Why Are Backlinks in SEO and Why They Are Still Important
When you start learning SEO one of the words you will hear a lot is “backlinks” or “incoming links”. Why? Because they still play an important role in SEO and rankings, especially when it comes to Google.
Backlinks are not easy to get but those websites that have strong incoming links from other websites, enjoy a higher level of Google trust and this, in turn, translates to higher rankings.
In this post, you will learn what are backlinks, what is their role in SEO and how to create backlinks for your website.
What is a backlink?
A backlink is a link that points from one domain to the other. For the website that links out it is called an “outbound link” and for the website that receives the link, it is called an “inbound link”.
If you think about it, the Internet is a collection of domains, web pages and links. The term World Wide Web emerged from the fact that the various websites published on the Internet are connected together via links, formatting a web.
So, a backlink is generated when one website links to another. This is different than having links that point to pages on the same website. These are called internal links.
Why are backlinks important For SEO?
Why do all webmasters and SEO experts go crazy about backlinks and link building? What is the value of having backings pointing to your website?
The story goes back to 1996 when Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google Founders), included the number of backlinks pointing to a website, as one of the signals used by the Google ranking algorithm.
The idea was simple and it is valid until today: Backlinks act as a vote of trust and websites that have more backlinks than others deserve to be in a higher position in the Google SERPS.
Of course, things have changed since the early 2000s and it’s no longer a numbers game but more of a quality game i.e. websites that have more quality backlinks, get better rankings.
Are backlinks still important today?
The answer is simple, yes backlinks are still important for SEO. All SEO related studies agree that when it comes to Google rankings, the websites that have the strongest links appear in the top positions of Google.
Here is a graph from a recent study performed by SEMRUSH.
What do we mean by high quality and low-quality links? I will explain this below but before that, you need to understand how SEO works and where do backlinks come into play.
A quick introduction to SEO
The main goal of SEO is to optimize a website for the greatest possible exposure in the different search engines and in particular Google.
To achieve this, you first need to ensure that search engine crawlers can access and index your website pages without any problems (that’s called technical SEO).
Then you need to work on your pages (one by one) and make sure that they provide search engines with the right signals related to page structure, page titles, headings, meta-descriptions (that’s called on-page SEO).
At the same time, you need to optimize your content for both search engines and users (that’s called content SEO).
When you do the above correctly and consistently for a reasonable period of time (at least a few months), you will start noticing that some of your pages will appear close to the first page of Google.
While this is a great start, your organic traffic will still be at low levels because the majority of Google users click on one of the top 5 results.
Hint: if these concepts are new to you, read my SEO tips article and my comprehensive SEO tutorial for more information.
So, unless you are in the top 5 for the keywords you want, you won’t get that much traffic.
How can you improve your rankings and get to one of the top 5 positions that can get you more traffic? The answer is ‘backlinks’.
Off-Page SEO and Backlinks
Off-Page SEO is the term used to describe the process of promoting your website on the Internet for the purpose of gaining references (links) from other websites.
Why is this important? Because during the ranking process, the algorithms consider backlinks as one of the factors indicating the popularity of a website.
A website with lots of backlinks is considered more popular than others, so it gets a higher ranking.
Consider the following example:
20 websites are blogging about the exact same topics. They all publish high-quality content, are fast, easy to use and provide a great experience to the user.
Which website will be shown on top of the SERPS when a user types in a related query in Google?
This is exactly where backlinks come into play. The websites that have links from other related websites on the Internet, will be shown in the top positions and get the traffic.
I’ve mentioned several times above that although backlinks are important for SEO, it’s not exactly a numbers game.
In other words, it’s not a matter of how many links you have but from where these links are coming.
What is a good backlink?
A good backlink that can positively influence your rankings has the following characteristics:
- It comes from a related website
- It does not have the nofollow attribute attached to the link properties (more on this below)
- It comes from a website that has a high Google trust and domain authority.
- It comes from a high-quality website
What is a bad backlink?
A bad backlink has the following characteristics:
- It is paid for
- It’s a result of a link exchange
- It comes from an on low-quality website (i.e. article directories)
- It comes from a website that has low Google trust and domain authority
- It comes from a website with little or no original content
- Its sole purpose is to manipulate Google rankings
A website that has a lot of toxic backlinks can be imposed a Google penalty, either site-wide or for the particular webpage and lose its Google rankings.
Note: Although some of recent changes made to the Google algorithm have to do with automatically ignoring bad links, a penalty can still be imposed on the website. Read this guide if you want to check if your website is under a Google penalty.
Also, If you end up with a lot of bad backlinks and want to ensure that these will not affect your Google rankings, read: How to remove bad backlinks from Google.
An introduction to link building
As Google started to grow, webmasters realized that in order to get Google traffic, they had to rank high in the Google search results.
To rank high in Google you needed backlinks, so webmasters started looking for ways to get more links pointing to their websites. This process is known in the SEO World as link building.
The situation soon went out of hand since the initial Google ranking algorithm was so easy to manipulate.
This gradually had a negative impact on the quality of the Google search results and they (Google Quality Team), decided that it was time to do something to protect their reputation.
One of the actions they took was to introduce follow and nofollow links.
Follow and no-follow links
All links by default are ‘follow’ links. This means that when search engine crawlers find a link pointing to another domain, they will follow it and count it as a vote of trust going from one domain to the other.
This created problems for ads that contained links, comments and other types of links that were used for information purposes only or links pointing to untrusted content.
When you add an advertising platform on your website, like Adsense, you don’t want the links in the ads to pass PageRank from your website to the advertiser. Same goes for links that appear in the comments section.
To solve the problem, search engines have agreed to use the no follow attribute for links.
This is just an attribute you can add to your links which instructs search engine crawlers not to follow the specific link.
This is how it looks in the HTML:
The introduction of the nofollow attribute solved the problem with ads, comments and other links that webmasters wanted to add to their websites, without passing a value to other websites.
Another action Google has taken to preserve the quality of their search results was to impose penalties on websites that tried to manipulate their algorithms by buying links, participating in link exchanges, or flooding the web with low quality content (usually in article directories), for the sake of getting a link pointing to their websites.
Google did not only punish websites that received the links but also the websites that the links were placed.
If you want to learn more about Google penalties related to backlinks, read the following:
- Unnatural links from your site (By Google)
- Link Schemes (by Google)
- Link -Based Penalties (Wikipedia)
What is important to understand is that Google can not only punish a website because it has a lot of low-quality incoming links but also because it has a lot of unnatural outbound links.
How to Create Backlinks
How can you create backlinks to your website with worrying about Google penalties?
There are different ways to do this, let’s see below the most common methods.
This is the safest and most efficient way to get those precious backlinks. As the name implies, it has to do in getting links from other websites, in a natural way.
In other words, other webmasters like your website and your content and they naturally and links pointing to your pages.
This is not a theoretical concept, it works and it is very efficient but in order to get to this point, you need to ensure that you have a great website with high-quality content worth linking to it.
This is how Google envisions the web i.e. websites publishing useful content and other websites linking to them as a way of showing their trust. Google picks up these signals and shows those websites in the top positions of the search results.
The problem is that you may have great content on your website but unless other people know about it, nobody will be linking to it.
What can you do? Use social media marketing to promote your website to people that might be interested in linking to it. This means using social media networks to connect with other bloggers, journalists, influences and let them know that you exist.
It’s not an easy task to do but if you want to create a long lasting online business then you need to connect with other people. It’s like marketing your brick and mortar business in the real world. Connecting with the right people is important in both cases.
Blogger / Influencer Outreach
Besides social media, another tool you can use in your link building campaigns is email outreach.
The idea is the same as above but instead of using social media networks, you use email to connect with other bloggers and industry influences to introduce your work and website.
The process goes like this:
- Create a piece of superb content that is detailed, insightful and that other webmasters would have no problem linking to it.
- Create a list of websites/blogs covering similar topics
- Find the contact details of the bloggers
- Create customized emails and contact them to let them know about your work and give them reasons as to why they should consider linking to your content.
It sounds simple in theory but in order for the above process to work, you first need to make sure that your content offers value to the reader and is worth linking to and the second that you write a personalized email and not a generic email asking for links.
Hint: Lesson 6 of The Complete SEO Course explains how to execute a link building campaign with examples and step-by-step instructions.
To help you understand this better, here is an email I received asking for links, that caught my attention.
Notice how specific their email was, explaining where and why I should consider linking to their study.
Broken link Building
This is another technique for getting links. The idea is the following:
- You use tools like SEMRUSH to find out outbound links found on other websites that are broken i.e. they point to a non-existent page (404 page). This is normal to happen since a lot of websites may go offline or because webmasters mistyped a link etc.
- You email the website owner and let them know that they have broken links on their websites and suggest ways to fix those links, preferably by linking to your website instead.
- So, you help them by letting know of a broken link and at the same time you also have a ready-made solution for them. Most webmasters will appreciate the gesture and happily link to your website.
- The big problem with this method is that you need to spend a lot of time finding broken links that are related to your content, and this is not very easy to do.
Guest posting is the process where you publish an article that you created on another website as a guest writer. In the body of the article or the author bio, you include a link pointing to your website.
The process goes like this:
- You find websites related to your niche that accept post contributions from guest writers.
- You send them an email with your proposal (what article to write, why they should accept a post from you etc)
- In the article, you add a link pointing to your website.
Guest posting for links is a great way to improve your link profile provided that you publish your articles on high quality websites and that the links are dofollow.
Competitive Backlink Research
Once you start with link building, you will soon realize that it’s too difficult to find websites that are willing to link out.
One way to increase your chances is to go after websites that you know that they already link out to other websites.
In other words, if a website is already linking to one of your competitors, you have more chances to get a link from them, provided that you have something good to offer them and that you approach them correctly.
- The first step is to analyze your main competitor’s profile (using SEMRUSHor other link analysis tool) and find which websites are linking to them.
- Then you can find the contact details of the owners and send them a personalized email with your proposal.
The above list is not complete. There are other link building techniques you can use to enrich your link profile but two things remain certain. First, is that link building is still important for Google and rankings and second, link building is one of the most time consuming and difficult parts of SEO.
Backlinks are important for SEO and for the growth and sustainability of a website. Recent studies show that the role of backlinks in the Google ranking algorithm is still crucial.
What you need to improve your rankings is high-quality backlinks from related websites. In the past, we used to say that a link is a link but that’s not the case today. You should go after links that matter and not any type of link.
Websites that have great content and links can expect to rank in the top positions of Google while websites that have great content and not links, they can go up to the first page of Google.
Backlinks can give your website the extra push it needs to get to the top and enjoy the benefits of 24/7 non-stop organic traffic.
Getting those precious links is not easy. Link building is one of the most challenging and time-consuming activities of SEO.
Web owners tend to spend all their time working on their websites and although this helps them create great websites, they don’t get the rankings they deserve because of a weak link profile.
The list above outlined the most common methods of creating backlinks. Your next step is to analyze each method in detail and allocate the necessary time to promote your website with the ultimate goal of making your link profile stronger.