Natural Links – What Are They, Really?


Good links are always a subject of some contention among SEOs. They’re often referred to as real, organic, or “natural,” but the question is how can we get links that matter?

Melanie Nathan recently polled five other well-known link builders concerning Google and link-building in 2015. It’s an absolutely fantastic group interview and resource that I highly encourage you to read from start to finish. It is truly interesting and engaging and I genuinely think Melanie is great.

This post is inspired by that group interview. I want to discuss “natural links” and why I think many SEOs are going down the wrong path.

To be clear, this isn’t a post refuting anyone’s personal opinion, experience, or advice. Rather, this is a post meant to explore the concept of what it means for a link to be “natural,” Google’s position on links, and why self-promotion shouldn’t be a four-letter word.

The Current Conversation

I found I couldn’t agree with the definition of “natural links” concluded from the group interview:

“For now, though, it seems everyone agrees that a ‘natural’ link is pretty much one that you had no hand in getting.”

Indeed, three of the six interviewees — Ann Smarty, Debra Mastaler, and Neil Patel — directly stated that natural links are the links you don’t ask for.

The other three participants — Julie Joyce, Eric Ward, and Christoph Cemper — said natural links are links that make sense on the page, for both the website linking and the website being linked.

So which is it? How can there be such difference in opinion amongst influential SEOs, link builders, and Internet marketers?

My firm belief is we are talking about two different issues: the creation of the links, and the links themselves. We should be focusing on the links themselves; unfortunately we’ve been pulled into questioning everything we do, down to link creation itself.

This stems from the recent evolution of link-building, caused by Google’s Penguin algorithm. Link-building in 2015 is no longer about manipulating Google’s algorithm — it’s about building “natural links.”

Links are a contentious issue, and natural links more so. What are “natural links”? Currently, it appears there are two differing definitions.

Differing Definitions

Melanie correctly points out that the dictionary definition of “natural” is “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.”


Screenshot credit.

But that definition seems pretty far off everything we do as both marketers and SEOs. We’re marketers, and we’re working online – we’re far from a “natural” state of affairs. By very definition it’s our goal to influence people, and the Internet is about as manmade as manmade gets. There is perhaps nothing less natural existing in the world today than the Internet.

Then what is all this talk of nature and natural? What do we really mean using that specific word? Let’s peek at the other definition listed by Google themselves, shall we?

“Of or in agreement with the character or makeup of, or circumstances surrounding, someone or something.”


This is the more commonly used definition of “natural” – we don’t mean “from nature,” but rather that something is logical, sensible, relevant. That it makes sense, belongs.

Basically this convoluted definition states “natural means something that makes contextual sense within its environment.”

Wouldn’t this be a much more sensible definition, considering both our occupation, marketing — which is intended to influence — and our medium, the Internet, which is about as far from nature as possible?

These two varying definitions, and our understanding of the context, is what I believe is causing confusion and strife among marketers.

When we say “natural links,” do we mean:

  • Links not made or caused by humankind (sorry – that’s impossible; let’s change that to be the owner of the site being linked)


  • Links that make contextual sense (in agreement with the makeup of, or circumstances surrounding) on a Web page.

In short, how do we define natural? Do we mean the link itself is natural, or that it was created naturally? Would a link that is normally defined as “natural” become “unnatural” if influenced by the site being linked to?

Are we then never allowed to have any influence over link growth for our websites?

Considering that it will be fundamentally impossible to determine how a link is made, shouldn’t we stick to defining the link itself – not its creation?

These are interesting questions, and we should truly consider it from all angles before drawing a conclusion. The crux of this argument lies with Google, marketing, and the value of links.

The Function of Links on the Web

It’s very well documented that Google’s search algorithm relies heavily on links.

You’d also have to be blind to avoid the simple fact that links are a foundational pillar of the internet. The only time you’re not using a link to navigate the Web is when you use a bookmark or type a page’s URL directly into your browser.

Every other instance of navigation is link-based: search, social, social forum (think Reddit), etc. – you’re clicking a link to move from one page to another, from one site to another.

Beyond their navigational purposes, people inherently trust links. If that trust is abused, people will doubt the site linking. Sites, humans, and Google all rely heavily on links.

This inherent trust is the basis of why Google uses links in their search algorithm. If Google were to remove them from the algorithm the results would undeniably be worse.

But what is Google’s position on links, really? Simple: links are a strong signal of authority, relevance, and trust, but need to be heavily monitored for manipulation. Any link manipulation can directly lead to a worsening of Google’s search results, which is public enemy number one.

This fear of manipulation is what has led us down the path of worrying about how the link is created, rather than simply examining the link itself.

This is the wrong path.

But what does link manipulation mean to Google, and what do they perceive as a “natural” link? Let’s look at their guidelines.

Google’s Own Guidelines

It’s simply not reasonable for Google to ask online marketers to ignore links. “Ignore links and they will come” is an absurd statement. Which is precisely why Google doesn’t tell site owners to ignore links. Quite the opposite:


“Make sure that other sites link to yours”– advice, directly from Google.

Natural links to your site develop as part of the dynamic nature of the web when other sites find your content valuable and think it would be helpful for their visitors.” – Google’s definition of a “natural link.”

If you want links, you need to be valuable to other website’s visitors. End of story. And as Eric Ward says, “What would happen if all people were aware of all content?” The answer: you would have all of the links you deserve.

Expecting that everyone will know the good work you’re doing is foolish. The point of marketing is to highlight the value you serve. You should be promoting yourself, to get the links you deserve. That’s link-building: getting the links you deserve.

It is Not Unnatural to Promote Yourself

We have a common saying at my company: link-building is getting the links your website deserves.

Google is only getting better with time. If your page doesn’t deserve to rank at the top of the SERPs for your keywords, then any work you put into making your site rank will eventually be a futile effort. It may take time, but eventually Google will replace your page with a better result.

Be the best result, and then promote your value.

Promotion isn’t a four-letter word. If your website is valuable, why wouldn’t you promote that value to your audience? And if you’re marketing online, but oblivious to links, you’re working with an arm tied behind your back.

What Google really wants is links that aren’t manipulative in nature. Links that are editorial, make contextual sense, and add value. Natural links.

When we judge a link as “natural,” we should be judging the link itself – not how it was made. A link should be judged based upon the value it serves, not the motivation in obtaining it.

We’re human. We’re going to do things for mutual benefit – such is our nature. Let’s not think we need to live a Spartan lifestyle of “build it and they will come.” We’re allowed to build links and call them natural, too.

The moment we start saying any link is unnatural simply because we’ve asked for it is the moment we have to abandon all online marketing. You can’t get what you want from this world if you don’t ask for it. You’ll never get the links you deserve if you don’t promote your linkable assets, activities, and value.

The function of links on the Web isn’t changing, and as long as there’s value in links people will seek them out, manually.

Let’s quit pretending that we’re not allowed to ask for links. We’re sending the wrong message, and it needs to stop.

We’re marketers as well as SEOs. Let’s start acting like it.

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