A quick Google search returns plenty of articles about high-quality link building. But, no one knows precisely how search engines determine link quality, so it can be hard to know which advice to follow.
I’m going to share best practices for building high-quality backlinks based on my experience and the collective experience of the strategy team at Victorious. These recommendations come from actual results we’ve seen over the years.
By the end of this article, I hope you’ll better understand how to evaluate the quality of your inbound links to improve your search visibility.
What is a Quality Backlink?
A high-quality backlink serves as an endorsement from another website.
Many factors go into making a good backlink, but most quality backlinks share these three characteristics:
- The link text occurs naturally within the context of the page.
- The referring domain is reputable.
- The referring page is topically relevant to the link destination.
These inbound links express confidence in the value of your content and signal to search engines that your page contains valuable information and should be ranked accordingly in search results.
Assessing what makes a high-quality backlink is an essential part of building a valuable portfolio of backlinks that helps establish your website as authoritative in its own right.
Let’s drill down into the details of how to distinguish good backlinks from bad links.
1. Does The Backlink Appear Natural?
Generally, when people use the term “natural,” they’re referring to an editorially placed link you earn by publishing high-quality content on your website. Whether you acquired the link through outreach efforts or used link building services to place links on external websites, if your backlinks exhibit “natural” characteristics, they’re likely to carry more weight in your search ranking.
So, what does “natural” look like?
A backlink from a site with a handful of outbound links is more natural than one from a site that indiscriminately doles out hundreds of links to other websites. By definition, a unique link is harder to earn (and more valuable) because not everybody gets one.
Link farms, private blog networks, and spammy directories are created solely to offer bulk backlinks without regard to their quality. Therefore, those links carry less weight in PageRank.
Let’s take a moment to talk about PageRank.
PageRank Defined – Google’s Link Authority Algorithm
PageRank works by factoring the number and quality of links to a page to estimate how important (or authoritative) that page is.
The algorithm assumes that pages that demonstrate more expertise are more highly trusted will receive more links from external websites.
There was a time when PageRank scores were available for all the world to see. Unfortunately, that transparency encouraged nefarious attempts to manipulate the metric, so Google responded by removing public-facing ranking metrics.
Google still applies PageRank to its overall evaluation of where to place a page in search results.
When I mention PageRank, I’m referring to a concept, not an absolute metric.
On a Page With 500+ Words of Content
Page content length is the number of words on a page that a search engine can crawl. Based on experience, I recommend backlinks come from pages with at least 500 words of content. Having at least this much on-page content suggests to search bots that there’s enough on the page to provide useful information to a reader. In comparison, spammy sites have thin (not valuable) content or content that’s been scraped from other websites.
While a page length of 500 words is the recommended minimum for content length on an external page for backlinking purposes, you should aim to have 800 to 4,000 words on your own pages that you’re optimizing for search engines.
A quality backlink makes sense within the context of the rest of the page. Contextual relevance signals to search engines that the destination page offers information the reader’s interested in. Natural relevance to the surrounding copy also signals that the backlink has been earned, not purchased.
Page Placement Matters
While we’re on the subject of context, it’s worth noting that where the link is on the page will impact the importance that Google attaches to it. Backlinks located within the body content of the page yield the greatest SEO value.
It’s common for blogs to add nofollow tags to a contributing author’s bio link, rendering it useless as a link-building tool.
If you’re guest blogging in an effort to build high-quality backlinks for your website, find a way to add a link into the body of the article. You might have original research or a case study on your website you could link to that adds valuable context to your article.
Keep in mind that an image credit with a link back to your page, will carry more weight for PageRank than the alt text of a linked image.
Natural Language In The Anchor Text
Anchor text is the word or phrase that makes up the visible link on a page. Anchor text is usually different from the surrounding text and might be a different color or have an underline to stand out on the page.
Naturally occurring backlinks will use any one of these types of anchor text:
Generic anchor text refers to phrases such as “click here,” “learn more,” or “visit this page.” While generic anchor text isn’t descriptive on its own, readers understand what it refers to within the context of the copy around it.
Branded anchor text uses the name of a company or product, such as “Victorious SEO” or “Victorious.”
Keyword match anchor text incorporates search terms identified from keyword research. Keyword match anchor text might look like the example below.
Naked links display the URL of the destination page.
While exact keyword anchor text creates a strong connection from your site with specific search queries, you need to use it judiciously. A page wouldn’t naturally have a high proportion of links with exact-match anchor text. A lack of balanced anchor text types on a page might be interpreted as a link scheme.
For the same reason, if you’re engaged in high-quality link-building activities, your link portfolio as a whole should include a natural balance of generic, branded, keyword match, and naked URL anchor text.
See this generic anchor text example to learn more about building a balanced link portfolio.
2. Is the Referring Domain Reputable?
Search engines prioritize authoritative, trustworthy sites in rankings to ensure users are getting information from respected sources. Though reputation is hard to measure, Google considers various factors to understand a site’s credibility.
“We look for sites that many users seem to value for similar queries. For example, if other prominent websites link to the page (what is known as PageRank), that has proven to be a good sign that the information is well trusted.”Google Search
You might want to check the backlink profile of the referring domain to see if other trusted sites are linking to it. Although a reputable website can have a handful of bad links in its profile without endangering its authority, steer clear if a large percentage of the links look like they come from disreputable sites. Your site could suffer a ranking setback by association.
SEMrush offers a free backlink checker that assesses the “Authority Score” of referring domains. Keep in mind that SEMrush’s authority scoring is a lagging indicator of site quality that has no bearing on Google’s assessment of authority. Still, it’s an accurate enough way to assess the overall composition of a site’s backlink profile.
3. How Relevant Is the Source of the Link?
In SEO terms, the website or page that links to yours is known as the referring source. The relevance of the referrer is a factor of how the subject matter on it relates to your content. The relevance of the referring source matters because search engines consider it when assessing the weight to attach to the endorsement. Essentially, the linking source should demonstrate some knowledge or expertise about the topic to accurately vouch for you.
When we talk about the relevance of the referring source, we can break that down into two distinct concepts: domain relevance and page relevance.
Domain relevance looks at the collective thematic relevance of all the pages on a website. I won’t spend too much time discussing domain relevance here, as it doesn’t significantly impact backlink quality.
You can read more about domain relevance later in this article, where I tackle some common misconceptions about what makes a high-quality backlink.
Page relevance relates to the thematic content of the specific page that’s providing the backlink.
Here are some examples of backlinks with page relevance:
- A weight-loss brand gets a backlink in a post about “6 Ways to Eat Healthy This Week.”
- A brand of kids’ scooters gets a mention in a piece titled “How to Encourage Physical Activity in Your Child.”
- A clothing brand earns a link from an article called “10 Fashion Designers to Watch For.”
Page Relevance = More Opportunities For Quality Links
Focusing on page relevance broadens your backlinking strategy.
Too many marketers make the mistake of relying solely on domain relevance to find backlink opportunities. If you ignore the topically-relevant pages on domains that address a broad range of subjects, you’re casting too small a net, and you’ll miss out on some less competitive chances to build good backlinks.
Consider a kitchen remodeling company. If it only tries to acquire backlinks from kitchen remodeling websites (domain relevance), it will only have a handful of opportunities to get those endorsements.
Conversely, suppose that company widens its outreach efforts. In that case, it might land a link in an article about replacing kitchen cabinets on a home improvement website or on a real estate site in a blog post about buying and fixing up older homes.
When you look at relevance through a macro lens, you’ll see a much larger pool of opportunities.
Common Misconceptions About What Makes a Quality Backlink
The search engine landscape is constantly shifting, especially as Google and other platforms develop increasingly sophisticated metrics and adjust their algorithms accordingly.
Ranking criteria isn’t set in stone, and it’s important to turn to current, real-world data when optimizing websites. Based on my experience, here are some common misconceptions marketers have about assessing link quality.
1. Domain Name (TLD) Matters
Top-level domain (TLD) refers to the part of a website URL that comes after the “dot.” Common TLDs include .com, .gov, .edu, and .org. Because these were among the original TLDs available, many people perceive them as reflecting a high standard of quality.
Misconceptions about TLDs
Since 2010, many generic TLDs have been introduced, such as .blog, .shop, and .wed. Although sites with original TLDs are sometimes considered more credible, a domain name or TLD of a website carries no weight in how authoritative Google perceives a website to be.
There are numerous link-building opportunities available on less common TLDs such as .xyz, .marketing, or .info. In my experience, I continue to see excellent performance with these backlinks, as long as the link otherwise meets best practices for relevance, content length, and anchor text.
2. Domain Relevance Is A Priority
Domain relevance considers whether a referring website is in the same industry or covers a topic related to your business. Generally speaking, it makes sense that a quality backlink originates from a site that focuses on the same or related subject.
Misconceptions About Domain Relevance
Many people believe that quality backlinks must originate from a domain that is directly relevant to their niche. However, a quality backlink can come from a reputable website that publishes content across numerous themes and topics.
Forbes.com is a perfect example. Forbes covers business, technology, money, sports, real estate, and politics, among other things. Although they have a high level of authority in the news space, the site as a whole isn’t relevant to a particular industry or business. However, scoring a link on a contextually relevant page on the Forbes site would be a huge win.
3. Site Design Impacts Link Quality
A website’s visual appearance — its colors, images, layout, and fonts — impacts user experience. And, first impressions count to site visitors. Someone that clicks through to a site takes only 50 milliseconds to form an opinion based on its design aesthetic.
Misconceptions About Site Design
While design matters to people, it doesn’t matter to search engines. Some marketers might associate a site’s appearance with credibility, but Google can’t scan and score something as subjective as a website’s visual appeal. A poorly designed site may have difficulty engaging users, but the way it looks doesn’t affect Google’s evaluation of backlink quality.
4. Backlinks From Promotional Content Impact SEO
Promotional content focuses on a brand or product to cast it in a positive light. This type of content takes the form of paid or sponsored articles and provides marketers with the chance to showcase their business.
Misconceptions About Promotional Content
Marketing content that touts your company’s features, values, and products is not a valuable referral source for backlinks. Promotional strategies might offer benefits for brand awareness and PR. Still, high-quality link building serves only one purpose — to demonstrate to Google that your website is a trusted source of information for your targeted search terms.
5. Good Backlinks Only Come From Sites With High Domain Authority Scores
Domain authority is a catchall term for the quality signals Google uses in its core algorithm. It’s common to conflate this collection of signals with metrics from third-party SEO tools, such as Moz’s Domain Authority Score.
Misconceptions About Domain Authority
Some people interpret a high domain authority score as a sign that the site is viewed as high authority by Google. In reality, these measurements are a best guess by SEO tools and have no bearing on how a website performs in search engine results or how much authority Google attributes to it.
Focusing on DA scores is a distraction from a more meaningful evaluation of how reputable a site is and the value that might come from backlinks it refers to your site.
How to Get High-Quality Backlinks
There are several ways to acquire good backlinks. Most backlink-building techniques start with creating valuable SEO content. Learn more about link-building techniques in our comprehensive guide to backlinks.
Quality Links Give Google What It Wants
I’ve covered a lot of ground in this article, and the best way to sum it up is this: Google’s goal is to make sure the sites that rank at the top of search results meet the search intent of users and contain useful information.
Companies that want to leverage a backlinking strategy to optimize for search engine rankings need to produce SEO content that demonstrates “expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness” on a given topic. Earning endorsements from other websites in the form of quality backlinks is one way to signal the value of your content.
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