Last updated on 5th October 2023 at 14:04 by Alex Nicholas
Without a doubt, backlinks are still one of the most important aspects of SEO within the Google Search Engine due to the fact that they provide a signal to Google that another source finds your page or content so useful that they decided to link to it from their own website because their audience will find your content worthwhile.
And the more times the content on your site gets linked to the better because this will continually send a signal to Google that your site is valuable to others and will position you higher in the SERPs.
However, it isn't as straightforward as it sounds because not all links are created equal and will help you see an improvement in your rankings.
To give you a little more guidance and help, I suggest that when you've finished this article you sign up for the Ahrefs trial (unfortunately they sometimes remove their trial period) which will help understand some of the screenshots I provide below.
Backlinks are still and always will be the cornerstone of ranking websites and pages highly in the search engine results pages, irrespective of what Google and their fanboys will say. Links connect the web together, they're how the internet works and they have a direct impact on rankings.
However, not all links are equal or will make a difference to your site's performance. Niche edits, guest posts and digital PR are great forms of link building and will greatly help your website when done correctly, but only when they come from sites that hit certain metrics.
What is a backlink in SEO?
A backlink is when one or more websites link to a different website using a hypertext link. These links can come in a number of different forms, but most commonly come in the form of a text link or an image link.
When you click on the link you're taken from the website you're on to the website the link is pointing to.
Are all backlinks valuable?
The answer is no, not at all!
Whilst a strong backlink profile is necessary for nearly all niches, it needs to be healthy. And by healthy I mean there must be a number of links that Google deems worthwhile and not be classed as spam or junk links.
And as a linkbuilding beginner, it can be hard to understand what Google believes is a good backlink because it's probably different to what you think is a good link. Therefore, it's important to understand the influence different types of links can have on your rankings.
Follow vs Nofollow
As a rule, followed links are worth more to site owners than nofollowed links because it's perceived that they pass more power, even though Google has told us that they consider nofollow to be a hint rather than a directive.
This might be true or it might not, but one thing's guaranteed, Google has a habit of telling half-truths when it comes to aspects of how search works, and it's my opinion that nofollow backlinks work better than nofollow, unless they come from seed sites.
What are seed sites
Part of Google's initial algorithms were built on backlinks (PageRank), therefore, it stands to reason that they're still a huge part of ranking a website in a competitive niche. But to understand what a good link is compared to a bad link they use seed sites. These are sites like the BBC, CNN etc that are used to calibrate other links on the web with regard to quality.
Therefore, if you get a backlink from a seed site or a link from a website that's got a link from a seed site, you'll start to gain authority in the eyes of Google.
What's changed over the years however is how Google understands the good the bad and the ugly.
They've deployed and are constantly improving AI (artificial intelligence) based on data and patterns to algorithmically detect manipulation and ignore what they deem to be bad links.
An authority website is a site that covers a topic with depth and breadth and is cited many times by other websites within the same niche across a large number of URLs.
Authority websites rank for thousands of search terms, bring in large amounts of traffic every single month and have the ability to make huge sums of money through ads and affiliate deals.
What authority isn't is a metric from a 3rd party tool like Ahrefs (DR) or Moz (DA). And whilst the information they provide is very helpful when it comes to analysing data, they should be used as a guide on which to base your opinions and decisions.
For example, Ahrefs' Domain Rating metric scores websites on what it's system believes is a strong domain. It basically counts the number of referring domains and gives you a score.
This is OK in principle, but it falls short in providing true or meaningful data because of one thing. It's easy to manipulate for things like online reputation management, for example.
If I wanted to increase the DR of one of the websites I own, I could do this quickly and easily by buying expired domains and redirecting them. This would give the false view that my domain is strong, when in fact it's not.
I've also come across websites with a large DR that have built their entire backlink profile on blog commenting, meaning the entire linkbuilding strategy is built on sand, because as soon as this pattern is detected the owners run the risk of losing all of their traffic overnight.
Which leads to the question, why do some site owners focus on things like DR?
That's simple and comes down to 2 main reasons:
- They're selling links and use DR as a metric to impress gullible site owners who are doing linkbuilding on their own and don't know better.
- They're trying to sell the site and believe that buyers think that DR is an important metric (unfortunately some do) that's directly linked to a site's performance.
That's not to say that there's no correlation between DR and a high-performing site, because there is some. Sites with high a DR will have some really good links, I'm just saying that you must evaluate the links based on their own merits.
What is a good backlink?
This is a topic that divides opinion within the SEO community but in my opinion, there are certain metrics that make a link good, and there are certain types of links that you must absolutely stay away from.
For example, a good linking site might look something like this:
- It's in the same niche as yours – is it relevant?
- It has a good amount of organic traffic going to it across a wide range of it's pages
- It has a good spread of links going to it across many pages
- It has a good internal linking structure that helps Google to see topic clusters
- A link is editorially given and can't be easily gained without the input of the website owner – i.e. you can't simply create an account and publish a post with a link going to your site
And here's a list of red flags to look for when evaluating whether or not a site is worth reaching out to for a link:
- The backlink profile looks overly manipulated to improve 3rd party metrics like DR through link-building techniques such as blog commenting or spamming forums
- If a site has a high DR but very little traffic it's a clear sign that there has been too much attention paid to the backlink profile and not enough attention to the overall quality of the site, mainly content and UX
- If a website has a ‘write for us' section, then it's nearly always best to stay away from it because it's easy for Google to see that this and will likely be manipulated for the purposes of gaining a link and will probably ignore any value it might have
- If the owner of a site also has a large number of other sites that you can get links from then it's safe to say that it'll be part of a bigger PBN (private blog network) and has only been built for the purpose of selling links and should be avoided (this can be hard for a beginner to spot which is why I recommend hiring a skilled link builder to undertake a campaign)
- If a site has a large number of outgoing links compared to incoming links, then as above, it's highly likely that the main income from the site is from selling backlinks
The one thing you must remember when looking at the naughty list above is that Google is built around maths and patterns and can quite easily spot patterns and wording that it can simply choose to ignore.
Links to route domain vs inner pages
Generally speaking, you will end up with more links to the route of your site (your home page) than you will inner pages. This is normal and nothing to be overly concerned about.
However, it's important to understand that you'll be creating internal pages that will arguably need more attention in the form of links going to them because your inner pages will be your money pages, such as service, category or product pages.
Therefore, you need to make sure that you have the right amount of links going to these internal pages as Google will expect to see links going to a variety of pages.
It's also important to create articles or blog posts that have a level of buying intent that also has links built to them because, as I've just mentioned, it's natural to see a broad range of pages obtaining links, rather than links only going to money pages.
And when you've successfully created the right content and carried out a linkbuilding campaign to these articles and/or blog posts you must make sure that you internally link through to your money pages using descriptive anchor text, as this will provide extra context to your money pages and will underpin their rankings.
A natural link is a link that you haven't asked for and has been given because the author of the piece of content has decided that linking to you will provide their readers with additional helpful content or information.
In my experience, the best and most powerful way to obtain this type of link is through digital PR in the form of statistical insight or expert analysis or observation which is distributed through relevant media outlets.
It’s hard to believe that there’s a more controversial subject within the marketing world than what constitutes an unnatural link.
Generally, an unnatural link is a link that is built to directly manipulate a page’s rankings, but in all honesty, pretty much anything you do with regard to SEO is designed to alter the search appearance of your website in the SERPs.
Therefore, as mentioned in the key takeaway at the top of this page, nearly every link is built to have a direct impact on rankings and can be classed as unnatural.
So my advice is not to worry too much about what’s natural vs unnatural, except for this – DO NOT run scripts or software that builds hundreds or thousands of links on autopilot or hire cheap link builders from marketplaces such as Fiverr.
By doing this you will effectively ‘burn’ your site and it will never rank for anything.
Relevancy of a backlink
I touched on this above, but one of the most important aspects of linkbuilding in my opinion is the relevance of the link on the page that's linking to you.
But one thing I see so many SEO agencies and professionals get wrong or misunderstand, especially when auditing a website is how they look at relevance.
Relevance comes from the page itself and not necessarily the website as a whole. And by that I mean if you could get a link from The Times and the page the link was coming from was about your niche then that link would be relevant.
But in all honesty, what it really comes down to is the text surrounding the link as much as anything. If a link is surrounded by a paragraph that's talking about the topic on your page, along with a descriptive or branded anchor text, then that's ideal. Especially if the website the link is coming from has authority in Google's eyes, like The Times.
Number of backlinks
To get a true idea of how many links you’re likely to need to must analyse the quality of the links going to the pages you want to compete against.
And to do this you need to understand the 3rd party data provided to you via software such as Ahrefs and Majestic.
To do this effectively you need to download all of your competitor’s links from Ahresf after you’ve applied a few filters such as removing subdomains, only including sites that have traffic over a certain level and the number of organic keywords a site is ranking for (the higher the better).
Next, head over to Majestic.com and let their software filter out what it believes to be ‘junk' links, then filter by Trust Flow and Citation Flow.
(Note on Majestic – it's one of the most underrated backlink analysis tools on the market. They do one job very well, so take the time to understand it fully).
Then export the domain so that over time you can reach out to each site to see if there’s any chance of grabbing a link from them.
The ideal location of a link on a page
The location of a link on a page is very important because Google values some types of links over others. For example, links that appear within the body content of a page hold more value than links from places such as the footer of a site, which is where many web development companies will add links.
And the reason these links hold more value than other types is that they’re harder to get and must be editorially given.
Links such as footer links (like in the image below) are known as sitewide links because they’re visible on every single page of a website.
That’s not to say that sitewide links hold no value at all because they possibly do. But what’s absolutely true is that sitewide links are easy to algorithmically detect and ignore by Google, which is why I nearly always look to build links in the body content of sites.
What anchor text should I use?
Anchor text is another hotly debated topic within the SEO community and is something you should pay attention to.
This is because the anchor text that points to your site serves a purpose to web crawlers. It helps them to understand what the context of the page could be. For example, if I was carrying out SEO for a Shopify eCommerce website that sells eco-cleaning products, I would look to build anchor text that looked something like this:
- Eco-cleaning products from [website name]
- Eco-friendly cleaning products
- Brand name
As you can see, there are only three types that I use in nearly all cases and all three either describe the page they’re pointing to and/or use the website or brand name.
The types of anchor text you really should avoid if at all possible are things like:
- Click here
However, it might not be possible to control the anchor text at all and some website owners will use anchor text like this as a matter of course.
If they do then don’t worry too much because it’ll help to make your backlink profile look more natural.
Types of backlinks in SEO
Next, you need to understand what types of links you should be looking to build, because without understanding this vital part of the jigsaw, you’ll be left scratching your head as to where to start when reaching out to other websites to ask if they would work with you.
There are a number of different ways to approach linkbuilding, but these three are great places to start:
Often referred to as link insertions, niche edits are links that are placed into the content of pages that are already indexed by search engines, and therefore have a quicker impact on your site since these pages will often have links going to them, which in turn will provide an additional layer of power to the link that’s pointing to your site.
They’re a great way to start building links that will affect your rankings and can be placed within content that’s relevant to your site.
Guest posts are probably the most talked about form of linkbuilding in the industry because of the power they used to have.
That’s not to say that they don’t still have a positive impact on rankings, because they do. But the guest posts must be on sites that are genuine niche-specific sites that are operating as a genuine business.
You must also bear in mind that any guest post will take time to be picked up and analysed by search engines, therefore any ranking benefits will take time.
Guest posts are quite an expensive form of linkbuilding since website owners will charge a fee for the post that will range from £200-£500 depending on the authority of the site, therefore they aren't particularly scalable unless you have a large budget.
Digital PR is a form of content marketing that puts you directly in front of key journalists within your niche who work for major online publications, and in my opinion is the best way to build authority to your site, gain some of the best backlinks on the market and grow your website traffic.
Not only that, but it’s also scalable because a single press release can generate dozens of links for the cost of the release.
And on top of this, these links are coming from the most trusted sources on the internet, which in turn provides a good signal to Google that you too should be trusted with the information that you provide and therefore be ranked higher in the SERPs.
It all comes down to trust, and if a major publication that Google trusts links to you, then Google is more likely to trust you, too.
Should you pay for backlinks?
The simple answer is yes, in one way or another you will have to pay for them more often than not. And most of the time you won't have any choice because website owners have become very savvy over the last 5-10 years and understand that links rank websites and if you want to beat your competition then you'll need to pay for them.
All forms of marketing have a cost attached to them and SEO is no different.
Paying for links is often frowned upon by so-called white hat SEO experts that believe everything that comes out of a Google spokesman, but the truth is one way or another everybody pays for links in almost every single industry, be that directly to a website owner or to an eCommerce SEO consultant like me.
Without some form of monetary compensation, there's very little incentive for a site owner to even reply to your email. This is especially true when carrying out SEO for an online store because people can immediately see the financial benefit to you.
Links are the building blocks of the internet and are how we all navigate around the web on a daily basis.
They were and will continue to be one of the most important aspects in ranking pages in the SERPs for competitive search terms that drive revenue.
In fact, one of Google’s original patents (PageRank) and part of their first algorithm when they started their search engine specifically used links as one of it’s main metrics to score websites and rank them accordingly.
So the simple answer to the question of, “are backlinks still important”, is a resounding yes, they most definitely are, because without them you’re severely hindering your website's overall performance which in turn will directly affect your business growth.