Everywhere you go on the internet, you’ll find hyperlinks. 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 strategy to create backlinks can boost your online visibility.
What is a Backlink?
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.
Four Elements of a Backlink
Before diving into how backlinks influence search ranking, let’s break them down into their essential elements.
- Start of the link tag
- Destination URL
- Anchor text
- End of the link tag
The start (1) and end (4) of a link tag are the same, no matter what kind of link it is, where it sits, or where it points.
The destination URL (2) points to the page where users go when they click the link. In the example above, https://victoriousseo.com/seo-company-san-francisco/ is the destination URL.
Anchor text (3) is the word or phrase that makes up the visible link on a page. Anchor text is often styled with a different color from the surrounding text or underlined/bolded to stand out on the page. Anchor text can be descriptive and explain where the link leads, or non-descriptive, with generic language that offers no information about the page it points to.
The anchor text of a link is a key factor in search optimization.
In the same way that links allow users to navigate from one page to another, they also help search engine bots or “spiders” discover new pages and, ultimately, decide how to rank those pages for specific keywords.
This is where anchor text factors in.
Anchor text can communicate which keyword themes belong to a link’s destination URL. When a search engine spider crawls a link with non-descriptive anchor text, it discovers the content of the destination page. But, when the same link contains keywords relevant to the page it points to, the content on the destination page becomes more closely associated with those keywords, improving its ability to rank for that search term.
Why Are Backlinks Important?
Each backlink represents an external vote of confidence in the quality of a page.
Backlinks are important because:
- They help search engines determine the value of a page, and accordingly, how they should rank it in search results.
- They can send visitors to your page as referral traffic.
- They can help search engines find and index your pages faster.
Backlinks act as a sort of spam filter, rewarding site owners who create valuable content and penalizing those who don’t.
A website’s backlink portfolio shows how often others refer to it, indicating how authoritative they consider its contents to be.
This is why Google factors backlinks into its PageRank algorithm and why backlinks influence how your pages perform in search results.
A Quick Look at How Backlinks Factor into PageRank
Two Ways Google Factors Backlinks Into Rank
SEOs don’t know the exact inner workings of how the PageRank algorithm evaluates backlinks, but it’s widely accepted that two important factors include:
- Volume of backlinks: A website may be considered authoritative (and rank higher) if there are many pages linking to it. Think of a backlink as acknowledgment that there’s valuable content on a site. The more sites pointing to yours, the better it ranks.
- Quality of backlinks: Google also evaluates the quality of referring sites. A link from a well-respected and trusted site positively impacts rankings. Links from low-quality or spammy sites may not help your ranking at all, or worse, create an algorithmic or manual penalty.
You want to earn backlinks on well-respected, authoritative sites that are publicly vouching for your content.
Link Equity Explained
Link equity (you may have heard it called “link juice”) is the value that one site provides another site through a backlink. Put simply, you can think of link equity as the flow of ranking power passing through links from one page to another.
Links that pass equity are one of many signals that Google uses to determine a page’s rankings in the SERPs.
By the same token, link equity that passes from an external site to yours can be passed through your own pages by internally linking related content.
Earning backlinks to multiple pages on your website has the cumulative effect of sending trust and authority signals that will improve your overall search visibility.
Types of Backlinks You Should Know
Let’s break down common terms you’ll hear in any discussion of backlinks and how they affect SEO.
High-authority backlinks come from reputable web pages with:
- Steady traffic and readership
- Editorial standards
- Regularly updated content
- Thematic relevance to your business
A site owner places an editorial link because they believe the content they’re linking to provides value to readers. These links are given voluntarily and incorporated naturally into the referring site’s content. Editorial links carry significant weight in a link profile.
We can break editorial links down further:
Unsolicited Editorial Links
These links occur organically when a journalist or blogger writes about your business, or links to an article you’ve written to provide additional information for their readers. You don’t need to do anything to cultivate these links. These placements are a benefit of your efforts to establish high-quality content that demonstrates your topical authority.
Solicited Editorial Links
Although it’s nice to have editorial links appear organically, you can also acquire them through manual outreach and PR. Authoritative sites may be interested in linking to your pages if you publish original research or surveys and provide newsworthy information of value to their readers.
The flip side of high-authority links is low-quality links. Low-quality backlinks might include purchased or exchanged links or links generated through schemes to manipulate search engine rankings.
From an SEO perspective, these types of links are a no-no. If Google determines there are a large number of low-quality links in your inbound link portfolio, you’ll suffer a drop in your search rankings or might be subject to a manual penalty.
Learn more about how to detect a bad link to your website and remove it from your link portfolio.
User-Generated Content (UGC) Links
User-generated links are created by website visitors in the comments section of a blog post or online forum. Unscrupulous link builders might exploit the comments on unmoderated sites to proliferate spammy backlinks and manipulate search rankings.
It’s a good practice for sites with forums or comments to automatically add a UGC value to the rel attribute of links in user-generated content. (The rel attribute defines the relationship between a linked resource and the referring page.) This signals to Google that those links shouldn’t influence page ranking.
The UGC rel link attribute looks like this:
Sponsored or Paid Links
A sponsored or paid link is a purchased link. While these backlinks are considered toxic if they’re part of a scheme to manipulate search ranking, sponsored links are a legitimate way to gain exposure when promoting a business. Identifying sponsored links with the appropriate attribute value tells Google that these paid links weren’t placed to “game” the ranking system.
The sponsored rel link attribute looks like this:
A nofollow link is one that site owners ask Google not to crawl. Nofollow is used when you want to link to a page but not endorse it. The link looks no different to users but tells Google not to consider the relationship to the referral site in its PageRank calculations.
The nofollow rel link attribute looks like this:
A dofollow link is also known as a follow link. This SEO term describes a standard link that search bots follow from one site to another. All links are dofollow by default unless you add an attribute that asks Google not to follow it. These links are calculated in search engine rankings.
Google will follow links that have no relationship attribute defined in the link code.
The Difference Between Backlinks & Referring Domains
Now let’s look at the bigger picture: where your backlinks come from.
- A backlink is a link to one of your pages from a page on another website.
- A referring domain is a website that links to yours.
For example, if an article about real estate on the Wall Street Journal website links to one of your pages, the referring domain is www.wsj.com.
Because backlinks transfer credibility from the referring website to yours, the more confidence Google has in the referring domain, the more weight it will attribute to the value of your earned link.
For maximum SEO benefit, referring domains should be:
A backlink from a reputable, trustworthy site can boost your page ranking, and a referral from a poor or spammy site can negatively impact it. Google examines each backlink for credibility and offers developers guidance on determining whether a site is high-quality and trustworthy.
Once you’ve acquired a single backlink from a domain, each additional link from the same domain has less impact on your ranking in SERPs. It’s better to have multiple sites endorsing a page than to get all your support from one site. A study by Ahrefs confirms a positive correlation between the number of unique referring domains a page has and the search traffic it receives.
5 Key Benefits of Backlinks
It takes effort to review your backlink profile, determine the quality of referring domains, and acquire the kinds of high-quality links that boost online visibility. But, an investment in thoughtfully placed backlinks offers some distinct advantages.
1. Improves ranking in SERPs
Search engine bots regularly collect information and decide where to rank pages in search results for any given query. As your pages accumulate more quality backlinks, their page rank is bumped up — granting them better visibility and the increase in organic traffic that goes with it.
2. Helps Google find new pages
In the same way 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. Just make sure you’re getting natural, topically relevant backlinks so you can build trust and authority.
3. Boosts 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. Delivers referral traffic
Links are one of many ways users can navigate to your site. A backlink from a carefully chosen, relevant site not only boosts traffic but can send qualified leads right to conversion points on your website. Assuming the referring site’s readership is well-matched to yours, you’re bringing legitimate prospects into your sales funnel so the rest of your conversion strategies can kick in.
5. Boosts ROI of SEO
Backlinks are a powerful way to increase your traffic to your website.
- They bring traffic to your site through links.
- They boost site authority by putting you in the same company as reputable sites.
- They increase your overall organic footprint and push your domain higher in SERPs.
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.
Because backlinks are such an important part of site authority, you’ll want to be sure to maintain the health of all the backlinks you earn.
For a step-by-step guide to setting up broken backlink alerts in Google Analytics, read this article about how to find and fix broken links.
An Example of Backlink ROI
This screenshot comes from a SaaS SEO campaign that we ran for a customer.
In December, Victorious implemented a technical audit of the website, which increased search results by 250 positions for a set of thematic keywords. At that point, our customer decided to hold off on link building for a few months.
Without any page authority signals to complement the on-page optimization, the site’s gain in rankings stalled. At the tail end of January – over a month after the audit was implemented, rankings decreased.
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 our customer’s website.
In early February, we got the okay to start building links to target pages. As soon as links went live, the site regained rankings it had previously lost. Google recognized those links at external validation of the website’s authority.
Here are the results of 16 months of link building for this customer:
- 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 pattern repeat itself 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.
SEO Backlinks Aren’t an Instant Fix
Although backlinks are a heavily weighted factor in search results, they can’t get you to the top of search results on their own.
Any linking campaign needs to be part of a comprehensive SEO strategy that also focuses on:
- Website architecture: A logical site structure helps search bots understand and index pages.
- Optimized content: Website content should deliver the information users are searching for and contain natural keywords.
- Page optimization: Title tags, meta descriptions, headers, and internal links should follow standard practices and be search-engine friendly.
- Technical optimization: Sites should be fast-loading, mobile-friendly, secure, and have few broken links or errors, offering a seamless user experience.
Combined with these elements, a robust backlink profile helps position your site to rise in organic search rankings.
How to Get Backlinks
So, how do you land the right backlinks to drive traffic and bolster credibility?
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.
Be sure to 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 the 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.
- 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.
- Link moves: There are endless links on the internet, but not all are quality. Request that a site owner moves a link to one of your pages because of the value your content provides.
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:
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.
Put together surveys, statistics, and case studies that would be 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.
The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.Google Search Central
Provide journalists with expert insight for their articles. When you sign up for services such as HARO (Help a Reporter Out), 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 It Bad to Build Links?
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 1000 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 organic footprint.
Learn more about the true cost of SEO and how those investments benefit your bottom line.
What About Low-Quality Backlink Building?
As you build backlinks, Google inspects the referring domains for quality. Bad links usually come from pages that are:
- Over optimized (stuffed with keywords)
- Contain thin, poorly written, or scraped content
- Thematically irrelevant
- Exist for the sole purpose of selling links (link farms, private blog networks)
Low-quality backlinks make it harder to rank, and in some cases, can banish you to the bottom of SERPs.
Learn more about the detrimental impact of bad links.
FAQs about Link Building
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 can still be credible and perform well.
Learn more about domain authority.
Should I be worried about backlinks with a high spam score?
In short, one backlink with a high spam score isn’t something to be worried about. But, 70 backlinks with a high spam score might be.
Spam score is a metric created by Moz that evaluates the potential for a backlink to be spammy or harmful. It does this by checking each link against 17 unique factors called “spam flags” that could potentially put your site at risk.
With that said, it’s important to regularly check the overall health of your site’s backlink portfolio to be sure that your site’s not 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.
Does the topic of the content that links to my site matter?
Absolutely. Search engines want links to be natural so users are getting quality content that meets their needs. From a search engine’s perspective, links that come from contextually relevant content are more likely to have been naturally linked.
A good backlink example is an automotive business that earns referrals from articles about car maintenance, parts, and repair. A backlink from a tropical resort may be less impactful because it doesn’t provide added value for visitors to a travel and tourism website.
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 that your site should rank for related keywords. Too many exact matches, however, may be flagged as violating Google’s linking guidelines.
It’s unlikely a referring domain will use exact match keywords for anchor text. But that’s okay. 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” and “learn more,” because that’s a natural way to link from one 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’s webmaster quality guidelines 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 over-optimized. 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.
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, but the competition for those mentions can be fierce given their value. Links from lesser-known sites that are trustworthy can still boost your backlink profile. Even though they may be less impressive at face value, they can still signal credibility, topical relevance, and authority.
Do more backlinks mean a higher rank?
Yes, as long as the links are high quality. 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. Think quality over quantity.
Is there value to nofollow links?
Google introduced the nofollow attribute so that site owners could indicate when links aren’t placed for editorial value. These nofollow links don’t count toward your page rank, but you do reap benefits in terms of exposure and brand awareness.
Does it matter which page a backlink points to?
Most 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 your high-value pages that help with conversions, so a good rule of thumb is to acquire one quality backlink per month for these pages, even if the referring domain may not be well-known. A strategic internal linking structure will help pass equity from pages with more backlinks to those with fewer.
What about outbound links?
Much SEO focuses on inbound links. It’s good practice to apply the same consideration to outbound links, even though they may not directly affect your ranking.
Outbound links endorse a site, so carefully vet which sites you want to vouch for. By sending visitors to credible sites of interest to them, you’re improving your own site’s usefulness, which helps your authority long-term.
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 services can help your business get the attention it deserves. Reach out for a free SEO consultation today.