The portion of the Internet we use on a daily basis is called the World Wide Web, a very accurate description of how all of the websites and web properties in the world are tied together.
The strands of fibers between websites are made up of hypertext links, creating a path through the internet from one site to another. Links from other properties to your website are called backlinks, and for SEO it is important to know why backlinks are important.
- What Are Backlinks?
- Good Links and Bad Links
- Overview of a Link Building Campaign
- Backlink Tips and Tricks
- Wrapping Up
What Are Backlinks?
Backlinks are known by a few different names, such as “incoming links” or “inbound links.” When one site adds a link to another, this addition is a signal to Google and other search engines that they feel the page or site they are linking to has beneficial information that they deem relevant.
That relevance can be based on the content of the page, or sometimes just the brand itself.
Once search engines see that link, a few different things occur.
- The search engine, if it does not already have that web page indexed in its database, now adds it.
- Search engine spiders are then tasked to follow any links leading from that page to others, whether on the same site or externally.
- These additional pages are added to the database and the process continues
This automated process of spidering and indexing is what populates the immense databases of Google, Bing, and others, and differentiates them from Directories, which exist by the entries being manually populated. Each search engine has its own specific backend processes, but the concept is basically the same.
Why Links Matters for SE?
Backlinks are an important ranking signal. The number and quality of links pointing to a website and specific pages on that site are taken into account when search engine rankings come into play.
There are countless factors that go into Google’s ranking of websites, but one thing is consistent – the higher the number of quality links pointing to your website, the higher the possibility of ranking well.
The quality of the website itself that is linking to yours is important as well. Think of an incoming link like a vote of confidence. If that vote of confidence comes from a website that Google does not value highly, then the weight of it will be less important, ignored, or worst of all, seen as a negative ranking signal.
On the other hand, if the link to your page or site is from a highly authoritative source, then that will boost your rankings in most cases. Getting links from highly ranked websites can be difficult, but not impossible, and we will go into more detail on that later.
An interesting note in the history of Google, the original rankings of websites were almost completely determined by the number of backlinks a site had. This algorithm was called PageRank, and was the backbone behind Google’s search and ranking process.
This number was available to view for anyone who was verified for that site in Google Webmaster Tools, and eventually SEO tools were developed to discover that number for different websites. This made it possible to be used as a metric to track efforts to improve on search engine appearance for both your own site and those of your competitors.
Using PageRank as the primary metric that defined a website’s ranking left SERPS open to manipulation. In the early days, Google’s algorithms were not robust enough to judge the quality of websites that were linking to others. This created the ability to use different manipulation techniques like harvesting link farms, reciprocal linking, directory stuffing, and others.
Eventually, through years of improvements, Google was able to drop the official PageRank metric, and that number is now hidden in its backend. While the current model and usage of PageRank is unknown outside of Google, it is still an important ranking factor.
Different metrics like Domain Authority are now generated by search engine ranking tools such as Ahrefs and Moz to try and replicate PageRank, but they are not directly based on Google’s backend data.
Good Links and Bad Links
As discussed above, different weight is placed on links from websites that are seen as higher or lower quality by search engines. A multitude of factors go into how Google’s algorithm works to judge page quality (known internally as PQ), and they have made many public with their Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines.
Google’s main emphasis is to help people find what they are looking for, and this is how they judge whether or not a website or page is the right choice.
Judging the Quality of a Website
The best way to judge the quality of a website is to review Google’s manual quality guidelines linked above. Some of the highlights of a quality website are:
- Quality content
- Limited advertising
- Images, video, and other “value-adds” for visitors
- Easy to find information about the website creator or customer service info
- Positive reputation of the website or its creator
Expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness together are also known by the acronym “E-A-T.” This was introduced by Google around 2014, but started to become more important between 2018-2019.
When content is written by someone with no verifiable expertise, the quality rating will go down, but the site or author is an authoritative source for the content, the quality rating will go up. However, if the site itself is not trustworthy, neither of these will matter.
If a website has poor content or content that is scraped from other sites, that is a good sign that it will be viewed as low quality. Poor grammar, a multitude of external links to sites with no relevance to the content you are reading, ads that continually pop up, and redirects to other low-quality sites can be obvious signs of a low-quality website. Avoid links from these sites.
The Best Backlinks: Natural Links
Natural links are backlinks that appear organically, and often it may take a while to realize they have appeared. When a content creator is putting together their content, and they find that your website or a specific page on your site is relevant to their topic, they may place a link to you. If Google had their way, this would be the only method of linking between different sites.
For other content creators to know about your website in the first place, it has to already have a presence on the web. To create that presence you may need to start out with an outreach campaign.
Pretty Good Backlinks: Outreach Link Building
If publishing content by itself and just hoping that someone links to it sounds like an inefficient method of link building, you would be correct. If your website is extremely popular with tens of thousands of visitors a day then acquiring natural links should be a common occurrence, but for smaller or newer sites you will probably have to start a manual link building campaign.
In this campaign you should contact website owners, bloggers, or content creators using the contact information that should be located on their website and ask them to link to you. Tell them about your site, why you feel that a link to it would be appropriate, and give them specific information about the page.
Only request links from websites or pages that are relevant to your site. If there are no connections between the two, the site owner will probably ignore the outreach, and even if they didn’t Google will not give you any benefit from the links.
Backlinks to Avoid: Self-Created Links Not in Main Content
There are different methods that you can use to go out onto the web and place links back to your own site. Forums, blog comments, press releases, and user profiles are all places that, in the past, have been very effective for assembling a large number of backlinks quickly.
Google has shut down this practice by not giving those links any positive value, and sometimes penalizing sites for abusing them.
Controversial But Effective Backlinks: Guest Blogging
A popular way to increase your number of backlinks is by writing content on other websites than your own and placing a link back to your site in the content. On one hand, this is editorial content that Google loves, so you are helping both the website you are posting on as well as your own. On the other hand, people have been known to pay for the opportunity to write on another site just for that backlink.
Paying for incoming links is against Google’s Quality Guidelines and should never be done. Matt Cutts, former Google search quality team member, wrote a detailed blog post with the opinion that guest blogging has become too spammy for Google to give any weight to the links gained from it.
In practice though, backlinks gained by guest blogging on quality sites still add weight to your rankings. At 201 Creative we have seen excellent results by adding guest blogging as part of our manual link building campaigns.
Overview of a Link Building Campaign
Putting forth the effort to gain backlinks to your website is worth every second of your time, but make sure you are targeting sites that will add value to your overall search presence. A lot of backlinks from low-traffic and low-quality websites may move the needle a small amount, while one link from a major media publication can make your SERPS jump by pages at a time.
Before jumping straight into a link building campaign, be sure to put a plan in place. You will need to set a timeline based on your budget, identify the parts of your website that you want to acquire backlinks to, identify relevant keywords for those pages, create a target list of websites to contact in your campaign and establish how you want to contact them.
Set a Timeline
Manual link building can be an ongoing process that, if not properly monitored, can suck away hours a day for the foreseeable future. To save yourself from that, schedule a specific time every day to work on outreach and responses.
It is important to set goals for yourself, but in link building the numbers are hard to quantify. After a backlink appears on another site it may take days, weeks, or even months to show any effect your site ranking. Keep the milestones simple – send X number of emails a day or week, acquire X number of links by a certain date, or guest blog on X number of sites per month.
Where to Point Backlinks?
The most simple backlink to plan for is one that points to your homepage. This will benefit the entire website, but in many cases there are pages deeper in your site that may benefit more from a direct link.
“Money pages” that have actionable options for visitors are an obvious choice, but there are more technical reasons to link to other pages.
Internal pages are also another good place to direct links. If your industry has highly competitive keywords that you are aiming to rank for in search engines, you will have to create content tailored to those keywords. The homepage is not the place to expand on a topic with 2,000+ words.
To show that your site has all the information that Google wants to find, internal pages optimized for keywords that users are searching for are perfect places for backlinks to point.
Identify Your Keywords
Without specific keywords, it will be difficult to keep track of relevance. These will help you generate a target list of relevant sites to contact, as well as being the starting point for measuring the success of your campaign in SERPS.
How you generate your keyword list is up to you. You should already have an overview of keywords for the entire site that you are aiming to increase the ranks for, but to get some new ideas or to help identify related keywords, the Google Ads Keyword Planner is a handy tool.
Use this to find keywords related to your industry, build long-tail keywords from your established results, and more.
Create and Track Outreach Targets
With your keywords prepared, begin searching for quality websites that appear for those search terms. Find relevant sites that you know are related to your industry, but avoid your competitors. Getting a backlink from a direct competitor is difficult, if not impossible, and it may actually create animosity between your two companies.
You should, however, research the sites that give backlinks to your competitors. Using a tool like Neil Patel’s Backlink Checker can give you excellent data to use when planning your link campaign.
Other places to look for relevant influencers are social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as forums that discuss your industry. Do not try to get a backlink from a forum itself, just use it as a tool to discover new influencers and their websites.
Keep track of your outreach targets in a spreadsheet. Google Sheets is a free option, but Microsoft Excel works well for those who want to keep their spreadsheets on a local computer. For whatever spreadsheet option you choose, it is a good idea to know how to use mail merge with your email process.
Contact Link Campaign Targets
Finding the contact information for a website you are attempting to get a backlink from should be easy. With Google’s emphasis on transparency, virtually all quality websites that you would want a link from should have their contact information in an obvious location like the website navigation or footer. Look for an email address or phone number that has to do with the website itself, not the customer service department.
When contacting webmasters, the easiest way to do it is via email. You can automate the majority of the process, but be sure to individualize each email. These emails are going to be read by real people who probably receive quite a few link requests per day, so yours will have to stand out.
Be sure to include information about their website, your website, why the two are related, and action for them to take. Do not just ask for a backlink. Explain what page you are requesting the link point to, and recommend exact text on a page for the link to be placed on their website. Add additional contact information such as phone numbers or physical addresses.
Follow up! After a period of time, be sure to follow up if you have not received a response. If you receive a negative response, be sure to respond to those as well. Just because this particular link wasn’t a good fit does not mean that there will not be a better one in the future.
Backlink Tips and Tricks
There are times when your website or content is featured on another website, but it is not attributed to you, and does not have a backlink. This can be one of the easiest ways to gain new backlinks.
If you have an article that gets a lot of traffic, try copying some unique text from within the content and pasting it into Google surrounded by quotes. This will give you a list of websites that may be republishing or copying your content.
Go to the pages listed, find their contact information, and ask for an attribution link to the relevant page. If they have copied a large amount of your content, that is a different issue, and a cease and desist letter may be more appropriate.
Pictures and infographics are often used without attribution links as well. Again, copyright infringement is important to stay on top of, but if your work is being correctly attributed, just without a backlink, a simple request will often work out.
To find visual elements of your work on other websites, search Google Images. Click the camera icon on the right to Search by image. You can either drag the image into the tool, or enter the filename in the search box.
The number and quality of backlinks pointing to your website are an important metric used by search engines to rank your website. Be sure to keep track of your site backlinks so that if your rankings change, you will be able to easily see whether you have gained or lost any links to your site.