Search engine optimization is a topic that's too big to cover in one post, but here's a good basic definition: the more relevant your content is to terms that people search for, the higher your blog appears in rankings related to those terms.
Simple enough, really, but then think of how many other websites are competing to show up for the same terms.: thousands, hundreds of thousands, sometimes billions with a B. In order to stand out, there is effort required, especially for very competitive terms, but there's a real danger in sometimes overdoing it.
Links Are Good, Except When They're Bad
When it comes to Google, it used to be that links were like publicity: there was no such thing as a bad one. Now, links can hurt your site as much as they help it if they're deemed low quality. It's not just links on your site either – if too many of your links come from shady sites, they can keep your pages from ranking in the top spots for searches.
What makes a link bad? Well, you usually see them smoking under the bleachers, disobeying authority… no, not really. Bad links – by Google's definition – are any that are obviously designed to manipulate PageRank, part of Google's algorithm for determining the most relevant results. Here are a few link types that Google particularly dislikes:
Automated Links – Do all of your links come from dropping “hey, follow my blog at http://www._______.com” in comment boxes? It's not just the blog owners who think you're a spammer, and Google may start throwing you the cold shoulder if you get too aggressive with it.
Overly Optimized Links – This is actually something that's more common from brands that buy links. If you've ever seen keyword links like “Ladies Gold Rolex Watches” linked to a site you've never heard of, then you know what an overly optimized link looks like. Typically, it will have very specific keywords as the anchor text. What is anchor text? The HTML code for your site looks something like this:
<a href=”http://www.myblog.com”>My Blog</a>
“My Blog” is considered the anchor text. Now when this matches your domain name, or the title of a post closely, you're generally okay. You put yourself in danger when the anchor text is something like “Fashion Term 1”, “Fashion Term 2” or something not clearly related to your site, or a certain page.
Anchor text used to be a strong indication to Google of what a website or webpage was about, so it carried a lot more weight. Now, it's actually an indication to Google that you may be building automated or paid (more on that next) links, or selling paid links designed to help someone rank for a certain term.
Paid Links – If this is a significant portion of revenue for you, and you want free, organic search traffic, find a different source of revenue. While even SEO experts don't agree that it's a fair practice, Google will come down hard on websites that it suspects of selling links, and brands it suspects of buying them.
Officially, Google is okay with paid links as long as they use the rel=”nofollow” attribute. You can make a link “nofollow” like so:
<a href=”http://www.myblog.com” rel=”nofollow”>My Blog</a>
It's a way to say to Google “hey, I'm playing by your rules, so make sure you give me credit for the editorial, unpaid links that I have coming in and going out.” And on that note, don't feel that you have to slap a nofollow tag on every offsite link you make. Linking out to reputable, relevant sites helps associate your site with theirs, which is completely okay.
In Google's ideal world, links to websites occur because someone else reads your content and thinks it's good enough or important enough to share with their audience. While it's tempting to take the “you want links? I'll give you some links!” message to heart, and get as many links as you can, overdoing it can push Google away and push your own site far away from any of that sweet, free search traffic you were going after in the first place.
Tools to Find Out What Your Link Quality Looks Like For SEO
If you've sold paid links, and find yourself with a drop in PageRank or search traffic, check Google Webmaster Tools once you've connected it to your site. If the problem is shady links, you may actually receive a notification, and be able to take steps to clean things up.
This is a tool from the company formerly known as SEOmoz. With a free account, you can check your website to see how many links you have and what the quality of those links are. If you're looking for more links, try typing in a blog similar to yours to see which sites are linking to them.
Similar to Open Site Explorer, this is one of my favorite tools for checking backlinks. It's a little more advanced, and doesn't offer as many step by step explanations as to different terms, but is a go-to for lots of SEO pros.