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Backlinks and Google Penalties: 5 Tips on Avoiding Search Engine Disasters

by Clair Pacey. Last updated on November 23, 2023

You’ve probably heard that backlinks are a key component of successful content marketing.

Used correctly, backlinks are an invaluable tool: they generate organic traffic to your website, foster important connections within your community, and ultimately help you hit your SEO growth targets semi-autonomously.

Used incorrectly, however, incoming links to your website can land your business in some extremely hot water. Beware the risks of falling into the deep cracks of algorithm holes, or committing SEO violations that will have the Google police slap you with growth-stunting rank penalties.

Let’s back up a minute. What exactly are backlinks?

Backlinks, otherwise known as incoming or inbound links, are created when one website links to another. The destination website is the one with the backlink.


Here’s a demonstration provided by the backlink-building software Backlinko.

(That clickable URL? That’s now created a backlink for Backlinko’s page on – you guessed it – backlinks. So meta.)

So, want to learn how to build some backlinks that will boost your growth without landing on the SEO naughty step?

Read on for our 5 tips on creating inbound links for SaaS business.

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Baremetrics makes it easy to collect and visualize all of your sales data. When you have many clients, it can be difficult to calculate your MRR, ARR, LTV, and so much more. Thankfully, there is Baremetrics to do all of this for you.


Your SaaS company likely uses a CRM and/or payment processing software, and the data required to compute these core metrics can be all over the place. Integrating innovative software that can cull MRR values from CRM and payment processing systems is a valuable shortcut. Here too, Baremetrics can do all this for you.

Tip 1: Using backlinks effectively

Backlinks are a tool best used in conjunction with other growth optimizers. They’re a useful content marketing component, but by no means should be relied on exclusively, especially in SaaS businesses. This is because they are unpredictable, don’t have a guaranteed ROI, and can cause more harm than good in some cases.

That said, when applied properly, inbound links are very good at one thing in particular: breaking a content marketing plateau.

Let’s say you’ve tweaked your content to the final degree. After extensive A/B testing, you’re confident that the following elements are the best they can be in terms of wording, layout, and use of graphics:

  • Landing page

  • Keywords

  • Snippet 

  • Sales funnel

  • Content quality and originality

  • Content length and volume

  • Meta descriptions

  • Pricing page

  • Schema markup

  • Site map

Despite that, you’re still caught on the 2nd page or beyond of search engines.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. The most common is that the SEO of your competition simply is better or has more resources invested into it, that you’ve reached the end of your natural audience, or, in some cases, have been rank penalized (more on that under Tip 4).

Excluding rank penalization for the minute, the other two scenarios are outside of your immediate control.

Backlinks are the fastest way out of this rut.

Essentially, incoming links enable you to access the audiences of the platforms that have linked to your website. Some of their traffic will be directed from that platform’s domain onto yours. Next time that audience needs to look something up, hopefully your content will now be one of sources users turn to intuitively.

Referencing your service also implies the direct endorsement from the platform that linked to you. If the source website is well known and of good repute, this is extremely valuable not simply in terms of directing traffic to your content, but also encourages their audiences to trust in the value of your services, too. When those users are in the market for a service like the one you provide, hopefully your SaaS will be the first that comes to mind.

You can also use backlinks internally within your own website. Cross-linking pages can be an effective method of pinballing traffic between different content pages, increasing overall time spent on your domain, and lowering your bounce rate. Just make sure that these links help the flow of your sales funnel, and don’t distract from the content quality of each page. If in doubt, A/B test user behavior on your domain with and without links.


Tip 2: Organic vs paid backlinks

Backlinks can be organic, paid, or incentivized in some other way.

Let’s get this out of the way. Don’t pay for backlinks. Paid backlinks are considered an unfair SEO manipulation, and violate the terms of usage for most search providers, notably Google’s.

This is a fairly recent change, so don’t be fooled by outdated information – Google’s detection system for SE manipulation is unparalleled.

What about incentivized links?

What we’re referring to is a backlink trade – you make a deal with another website to link to theirs, if they link back to yours. No, this won’t open a portal of infinite mirrors on the internet, you’ll be delighted to know. It does, however, run some of the same penalization risks as paid links, if the context of those links is deemed unnatural.

Make sure that any links to other websites that you include on your domain are congruous with the content of those pages, as unnatural outbounds can flag your for potential rule-bending just as easily as unnatural inbounds – even if the links are one-sided, Google’s detection tools will likely interpret this as a backlink trade or assume monetary compensation has taken place.

The gold standard of backlinks is, of course, the organic variety. 

Here are some ways to naturally attract organic backlinks:

  • Create high quality and original content that adds to the dialogue of this topic

  • Post consistently

  • Optimize your keywords

  • Announce when you’ve posted content on other platforms

  • Edit your first paragraph with an SEO-friendly snippet view in mind

As long as you honor the standard SEO rules, traffic should naturally be flowing to your domain. A little patience is of course required, as building up a platform with quality content takes time, as does being noticed.

Organic doesn’t have to mean passively sitting and waiting to be noticed, however.

Look up compatible (not competing!) service providers, reviewers, and content creators in your community, and ask them if they’d like to feature your SaaS on their page. Note that the end goal is to direct visitors to your domain. Content that encourages users to click through to your website, rather than have them read about your SaaS on the other website’s domain, is far more valuable.


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Tip 3: Two goals: web traffic and sales

Backlinks have two concrete goals: driving traffic to your domain, and increasing sales.

The best way to determine whether your backlinks are effective is to monitor influxes in your web traffic by source, and cross-reference these patterns with changes in your search engine ranking.

This process should help you figure out which sites provide the most valuable links, according to these criteria:

  • Most clicks to your website

  • Most sales conversions

If geography is a significant metric for your SaaS, you can segment these results further by changing your search location, so you can view your ranking according to different user locations. You can do this with a VPN service, or alternatively, some search engines allow you to set this manually.

Something to look out for is that not all audiences bring equal value. While a link from a popular content creator’s blog could drive hundreds of visitors to your page per week, this might result only in a 1% sales increase. On the other hand, a highly specialized review website might only increase traffic by a few dozen clicks a week, but boost sales by 30%.

Backlinks that directly impact sales have a clear ROI ratio, which is useful in determining how many resources to allocate towards building inbound links.

Traffic-building backlinks are invaluable in their own right, as an increase in page visits (notably low bounce-rate page visits) will push up your SEO ranking. In turn, prospects can find you more easily, so backlinks that primarily increase traffic will eventually translate into higher sales, too.


Tip 4: SEO penalties and blacklisting

Google’s Search Quality Evaluator is the holy text of SEO.

These guidelines are always subject to change, so make sure you’re staying on top of the rules to avoid running afoul of any of the tenets.

Here are some of the bad SEO practices that can earn your domain a red card:

  • Backlinks that are deemed unnatural or spammy (Google’s sleuthing skills for unnatural and paid links are uncanny)

  • Use of backlinking software (these commonly trigger the ‘unnatural link’ penalty)

  • Backlinks from websites in a different language

So what happens if you’re in SEO jail?

The good news is, you can (usually) reverse the effects of a penalty completely. The bad news is, it’s probably going to take a while.

A penalty will essentially push you down in the search results, or take you off the search index entirely.

Here’s the best course of action:

  • Perform a full SEO audit (you can hire an external service to do this for you)

  • Locate problems by isolating drops in traffic by page to see if the drop is localized, or affecting your entire domain

  • Disavow any unnatural links to your website in the Google Webmaster Tool

  • Build high quality, congruent links from your own site

  • Optional: fire or re-train your current SEO staff

  • Hire someone who knows what they’re doing – if they use the words ‘back door’ or ‘SE manipulation’ as a positive, run!

Tip 5: Falling in the algo-hole

If you’re experiencing a sudden drop in traffic, yet are certain that you haven’t committed any of the above inbounding faux pas, another possibility is that you’ve landed in algorithm no-man’s-land, also known as the algo-hole.

This can happen naturally due to software updates in the algorithm, and is unavoidable for the most part.

Run an SEO audit just in case, manually tweak your SEO to follow any new guidelines (software optimizers haven’t caught up to human sensibilities in this case), and wait. Unfortunately, these fixes will often only come into effect during the next quarterly update.

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Clair Pacey

Clair is the founder of a one-woman media start-up, and is keen to share her experience and support other founders, notably in under-represented communities in tech. Clair's writing, media, and business consulting services can be summoned through smoke signals, or at