The accumulation of quality backlinks through link building is one of the most difficult and, at the same time, one of the most important types of search engine optimization (SEO).
Backlinks are used by Google’s search algorithms as votes of confidence relating to the target site’s quality. The more backlinks a website has from trusted, high-quality sites, the better the chances of it ranking high on Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs).
Unlike other areas of SEO such as technical SEO and on-page SEO, link building campaigns are especially beneficial as the potential for boosting your site’s Google SERP rankings is virtually unlimited. While on-page and technical SEO are still important, there are practical limits to what these could accomplish for increasing your site’s search visibility.
In other words, once technical and on-page SEO improvements to your site have been maxed out, the only way your site can make any substantial gains on search engines is through creating good content and accumulating high-quality backlinks.
This fact has made link building essential for businesses seeking continuous online growth. Consequently, link building skills are also foundational to the practice of contemporary SEO. It’s not unusual to find SEO professionals who specialize in building backlinks or creating content to support link building efforts.
Challenges in Link Building
While all SEO campaigns take time, link building is especially labor-intensive. Earning backlinks can be difficult and developing the content to support link building campaigns can be similarly challenging.
Given this, it’s important to focus on the quality rather than the quantity of backlinks. This is especially because some types of backlinks can serve to decrease your site’s visibility on Google Search.
This means SEO professionals must differentiate between good backlinks and potentially harmful ones.
Here’s how you can learn which link prospects are worth pursuing:
1.) Check the Site’s Domain Authority
Domain Authority (DA) is a metric developed by Moz that shows the trustworthiness of a website domain according to Google and other major search engines. You can check for any site’s DA using the Moz Link Explorer.
With some caveats, the higher a site’s DA, the easier it will be for it to rank on SERPs. Consequently, backlinks from high DA sites can heavily influence a target site’s search rankings.
DA is determined by a collection of factors including content credibility, domain age, and organic traffic to name a few. However, the biggest factor for high DA is the number of backlinks from other high-quality websites and referring domains, which implies a high level of trustworthiness.
At SearchWorks, we generally look for domains with a DA of at least 25 (with the highest possible DA score being 100). For local SEO campaigns, lower DAs can be used so long as they are geographically relevant. As with all things, however, the decision to pursue links of higher or lower DA has to be taken in context.
It’s important to understand that DA is not the only metric you can use. SEO software developer Majestic also has domain quality scoring systems called Trust Flow and Citation Flow.
To learn more about these systems, watch Trust Flow Explained.
2.) Choose Sites That Have Contextual Relevance
As implied in the previous point, DA isn’t everything. For campaigns targeting a specific geographic area or a niche market, you might find it difficult, if not impossible, to find link prospects with especially high DA.
However, in these cases, links to domains with a strong geographic or thematic relationship with your site may be of greater value, even if they possess a low DA. This is because Google’s algorithms are likely to see such backlinks from these sites as possessing contextual relevance to your own.
If you had to choose an irrelevant site with a high DA versus one that’s highly relevant with a relatively low DA, it might be a better idea to choose the more relevant one.
3.) Make Sure the Site Has Not Been Penalized
While you cannot directly access another site’s Google Analytics data, tools by developers such as Semush and Ahrefs can give you a rough idea of their organic traffic. A sudden drop in organic traffic can be a strong indicator of a Google penalty, which means you should either move on to other link prospects or proceed with caution.
Generally speaking, you should avoid these sites as their “linking power” or ability to give your site a boost through a backlink is greatly reduced. Additionally, your time might be better spent pursuing better link prospects for a better result. Lastly, backlinks from penalized sites can cause search engines to classify your site as part of a so-called “bad neighborhood”, which can negatively affect your target site’s search rankings.
However, not all drops in search volume are the result of a penalty. They could be the result of algorithm changes, market seasonality, site redesigns, or other benign causes. Be sure to rule these out before deciding that a prospect has been penalized.
4.) Find Out If the Site is Part of a Private Blog Network (PBN)
The only reason PBNs exist is to game Google’s algorithms for short-term gain. Because of this, Google actively tries to penalize sites that are part of these networks as they reduce the relevance of Google’s SERPs. Eventually, all PBNs get caught and penalized, putting the sites that they link to at risk.
Thankfully, it’s fairly easy to spot a blog that’s part of a PBN. Blogs that are part of a PBN usually have a decently high DA but lack the organic traffic and engagement to back it up. They also tend to have poor content that is either scraped from elsewhere or automatically generated. PBN sites also tend to lack a significant social media presence and shares.
For a more in-depth look at how to spot a PBN, check out Distinguishing PBNs from Real Sites.
5.) Do Not Re-engage With Sites That Orphan Your Content
Before re-engaging with a webmaster that accepted your content in the past, make sure to check up on the content that you previously submitted.
Some webmasters may intentionally leave out any internal links going to your content. Additionally, some may even take the extra step of making it impossible to reach your content through their regular site navigation. These actions will diminish the value you can derive from link building. If you see this being done to your content, it’s best to just save time and move on to other link prospects.
6.) Choose Only Sites That Offer “Dofollow” Backlinks
Your site will derive limited value from backlinks with a rel=“nofollow” attribute. While there might be some good reasons to pursue a prospect that only does nofollow links, these generally do not present themselves to be a good use of your time, especially when considering the primary goal of a link building campaign.
Similar to the previous point, it’s worth mentioning that some webmasters may initially have your link as a “dofollow” and later change its attribute to a nofollow when they think you’ve lost interest.
If you’ve previously engaged with a webmaster and are considering them again, make sure to check on your previously posted content to ensure that the link’s dofollow attribute is intact. If it’s been changed or removed, it’s best to prioritize another prospect.
7.) Avoid Sites That Attribute Links as Sponsored or User-Generated Content
As with nofollow links, these types of links might be OK for some other kind of marketing campaign but they are of little value for link building. These types of links do not pass link juice the way that dofollow-attributed links do and are, therefore, not the ones you should be spending time on when you’re running a link building campaign.
8.) Prioritize Sites That Offer Permanent Backlinks
Some site webmasters, particularly those managing sites for large educational or government institutions, are not particularly incentivized to maintain your links or even your content on their domain. This is a big deal, as your site will lose all the power associated with having backlinks on those sites if they modify the links or remove the content entirely.
Ideally, you want backlinks that are as close to permanent as possible. Permanent backlinks have the chance to accumulate, giving your site the link power it needs to raise its DA and dominate the SERPs. Before you engage a prospect for a backlink, you’ll want to be confident that the link will be up a year after publishing. If you can see evidence that the publisher regularly wipes their content, it may make sense to try other prospects first.
Dominate the SERPs Through Better Backlinks
Hopefully, these pointers on assessing backlink prospects will help you get to the top of the SERPs. If there’s one thing that you should take from all this, it’s that link building is not an activity that you can do just based on a template or a YouTube vlog. Ultimately, it’s about developing good relationships with webmasters and delivering content that these publishers would be glad to have on their sites.