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What are Backlinks and Why are They Important?
Backlinks are inbound links to your website from other sources on the web.
Most common sources of backlinks include:
- Blog and news sites
- Business directories, associations, and chambers of commerce
- Social media posts and profiles
- Forums and Community Boards
- Government and institutional websites
- PDFs and other document-type content
Backlinks are crucially important for your website because they act as endorsements of your content from other web entities.
They are one of the most significant factors the Google algorithm considers when evaluating a website or content’s relevance and authority.
This principle has been integral since Google’s early days, notably with the filing of their “Ranking documents based on user behavior and/or feature data” patent.
This aspect of the algorithm assesses websites and web pages based on user interactions and various other characteristics, with backlinks being a key component.
In simpler terms, a website that accumulates more backlinks (and more powerful backlinks) organically over time is deemed more authoritative in its niche by the algorithm.
I specifically highlight ‘organically’ because backlink acquisition can be easily manipulated.
Google is aware of this and actively counters manipulation with another patent, which will be discussed later.
What Does a Perfect Backlink Look Like?
Not all backlinks are created equal, and the quality of a backlink is determined by several key factors.
These factors influence how much ‘link juice’ a backlink transfers to the site it points to.
The perfect backlinks are rare and highly coveted by website owners and administrators because they have the potential to significantly impact a site’s visibility and ranking.
The source of the backlink must be relevant to your site’s content.
This relevance spans from a broad niche alignment to a more detailed, content-specific connection.
For instance, if a site within your niche references a statistical detail from one of your articles to support a point, this is seen as highly relevant.
Authority and Trust
Some websites are more influential and trusted by search engines than others.
For example, Expedia, a recognized name in travel, holds more clout than a new travel blog by Hans and Greta they started a month ago.
Although Hans and Greta’s site may gain authority over time, search engines currently favor and assign more value to backlinks from established sites like Expedia.
Anchor text is the clickable text in a hyperlink.
According to Google’s SEO Starter Guide, the search engine’s algorithm prefers descriptive anchor text—that is neither too sparse nor overstuffed with keywords.
For example, a backlink to your Orlando Wedding Photography site would transfer more ‘link juice’ if the anchor text reads ‘awesome wedding photographer in Orlando’ rather than a generic and non-descriptive anchor text of ‘this site’.
DoFollow vs NoFollow vs Sponsored Links
DoFollow links are the most influential out of the three types.
They are uniquely capable of passing on ‘link juice.’
In contrast, NoFollow and Sponsored links do not function as endorsements from one site to another and do not pass on ‘link juice.’
NoFollow links are often found on sites with User Generated Content, like social media platforms or forums.
Sponsored links are appropriate for links with monetary incentives such as sponsored content, affiliate links, or advertisements.
Still, links marked as NoFollow or Sponsored are still better than no links at all so they’re not completely useless after all.
Uniqueness in backlinks signifies that the first backlink from a domain is most impactful.
Subsequent links from the same domain deliver considerably less ‘link juice.’
This rule helps prevent the over-replication of ‘link juice’ from repeated mentions, whether organic or manipulative.
Only about 10% of sites receive traffic from Google, indicating that traffic is a marker of trust and authority.
Hence, links from sites with traffic are more potent than those from inactive sites, assuming other factors are equal.
Moreover, backlinks from high-traffic sites can potentially drive traffic to your site too, especially if the linking page itself attracts significant traffic.
Although considered a minor factor, many SEOs believe that links at the top of a page are more important than those at the bottom.
Also, links within the main content body of a page are deemed more powerful than those in the footer or sidebar.
Essentially, the optimal placement for a backlink is where it’s surrounded by content relevant both to the link and to the targeted page.
What are Spammy or Bad Backlinks and Can They Hurt Your Domain?
Spammy backlinks are links from low-quality sources and often aim to manipulate search engine results.
These sources include:
- Link Farms (sites solely for selling backlinks)
- Comment Spam (irrelevant links in comments on blogs, news sites, forums)
- Article Directories (sites accepting low-quality articles spammed with backlinks)
- Private Blog Networks (PBNs) (networks of low-quality sites for selling backlinks)
- Adult, Gambling, or Pharma sites (when irrelevant to your niche)
‘Bad’ backlinks are those created solely to manipulate SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages), leaving detectable traces for Google to find and penalize.
Google’s patent “Detection and analysis of backlink activity“ helps in this.
It monitors and evaluates backlinks, identifying trends, the authenticity of backlinks, and their SEO impact.
This system can spot patterns or ‘footprints’ of manipulative SEO practices (often termed “black hat”), like paid link building.
When Google detects these practices, it may penalize the associated website either algorithmically or manually.
In summary, both spammy and ‘bad’ backlinks can seriously harm your website.
However, Google recognizes that sites may acquire such links naturally and has become adept at ignoring them unless they’re part of a larger, poorly organized link building campaign that leaves obvious footprints.
What Does a Natural Backlink Profile Look Like?
A natural backlink profile showcases the variety and diversity of backlinks a website gathers over time.
Even spammy and bad backlinks are part of a natural profile, so there’s no need to panic if you occasionally find them pointing to your domain.
Characteristics of a natural link profile include:
- Variety in Link Sources
- Diverse Anchor Text
- Presence of Both DoFollow and NoFollow Links
- Link Quality and Relevance
- Gradual Link Velocity (links are acquired gradually, not in spikes)
- Links to Various Pages (not just the homepage or select pages)
- Contextual Link Placement (links naturally fit within the content)
- Link Age (a mix of newer and older links)
Where Can You Check Backlinks to Your Website?
Now, you might be eager to analyze your website’s backlinks.
First, understand that not all links are indexed by Google, nor does every tool list all links.
For a comprehensive backlink analysis, combining results from multiple tools like Semrush and Ahrefs is necessary.
However, a deep dive into backlink analysis isn’t always required, especially if you’re not experiencing any sudden drops in traffic or facing penalties.
For those curious about checking their backlinks, here are some options:
- Google Search Console: Log in, go to Links, and under “Top linking sites,” click ‘More’ for a list of domains Google recognizes.
- Ahrefs Free Backlink Checker: Offers a glimpse of your backlinks, including source pages and anchor texts, without the full details available in the paid subscription.
- SEO Tools like Semrush: With a subscription, you get a comprehensive view of your backlink profile. Semrush also offers a 7-day free trial, allowing a thorough backlink analysis without initial cost.
What is Link Disavow and Should You Disavow Links?
Every website can disavow certain links pointing to it using Google’s official Disavow Links Tool.
Google indicates this tool is for use when your site receives a manual action penalty for an unnatural link profile.
This means a Google employee has reviewed your site and backlink profile and found manipulative practices, like paid links or other schemes against Google’s quality guidelines.
The Disavow Tool can also be used proactively to remove unwanted backlinks before they become an issue.
However, it’s crucial to note Google’s warning that this tool is for specific situations only.
Most domains naturally accumulate some spammy backlinks over time, which are considered part of a natural backlink profile.
Disavowing these can unbalance your profile and alert search engines.
So, only disavow backlinks if you’re certain of what you’re doing and why you’re.
What is Link Building and How to Do It Safely?
Link building is the process of acquiring links from other websites to improve your search engine visibility and drive traffic.
While the aim of link building is to boost rankings, not all methods are in line with Google’s guidelines, yet not every method should be discounted.
In fact, some of the most effective link building methods are passive, yielding excellent results without active solicitation.
Creating linkable assets is my favorite link building method and arguably the purest form there is.
It’s how I managed to get juggernauts like neilpatel.com (DR 91), vercel.app (DR 91), judge.me (DR 90), and rockcontent.com (DR 86) to link to a tiny website like mine.
This method focuses on publishing high-quality content in your niche that attracts links passively.
The content should be informative, catchy, original, or, ideally, all of those things at the same time.
While it may not yield immediate results, the backlinks gained can continue to accumulate for years.
Content types that qualify as linkable assets include:
- Statistical Posts
- Tools and Calculators
- Organic Research and Data
- Case Studies and Research Papers
- Templates and Checklists
Broken Link Building
Broken link building is an age-old method that involves finding broken links on relevant websites to replace with your content.
Simply inform the site about the broken link and suggest your content as a replacement.
Addressing broken links is beneficial SEO practice, making it a win-win situation.
Numerous free tools can identify broken links on a domain, facilitating the process of proposing relevant replacements.
Non-Paid Guest Blogging
Guest blogging, when done correctly, transcends mere link-building.
It’s about gaining exposure and creating an ‘entity trail’ for yourself or your website online.
The aim is to create content that perfectly aligns with the host domain, linking back to your site subtly, almost as an afterthought.
Limit this practice to a few times a year, and even if the links are NoFollow, it’s valuable for making your presence known to the Google algorithm through mentions across the web.
Reclaiming Lost Links
Losing a backlink you once gained is a common occurrence.
With SEO tools like Semrush, tracking and identifying lost backlinks is straightforward, even pinpointing the exact page and anchor text.
Reclaiming lost links involves reaching out to the website to politely inquire about the missing backlink.
Links may be dropped due to page updates or intentionally removed by webmasters.
A polite inquiry could potentially result in the backlink being reinstated—there’s nothing to lose.
Using Industry Directories
Each industry has its directory websites.
When submitting your site, ensure the directory is professional and well-maintained.
A request for payment is a red flag, possibly indicating a link farm that could harm your domain.
Testimonials and Reviews
Writing testimonials for products or services you’ve used can earn backlinks, sometimes from the website’s homepage, which is exceptionally valuable.
Even without a backlink, a mention of your name and business contributes to your E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) in Google’s eyes.
Social Media Links
Social media links are NoFollow and don’t contribute to your site’s link juice, but having an internet presence beyond your website is beneficial.
This presence aids in branding and provides a chance to engage with potential customers.
While it’s been exploited by link-builders, creating a genuine scholarship offers a prime opportunity for backlinks.
These backlinks are often DoFollow and come from highly rated .edu domains, which search engines trust and favor.
Turning Mentions into Links
If you or your business is mentioned online without a link, you have a good reason to politely request one.
Search your name on Google, check each mention for a link, and reach out if it’s missing.
Don’t be pushy; no one is obliged to link to you, but many webmasters will comply if asked nicely.
Serving as a Resource to Journalists
Joining platforms that connect journalists with experts is a popular method for securing quality backlinks from reputable news outlets.
When quoted in an article, it usually includes a powerful backlink to your site.
HARO (Help A Reporter Out) is the most well-known platform, with alternatives like Muck Rack, SourceBottle, Qwoted, and Terkel also available.
Link Building Methods That are Against Google’s Guidelines
The link building methods I’m about to discuss are widely used for their quick results.
However, Google disapproves of them and actively seeks to penalize their use.
Ideally, Google prefers that the best content naturally earns the most links, as their algorithm relies heavily on backlinks for ranking websites.
Using these methods is like unfairly tipping the scales in your favor, which Google aims to correct.
Although some clever SEOs and link building agencies manage to maintain a natural-looking backlink profile to avoid penalties, they are rare.
More often, you might encounter an unscrupulous SEO who builds any backlinks, including harmful ones, takes your money, and leaves your site at risk of severe penalties that are difficult to reverse.
You can probably already guess which methods I’m talking about here.
Buying Backlinks – needs no explaining.
Link Exchanges – agreements where sites link to each other, or more complex three-way deals designed to hide the exchange.
Paid Guest Posting – involves paying to publish a guest post on someone else’s website to include a backlink to your site.
This method is particularly risky when poorly executed, such as advertising the arrangement in the article’s title (e.g., “5 Benefits of Sleeping on Your Back – Guest Post by John Smith”).
Avoid these practices entirely, as they are clear indicators of paid promotions and invite scrutiny from Google.
In essence, while these methods might offer quick gains, they carry significant risks of Google penalties that can damage your website’s credibility and rankings.
Always strive for organic link-building strategies that comply with Google’s guidelines to ensure long-term success and avoid potential penalties.