Link Building

What Are Backlinks and Why Do They Matter?

Written by

Haley Carrol

Last updated

May 4, 2020

Maybe you've gotten an email that went straight to spam asking for a link to one of their recent blog posts, or a service that is offering unlimited traffic for three easy payments of $300.

What these shady emails are usually talking about, is backlinks.

In our last post on the complete guide to optimization we described the importance of inbound links in your marketing strategy. That article only discusses inbound links, also called backlinks, briefly so let's go in depth here.

As we mentioned in that article, backlinks are vital because they signal to Google that your website is trustworthy and reliable. In fact, backlinks are one of the most influential ranking factors and be the difference maker in your rankings.

What are backlinks though? How do you get more backlinks? Let's dive in and explore.

What are backlinks?

A backlink (also called an incoming or inbound link) is created when a website inserts a link on one of its pages to another website's page.

For example, if an online article is posted containing a link to a blog post on your website, that particular webpage of yours has just received a backlink.

Backlinks are just links from a different website to yours. Simple, right?

Not all backlinks are beneficial though. There are two different kinds of backlinks, and the type of backlink will determine if it will affect your SERP (Search Engine Results Page) ranking.

Backlinks with a no-follow tag will be ignored by search engines, and therefore do not contribute to a website’s ranking. Do-follow links are visible to search engines, and for this reason these links are the type that people aim to get for their websites.

More on this later though!

Why do backlinks matter?

Way back in the day, before it dominated the search space like it does now, Google was invented by grad students as a way to search for and catalogue research papers.

It was simple. Good research papers tended to be cited by a lot of other papers, and 20 years later backlinks are the exact same concept. Backlinks are essentially votes that vouch for the quality of the content. The more links to a piece of content, the more votes that piece of content has.

Backlinks matter so much to Google that they were factored in as the basis for Google's original PageRank algorithm. 20+ years later and while Google's algorithm has changed quite a bit, backlinks are still critical to your success. In fact in 2016 Google once again confirmed that backlinks are one of the top 3 influential ranking factors for your website.

A backlink provides important information to both search engines and end users, and they help build your website’s visibility.

Backlinks help connect users with multiple resources related to a topic they are researching. When a visitor hits a webpage about a certain subject with a link to your site on it, that visitor will have the opportunity to check out your website for more relevant information.

Search engine bots will discover your website too by following backlinks through external websites, which allows them to crawl your website and index it accordingly.

Bots will have a much more difficult time finding your site if there are no backlinks to it, and that is why it is so important to make sure your website has them. Backlinks help search engines determine your website's credibility and relevance in regards to the search query keywords the website is being ranked for.  

What effect do backlinks have on my ranking?

In short, backlinks are extremely important for your ranking.

Not all backlinks are created equal though, and the quality of the backlink will determine if it will actually contribute to your website’s SEO or not.

High quality backlinks are from trustworthy websites and are relevant to the content that they link to. If your webpage proves to have many quality backlinks to it, this will show search engines your website has desirable, authoritative content and will consequently lead to a higher ranking in search results.

Low quality backlinks come from shady websites, such as harvested sites, automated sites, and spam sites, and they can end up doing more harm than good for your site. Links from these sites may be deemed “toxic,” and can cause Google to penalize or de-index your website.

What types of backlinks are valuable?

Not all backlinks are the same!

Just because someone is linking back to your website does not immediately mean you're getting all the SEO benefit that a backlink has to offer. If you want to improve your rank you need to focus on quality backlinks.

What do I mean by quality backlinks?

There are a series of traits that they follow.

Trait #1: They come from a quality website

Quick: what's better, a link from The New York Times or a link from some random blog?

Yeah, I'd rather get a link from the Times too.

Google notices this as well. There is a concept known as Domain Authority and it's something that Google pays attention to in factoring in the weight a link gives. Links from high-authority websites just carry more weight in their vote than links from lesser-quality websites.

These links are very hard to get, but getting one can put you on the map.

Trait #2: They include your target keyword in the anchor text

Ok this sounds a bit technical so let's break it down: anchor text is the visible part of a link.

In the image below you'll note how Google sees links. Google reads the HTML of a website to understand it's content and links are wrapped in an <a> tag. There's the url that the link directs to, and the text that is linked (and therefore clickable).

In this post every time you see a link you'll see this blue underlined text. That's blue text is the anchor text.

Now I used to not pay much attention to the anchor text, but it turns out that it's pretty important according to Google's own John Mueller:

https://twitter.com/JohnMu/status/864190235822899200?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E864190235822899200%7Ctwgr%5Eshare_3&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fahrefs.com%2Fblog%2Fanchor-text%2F

Not only does the site linking to you matter but the text they use when linking to you matters a lot too.

Using the target keyword for your page signals to Google that your page is about that keyword, and that can be a big difference maker in ranking for your focus keyword.

Trait #3: The content linking to you is related to your content

This one is a biggie.

If the content linking to your site is not at all related then the benefit it provides to your site will be pretty minimal.

We write a lot about SEO. If a website about pet food linked to us, then both people clicking that link to our site and Google would be pretty confused.

As a result that link would be pretty low value for us. In fact, it might make no difference at all on our rankings.

Trait #4: The link is a Dofollow link

This may be the most important of all the traits: if the link to your site is a nofollow link then it's no good for your SEO.

We cover the difference between dofollow links and nofollow links in depth but to summarize a dofollow link is just a standard link and a nofollow link has a little tag like this:

This tells search engines to ignore the linked page, and as a result no SEO benefit, or link juice, will be passed on. The good news is most links on the web are automatically dofollow links.

The notable exceptions are:

  • Blog comments
  • Social media links
  • Forum post links
  • Links where the author explicitly makes them 'nofollow'

Do I have to pay for backlinks?

Nope!

Well, you shouldn't.

Anyone trying to charge you for links is not worth the money or trouble. You can earn links by creating great content and reaching out to people in your industry. Links that will actually boost your rank are earned through content and relationships, not paid for in cash.

If someone is emailing you promising links for $5, $50, or $500 - send that email straight to spam it is not worth it.

How do I get backlinks?

Since quality backlinks have shown to be a key ingredient to SEO, it is an imperative to create them.

Fortunately, there are many different strategies you can employ to generate backlinks for your website. Creating backlinks can be as simple as adding a link to your site on each of your social media profiles, but the more effective strategies take time and effort. 

Create great content

First and foremost, creating rich and relevant content with actual substance will organically generate backlinks as other web creators use and refer to your information.

Ideally, you want to create original content that provides unique knowledge and insights.

Common things included in popular and helpful content are lists, “how-to” and “why” explanations, visuals such as infographics, and embedded videos. Using these formats will naturally drive backlinks, as people are drawn to easy and aesthetically pleasing methods of information delivery.

Alternatively, you can also write posts that are “the ultimate guide” to a certain topic for those who are looking for a more thorough and complete explanation.

Another surefire way to get your content noticed is to create a linkable asset - a super in-depth article, list, or your own research. Perhaps you could survey one hundred people in one of your target markets, or spend $50 on a Google survey ad to collect some good data. Anything you can do to show you put some effort and research into your content.

Guest blog

Inviting guest bloggers to write a post for your site will create backlinks as well as writing a guest post for another website. This strategy is a great way to establish a connection with a web creator in your field, and you can provide links to each other’s websites in the guest post. This way, you will appeal to someone else’s audience as well as your own with content that is still relevant to your website. 

Reach out to an industry influencer

On a similar note, getting in touch with influencers in your industry can generate backlinks.

Letting them know about an article on your website you believe the influencer or their audience would be interested in can lead to a post linking back to your website. Interviewing an influencer and sending them the ensuing post is another way to get them to link back to you.

Remember: with any out reach keep it authentic and original.

Just like you might get plenty of spammy emails requesting a link, your targets do as well. Try writing a post with them in mind and reaching out to share it, or mention them and reach out asking if that was ok - these are more refreshing ways to reach out than the traditional "I wrote this please link to it".

Spot broken links and fill the gap

Rather than just reaching out requesting someone to link to your website, try finding content with broken links that could use some updating.

Say you've gotten a blog post that you want to build links to, well once you've identified your target site you want a link from check out their content and see if they are linking to any dead pages that could be replaced with a link to your post.

Or better yet, create a post just for the occasion.

Here's a little template for how you an reach out to them:

Hi [Site Owner Name],

I was just browsing around your resources page today, and among the lists of great resources, were some broken links.
Here’s a few of them:
[URL 1]
[URL 2]
[URL 3]

Oh, and I have a website, [Your Website], that also regularly posts quality content related to whatever.

If you think so too, feel free to post a link to it on your resources page.

Either way I hope this helps and keep up the good work!

Thanks,

[Your Name]

Going Forward

Like many things in SEO, backlinks can seem pretty complex and intimidating, but when broken down they're much simpler.

Backlinks are links from one website to another, and quality backlinks are essential to have if you want your website to rank high on the SERP. Building the kind of backlinks you want takes time and effort, but it will pay off in improving your site’s SEO.

Give our backlink suggestions a try and watch how they improve your rankings!