Backlinks may just be the most misunderstood aspect of SEO.
Anyone who has worked in digital marketing, and especially those who have some experience with SEO know that links play an important role in SEO strategy. But what exactly is Google looking for when examining the link profile of a website?
Some of the most common questions that we are asked when working with a client is; are backlinks from Social Media or News Articles important when determining website authority? Are multiple links from the same website or IP address as effective as links from unique websites? And, the biggest one of all, how do I build backlinks for my website?
In this article, we’ll explain the history of backlinks, answer some of the most common questions that are asked when it comes to link building and help you to understand how Google uses backlinks in its ranking algorithm.
But before we get into the nitty-gritty of backlinks, let’s start with the basics.
What Are Backlinks?
Even if you haven’t worked in digital marketing or with an SEO company in the past, there is a good chance that you have heard that links from one website to another play some role in the way that Google ranks websites.
There’s one very important thing to understand when it comes to backlinks. And that is, not all backlinks are created equal. There is a myriad of factors that affect how Google weights backlinks and how important they will be in determining where your website appears in the search engine results pages.
There are 3 key elements that make up the anatomy of a backlink.
The first part is fairly self-explanatory. The start of the link is where the link begins in the text. The link used in this example is a piece of text which has been hyperlinked (data that the user can click on to access another web page) to another web page.
The Destination URL refers to the page that the user will be directed to once they click on the link. In the example used above, the user will be redirected to the webpage, https://www.safaridigital.com.au/seo-adelaide/, when they click on the link. The URL will not actually appear in the middle of the content in the example above. In order to access the webpage, the user will be presented with a highlighted piece of text that they can follow by clicking. Depending on the settings of the website, the user will either be redirected to a new page by clicking the link, or a new window will open with their link – this is dictated by the settings specified by the webmaster.
The final part of the link is the ‘Anchor text’ or the words that are used on the page to represent the referring link. Anchor text is often visible to the user because it will be stylised in a colour that varies from the standard text, or it is underlined or bolded so that it stands out from the standard copy. Anchor text communicates the page contents of a link’s destination URL for users and plays a very important role when it comes to SEO.
In the same way that a link allows users to navigate from one page on a site to another, they also help search engine robots from Google, Bing, and all of the other search engines to discover new pages and decide how to rank those pages for specific keywords and key phrases.
When a search engine spider crawls a link with a non-descriptive or broad anchor text, there’s still a good that it will discover the content of the destination URL, but if the same link is utilised with descriptive anchor text, the power of that link is much higher. Link anchor text plays an important role in the way that pages are ranked.
Here is an example of two links:
- If you’re looking for the Best SEO Agency visit Safari Digital
- If you’re looking for the Best SEO Agency visit Safari Digital
Let’s say that both of these links are coming from the same external website. Both links are pointing to the Safari Digital home page and will pass a certain amount of ‘link juice’ from the referring website. In essence, the referring website is sending a vote of confidence to Google that the website is a trustworthy and reliable source worth ranking.
In the first example, the anchor text is on the word “visit” which means that when search bots view this link, they do not get any strong indication about the contents of the website to which the link is referring.
In the second example, the anchor text is on the keyword “Best SEO Agency”. The second example lets search robots know that the referring page should be ranked for the search term “Best SEO Agency”.
In the same way that links help users to navigate between pages of a website or to another website altogether, they also help search engine bots or “spiders” to discover new pages and how to rank those pages. Anchor text is a critical component of links because they communicate which keywords and themes are featured on the destination URL. Links with non-descriptive anchor text or naked URLs still provide a valuable role in SEO. But the power of the destination URLs content is much higher and thus its ability to rank well for the specified search term dramatically increases.
Why Do Backlinks Matter?
Google has stated on numerous occasions that links play an important role in the way that it ranks content. But, they are reluctant to admit exactly how important they are. Google is very explicit about links being acquired in a natural way so that links are not used to trick search engines into ranking content. Placing emphasis on their importance may lead to unscrupulous link building tactics.
Why Are Backlinks So Important for SEO Strategy?
In simple terms, backlinks act as a vote of confidence from one page to another. Think of them as a reference. If ‘website A’ says that ‘website B’ contains content that they would be confident to refer their users to, then Google looks at website B as being a trustworthy website that should be ranked accordingly.
Websites with a greater number of links are generally viewed to have a greater amount of authority. Google wants to create the best possible experience for its users so that they keep coming back and they can keep selling their advertising to businesses. As a result, Google wants to put the best possible websites in front of users. In order to do this, they use backlinks as a way of determining who has the best, most relevant content.
Backlinks are not a new thing. In fact, back in 1996 Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed page rank at Stanford University as part of a research project about a new kind of search engines. Brin had the idea that the information on the web could be ordered in a hierarchy by the number of links that it has. The more backlinks on the page, the more trustworthy that the website is deemed to be.
Before Google introduced Page Rank in its search ranking algorithm, they equated all links with authority. While the idea of ranking a website by the number of links was good in theory, it did not account for the quality of the referring domain. The resulting algorithm was too simplistic and too easy for webmasters to manipulate. In the very early days, webmasters would artificially generate hundreds of thousands of links from various, shady websites in order to manipulate the rankings.
The result of widespread backlink manipulation was a crackdown from Google’s Web Spam team who began actively working to uncover websites that were using dodgy “blackhat” tactics to game the system. The overhaul from Google resulted in websites being penalised with lower (or no) rankings by search engines.
Ever since Google’s Penguin update in 2012, sites with low-quality, over-optimised links have been widely penalised. Websites who are deemed to have an unnatural link profile with a suspiciously high number of keyword rich anchor text links are most vulnerable to being penalised by Google.
Difference Between Backlinks and Referring Domains
Google has admitted that, aside from onsite content, backlinks are the most heavily weighted ranking factor in the search algorithm. When you think about how much time you spend building your website, creating categories, and perfecting your landing pages, it is surprising to think that backlinks can determine the organic visibility of your website.
Google’s search ranking algorithm is extremely complex. It is constantly changing (more than 500 times per year) and there is no official rule book from Google that spells out exactly what it wants.
One thing that remains consistent across algorithm updates is Google placing weight on high-quality, natural links when determining where websites should be ranked. Google views a website’s referring domains as a major indicator of whether or not a site’s content is valuable and worthy of ranking high up in the search rankings.
Once you have submitted a sitemap and search engines have successfully crawled your website, they will automatically extract the content on your pages and add it to their index. When a site has been indexed by Google, they can then decide how valuable the content on the page is and whether it is worth ranking for relevant keywords.
Unlike the days of Page Rank, it is no longer the sheer number of links that Google will evaluate when determining website rankings. In order to prevent websites from gaming the system, Google is constantly weeding out spammy sites that are designed to do one thing – distribute link juice to other websites. These websites sometimes referred to as “link farms”, are built by webmasters as a way of distributing links to more important websites that they have a commercial interest in.
You can think of Google’s search ranking algorithm the same way that you think of peer to peer marketing. Naturally, you are much more likely to purchase a product that has been referred to you by reliable friends and colleagues. In the same way, Google is much more likely to rank content that has been linked to by high-authority websites who can vouch for the quality of content on a website.
Google also devalues multiple backlinks that are acquired from the same domain after the very first link. By doing this, Google aims to prevent websites from being built with the sole purpose of distributing hundreds (or thousands) of links to the same website.
Therefore, it is no longer the number of backlinks, but also the quality of backlinks from unique domains that determine where a website will rank organically. The more votes of trust that a website receives from high-authority sources, the more likely the site is to have high visibility for important search terms in the search engine results pages.
How Important is Anchor Text for Backlinks?
SEO-friendly anchor text is succinct and relevant to the page it is pointing to. Anchor text is primarily designed with the user experience in mind, so it needs to be natural. Google has been known to penalise and target websites with a link profile that appears a little bit too perfect.
For example, If Safari Digital were to have a lot of links with the Anchor Text “Best SEO Services Australia” this is likely to raise red flags with Google. It’s simply not natural to have a lot of referring links all using the exact same anchor text. Google favours websites with a diverse and natural link profile.
Backlinks which use branded, generic or naked URL anchor text are powerful within themselves because they establish a vote of confidence from another website. If you have the opportunity to build relevant, contextual links from a high-authority source, don’t get caught up worrying about anchor text. Having a naked URL link from a high-authority website is always going to be more powerful than having an optimised link with keyword specific anchor text from a low-quality website.
Do Google Only Value High-Quality Backlinks, Then?
The general sentiment when it comes to link building is quality over quantity. While the statement definitely holds some weight, it doesn’t tell the full story. It doesn’t matter how good the quality of links referring to your website is, you can’t have a quality backlink profile with only 10-20 links.
Google loves good quality links. The more references you have from trustworthy destinations on the web, the more likely you are to be favoured by Google for rankings. It’s unrealistic to expect that every link that you generate to your website is going to be from authoritative sources. In fact, if you only have high-quality links pointing to your website, it doesn’t appear natural.
Link diversity is vital for a healthy backlink profile. It’s important to have links from a range of different sources.
What Is the Best Way to Start Link Building?
Link building is one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of SEO. Prospecting for links through guest posting can take days and leave you empty-handed. If you’re new to SEO or not working with an SEO Agency then you can start prospecting websites within your niche by searching Google for: “Your Niche + Guest Posting”. Be wary, this road is well worn and can leave you empty handed.
If you want to try your hand at link building in house, one of the most effective ways to start outside of traditional guest posting is by becoming a source for news stories. Websites like HARO (Help a Reporter Out) prospect their database (which you can sign up for free of charge) with stories written by trusted publications looking for an authoritative source to comment. Whenever the topic falls into your niche, you can send back a short response as a source for the article. Most journalists will offer a link in return for your part in the story.
Is Domain Authority A Good Indication of Link Strength?
Domain Authority or DA as it is commonly referred to is a ranking system used by SEO company MOZ to determine the ranking potential of a website. Moz created the metric in an effort to reflect Google’s defunct Page Rank system that was previously used to judge the ranking power of a page.
In actuality, Domain Authority is an arbitrary measure that tries to predict how Google will rank content. Rather than determining the strength of a website by DA, it is best to look at traffic figures and site activity. Sites that have a healthy traffic profile are much more likely to provide valuable links.
Is Page Authority Important for Backlinks?
Page Authority is to single web pages what Domain Authority is for an entire domain. Like Domain Authority, Page Authority is an arbitrary ranking system between 1 and 100 that tries to predict the ranking potential of a page for certain keywords.
Page authority can be used as a relative metric to compare against competitors, but like all third-party ranking systems, they should be taken with a grain of salt. In general, the more referring links that you have going to a page, the higher the authority of that page will be.
Do Social Media Links Count as Links?
Yes and no. Social media links are inherently classified as “nofollow” which means that links do not carry any link juice, per se.
That being said, social media links are an important element in creating a complete digital footprint for your brand or business. Facebook, Pinterest, and LinkedIn are part of a multi-faceted approach to organic search rankings. Most of the benefit of social links come from increased engagement and referral traffic which can act as a positive ranking factor with Google.
The Google search algorithm is constantly changing. Google is becoming savvier with the way that they value links and determine unnatural patterns. In order to stay in Google’s good graces and avoid a penalty which could cause serious damage to your website, it’s best to take a slow and measured approach to your link building efforts.
Through all of the Google algorithm updates, one thing that has remained constant is the value placed on high-quality links. Just like every aspect of SEO, link building should be viewed as a long-term strategy.