Backlinks: Everything You Need to Know

A backlink—otherwise known as inbound link or incoming link—is produced when one website creates a hyperlink that points back to another website. For example, if The New York Times and The Huffington Post create hyperlinks in their news articles that link back to your website, these links are called backlinks to your site.

Backlinks are a cornerstone element of off-site search engine optimization (SEO) that you’re probably going to learn about in detail before other SEO principles. While links are not all that matters to SEO, link-related elements are nevertheless seen by many experts as among the most important search engine ranking factors. To help you understand why, we need to first establish what backlinks do.

Backlinks are Both for People and Search Engines

First of all, backlinks help users navigate among different websites and webpages on the Internet. They are very helpful when a publisher wants to create appropriate citations that credit the works of others, for example, or they can also serve as a way for a publisher to lead users to important external resources that are relevant to the subject of the page where the links were created.

However, backlinks do more than just help web users navigate the Internet. They are also used by search engines to discover new web pages, to find out how different webpages are related to each other, and to determine how well webpages should rank in search engine results pages (SERPs).

Essentially, search engines like Google consider a link from one webpage to another webpage as a vote of confidence by the former to the latter. The source webpage is effectively saying that the webpage it is linking back to has good content and is a trustworthy resource. In theory, this means that the more backlinks your website has, the more it is seen by search engines as reliable, relevant, and more worthy to rank highly in search results. However, as will be explained below, it is not really that simple.

Backlinks: A Short History

There was a time when simply having more backlinks to one’s website automatically meant ranking highly in Google’s SERPs. It was, as a matter of fact, the underlying principle behind the search engine’s earlier form of PageRank algorithm, which was invented by the company’s founders, Larry Page and Sergei Brin in 1996. This differentiated Google from other search engines of the time, which generated result rankings depending on how many times particular search terms appeared on webpages.

As you can imagine, this should work, in principle, because a webpage should only get links if it really were deserving. After all, would you be giving a website your vote of confidence if it were a bad website? However, it didn’t take very long for webmasters and SEO practitioners to discover how to game the system. Many began to intentionally design low-quality links to artificially prop their websites’ Google rankings. It didn’t matter if these links came from comment spams, from link farms, or spam blogs, they worked anyway.

In April 2012, however, Google rolled out the first of what will be a series of algorithm updates known as Google Penguin. These updates successfully diminished the search engine rankings of websites that have actively manipulated their backlinks using black-hat SEO techniques. As Google gradually released these updates over the years, the search engine’s algorithm has been refined to such a point where it can now perform sophisticated link data analysis to assess the value of each backlink.

In this day of advanced search engine algorithms and ever-improving machine learning, the importance of correctly leveraging the power of backlinks cannot be overstated. If you’re adopting a link building program, you have to know how to obtain high-quality links from reputable sources instead of relying on old black-hat methods that can get your website penalized.

Which Backlinks Really Matter?

The first step to doing this is knowing which sort of backlinks can help your website rank better in search results. While no one—except those at Google—knows the exact workings of Google’s algorithms and how they ascribe value to links, experts are able to make intelligent guesses based on repeated experiments and years of hands-on experience. If you’re link building for your website and you want to know which backlinks really matter, here are a few tips that are worth considering:

Backlinks from Popular and High-Ranking Websites Can Improve Your Own Ranking

A page that has many backlinks coming from webpages with high authority will likewise rank highly as well. If your travel blog gets a backlink from Lonely Planet, for example, it will be worth more than a backlink that you get from an obscure backpacking website created by your next-door neighbor.

Obtain Backlinks from Trustworthy Websites

With the sheer number of spammy websites that exist across wide expanse of the Internet, it’s understandable why search engines like Google would hold backlinks from trustworthy websites in high regard. These include links created on the websites of government agencies (.gov) and educational institutions (.edu).

Acquire Backlinks from Websites with High Engagement Signals

If a website is frequently visited by users, receives a lot of page views, experiences low bounce rates, and is able to keep people onsite for a long time, search engines may take these as signs that the website is highly engaging and provides real value to users. In view of the forgoing, when trying to earn links for your link building endeavor, aim for websites that have great content, are very well put together, attract a wide readership, and are supported by a community of followers or subscribers. Avoid websites with low-quality or spammy content, as well as those with horrible user interfaces.

Relevance to Your Page or Website’s Theme and Content Also Matters

If you run a winery website and you’re thinking of getting links from third-party publishers, which backlink to your site do you think search engines will consider more favorably: a link from the website of a magazine for sommeliers or a link from a website about babies? Remember that context and relevance matters. In this case, a link from a website that publishes content about wine stewardship is better because it relates well to the content of the target website.

The same is true with regard to the content of the anchor text itself As much as possible, your anchor text should directly relate to the content of the page the link is pointing to. If there were numerous backlinks with the right keywords on the anchor texts linking back to a webpage, that page would have a better chance at ranking well for the those targeted keywords.

Content Freshness Can Affect the Backlinks’ Value

Having a lot of backlinks coming from websites whose content are consistently fresh can help pass on freshness value to your own website. Freshness is valuable because it can signify to search engines that your website is relevant, giving it the chance to rank better in search results. Basically, what you want are links from newly created pages or blog entries from relevant and high-ranking websites whose content are consistently updated.

When it comes to SEO, it is important to understand that not all backlinks are created equal. As such, if you’re instituting a link building program for your website, you have to identify the third-party sites you can really earn top-quality links from. Aside from this, you also have to put time and effort into creating compelling, relevant, and useful content both for your onsite and offsite content efforts. You want content that people will want to link back to, or that publishers will want to post with backlinks to your own website. Gradually building this portfolio of content and partners will help you improve your site’s link equity over time.