Despite occasional claims to the contrary, links still matter for on page SEO performance. But getting links is hard! It takes time and effort to do link outreach, and there’s no guarantee that your efforts will pay off. So should you be buying backlinks in 2023? Let’s review in this guide.
We’ll cover 4 things in this blog post.
- What’s a backlink and why do backlinks matter for SEO?
- Can you prove that they matter? (Mini case study)
- Should I be buying backlinks? Pros and cons.
- How can I get backlinks without buying?
Let’s jump right in.
Why do Backlinks Matter for SEO?
Backlinks are one of the signals that Google evaluates when determining the relative trustworthiness of web pages to rank on the SERP. Typically, pages with a stronger “backlink profile” (relatively high quantity of backlinks of relatively high quality) will rank higher than comparable pages with with fewer quality backlinks.
That’s the summary version. Let’s dig in more below.
What’s a Backlink Again?
A backlink, also called an inbound link, is a link from an external domain that points to your domain.
So Why Do These Backlinks Matter for SEO?
Search engines like Google are always searching for trustworthy and helpful content that answers questions that people are asking. The best content (i.e. the most helpful and relevant and trustworthy) earns its way to the top of the SERP where it earns the majority of clicks. When you or I ask it a question, Google wants to make sure that it gives us a great answer. Great answers keep us in the Google ecosystem where we can monetized and contribute to Google’s outrageous revenue numbers. Bad answers ultimately give us a reason to consider switching to another search engine. Bad answers are bad for Google.
So Google is looking for various signals to determine what content is best and most trustworthy. One important signal of trust is a website’s “backlink profile” – aka, the number and quality of inbound links. Google takes each of these backlinks as votes of confidence from those other websites. Therefore, the more backlinks a website has, the more trust Google will place in it, and the higher the website can expect to rank.
This is why links matter for SEO and why links have value.
Are All Backlinks Good?
No! Like in many things, we can sometimes be known by the company we keep. If your website has a lot of links from spammy and low quality websites, these links will not help your own ranking potential. If Google doesn’t have a good impression of the site giving the link, the link is not going to help your website. In fact, these “toxic backlinks” can actually hurt your website and sometimes you may need to manually disavow those links to make sure Google doesn’t punish you for them. Yikes!
But Are *Most* Backlinks Good?
Generally! Most of the time backlinks are good. All things being equal, when a piece of content gets a new backlink pointing to it, Google will recognize that link and the ranking potential of that page (and entire domain) will increase.
Can We Prove that Backlinks Matter?
We can and we will! There’s a great piece of content on the Root and Branch site that reviews the Surfer SEO platform. It’s been on this domain since October of 2022. Interestingly, it had previously been on another domain up until that point. That other domain had fewer backlinks pointing to it than this website does.
That other domain is called Tools4Content. It has fewer backlinks pointing to it than this website does. Another way to say this is that this other website had a lower “domain authority” than the Root and Branch site. Let’s take a look at how this content was ranking on that other domain for the primary keyword: surfer seo review.
Ranking Potential on Site With Fewer Backlinks
The image below shows the Surfer SEO review when it was on the Tools4Content site. Check out the arrow in the bottom left to see the target keyword: surfer seo review. And now check the arrow in the bottom right of the image. That 95.4 is the ranking of this keyword on the page. It barely cracked the top 100 on Google and had driven 0 clicks from organic search during this time period (as you might expect from any keyword ranking in the 90’s!).
We did a test to move this page from the Tools4Content domain to the Root and Branch domain. We wanted to see what the ranking impact would be if we simply moved the exact same content from a domain with fewer backlinks to a domain with more backlinks, and therefore more trustworthy in the eyes of Google. Moving that page, by the way, involves knowing about things like 301 redirects and canonical tags. So if you want to do something similar, please read up on those things before you go ahead and do it!
Ranking of the Same Content on the Domain With More Backlinks
This domain move happened in late September of 2022. Here’s what things look like for October 2022 for the page in question for the “surfer seo review” keyword.
The purple line in the graph shows impressions. This is how often the page showed up in Google search. The orange line in the graph shows the ranking of the keyword on the page. The blue line shows clicks. As you can see, the average ranking increased by 70 spots! It moved from 95.4 on the prior domain to 25.1 on the Root and Branch domain. The same content, just on a new domain. It wasn’t driving a huge amount of traffic, but it did generate 3 clicks in that time frame and seemed like it had the potential for more. If you look in the dashed blue box, you’ll see that on 10/21/22 the ranking had increased to 22.7.
Things looked like they were moving in the right direction. At least, they did right up until 10/23/22 when the page seems like it completely disappeared from Google Search.
Well, I’m not entirely certain of the details but it seems like Google got confused about the switch of this piece of content between domains. Google is very suspicious (rightly so) of anything that looks like plagiarized or duplicate content, and I think this page got flagged as a potential violator. Don’t ask me why the canonical tag and 301 redirect didn’t seem to convince Googlebot.
Ranking of the Same Content After a Targeted Backlink Was Added
It was right around this time that I had someone from Stan Ventures reach out to me to ask if I’d be willing to do a backlink case study for the Root and Branch YouTube channel. They offered to provide a backlink for free. I told them I’d be happy to test it out. If it didn’t, I didn’t want to share share information about using their service to assist with buying backlinks.
I’m generally suspicious of buying backlinks (they are against Google guidelines and can be risky), but I was up for testing this given the circumstances. My suspicion was that Google needed another signal to help it understand that the new destination of the blog was truly the official and authoritative one. And if a canonical tag and 301 redirect didn’t get the job done (really, a 301 should have been fine on its own), perhaps a new quality backlink would help get the job done.
You can see for yourself what happened below.
After the backlink was created in November of 2022, the page reappeared on the Google SERP in December. And not only did it reappear, but it has rapidly increased in ranking and has been driving clicks. Check out the blue dashed box in the top right to see how the ranking for “surfer seo review” has moved all the way up to the second page of Google with a ranking of 15.5. That’s some serious progress! This backlink test seems like it has worked.
**2023 Backlink Update**
The calendar has officially flipped to 2023 and we’ve continued to see this blog climb in the rankings. It is now on the firmly entrenched on the first page of Google in between position 6 and 7. Check it out below!
Should I Be Buying Backlinks? (It Depends)
There are pros and cons to consider. The most obvious argument for “yes” is that backlinks have real SEO power. They are true signals of trust and indicate to Google that your content is worthy of ranking. Look no further than the case study above to see how functionally the same piece of content moved from ranking 95 to 15 through the power of backlinks. The move from 95 to 25 was based on moving from a domain with few backlinks to a domain with more backlinks. The move from 25 to 15 was powered by a new backlink specific to that piece of content.
So What’s the Argument Against Buying Backlinks?
Buying backlinks is technically against Google’s webmaster guidelines. Here’s what Google says about it from the article linked in prior sentence.
Search engines hate this kind of paid-for popularity. Google’s Webmaster guidelines ban buying links just to pump search rankings. Other search engines including Ask, MSN, and Yahoo!, which mimic Google’s link-based search rankings, also discourage buying and selling links.
Search engines don’t like it. The reason is that buying backlinks simulates “earned trust” when it’s really just a paid for signal to simulate earned trust. Remember how much Google wants high quality content at the top of the SERP?
But What If You Still Want to Test Out a Backlink Service?
If you want to try it out, you can pay for backlinks from a service like Stan Ventures. With a service like this, you typically pay more for a link from a higher “domain authority” (“DA”) site than a lower DA site. Domain Authority is simply a measure of how well regarded the site is in terms of its own backlink profile. A link from a site with a DA of 58 will help you more than a backlink from a site with a DA of 18. That’s why the former will cost you $225 and the latter will cost you $59.
If you’re interested, you can check out their pricing here. Please note, this is *not* an affiliate link and Root and Branch will not receive compensation if you decide to test out a paid backlink service.
Where Can I Get Backlinks Without Buying?
If you’re not into buying backlinks, it’s time to switch your mindset to earning them. Prepare yourself: you are playing a long game and it can be slow going when you are getting started. Personally, I don’t do much in the way of outreach for link building. Instead, I focus more of my time and effort on creating content that (I hope) is useful and relevant and easy to understand. That is the kind of content that Google tends to reward and can also passively attract backlinks from other domains.
Will It Take a Long Time?
Almost certainly. Below is a graph of the weekly organic traffic to this website over the last 4 years. Last week there were over 3,000 visits from organic search. In the early days of the graph it was more common to have 3 visits. It has grown steadily over time, but it has also grown slowly.
This is not unreasonable to consider if you’re just beginning to get serious about your SEO efforts.
Thanks for reading this overview of buying backlinks. I hope you found it helpful!
If you’re looking for more resources focused on SEO, you might want to check out this guide to branded and non branded keywords. If you’re more into video tutorials, this explainer showing 5 ways to use Google Search Console for free SEO reporting is one of the most popular videos of late.
Questions or comments? Feel free to leave a note in the comments or on the Root and Branch YouTube channel at youtube.com/@rooted-digital. We’re always looking for new content ideas!
About Root & Branch
Root & Branch is a certified Google Partner agency and focuses on paid search (PPC), SEO, Local SEO, and Google Analytics. You can learn more about us here. Or hit the button below to check out YouTube for more digital marketing tips and training resources.