What Are Backlinks And Why Are They Important For SEO?

Once upon a time, backlinks used to be practically all that mattered in SEO. The more you had, the better you would rank. Since then, Google has significantly updated its algorithm, but backlinks have remained just as important. 

Here’s all you need to know about them and how they can improve your SEO game. 

What Are Backlinks?

Backlinks are links pointing from one website to another. They are also referred to as incoming links. 

Search engines treat them as recommendations. When a website links to yours, it signals to Google that you are a trustworthy, relevant, quality resource. You deserve to rank well, so more people can see you. 

The more quality backlinks you have from relevant websites, the higher you will climb in search engines’ esteem. 

Note that we don’t know for certain how Google values backlinks. We do know that they are still using PageRank to some extent and that one of your SEO goals should certainly be acquiring as many quality backlinks as possible. 

Also note that having lots of low-quality, spammy backlinks can do serious harm to your website. Building shady backlinks at great speed is also considered a black hat tactic, and will result in a penalty. 

Types of Backlinks 

Backlinks can be categorized based on several criteria: 

  • Nofollow vs. dofollow backlinks: The main difference between these two types of backlinks is that nofollow links don’t (in theory) pass link equity, while dofollow backlinks do. 
  • Paid vs. earned backlinks: Paid backlinks are the ones you have provided some monetary compensation. Earned backlinks are the opposite, i.e. you got them for free. 
  • Organic vs. built backlinks: Organic backlinks are the ones you had no hand in building whatsoever, i.e. a website has decided to link to yours of their own accord. They are the opposite of the backlinks you build yourself, using any link building method. 

You will want to have most of these kinds of backlinks, as they will diversify your portfolio and make it look more natural. However, you want the majority of your backlinks to be dofollow and earned, as opposed to nofollow and paid. Google does not want you to pay for links in any way. Whether you have more organic backlinks or ones you’ve built yourself will not make much of a difference. 

Why Are Backlinks Important For SEO?

As you know, backlinks are quite important for SEO. Here’s what they can do for you:

  • Improve your rankings: In the most general of terms, the more backlinks your pages have, the higher the chance they will rank for relevant search queries. Note however that backlink quality and relevance play a huge role. 
  • Speed up page indexing: Search engines visit websites that get a lot of traffic more often than those with little to no traffic. When you get a backlink from a popular website, chances are your page will be indexed faster. 
  • Send relevant referral traffic: People will click on the backlinks you have built and earned to check out your website. The more relevant the backlink, the higher the chances you get a referral visit. 
  • Boost credibility and authority: Being featured by relevant, popular and authoritative websites will significantly improve your credibility. It’s like getting a very public recommendation from someone with a lot of influence. 

Note that the higher the quality of the backlink, the more impact it will have. A single backlink from a high-authority website in your niche can boost both your rankings and your domain rating much more than dozens of backlinks from low-quality, irrelevant domains. 

How To Check Your Backlinks 

You can check the backlinks of your website in a couple of ways. 

First, you can use your Google Search Console. There is a Links tab near the bottom of the left-hand menu. When you click on it, you’ll get an overview of both your internal and external links

You can then explore the pages that are most often linked to, the anchor text used for a backlink, as well as the website linking back to you. 

Google Search Console Links

You can also use a third-party tool like Ahrefs or SEMRush to get a list of all the backlinks to your website. 

This list can sometimes be longer or shorter than the one you see in Search Console. The latter often needs time to catch a backlink and may ignore those from lower quality websites. On the other hand, the SEO tool won’t usually supply a perfect list either, so it’s best to combine the two to get a more comprehensive overview of the state of your backlinks. 

The good thing about using an SEO tool is that you also get to see the metrics of the websites linking back to you, and can better judge the quality of your backlink portfolio. 

Make sure to regularly check your backlinks, and disavow anything that’s spammy or outright dangerous, as it can do serious harm. 

Good vs. Bad Backlinks: What’s The Difference? 

It’s important to understand the difference between a good backlink and a bad one. Acquiring too many of the latter, whether by accident or by design, will result in a penalty sooner or later. 

You may be able to get away with shady link building tactics for a while, and your rankings and traffic may climb. However, this will be short-lived, and the price you will have to pay will not be worth it. You may even be kicked out of search altogether. 

Here’s what makes a good backlink:

  • It comes from a trusted, reputable, authoritative website 
  • It comes from a relevant page 
  • It has a relevant, non-spammy anchor 
  • It’s nestled in a relevant context 
  • It’s dofollow rather than nofollow 
  • It comes from a domain that has not linked to you previously 

Let’s break these points down:

You should aim for the majority of your backlinks to come from quality websites. Ones that help their readers, not those that were only created to charge for guest posts. 

Make sure both the website and page linking to yours are relevant for your page. What relevance means exactly is sometimes a matter of dispute in the SEO world. In short, you don’t want to have backlinks that make no sense in the context and topic of the page. 

For example, if you sell dog beds, a backlink from a parenting blog in a post about redecorating the living room will make sense. Every blog that writes about pets will also be highly relevant. But a post about the best business ventures you can start from home from an entrepreneurial blog won’t be as relevant. 

Whenever possible, you want your backlinks to pass link equity, but don’t reject nofollow backlinks either. They can still drive a lot of referral traffic. 

Also, it’s believed that only the first backlink you get from a domain will impact your SEO in a meaningful way. This does not mean you should disavow duplicate links, or never work with the same website twice. There is still a lot of benefit in establishing great relationships with other bloggers and their audiences. 

How to Build More Backlinks

Now that you know all there is to know about backlinks and their importance, let’s see what you can do to build more of them: 

Create High-Quality Linkable Assets

One of the best ways to build backlinks is to earn them. This means you won’t have to spend time looking for prospects, doing outreach or filling out forms. The links will come to you. 

You can earn high-quality links by creating high-quality linkable assets: pages that other websites will want to link to. 

A linkable asset can be any post that provides lots of value. It can be a detailed and in-depth guide, proprietary research, a product review, a case study. In short, any page that will add value to the content of others can be a linkable asset. 

In practice, evergreen topics tend to make better linkable assets than trending ones. The key is to write a top notch post that is easy to digest, easy to skim through, and that can be considered the ultimate resource on a topic. 

Offer To Write Guest Posts

Guest posting is the process of reaching out to other websites and asking to write a post for them. It involves finding and analyzing websites in your niche (or other niches whose audiences would be interested to hear from you), sending them an email asking for a guest post, writing said post and waiting for it to get published. 

This is usually a time-consuming process, which can be somewhat sped up with the use of outreach automation tools, like Pitchbox or Buzzstream. 

When looking for guest posting opportunities, also look for websites that don’t advertise they accept guest posts. Backlinks from a website that doesn’t publish lots of guest posts will have more value. 

Personalize your outreach emails as much as possible, and work on establishing relationships with bloggers, not just getting a backlink out of them. 

Reclaim Your Unlinked Mentions 

An unlinked mention is when a website mentions your brand or product in an article but does not link to your website. It can often be worth your while to reach out to them and ask for a link. 

You don’t need to do this for every mention – look for the ones coming from relevant and reputable websites that will have more of an impact on your SEO. 

One way to find unlinked mentions is to use the intext:search term search operator. Look for the name of your company, the name of your CEO if they are at all popular, the names of your products or services. 

You can also use the Ahrefs Content Explorer. Search for the same terms you would in Google, and make sure to tick the “highlight unlinked mentions” box.

If you have lots of product images, you can also do a reverse image search in Google. If you have original videos, you can do a reverse video search too.  

Be polite when you ask for a link, and don’t expect to get it every time. After all, it’s at the webmaster’s discretion who they want to link out to. 

Check Out Your Competitors’ Backlinks 

Analyzing your competitors’ backlinks is a great way to find all kinds of opportunities. You can find blogs, directories and forums, and see exactly what kinds of tactics they use to acquire backlinks. 

You’ll need an SEO tool for the job, like Ahrefs or SEMRush. Once you export a list of a website’s backlinks, go through them one by one, and see which ones would be worth having. 

Also take the time to note the kinds of anchor text they are using, and which pages they are focusing most of their efforts on. This can help you adjust your own strategy, if you want to outrank them.

Pay attention if they are often credited as the author of the post (in which case they are doing lots of guest posting outreach), or if they are only linked to from an article written by someone else (in which case they are probably creating lots of great content). 

Note that guest post authors won’t always be listed, so this is not a foolproof tactic, but it can help. 

Build Links Through HARO 

You can use HARO for building links too. HARO, or Help a Reporter Out, is a platform that connects journalists with  bloggers, i.e. people who can help them write better articles. 

This is a great way to get featured on some of the biggest publications both in the world and in your industry. You could snag a backlink from Forbes or The Wall Street Journal, for example. 

When you sign up to HARO, you will get to choose the topics you are an expert in. You’ll then receive a HARO email three times a day, and you can provide answers and insights for any topic you believe is relevant to your business and website. 

Note that HARO journalists aren’t in any way obliged to link out to you, even if they do quote you in an article. Most of them do, but there’s no guarantee. 

Use Broken Link Building Tactics 

Broken link building involves finding broken links on a website and then reaching out to them suggesting they replace the link with one of yours. 

The replacement link you suggest needs to be relevant. The hypothesis is that a blogger will appreciate you pointing out they have a broken external link, like your page, and have no problem linking out to it. This will only work if your page is great though. 

Ahrefs has a broken link checker (under Outgoing links > Broken links) you can use for the purpose. Choose large websites that are likely to link out to websites like yours, and that could have a broken link or two. 

You can also reverse engineer the process, and look for 404 pages on your competitors’ sites. When you find one, you can check if anyone is linking to it.

This is often a link building tactic you engage in by accident, so to speak. Check for broken backlinks when analyzing a website, but don’t spend too much time trying to manually look for 404 pages, it takes too much time. 

Build Links From Resource Pages

Resource pages are curated lists of external links. For example, a page about the 100 best breakfast muffin recipes will link out to 100 different recipe pages. If you have one, you can ask to get featured.

You can find resource pages via Google search. Look for guides and lists that are relevant for your website. Get a bit creative and see what you can find. 

Once you find a page you want to be featured on, send a polite email to the website. Explain why your page is a great resource to link to. Don’t be pushy, rather let the quality of your content speak for itself. 

Note that there is not too much SEO value in backlinks from resource pages, as they link out to dozens or hundreds of other pages too, passing a bit of link equity to each. However, this is a great way to get referral traffic and to boost your reputation and authority. 

Use The Moving Man Method

The Moving Man method involves finding outdated or unavailable resources that have lots of backlinks. For example, if one of your competitors has an ultimate guide on a topic they have not updated in three years, you can “move” their backlinks over to your website. 

Ideally, you will want to already have the page written. If there are lots of backlinking opportunities from great websites, it can be worth creating a new one too. 

Also look for websites that have changed names, no longer publish content, or no longer offer a service. They may have lots of great backlinks that now point to stale content you can grab. 

Once you find your link pool, reach out and state your case. As always, be polite, explain the benefits for the blogger, and don’t be pushy. 

Use The Skyscraper Technique 

The Skyscraper technique is similar to the Moving Man. It involves finding a piece of content that has lots of great backlinks, creating something better, and then asking for websites to link to you instead. 

Take a look at what your competitors have been doing over the years and see how you can outdo them. The Skyscraper works best for evergreen content that will naturally earn lots of links on its own. Your goal is simply to speed up the process, and get links from websites that clearly show an interest in your topic already. 

You don’t necessarily need to ask a website to swap out a link for yours. You can ask them to include you too, or even suggest writing a guest post. The Skyscraper will help you find lots of relevant websites that are more likely to provide a backlink. 

How Not To Build Backlinks 

Now that you know how you can build backlinks, let’s also briefly touch upon the ways not to. 

  • Don’t use PBNs: PBNs are a group of sites that are linked together and that are used to manipulate search engines. Backlinks from them are considered low quality and can do you harm, especially if you have lots of them. 
  • Don’t enter into any paid link schemes: Google does not want you to pay for links, and considers paid links to be link spam. 
  • Don’t enter into link exchanges: Google also does not want you to excessively exchange links. 
  • Don’t build automated links: Any kind of automated software or service that generates lots of backlinks to your website should be completely avoided. 
  • Don’t build spam links: This can include comment links, forum links or other links that add no value. You can (and should) build relevant forum and comment links that add to the conversation and help readers. 

Wrapping Up 

Quality backlinks are a valuable SEO asset. You should make an effort to build and earn as many of them as you can and boost both your rankings and your authority. 

Remember to always evaluate the quality of a potential backlink before you actually build it. Quality over quantity will make all the difference. 

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