Judging a link is easy when you do it based on the numbers. If the numbers are high, it’s good; if they’re low, it’s weak. Easy enough, case closed. Except like everything else in SEO it’s not that simple. I suspect it never was, but now in the wake of decimating Penguin updates, nuance and granularity become more important than ever.
Raw numbers can be artificially inflated, and some of your backlinks with the highest back link quantities may also be some of the first links you should get rid of. When it comes to link quality there are numerous other factors to take into consideration that can not only redeem the link in question, but reveal exactly how useful it really is.
A Natural Back Link Profile
One of the most desirable attributes a linking site can have is a completely authentic back link profile. If you get a link from a site that has always acquired its links naturally or through white hat methods, you have a link that can stand the test of time.
This is the kind of site that can probably withstand new iterations of Penguin or other quality related updates that may come down the line. That means your link is less likely to lose its influence and may actually continue to grow even more valuable as it ages.
Clean External Links
Aside from the links coming into a site, you want to consider the other links going out from the site. One of the main indicators of a bad link is the other links surrounding it. So on the flipside, the indicators of a good link can be strong co-citation.
When your link is surrounded by other non-related, commercial ventures with anchor-text keywords, it looks bought. But when your link is surrounded by non-commercial, non-targeted links it’s the kind of pattern that won’t send up warning flares. It can also help your neighborhood and further associate you with other high quality sources on the web.
The Human Factor
There are certain signs that there is a human being engaged with a website. From registration to email addresses and update frequency. If the site has a reputable individual behind it (like a Google recognized author perhaps) and there is regular maintenance of the site, new content and edits, those are positive signs.
As opposed to say, a blog owned by no one in particular, that publishes 20 posts in 1 month, and then never again. Getting a link on a site that is actually maintained for users instead of established for search engines is more valuable than a link from a site with a lot of backlinks that is gathering dust because no one cares for it, or visits it.
There is no number, no metric, which can quantify intent. There are certain indicators that may point to a lack of intent or a non-user based intent; but if we’re talking about value sometimes you just have to look. Who is the person behind the site? Is it an individual or a group? What are the other references to this person or group on the web?
What is their function? Links from educational sites, not-for-profits, associations or even dedicated enthusiasts are amazing. They also tend to have all of the positive features mentioned above. Links from these places mean that your site, your content, had to meet the standards set by people with a higher purpose for their site than just getting other sites ranked higher.
Certain kinds of link power are impossible to gauge from just looking at numbers. Link building has been more than a numbers game for a long time, but still more often than not, we wind up turning to the numbers when we start talking about quality.
With all that is going in terms of link valuation and the extreme measures being taken by search engines to separate good links from bad ones we have to change the way we perceive links altogether. When it comes to links, the numbers can lie, but more than that, they are only a part of the complete picture. But by learning to interpret the more subtle attributes of a link the details will come into focus and you can evaluate your links based on all of their merits.