What are Backlinks and Do They Still Matter?
If you’re just getting started with SEO, you’re likely to hear a lot about “backlinks,” “external and internal links,” or “link building.” After all, backlinks are an important SEO ranking factor for SEO success, but as a newbie, you may be wondering: what are backlinks? SEO changes all the time — do backlinks still matter? Well, wonder no more. Say hello to your definitive guide to backlinks and their significance in SEO.
What are backlinks?
A backlink is simply a link from another domain pointing back to your site. Simple, right? Well, yes and no. Not all backlinks are created equal, and there are a few rules you need to observe in order for them to benefit your site’s ranking. For example, your link needs to be a clickable hyperlink with anchor text; for example, www. conductor .com won’t help us in link building, but www.conductor.com will.
What are backlinks doing for your SEO strategy? Well, Google considers over 200 SEO ranking factors when calculating where a page should rank, but we know that backlinks are one of the top three (the other two are content and RankBrain (opens in a new tab), Google’s AI). So while you should always focus on creating high-quality content, link-building is also an important factor in ranking your pages well on Google.
How do backlinks work?
A backlink is a signal to Google that somebody finds your content valuable. However, different types of backlinks have different impacts. The anchor text associated with the hyperlink will have an impact on how Google crawls the link, as will other factors like its placement on the page — links placed higher up have more impact.
However, the biggest contributing factors to a backlink’s effect on your rank is the website it’s coming from, measured by the acronym ART: authority, a measure of a site’s prestige/reliability — .edu and .gov sites are particularly high-authority); relevance, a measure of how related the site hosting the link is to the content; and trust, which is not an official Google metric, but relates to how much a site plays by the rules of search (i.e. not selling links) and provides good content.
If you want to increase your rank on Google, focus on building authoritative, relevant, trustworthy links. So if you’re a plumber, try to get links from well-known (authoritative) plumbing- and construction-related (relevant) sites that don’t engage in black-hat SEO tactics (trustworthy).
Why are backlinks so important?
Backlinks are important because they pass page and domain authority to your site which can help you increase search rankings. Search engines look for verification that they have chosen the right entity to satisfy the needs of the searcher, just like we do when we're making a choice in the real world. For example, if I were looking for a plumber, I might go online and look for reviews of different plumbers. If I find 3 great plumbers with the same average rating, I will probably choose the one with the most ratings. Backlinks do the same job for search engines. Having many authoritative, relevant, and trustworthy backlinks signals that a page or site is an authority in their space.
What backlinks should I avoid?
Years ago, you could buy links in bulk from vendors — sites that existed solely to link to other sites. Those days are in the past; today, Google polices link-buying very closely, and buying links is a sure way to incur a Google penalty, or drop off the index entirely. If you want to build links in 2018, you’ve got to do it in a clean way.
And beware: Irrelevant backlinking can hurt you. If a blog post about sneaker trends links back to your article on the best credit card for new cardholders, that link won’t help you (and could hurt if it happens a lot).
There are plenty of other lousy link sources you should avoid, like dofollow links in irrelevant comments sections, or links from spammy sites with spotty content. Don’t bother with automated link building tools either, as they often leverage disreputable sites, and be wary of links in sidebars or footers.
Matt Cutts, a former top dog at Google, has also said that guest blogging is no longer a valuable way to build links, as it became too spammy.
How can I build backlinks?
First of all, you’ve got to have relevant content. Focus on building up a library of excellent, helpful content that actually solves a problem for users before you worry about link building. After all, if there’s nothing to link to, there won’t be much point in building up a backlink campaign.
Then, make sure your site is healthy and well-optimized; an unhealthy site will hurt your Google rankings even with a good link strategy.
Finally, start building links in relevant sites like business directories (especially local directories) relevant niche blogs and forums, and industry publications. Success at link building will result from a combination of good PR, smart marketing strategy, and of course, great content. Google has said that social media doesn’t impact rankings, but reaching out to social influencers can give your content traction on other channels that can be useful.
Now that you have an answer to the foundational SEO question of “what are backlinks?”, go out there and create great customer-first content. The more great things you create, the more people will link to your content, and the stronger your SEO strategy will be.