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Backlinking: What Are Backlinks & Why Are They Important?

SEO backlinks signal topical authority and impact where a page lands in search results. But what are backlinks, exactly? And, why are backlinks important to Google? Read on for a breakdown of the essential strategy behind backlink building.

Feb 24, 2022

9 m read

Hyperlinks are everywhere online. But have you ever thought about how they got there?

This guide cuts through the technical jargon to explore how SEO backlinks work, why Google scrutinizes them so closely, and how a thoughtful link-building strategy can boost your online visibility.

What Is a Backlink?

Backlink Definition

A backlink is a link from a page on one website to another. Also called an inbound link, a backlink can bring visitors to your site from anywhere — a news site, a blog, an online directory, or a paid sponsorship.

You can see all the sites that link back to yours if you know how to run a link report in Google Search Console.

Site linking report in Google Search Console

Why Are Backlinks Important?

Each backlink represents an external vote of confidence in the quality of a page. They:

  1. Help search engines determine the value of a page and how to rank it in search results.
  2. Help search engines find and index your pages faster.
  3. Can sometimes garner referral traffic to your site.

A website’s backlink portfolio indicates how authoritative other websites consider it. This is why Google factors backlinks into its PageRank algorithm.

However, not all backlinks are good backlinks. Quality backlinks originate from reputable websites and are topically relevant. Natural, topically relevant backlinks build trust and authority.

5 Key Benefits of Backlinks

Reviewing your backlink profile, determining the quality of referring domains, and acquiring high-quality links to boost online visibility takes effort, but it’s worth it.

1. Improve Ranking in SERPs

Search engines regularly collect information and decide where to rank web pages in search results for any given query. As your pages accumulate more backlinks, their page rank is bumped up — granting them better visibility and moreorganic traffic.

2. Help Google Find New Pages

Similar to how you find new websites by clicking links, search engine bots follow outbound links to discover pages they haven’t indexed yet.

The crawling process starts with pages that have previously been indexed, so if you’ve just launched a new page, a backlink on an established site can help Google find it more quickly. 

3. Boost Credibility

Search engines take their cues from domains they consider reputable. When a site that’s already earned Google’s stamp of approval sends visitors to your page, a bit of that site’s shine rubs off on yours. These well-earned backlinks are usually a good indicator to Google that the linked pages contain valuable content.

4. Encourage Referral Traffic

Although most link-building activities aren’t intended to generate referral traffic, it can be a beneficial byproduct of placing links back to your site. In the case where referral leads might come through a link on a relevant site, you’ll want to be sure your conversion strategy is in place to make the most of that unintended benefit.

5. Boost ROI of SEO

Link building is part of a comprehensive SEO strategy and serves to support content creation efforts. Even better: backlinks have more longevity than ads or email marketing campaigns. Backlinks tend to remain on the referring domain and continue working for your site long after they’ve been placed.

organic search results from backlink campaign

This is a screenshot from a SaaS SEO campaign we ran for a customer.

In December, Victorious implemented a technical audit of the website, increasing search results by 250 positions for a set of thematic keywords. At that point, our customer decided to pause link building for a few months. 

Without any page authority signals to complement the on-page optimization, the gain in rankings stalled. At the tail end of January, rankings started to decline. 

Google had already determined the site itself to be authoritative, but the algorithm was watching to see if other sites provided a vote of confidence that they also saw the site as trustworthy. Without those backlinks, Google questioned the trustworthiness of the website.

In early February, we got the ok to start building links to target pages. As soon as the incoming links went live, the site started to regain rankings. Google recognized those links as external validation of the website’s authority.

With 16 months of link building, our customer saw:

  • 106% increase in overall ranking keywords
  • 171% year-over-year growth in organic sessions for targeted landing pages
  • 5 to 1 ROI on SEO spending

I’ve seen this happen time and time again.

While Google will reward initial SEO activities with improved search ranking, if it doesn’t begin to see validation for that ranking in the form of backlinks, a site loses ground in SERPs.

backlinks for seo

The Essential Guide To Backlink Building for SEO

Too few, too many, good, bad, toxic? It’s time to figure out backlinks. Download this ebook & learn how to build a link strategy that gets you ranking.

How to Get Backlinks

So, how do you land the right backlinks to drive traffic and bolster credibility?

Submit Your Site to Directories

Submit your website to high-quality directories focused on your industry or community, especially those focused on providing value to users. Look for niche sites belonging to trade associations, professional organizations, networking groups, and industry leaders.

Steer clear of poor-quality directories that link to random businesses and don’t vet listings. Google might associate these types of sites with link schemes.

Ask for Backlinks

Reach out to authority sites directly and request a backlink. You’re more likely to be successful if you can offer something of value in return.

  • Guest blogs: Pitch an idea for an article that’s useful to the site’s readers.
  • Skyscraper technique: Improve upon a currently-linked article and offer yours as an alternative. Make sure your resource is easier to understand or more in-depth to persuade the site to link to yours instead.
  • Link inserts: Look for opportunities to expand on a point in a blog post or article, and suggest they link to your site to provide their readers with more detailed information.
  • Resource page link building: Find an online list of resources your business could fit into and ask to be included.
  • Broken links: Sites may have dead links to expired resources. Suggest a page on your site that fits the bill and ask the site to redirect there instead.
  • Claim unlinked mentions: Is your business mentioned without a link? Ask the site to send readers to your web page and make your brand mention clickable.

Earn Your Backlinks

You can also leverage your knowledge and expertise and give sites a reason to give you a backlink. 

Create value by providing:

High-Quality Content

Offer in-depth, useful content such as blog posts, infographics, and video tutorials. Use keyword research to help you identify the types of content users are searching for.

Original Research

Put together surveys, statistics, and case studies that are of interest to your target audience. Real-world data is extremely valuable, can position your brand as an authority, and earns you high-quality backlinks every time someone cites your data.

Expert Quotes

Provide journalists with expert insight for their articles. When you sign up for such services, you get notifications when media members seek experts to comment on their articles.

But Remember, Don’t Buy Backlinks

As you look for linking opportunities, you may find services offering to sell you bulk links for cheap. It seems like an easy way to grab some links, but Google is very strict about attempts to get around their quality algorithms. You can be penalized if you’ve amassed large quantities of backlinks from suspicious sites.

Is Building Backlinks Bad? 

While buying bulk links is a no-no, developing and implementing a legitimate link building campaign is possible. The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can gain traction by offering value.

The practice of placing links, whether purchased or otherwise, without regard to their value to users is a short-sighted SEO tactic that sacrifices the authority you could be building with high-quality links.

There’s a clear line of differentiation between paying someone for link-building services and making a bulk link purchase from someone on a gig website who offers 1,000 backlinks for $100.

Thoughtfully placing high-quality links on domains that are contextually relevant to yours is labor-intensive, and the price you pay for those services will be a function of their value to grow your topical authority

Learn more about the true cost of SEO and how those investments benefit your bottom line, or read our SEO director’s insights into why link building is important.

Need SEO Help?

Let’s talk about how our SEO services can help your business get the attention it deserves.

FAQs About Link Building

How long do backlinks take to work?

A general rule of thumb is that you’ll see inbound links in your backlink portfolio 30-45 days after placing them. Backlinks can impact search engine rankings within two weeks of being indexed. But the amount of impact they have can depend on the topical relevance of the backlink and how competitive your target keyword is.  

What matters more, backlink quantity or backlink quality?

While the conventional response is that quality matters more than quantity, the real answer is more nuanced than that.

If there’s a large deficit in referring domains to your site compared to the top three competitors for a keyword, you’ll want to focus on quantity to close that gap. Yes, backlink quality matters, but the topical relevance of referring domains is more important than often misunderstood domain authority signals.

If you face a smaller competitive gap, you can focus your resources on building fewer links from domains with higher trust and authority metrics.

Is Domain Authority the best way to judge link quality?

Website authority ratings such as Domain Authority (Moz), Domain Rating (Ahrefs), and Authority Score (SEMrush) predict how a site might rank relative to a competing site. You can use these metrics to get a sense of how trustworthy a site is, but remember that Google doesn’t use these measurements.Only Google knows for sure how their algorithm is ranking the value of a backlink. And, as Search Engine Journal notes, this metric isn’t always indicative of value. Sites with a low DA score can still be credible and perform well.

Do backlinks from unknown but authoritative sites help SEO?

A backlink from a popular site — think New York Times or Wall Street Journal — offers a premium endorsement from a credible source. Pursue these links if they’re available, however, the competition for those mentions can be fierce given their value. Links from lesser-known, trustworthy sites can still boost your backlink profile. Even though they may be less impressive at face value, they still signal credibility, topical relevance, and authority.

Should I be worried about backlinks with a high spam score? 

One backlink with a high spam score isn’t something to worry about. But 70 backlinks with a high spam score might be.

Spam score is a metric Moz created that evaluates the potential for a backlink to be harmful. It does this by checking each link against 17 unique factors called “spam flags” that could potentially put your site at risk.

It’s important to regularly check the overall health of your site’s backlink portfolio to verify your site isn’t at risk of being penalized. You can do a quick check of your backlink health by using SEMRush’s Backlink Audit Tool. Learn more about how to find and fix bad backlinks.

screenshot from SEMrush's backlink audit

Does anchor text matter? If so, how much?

The anchor text used on backlinks should ideally contain appropriate keywords — but only to a certain degree. If several referring domains use the phrase “landscaping experts” to link to your lawn care business, then Google has more confidence your site should rank for related keywords. However, too many exact matches may be flagged as violating Google’s linking guidelines.

Referring domains don’t always use exact match keywords for anchor text, and that’s ok. Google has a good understanding of natural-language queries, and pages often rank for various long-tail keywords. Your backlink portfolio should even include some links with generic anchor text, such as “click here,” because that’s a natural way to link from one web page to another.

What are Private Blog Networks, and will using them get my site penalized?

A private blog network (PBN) is a group of websites created for the sole purpose of selling backlinks. They contain random, low-quality content and try to trick algorithms into thinking backlinks have been properly earned.

Because PBNs manipulate search rankings, they violate Google Search Essentials and put you at risk of receiving a manual penalty.

Can I use press releases to build links?

Press releases do double duty by promoting your brand and sending visitors to your site. While featured press releases can provide backlinks to your site, you need to be careful. Syndicating a press release with keyword-rich anchor text to a newswire can flag your links as overoptimized. Save your press releases for times when you have real news, and consider working with an agency that can help secure editorial links for your announcements.

Yes, as long as they’re quality links. Your credibility only improves if respectable sites are vouching for you with backlinks. Backlinks from poor or suspicious sites won’t help your SEO ranking. 

Is there value to nofollow links?

Google introduced the nofollow attribute so site owners could indicate when links aren’t placed for editorial value. These nofollow links don’t count toward your page rank, but you can reap benefits in terms of exposure and brand awareness.

Web pages without backlinks get very little organic traffic from search results, according to a study by Ahrefs. However, you don’t need to get a backlink for every page of your site. You want to drive traffic to pages with conversion opportunities, so a good rule of thumb is to acquire one quality backlink per month to them, even if the referring domain isn’t well-known. A strategic internal linking structure will help pass equity from pages with more backlinks to those with fewer.

Does the age of a referring page affect the quality of its backlinks?

Some people wonder if links from “old” pages are less valuable than links from “new” pages. The publish date of a referring page is not a direct factor in backlink quality signals. But, when a site owner updates a long-standing web page to include a backlink to another site, it does send a positive signal to Google about the strength of that endorsement

Partner With a Link Building Expert

A well-implemented link-building campaign can boost your search visibility, generate qualified traffic, and get you closer to your business goals. But you might need help to compete in a noisy digital landscape. Our unique broken backlinking strategy combined with our other SEO agency services can help your business get the attention it deserves. Reach out for a free SEO consultation today.

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