Backlinks: Why They Matter, Strategies To Get Them And Things To Avoid
Getting found on search engines is a challenge for my website.
If you’ve ever started out building a business website, it’s likely you’ve said this phrase a few times. Ranking on Google can be challenging and requires a lot of effort, research, testing and time (I know that Yahoo! and Bing still exist, but since 90% of search traffic on the internet flows through Google, that platform is what businesses really need to be concerned with in terms of search engine optimization). Your business has some great content that you know could not only help people, but push them further down your funnel. If only there were a way to rank higher on Google without having to bid for keywords, you say, your digital marketing strategy could really take off.
This is where backlinks come in.
In this blog, I’ll go through in detail what backlinks are, why they matter, what they tell search engines, and how to go about getting them (all without saying “just create great content” - I’ll dig into that piece of ‘advice’ shortly). To start, let’s dig in a little more into just what these are…
What Are Backlinks And Why Do They Matter?
Backlinks are links on someone else’s website that link back to your website. Conversely, if you link back to someone else’s website, you’ve given them a backlink. This can take a few forms when it comes to inbound marketing. Say for example you write a blog on your website, and you find a great piece of information someone else wrote about the topic. You use that information in the blog post, using a link within the post to cite your work, as well as provide the reader the source, should they want to check it out. You’ve just given that site a backlink.
Why is this important? It sends signals to Google about the quality and relevance of your website when it comes to user search intent. When users search for something on Google, generally there are two different types of results that come up. The first are the paid results, where companies bid on and try to rank for certain keywords their audience might type in (keyword research is a topic deserving of its’ own blog, so while I won’t cover it here, stay tuned in the coming weeks). While these are effective because they take the top spot on search results, they can be cost prohibitive.
The second type of results, the organic ones, are what Google’s algorithm believes are the most relevant to what the user is searching. Google places a high premium on relevance, as it gets searchers coming back for more, over and over again, to the point where “just Google it” is said on a daily basis. One of the ways Google determines relevance is something called website authority - a score developed by the SEO firm Moz that predicts how well a page or domain will rank in search queries.
This is where backlinks come in. Backlinks serve as a flag to Google that your website is not only relevant to search queries, but can be a trusted resource for searchers as opposed to a spammy, irrelevant website. If legitimate websites link back to yours, they pass link authority (also known as link juice) to your website, helping your website climb the organic rankings in SERP’s.
What’s Better - Quality or Quantity?
Ideally you want as many high quality websites to link back to yours to signal that relevancy and authority back to search engines. There’s a catch though - they need to be legitimate, relevant websites. Back in the day, unscrupulous websites would try to game the system by getting all the backlinks they could. The problem was these backlinks were to spammy, irrelevant websites that just pushed up irrelevant search results.
In 2012 and over the course of the following four years, Google responded by rolling out an update called Penguin. Search Engine Journal does a good job of breaking down the update here, but in short Google identified what was going on in terms of link building, and this update was their attempt to reward good link building practices and punish poor ones. Overall, it affected about 3.1% of english speaking websites. The end result was websites that engaged in this ‘Black Hat SEO’ practice of cramming in irrelevant, spammy links saw their organic reach drop significantly.
What this means today is quality is much more of a signal than quantity. A high amount of backlinks for one piece of content is absolutely a positive - provided they link to relevant sites. For example, the blogs I write here would provide link juice if they were backlinked by other consulting firms, marketing companies or business content - and not if it appeared on a website for an ice cream store. Relevancy is always king.
What Determines A Quality Backlink?
Beyond relevance, there are a few markers of a good backlink. Brian Dean, one of the top voices when it comes to SEO and link building, lists out these:
The domain rank of the website. The higher the score, the more legit the website, and the better that backlink will look for your website. The website Ahrefs provides a free tool to check domain ranking; others have it as part of a package of software that can be purchased.
Where on the page the link is. A link within content, as you’ve seen a few times in this blog by now, are more valuable than one tucked away in a footer or somewhere hard to find.
Even the words that appear around where the link is can matter. Referred to as link co-occurrences, these words and phrases tip the Google crawlers off to what the page might be about. This factors into the ranking determination accordingly.
Follow vs. No-Follow Links
Earlier I talked about how backlinks pass link juice back to your website that helps in SERP’s. This is only true if the link is not a no-follow link. A no-follow link is a link with the tag ‘rel=”nofollow”’ in its code. This instructs the link not to pass on any link juice to any website linking back to it. In fact, Google's bots won't even crawl no-follow links.
Why would people set their links up this way? It’s a little complicated. When someone links back to a certain page, it’s almost as if that link endorses the content it’s being used to create. This can be a problem if their link appears on several spammy, irrelevant websites, and can end up hurting their own authority. So, making a link no-follow is a workaround to that. The website Search Engine Land has a handy infographic as to when people may use these. In part, no follow links would be appropriate for:
As a general rule, social media links are no-follow links. While they are great for increasing reach and engagement of your content, they don’t move the needle for SEO purposes. Generic press releases fall under the no-follow link umbrella too - but there is massive value if a newspaper picks up that story and does a feature on it. So while there’s no direct value in a press release for SEO purposes, it can end up being significant.
OK, So They’re Important. How Do I Get Them? And What Should I Not Do?
We’ve finally reached the million dollar question. We know the impact these can have and why they’re important, but how do we go about getting them? How do we become that authority that people want to link to?
Before I dive into that, here’s something that I often see masquerading as advice that I want to dispel. The answer isn’t ‘just create great content’. To be honest, this isn’t advice, it’s table stakes. It should go without saying that your website shouldn’t look like something Homer Simpson created, and should provide real value to your audience.
But anyone that just leaves it at that is missing the point. You need to build a presence in addition to great content, and not just build it and hope people come. It’s like if you asked me how to play quarterback well and my response was ‘just throw the ball to the receiver’. It’s not that simple in football, and the same goes for good SEO.
Along those same lines, don’t engage in ‘black hat’ SEO tactics. As I talked about earlier, this includes not culling a bunch of backlines to spammy, irrelevant websites. But there are more things to avoid. For instance, don’t go out and buy or trade for a bunch of backlinks - you’ll see a short term boost from that, but Google is very adept at figuring out when this happens and will react accordingly (they in some instances can even put a manual penalty on a site or worse, de-index it entirely, which is game over).
One final thing not to do: don’t just collect backlinks for the sake of having them. They have to be from relevant websites. This is why I recommend doing a periodic audit of websites that link back to yours, and taking action to remove bad backlinks as necessary. An easy way to do this is to email the website owner and ask them to remove it, but if that doesn’t work you can disavow the backlink, a process that is explained here.
Ok, so now for the critical question: just how do I go about getting these? I’ve gone through and looked at the opinions of various authorities on the subject, and here are the tactics I like:
Get your content out there and be seen as an authority on the subject. This is earning the backlink the old fashioned way - through providing users value. Spread your content out amongst different audiences where the content is appropriate. For Oak Moon, I have quite a few channels I use to broadcast content, but I try to make them relevant (for instance, my blog about LinkedIn marketing, which was the highest performing blog on the site by a mile and can be found here, was pushed through various groups geared towards social media marketing). As a result, if someone wants to write about a topic I covered, the chances they use some of my research and provide that backlink increase.
Be a source for reporters writing on the subject. This is one Brian Dean champions and I think there’s a ton of value in it. There’s a website called Help a Reporter Out where you can serve as a source when reporters are writing about different stories. Sign up here and if you come across a reporter covering a topic in your zone of genius, reach out and offer them some insight. If this is done right, you’ll get a valuable backlink out of it.
Try to find instances where people mention your business, but didn’t provide you a backlink. This one can be easier because, hopefully, these are people you have some kind of existing relationship with. As far as how to find these, Ahrefs has a great blog (the third point) about this topic. In the interest of not diving into the technical side in this blog, if you’re interested in more details I recommend checking that blog out.
Finally, consider infographics. If done right, they are very shareable, easy to understand and get picked up by different bloggers very easily (if you’re a reader of my blogs you’ve probably noticed I use them frequently). I understand this can be a chore for some businesses and that they may not have the budget or expertise in house. But if you can swing it, it’s worth it.
To wrap up, a quick word on the general practice of backlink building: don’t take shortcuts. Doing this right is super valuable, but it takes time and effort. Like many things in life, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Do it the right way and you’ll be climbing the Google rankings in due time. And if you liked the content of this blog and want to use it in your own work, don’t forget to backlink to it!
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