what are backlinks

What Are Backlinks? (And 5 Strategies for Earning More of Them)

You might be new to the SEO world, or maybe you’re just getting started in backlink management. Either way, if you’re wondering “What are backlinks and how do I earn them?” you’ve come to the right place. The world of backlink management can feel quite overwhelming when you’re first getting into it, and we want to break it down for both ease of understanding and application for your own business. Let’s get started!

What are Backlinks?

In simple terms, backlinks are links from someone else’s website to a page on your website. They are created when an external website links to yours. You might also hear them frequently called “inbound links.”

Google’s “bots” or other search engine “crawlers” use links to help discover and understand pages on the web. The websites are crawled, then the links are followed to other pages. You can think of links like paths between pages. Google uses both internal and external links to decide which path to take. You can think of link crawling across the web like a subway system, where each website is a station and each link between a website is a path that Google bot uses to navigate from one site, or station, to another.

As new pages are discovered they can get added to Google’s “index” – kind of like its library. Then, when someone performs a relevant search, Google can take that data and return it as a search result to the user.

Why are Backlinks Important?

Backlinks, or inbound links, are a very important element in Google’s ranking algorithm. Google and other search engines use links to measure authority. So, the more inbound links you have, the higher your site will rank on Google and other search engines. Some people like to refer to it as a popularity contest because the more popular sites get the most votes, or links. Each of these votes tells search engines that this piece of content is useful, valuable, and credible.

Ever since SEO has been a “thing”, Google has always placed a great value on links. That’s why, years ago, backlinks were actually a numbers game, meaning that the site with the most inbound links usually ranked at the top of the search engine results page (SERP), regardless of how those links were earned. Once people started catching on, “link buying” and other “black-hat” tactics started to happen, and Google had to stop marketers from gaming the system.

So, in 2012, Google released the first version of its Penguin algorithm update. This was designed to decrease the SERP rankings of sites that had violated Google’s webmaster guidelines by using black-hat tactics to manipulate their number of backlinks. The Penguin updated allowed Google to recognize when links had been built unnaturally and unethically. Google can now penalize sites for these types of tactics by tanking their search engine rankings. Black-hat, or link spam, backlink building tactics include things such as buying links, link exchanges, hidden links, low-quality directory links, and more.

In 2016, the Penguin update evolved to Penguin 4.0 and became a part of Google’s core algorithm. This means that websites are now evaluated in real time and ranking shifts happen in real time. It’s also more granular, so sites are evaluated page by page instead of on a full website basis. It’s important to know that Penguin does not demote sites due to spammy links anymore. Instead, they ignore or de-value the spammy links because they assume the destination website might not even know about these links that were added. Since this can be the case a lot of the times, this is good news for SEOs and webmasters alike! It’s also important to note that Google can still give you a “manual penalty” if it finds out you’ve engaged in unethical link building strategies.

Google has made thousands of changes to its algorithm over time and still continues to do so but, backlinks will always remain a key ranking signal. That’s why backlink management is a vital part of all SEO campaigns, and it’s more important than ever to acquire links from relevant, trustworthy, and authoritative websites.

What Types of Backlinks are Valuable?

The first thing that’s important to know here is that not all backlinks are created equal. In other words, quality backlinks will ultimately help you rank higher in the SERPs. One single quality backlink can be more powerful than hundreds of low-quality backlinks. So, it’s quality that matters here, not necessarily quantity.

Valuable backlinks all share similar traits:

1. The backlink is coming from a trustworthy and authoritative website.

For example, Google views a backlink from a site like CNN as more authoritative than a random person’s small website. This is a concept known as “Domain Authority.” The sites with more authority can pass on more value to your site.

2. The Link Is a “Dofollow” Link Instead of a “Nofollow” Link

You might already know this, but links with a “nofollow” tag are ignored by search engines, so they’re not counted in search engine rankings. Most links on the web are already “dofollow” links, except for things like paid ads, blog comments, etc. These would not be helpful for SEO anyway, so you wouldn’t get any value from a “nofollow” link.

3. The Linking Site or Page is Related to Your Site

It makes sense that when Google and other search engines follow links, they want to see how a site or certain pages are related to one another. How and why are they connected? For example, a dermatology blog would probably be linking to sites topically related to it such as the American Academy of Dermatology, WebMD, etc. Google will put significantly more weight on sites topically related to your site than something completely off topic.

In addition, you can hope that the site giving you an inbound link includes your target keyword in the “anchor text” (the visible and clickable text part of a link that the user clicks on) leading to your site. However, that might not always be the case and that’s okay. Some sites may give you a naked URL link, a branded link, or a generic link. Although keyword-rich anchor text will be really valuable for your site, other types of anchor text are still helpful and will show Google and other search engines that those are real and trustworthy sites linking to yours.

4. The Link Is from a New Linking Domain

Bottom line is that it’s more valuable to continue to get links from sites that haven’t linked to you before. It’s often better to get 50 links from 50 different websites than 50 links from the same website.  

Now that you’ve learned about what backlinks are and which types of inbound links are valuable for your site to earn, let’s dive into how to earn more backlinks.

5 Strategies for Earning More Quality Backlinks

1. The most important tactic for earning more backlinks is to create great content.

It’s super simple, the more awesome content you create, naturally the more backlinks you’ll earn from other users and sites sharing and linking to your content. You could share your expertise in a certain field or on a certain topic, present content in a new, unique way compared to what’s already out there, present a new perspective on old data, and more. And of course, if you master SEO content writing the right way, your content will already have a leg up in terms of ranking possibilities.

You can even repurpose content that has done well in the past. For example, you could turn an old well-performing blog post into a video, or an infographic. And remember, you have to share your content and do proper outreach in order for others to share and link to it.

2. Use Link Building or Link Campaign Tools from Sites such as Moz and Semrush.

Moz has a “Links” tab that you can explore in depth to find more opportunities for your site, whether that’s through broken links, discovered or lost links, or link opportunities where your brand may be mentioned without a link.

Semrush has a Link Building Tool that analyzes your important keywords and major competitors to come up with link opportunities. Semrush also makes it easy to find your highest quality backlinks and separate them from your low quality links. Those low quality links (sometimes called “toxic” links) might be spammers or other disreputable websites. These are definitely not the kinds of links you want Google associating your website with. To protect your backlink profile, you can “disavow” those bad links so Google doesn’t count them against you.

To learn more about quality links vs. toxic links, this guide to toxic links from Semrush is worth a read.

semrush logo

3. Look for Sponsorship Opportunities.

Sponsorships can be a great link building tactic. Obviously, Google frowns upon buying links. However, if you’re buying a sponsorship for an event or charity, for example, it could result in a link on an event page or a charity or organization’s sponsor page. It’s important to know that this is not the type of tactic to use a lot, but when the opportunity is there, it can result in some authoritative links.

4. Conduct Interviews and Share the Content Online.

This may be something you haven’t thought of, but SEOs often refer to it as “ego bait.” However, there are some positive backlink opportunities that can come out of it. Let’s say you know or can get in contact with an influencer in your industry, or someone relevant or semi-famous in your industry. You can interview them to share their story. Interviews can help you share relevant content to your audience but also share someone else’s voice in your content. The reason there’s a big benefit is because they’ll usually want to link back to your content so they can share the interview with their own fan and follower base or even friends and family.

5. Claim Broken Links and Find Unlinked Mentions.

Finding (and then trying to fix!) broken links is something a tool like Moz or Semrush can help you with, or you can also do your own research. Websites change all the time, which means site structures may change and you’re bound to lose links from certain websites over time.  You may either have a broken link where a backlink points to a 404 error page, which means you will have to set up redirects or you may even need to contact the source site and give them your updated link.

Another thing that could happen is that your page is fine and still there, but maybe the source who backlinked to you has updated their site and there’s no longer a link to your site. All you’d have to do here is contact that website and get them to link to your site again.

It’s also important to look for unlinked mentions. Again, this is where SEO tools can come in handy, to help you find more link opportunities. If you have these monitoring tools in place, you could reach out to the site that mentions but doesn’t link to you. All you have to do is thank them for the mention and ask if they’d be willing to link to your site.

All in all, there are even more backlink strategies out there that SEOs will recommend. It’s important to focus on the ones that will be most useful for your industry, website, and content. And more importantly, you’ll want to only use the tactics that are ethically sound in order to earn quality, authoritative links and avoid any Google penalties.

Wrapping Up

You’re now officially on your way to starting an awesome backlink management strategy! In addition to backlink analysis, we recommend honing in on other parts of SEO like your measurement strategy, keyword research, and content creation to form a fully functioning strategy. If you have a physical location it’s also a great idea to get serious about Local SEO. If that is a new term is a new one for you, check out this comparison to Local SEO vs. On Page SEO.

For more information, you can also hop over to YouTube for free guides and resources, like this one below on link building and domain authority basics.

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