding value to the Internet?

And that’s sometimes kind of a weird discussion to have.

It’s like, ‘Well, it’s a good page, but who needs it?’

There are so many other versions of this page already, and people are happy with those.”

This is the type of situation where competitive analysis to “reverse engineer” the SERPs  works against the SEO.

It’s stale because using what’s in the SERPs as a template for what to do rank is feeding Google what it already has.

It’s like, as an example, let’s represent the site ranked in Google with a baseline of the number zero.

Let’s imagine everything in the SERPs has a baseline of zero. Less than zero is poor quality. Higher than zero is higher quality.

Zero is not better than zero, it’s just zero.

The SEOs who think they’re reverse engineering Google by copying entities, copying topics, they’re really just achieving an imperfect score of zero.

So, according to Mueller, Google responds with, “it’s a good page, but who needs it?”

What Google is looking for in this situation is not the baseline of what’s already in the SERPs, zero.

According to Mueller, they’re looking for something that’s not the same as the baseline.

So in my analogy, Google is looking for something above the baseline of what is already in the SERPs, a number greater than zero, which is a one.

You can’t add value by feeding Google back what’s already there. And you can’t add value by doing the same thing ten times bigger. It’s still the same thing.

Breaking Into The SERPs By The Side Door

Gary Illyes next discusses a way to break into a tough SERP, saying the way to do it is indirectly.

This is an old strategy but a good one that still works today.

So, rather than bringing a knife to a gunfight, Gary Illyes suggests choosing more realistic battles to compete in.

Gary continued the conversation about competing in tough SERPs.

He said:

“…this also is kind of related to the age-old topic that if you are a new site, then how can you break into your niche?

I think on today’s Internet, like back when I was doing ‘SEO’, it was already hard.

For certain topics or niches, it was absolutely a nightmare, like ….mesothelioma….

That was just impossible to break into. Legal topics, it was impossible to break into.

And I think by now, we have so much content on the Internet that there’s a very large number of topics where it is like 15 years ago or 20 years ago, that mesothelioma topic, where it was impossible to break into.

…I remember Matt Cutts, former head of Web Spam, …he was doing these videos.

And in one of the videos, he said try to offer something unique or your own perspective to the thing that you are writing about.

Then the number of perspective or available perspectives, free perspectives, is probably already gone.

But if you find a niche where people are not talking too much about, then suddenly, it’s much easier to break into.

So basically, this is me saying that you can break into most niches if you know what you are doing and if you are actually trying to help people.”

What Illyes is suggesting as a direction is to “know what you are doing and if you are actually trying to help people.

That’s one of my secrets to staying one step ahead in SEO.

For example, before the reviews update, before Google added Experience to E-A-T, I was telling clients privately to do that for their review pages and I told them to keep it a secret, because I knew I had it dialed in.

I’m not psychic, I was just looking at what Google wants to rank and I figured it out several years before the reviews update that you need to have original photos, you need to have hands-on experience with the reviewed product, etc.

Gary’s right when he advises to look at the problem from the perspective of “trying to help people.”

He next followed up with this idea about choosing which battles to fight.

He said:

“…and I think the other big motivator is, as always, money. People are trying to break into niches that make the most money. I mean, duh, I would do the same thing probably.

But if you write about these topics that most people don’t write about, let’s say just three people wrote about it on the Internet, then maybe you can capture some traffic.

And then if you have many of those, then maybe you can even outdo those high-traffic niches.”

Barriers To Entry

What Gary is talking about is how to get around the barrier to entry, which are the established sites. His suggestion is to stay away from offering what everyone else is offering (which is a quality thing).

Creating content that the bigger sites can’t or don’t know to create is an approach I’ve used with a new site.

Weaknesses can be things that the big site does poorly, like their inability to resonate with a younger or older audience and so on.

Those are examples of offering something different that makes the site stand out from a quality perspective.

Gary is talking about picking the battles that can be won, planting a flag, then moving on to the next hill.

That’s a far better strategies than walking up toe to toe with the bigger opponent.

Analyzing For Quality Issues

It’s a lot easier to analyze a site for technical issues than it is for quality issues.

But a few of the takeaways are:

  • Be aware that the people closest to the content are not always the best judges of content is quality.
  • Read Google’s search documentation (for on-page factors, content, and quality guidelines).
  • Content quality is simpler than it seems. Just think about knowing the topic well and being helpful to people.
  • Being original is about looking at the SERPs for things that you can do differently, not about copying what the competitors are doing.

In my experience, it’s super important to keep an open mind, to not get locked into one way of thinking, especially when it comes to site quality. This will help one keep from getting locked into a point of view that can keep one from seeing the true cause of ranking issues.

Featured Image by Shutterstock/Stone36

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Is Alt Text A Ranking Factor For Google Image Search?




Is Alt Text A Ranking Factor For Google Image Search?

Alt text is used to help computers read images.

But can alt tags affect your organic search rankings?

Read on to learn whether there is any connection between alt text and improved rankings in Google Image Search results.

The Claim: Alt Text Is A Ranking Factor

What is alt text?

Alt text is an HTML image attribute. It allows you to create an alternative text version of your image if it cannot load or has an accessibility issue.

Because of its importance to Google Image Search, it is considered a ranking factor.

[Ranking Factors 2023] Download the free ebook + cheat sheet 

Alt Text As A Ranking Factor: The Evidence

Google emphasizes how alt text plays a vital role in getting your images recognized by Google Image Search.

You will find a page on image best practices in Google Search Central’s Advanced SEO documentation. In a section called “about alt text,” Google discusses the use of alt text.

“Google uses alt text along with computer vision algorithms and the contents of the page to understand the subject matter of the image. Also, alt text in images is useful as anchor text if you decide to use an image as a link.”

While the company doesn’t specify that alt text will improve your rankings, it warns website owners that improper use can harm your website.

“When writing alt text, focus on creating useful, information-rich content that uses keywords appropriately and is in context of the content of the page.

Avoid filling alt attributes with keywords (also known as keyword stuffing) as it results in a negative user experience and may cause your site to be seen as spam.”

It also offers the following examples of good and bad alt text usage.

Screenshot from Google Search Central, August 2023Google Search Central best practice for images

Google Sites Help documentation indicates that images may come with pre-populated alt text, including keywords for which you may not want to optimize.

“Some images automatically include alt text, so it’s a good idea to check that the alt text is what you want.”

For example, when I download stock photos, a text description of the image is embedded in the file.

Is Alt Text A Ranking Factor For Google Image Search?Screenshot by author, August 2023Is Alt Text A Ranking Factor For Google Image Search?

When uploaded to a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, the text descriptions may need to be moved to the alt text field or modified to remove unnecessary keywords.

Is Alt Text A Ranking Factor For Google Image Search?Screenshot from WordPress, August 2023Is Alt Text A Ranking Factor For Google Image Search?

In Google Search Central’s “Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide,” it offers the following advice about alt tags when using images as links:

“…if you’re using an image as a link, the alt text for that image will be treated similarly to the anchor text of a text link. However, we don’t recommend using too many images for links in your site’s navigation when text links could serve the same purpose.”

In 2020, John Mueller, Google Search Advocate, answered a question about the alt text of a quote image during a Google Webmaster Office Hours. In the answer, he talked about how Google uses it:

“For Search, what happens with the alt attribute is we use that to better understand the images themselves, in particular, for Image Search. So if you didn’t care about Image Search, then from a Search point of view, you don’t really need to worry about alt text.

But if you do want these images to be shown in Image Search, which sometimes it makes sense to show fancy quotes in Image Search as well, then using the alt attribute is a good way to tell us this is on that image and we’ll get extra information from around your page with regard to how we can rank that landing page.”

Moz mentions ranking factors about alt text. Instead of saying that the alt text itself is a ranking factor, Moz advises:

“…alt text offers you another opportunity to include your target keyword. With on-page keyword usage still pulling weight as a search engine ranking factor, it’s in your best interest to create alt text that both describes the image and, if possible, includes a keyword or keyword phrase you’re targeting.”

In 2021, during a Twitter discussion about ALT text having a benefit on SEO, Google Developer Martin Splitt said:

“Yep, alt text is important for SEO too!”

Later in 2021, Mueller noted that alt text is not magic during a conversation about optimization for indexing purposes.

“My understanding was that alt attributes are required for HTML5 validation, so if you can’t use them with your platform, that sounds like a bug. That said, alt text isn’t a magic SEO bullet.”

[Recommended Read] → Ranking Factors: Systems, Signals, and Page Experience

Alt Text As A Ranking Factor: Our Verdict

Is Alt Text A Ranking Factor For Google Image Search?Is Alt Text A Ranking Factor For Google Image Search?

Alt text is a confirmed ranking factor for image search only. You should craft descriptive, non-spammy alt text to help your images appear in Google Image Search results.

Alt text is definitely not a ranking factor in Google Search. Google has clarified that alt text acts like normal page text in overall search. So it’s not useless, but it’s not a separately considered ranking factor in your page content.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore alt text. It’s a helpful accessibility tool for screen readers. When you’re writing alt text, ask yourself what you want someone who can’t see the image to understand about it.

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/SearchEngineJournal

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