A backlink is a hyperlink pointing from one domain to another. They form an important part of an SEO campaign but be warned; not all backlinks are created equal.

Finding the right websites that want to link to you can be tough, and there are a lot of factors that go into making these decisions. Let’s take a close look at how this all works.

Why Do Search Engines Care About Backlinks?

The aim of any major search engine is simple – satisfy the searcher’s intent as quickly as possible. This means showing the best and most relevant websites first.

To do this, they consider hundreds of different elements on your site to figure out where you should rank and your backlink profile forms a large part of these considerations. At its most basic, a backlink is seen as a vote of confidence from one website to another; “I’m so confident in this other website that I’m willing to send my users to it.”

By looking at the types of websites that are willing to give you that vote, search engines can get a reasonable idea of how helpful your site is going to be for searchers.

Why YOU Should Care About Backlinks

Just like all other areas of modern SEO, the reasons to properly do the job go far beyond appeasing a search engine algorithm. Just like that algorithm, users also view backlinks as a vote as well, and this brings with it quite a few advantages that can prove incredibly helpful for your business.

Some of these advantages include:

  • Creating a great source of qualified referral traffic
  • Better brand exposure to that qualified traffic
  • The potential for strong business relationships with these other site owners
  • Improved domain strength across your entire website

If your onsite SEO is on point, these advantages are going to bring you more of the right type of traffic which gives you a better chance of converting that traffic into business or, at the very least, beginning to build rapport with those visitors.

Quality over Quantity

Put yourself in the search engine’s shoes for a moment. If you’re looking at these “votes” as a product review, which are you going to put more faith in, the product with 100 endorsements from local leaders in that industry or the one with 500,000 endorsements from random profiles written in broken English?

This reasoning is quite similar to the thought process that search engine algorithms are going through to determine the quality of your link profile. Thankfully, gone are the days where the only thing that made a strong profile was a large number of links.

This is not to say that volume doesn’t matter, just that you should never build bad links for the sake of having more links.

What is a Quality Backlink?

So, with all this talk about earning quality backlinks, how can you tell the good from the bad?

Honestly, even the search engines have a hard time with this one, and they don’t always get it right. But there are a few considerations we can look at to point us in the right direction. Here are just a few factors we know the search engines consider:

  • Is the linking website relevant to yours?
  • Does the site use your country’s Top Level Domain (TLD)? Ie if you’re an Australian business, getting links from a .com.au address is usually preferred.
  • Does the linking website use the same language as yours?
  • Does it have anything to do with gambling, adult content or pharmaceuticals? These are a huge red flag!
  • Are there too many ads placed on the website?
  • If the link is already live, what anchor text does it use? “Anchor text” is the text or image that users can click
  • Link placement – where is the link located on the page? The higher up in the body text on a page, the more powerful the link. Sidebar and footer links give less strength than above-the-fold links.
  • Overall quality of the linking website
  • How many other sites does that website link to?
  • Are the other outbound links from that site relevant to yours?

Running through these questions is going to give you a reasonable idea of whether or not you want a link from a particular website or if your time is better spent looking for higher quality elsewhere.

Follow vs. No-Follow

When adding a hyperlink, the site owner/webmaster may choose to “no-follow” your link. What this means is they are linking to your website, and the user will never know the difference, but most of the strength normally passed to you by that link won’t be applied.

No-follow links are often used to either limit the amount of spam by making those links less appealing to spammers or to avoid diluting too much strength on pages with large volumes of outbound links.

While not ideal, a no-follow link does still pass some signals and should be seen as a consolation; it’s not what you set out to achieve, but you’ve still had a win. To search engines, while it doesn’t pass that direct strength, it does still send some of the signals listed above like relevance, language, location, etc. which will still help your rankings overall. You’re still getting that quality referral traffic too!

By default, a hyperlink will be followed. If you want to confirm whether or not a link is a no-follow, the easiest way to do this is to view the source of the page (Ctrl + U) and locate it there or right-click the link and select Inspect Element.

What you’re looking for is the rel=nofollow element that will look something like the example below, though the no-follow tag may be placed anywhere within the <a> tag.

Basic Link Types

Not all backlinks are created equal. Of the high-quality links you’re likely to find, they’ll usually fall into one of the below categories. As a general rule, the harder that link is to obtain, the more benefit you’re going to get from it which comes back to the previous point about quality vs. quantity.

  • Good Links
Local directory submissions Very easy
Industry forums and discussion Easy
Site owners – Other businesses and suppliers in your niche Moderate
Thought leaders, brand names, and industry influencers Difficult
    • Local Directory Submissions: Local directories are websites like Yellow Pages and True Local; directories where real users are going to find you and visit your website. Because most of these aren’t specifically targeted towards your industry, they do offer limited strength but often take just minutes for a guaranteed link.
    • Industry Forums and Discussion: You’re an expert in your field, right? Why not share that knowledge with people that are looking for it? If you have a selection of high-quality blog posts on your website, it’s very likely that, at some point, you’re going to be part of a discussion where you blog post already covers the answer – so why not link to it?The key here is actually to be part of the community and make meaningful contributions rather than just showing up to paste a link. Don’t be afraid to link to other websites if they have the right answer too – it’s what real users do!Contributing to these communities shouldn’t be overlooked. It gives you another potential method of building rapport with the right people and establishing helpful relationships.

      It might feel like you’re just there giving away time and information but remember, you’re not there to paste links and solicit leads, just build those relationships, and they will pay off in the long run.

    • Site Owners: This one is pretty straight-forward – reach out to other website owners in relevant industries. Exactly how to go about this is an entire topic in itself, but the aim here is to offer other websites something of value in return for a backlink.The sites should relate to what it is that you do, and ultimately, the link will be “followed” and manually placed within the body content rather than on a “links” page.
    • Industry Influencers: By far the hardest to achieve, you’re looking for the most influential people in your industry to be talking about you. For this to happen, you need to give them a reason to mention you, and it will need to be a very compelling reason.It typically takes some thinking outside the box but remember; they care about what the industry cares about so it could be as simple as conducting some unique and insightful research and reaching out to them with your findings.

Bad Links

When done right, the above link types are going to be safe and help boost the strength of your domain. Since search engines essentially rely on artificial intelligence to determine ranking positions, some flaws can be exploited for easy gains as well, but these tricks aren’t as great as some may have you believe.

The search algorithms are getting updated very regularly (in Google’s case, over 500 times per year!) and a good number of these aim to uncover some of these sneaky tactics. What that means for those who employ them is that it might take less effort to build the backlinks, but it is a gamble. They fall under the title of “black hat SEO” and should be avoided if you need security in your rankings since recovering from a penalty can be a time-intensive process over many months.

  • SEO Directories: These are directories that exist purely to hand out links. They’re not built for the user and have no intentions of every being used for more than a quick submission.They will often look something like the one below and are usually free to submit your site to, but you get what you pay for!
  • Link Wheels: In it’s simplest form, a link wheel is a collection of websites that you or your SEO own which link one way around the “wheel” as well as to your primary website in an attempt to boost your rankings.Link wheels are no longer effective and run the risk of landing you in an algorithmic penalty.
  • Private Blog Networks: Similar to a Link Wheel, a Private Blog Network is a collection of websites that you or your SEO own that all link back to your primary website. The main difference is that they don’t necessarily link to each other.In fact, done properly, quite a lot of effort goes into making them appear as genuine websites that have no connection to each other.
  • Blog and Forum Spam: We’ve all seen it before, and unfortunately, it’s not about to go away. These are simply links placed into blog or forum comments just for the sake of a link.Blog comments and forums can be a good way to build links but only if you’re doing it to offer a valuable contribution. Don’t just drop a link to your website or a vaguely related post.If you are going to get links from blogs or forums, take the time actually to contribute there, even when not adding a link. There are plenty of benefits to being an active member!
  • Paid Link Placements: Any service that offers a backlink for money is a no-go. If the link is part of a genuine sponsorship package, then that’s ok, but if you’re just buying the link, you’re better off putting that money into something else.Some argue search engines can’t determine the difference, but modern algorithms are becoming surprisingly effective at understanding context and link placement.
  • Fake Online Profiles: There are plenty of websites you can sign up to that allow you to add your website as part of your online profile. Much like blog and forum spam, if you’re actually going to be contributing to that community, there’s nothing wrong with listing your site but don’t go around creating profiles purely for the sake of that link!
  • Article Submissions: Article submissions are exactly what they sound like; you write an article of any quality, and you submit it to a website that exists for no reason other than to host massive volumes of rubbish content.Of course, within this article you place your backlink(s) as well, so you get the benefit of it. You don’t want your domain associated with these collections of poor quality content.
  • Sitewide Footer Links: If you’re in an industry where you’re dealing with clients’ websites, you may be tempted to place a backlink in their footer, something like “website created by [your company]”.Footer links were common practice in recent years, but they aren’t the best idea in the modern SEO landscape.They don’t provide the user with a relevant link and they’re a very easy pattern for Google to spot. It’s ok to be proud of your work, and maybe you stand to gain business by having this here, but if you are going to do it, it’s best to limit it to one or two links across the site, not the footer of every page! Better yet, make it a no-follow link.

Use With Caution

Finally, there are a few tactics that are perfectly fine to use if you do them the right way. These tactics aren’t inherently bad, though they have been spammed so heavily in the past, they’re often looked upon poorly. [Include clip from Matt Cutts]

As long as you’re putting the user experience at the forefront here and targeting quality, relevant sites then you’re going to be OK. It’s when you start chasing nothing but that link volume that it starts to get risky.

  • Press Releases: Press releases can be a great way to announce something exciting or newsworthy and push it in front of various outlets. If you’ve got some interesting information then go ahead and do your research to find a good place to publish your press release but be weary of spammy websites.On the other hand, don’t go submitting a press release just for the sake of that backlink. Writing one about how your business has just changed printer brands is hardly going to inspire the type of attention you want.This tactic has been heavily spammed so if you do head down this route, do it sparingly and only when you have something of interest!
  • Guest Posting: Guest posting is simply publishing a blog post you’ve written on another website. Since you’re placing it on another site, quality should be a major focus.The reason this is a risky tactic is that it’s been used very similarly to article submissions in the past where SEOs would write large volumes of “guest posts” and throw this low-quality content up on various other domains.They should be used to build your personal profile, help the website you’re posting on and potentially bring referral traffic and leads.
  • Reciprocal Linking: A reciprocal linking situation is one where you offer to link to another website in return for a link from them. It was used heavily in the earlier days of SEO because it offered a simple “give” to other website owners; it was a lazy value proposition.Reciprocal linking isn’t a tactic you should specifically pursue, though if you do end up with a handful of reciprocal links in an otherwise-healthy profile, it’s nothing to be concerned about.
  • Reciprocal Linking: A reciprocal linking situation is one where you offer to link to another website in return for a link from them. It was used heavily in the earlier days of SEO because it offered a simple “give” to other website owners; it was a lazy value proposition.Reciprocal linking isn’t a tactic you should specifically pursue, though if you do end up with a handful of reciprocal links in an otherwise-healthy profile, it’s nothing to be concerned about.

Paid Links, Yes or No?

We have already mentioned paid links, but it is an important topic that deserves a little more attention because it isn’t so black and white.

Paying for a pure link placement is almost always a bad idea. Strong, legitimate websites aren’t likely to offer that type of service which limits you to a fairly low link quality. It’s also going to give you virtually no chance of seeing legitimate referral traffic because real users just aren’t going there.

If what you’re paying for is genuinely helpful to either your business (outside of SEO) or your users and you happen to get a link from this then that’s fantastic – a proper win-win. Provided the website is high quality and relevant, there’s nothing wrong with this, so long as you do it properly.

Don’t go signing up to 10 organisations in your niche, getting your link then ignoring it until the next payment is due. Take advantage of the opportunity. Contribute to the community, get to building relationships and offering real advice and information to better leverage this. While it won’t make the initial link any stronger or safer, it does help you build brand strength and recognition, and you may even end up with some referrals and real backlinks from other sources as well.

Is Link Building Enough?

No. Link building makes up an important part of an SEO campaign, but it can’t be the only part. In most cases you will be able to achieve some ranking results with a strong backlink profile and even generate some traffic. But, much like a store front, if the way you serve your customers is terrible, they’re just going to leave without buying anything and you’ll waste all the money you put into getting them there.

Modern SEO is almost entirely about providing a great user experience. It’s what users want which means it’s also what search engines want. Your focus should never be purely on the SERPs (Search Engine Results Page), but rather on earning conversions and this can be done in many ways, all of which require a good user experience.

Link Building Has its Place in a Campaign, and it’s Not at the Beginning

Just because links are important doesn’t mean they should be the primary focus from the beginning of your campaign. As mentioned above, there’s no point in sending more traffic to your website if it’s just not a nice place to be.

Unless your link profile is in particularly bad shape, spend some time working on your onsite elements to provide a better experience then gradually transition into link building as time progresses.

Viewing Your Backlink Profile

There are quite a few tools available (Ahrefs, Moz, and Majestic) that allow you to view some detailed information about your backlink profile. While they each have their own proprietary scoring systems and methods of crawling, they are fairly similar in most ways, particularly if you’re new to SEO.

Since Google doesn’t provide us with any complete and accurate data on what backlinks they’ve “seen” pointing to your site, these tools have to crawl the Internet using their own processes and computing power. What this means is that while the data you see in these tools is a fairly good indication, it may not be 100% accurate, and there is often some lag time.

A link you build today may not sure up in the list for several weeks or in some cases months, and right now, there’s no way around this.

Since we’re currently using Ahrefs, we’re going to look at some of the more important stats and where to find them within that tool. Having used both Moz and Majestic as well, they are both very easy to navigate and find the equivalent information.

  • Site Explorer
    First things first, select “Site Explorer” from the top nav and enter your domain name into the search field. All default options are just fine for now so you can click Search to begin.
  • Basic Stats
    After clicking Search, you’ll be taken to the dashboard that shows you a host of information. The three most important pieces of information right now are going to be Domain Rating, Backlinks, and Referring Domains.
  • Domain Rating
    Ahrefs bases its overall score of your link profile on a 1 – 100 scale of increasing difficulty where moving from 1 to 5 is very easy while getting from 90 – 95 is quite a big jump.
  • Backlinks
    Quite self-explanatory, this is simply the number of backlinks pointing to your domain(s).
  • Referring Domains
    This is the number of domains pointing to yours. While backlinks count the number of individual links, referring domains show how many domains those links have come from.
  • View the List of Referring Domains
    To see this complete list (from Ahrefs indexes), just click the number shown under Referring Domains. This will take you to a table that shows some information about each domain including domain name, their Domain Rank, and how many followed/no-follow links are on each site.
  • See Links Gained and Lost
    On the left-hand side, under Inbound Links you’ll see Referring Domains > New/Lost. Click this link and you’ll be taken to a calendar view where you can see where links were gained and lost in Ahrefs’ index, which can give you some idea of progress too.

With this information, can you monitor new and lost links as well as the overall strength of your link profile. While this information may not directly correlate with what Google sees, it does form a solid indication over time.

Will Backlinks Always be Important?

Unfortunately, yes. Backlinks are an imperfect metric but very much a necessary evil at this stage. As search engines continue to get better at understanding searcher intent and your ability to provide for it, the reliance on backlinks will continue to slide steadily.

It’s unlikely they’ll ever be removed as a factor, but even if they were, high-quality link building is something that should ultimately continue regardless. There are more benefits than just SERP position and there’s no reason to pass up those opportunities!

Be Wary of Automation and Cheap Link Services

It’s very easy to spam and manipulate your backlink profile to look impressive to search engines, and as we covered above, this may get you short term results but the long term risk is just not worth it.

There are tools and websites available that will guarantee large volumes of links for very little money and you’re going to get spammed with emails offering similar services. Whether or not you go down this route is entirely your call, but if you plan on keeping your same domain for a long time and want it to rank, it’s not the wisest choice.

If you’re on a strict budget but want to work on your profile, check out some of the resources below to study up on best practices and learn to do it yourself. If you’re too busy to do this, consider looking into a quality agency or freelancer to take care of it for you instead, just be very picky about who you choose. Take the time to evaluate their skill set and make the right decision.