The Importance Of Backlinks In SEO & How To Get Them
Pretty much every business wants to reach the pinnacle of Google’s search results. This awesome achievement leads to higher rankings for the rest of the website, more visitors, and ultimately more leads and sales. To achieve this, you’ll need to complete modern, effective SEO, and backlinks are an important part.
In this article, we explore the crucial importance of backlinks in SEO, including what they are, how to check them, and what you can do to generate plenty of high quality backlinks to your website.
What are backlinks in SEO?
A backlink audit summary from Semrush
Backlinks are links from someone else’s web page to yours. They are a recommendation and a show of support. The person who added the link to your web page is essentially saying “these guys have some valuable information that you should look at,” which the reader can choose to follow. If the backlink is from an authoritative website that is trusted by Google, they may reward your web page with higher ranking.
Backlinks are also known as “inbound links” or “incoming links.” They can be broken down into four main types:
1. Natural backlinks
Natural backlinks are links that people add to your website without being asked. They are usually added because the person believes that your content is useful and valuable to their readers, and want to give them the option to read it. They are also known as editorial links.
These are the only types of backlinks that Google claims to reward with higher ranking. They are a “natural” result of creating good content for users, which Google wants to heavily repay. After all, the higher the quality of the content in their search index, the more satisfied their users will be.
2. Requested backlinks
As you might expect, requested backlinks are links that you’ve asked for, often obtained through outreach campaigns. There’s plenty of ways to gain these kinds of links. You might find other pieces of content that are related to yours, and suggest adding your backlink to give people further information. You can ask for a straight link swap, or you can offer to write a guest post (although the jury is out on whether this works). These are just a few examples—we’ll provide some more later.
3. Directory backlinks
Directory backlinks are a form of local SEO where you add your company’s name, address, and phone number (NAP) to an online directory. Google can see them as proof that you’re a legitimate local business with a real address. This helps to validate your Google My Business profile, and can boost your rankings as a result.
4. Paid backlinks
Paid backlinks are links that people add to your website as a result of payment, whether the payment is money, or a “free” product or service. They can certainly work to increase your ranking, but they are against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, so their algorithm may penalise your website if it “finds out.” The same goes for actual Google staff—if they suspect that you are paying for backlinks to your website, they may punish you by reducing your rankings, as confirmed by Google’s Search Advocate John Mueller in a Hangout session last year:
“Artificially building links, dropping links on other sites, buying links, all of that is against the webmaster guidelines. And we take action on that algorithmically, we take action on that manually. And the actions that we take include demoting the site that is buying the links, demoting the site that is selling the links. Sometimes we also take more subtle action in that we just ignore all of those links.”
Jumping back to 2014 again, Google’s Matt Cutts claimed that they can identify paid links easily, and while they probably would say that to discourage people, it’s worth heeding the warning regardless.
Backlinks importance in SEO
To understand the importance of backlinks for SEO, we have two primary sources:
- People who work (or have worked) in an SEO-related role at Google, like John Mueller, Andrey Lipattsev, and Matt Cutts.
- Companies who have taken the time to do large data analysis of backlinks and how they influence ranking.
First, let’s look at what Google has said about how backlinks affect your SEO. Way back in 2014, Matt Cutts—an integral part of Google’s search quality team at the time—confirmed that backlinks are an important ranking factor. As is usual (and understandable) for Google employees, he was careful not to reveal specific details about how the algorithm works for backlinks, but even calling them important is a pretty big deal.
Jump forward a couple of years to a live Google Q&A, and former Google Search Quality Senior Strategist Andrey Lipattsev confirms that links are one of three important ranking factors for their search engine, again reinforcing their SEO significance directly from the horse’s mouth.
But things can change quickly in the world of SEO. Do these statements from Google’s employees still hold true now? Absolutely, as confirmed by recent reliable studies from Ahrefs, Perficient, and Backlinko.
In 2020, Ahrefs analysed around two million random, newly-published pages to try to figure out how Google ranks them in their top 10 search results. From these two million pages, they found that the more backlinks a page has, the higher its ranking is in Google, and the more organic traffic it gets as a result.3 The study didn’t consider backlink quality, so we can’t tell how many of the links came from authoritative, trusted websites. But there was a clear correlation regardless: more backlinks = higher rankings.
Also in 2020, digital consultancy firm Perficient completed an analysis for 6,000 search queries, and found backlinks to be an excellent ranking signal for Google. They believe this to be the case for three reasons:
- A link to another website is a public endorsement
- Creating a backlink to another website requires effort
- The link is literally inviting the reader to leave their website for another—a potentially big sacrifice.
Finally, again in 2020, SEO giant Backlinko analysed almost 12 million Google search results to try to discover the most important ranking factors for Google. And you guessed it—one of them was backlinks. They found that the number one result in Google had an average of 3.8x more backlinks than positions two to ten.
So backlinks are important. Every link that your website gets from another is like a recommendation. They are essentially saying “here is another webpage that has something valuable to look at,” and if the website is authoritative and trusted by Google, they may take this seriously by rewarding your website with a better page rank. The more high quality backlinks you have, the higher your ranking is likely to be in Google. And we want to strongly emphasise quality—if you have 10,000 backlinks to your website that are from low-authority, unrelated websites, Google might ignore every one of them.
When Google finds a new backlink on a website, they take it into account immediately, and their algorithm may reward the website that is being linked to. This was confirmed by John Mueller in a hangout a couple of years ago. But while Google agrees that backlinks are important for SEO, Mueller confirms that they are not the most important factor:
Links are definitely not the most important SEO factor.
— johnmu.xml (personal) (@JohnMu) July 31, 2020
Still, quality backlink building is undoubtedly an important off-site SEO technique (alongside on-site SEO and technical SEO). So how is it done?
How to get high quality backlinks
Backlink analysis from Moz’s Domain Analyser
Before we jump into how to get high quality backlinks, we first need to understand what a high quality backlink is.
Ideally, every backlink that comes to your site would meet the following criteria:
- It’s a “do follow” link, which means it passes on more SEO value.
- It has a high domain authority (DA), and a low spam score. This can be checked using a tool like Moz’s Domain Analyser.
- It’s from a source that is relevant or related to your website. If your company sells furniture and you get a backlink from an electronics company, it probably won’t be as valuable. However, if you get a backlink from a highly ranking blog that covers nothing but furniture, you have a winner.
- The anchor text for the link includes some of the target keywords of your page. For example, if you’ve written an article that explores the best electric cars for this year, your target keywords may be “best electric cars for 2022,” and these would ideally be in the link’s anchor text. But a word of caution here: if too many pages use your exact target keywords, Google may view this as spam and ignore them.
- It’s from a website domain that hasn’t linked to you before.
- It’s from a website that is popular, with plenty of traffic. It doesn’t matter where in the world the website is located.
- It’s in the body of the page, not hidden away in the footer.
The more of these criteria that are met, the higher the quality of your backlink, and the greater SEO value you’ll get from it.
So how to get them? We can turn to Google’s John Mueller again for an authoritative answer:
“Essentially, when it comes to links, Google’s point of view is that these should be things that are not organised by you, that are not paid for by you, that are not created by you. But rather they should be naturally people who say well, this is really cool, I really like that.”
Mueller is saying that the best way to get high quality backlinks is by creating great content, a sentiment regularly championed by Google staff members. But people tend to shy away from creating awesome content because it’s hard to do. Instead, they find themselves wandering down dangerous roads where shady men sell toxic backlinks by the dozen, where keywords are mercilessly stuffed into headings, and where content is stolen from other websites without a thought. Thankfully, none of this works. If it did, Google’s search engine would be trash and nobody would use it.
Instead, as explained by Mueller, what Google mostly rewards is high quality content. When you create an amazing blog, eBook, or white paper, and give it the depth and high-word count that it deserves, people will naturally create links to it from their websites. This is especially true if the content contains original research, which is even more difficult to do, but worth its weight in gold. Quick-consumption images like infographics also tend to attract plenty of backlinks, as people use them and reference them in their own related content. “Why” and “what” posts are great too, because they usually answer people’s most common questions.
When you have an excellent piece of content that has proven search demand, the second crucial part is promotion. There’s little point in spending hours each week creating content if nobody will see it. You’ll want it to get in front of as many people as possible, which means optimising it for SEO, sharing it on social media, emailing it to your subscriber list, and potentially promoting it with adverts. The more traffic the content gets, the more positive user signals are passed to Google, and the greater its SEO boost. When you start getting backlinks to it, the momentum keeps building, and you could achieve a glorious snowball effect where the content becomes ultra popular.
So, creating great content is the most effective way to attract high quality backlinks. But there’s other methods too, usually included as part of an outreach campaign where you request links from other websites. Google frowns upon these kinds of links, but they can work. Effective ways to request links include:
- Find references to your business that are not linked, and contact the website owner to request a link.
- Find broken links to your website, and contact the website owner to fix them. This is called link reclamation.
- Find content that is related to yours, and suggest adding a link to your website for further information.
- Guest blogging
- Ask for a straight link swap with another website.
As with content, these strategies can be tough to execute successfully, and take up a lot of time. So we suggest focusing on great content first and foremost.
Now that we’ve covered good backlinks and how to get them, it’s worth quickly talking about what a bad backlink looks like, so that you can avoid them. Google describes these in their link schemes document, and some common practices are as follows:
- Paying for links. This includes monetary payment, as well as offering free products or services, or something else of value. John Mueller from Google says they are a waste of money, and you may end up being penalised for them.
- Exchanging links excessively. One or two is ok, but don’t do too much of it.
- Using software bots to create links for you.
- Including links in text adverts—these don’t work at all.
How to check for backlinks
Thankfully, there’s plenty of great tools that will check for backlinks and give you a full profile for your website. These include Semrush, Ahrefs, Moz, and a tool by Neil Patel. They will usually give you a full list of your backlinks, the anchor text, some kind of authority score for the domain, and more. This list tells you which pieces of content are getting the most backlinks, so that you can potentially focus your efforts on those types of content, for those types of topics. It will also alert you to toxic backlinks that can harm your SEO ranking, which you can disavow to wipe out the potential threat.
Interestingly, some tools will allow you to check the backlink profile for your competitors, which can be a fantastic way to unearth their tactics and gather ideas. If certain pieces of their content are attracting a lot of backlinks, can you do something similar but better? This is called the skyscraper technique, and it’s an effective way to create high-ranking content.
Importance of backlinks in SEO—summary
Backlinks are very important for SEO, but only if they come from high quality sources. Creating exceptional content is your best SEO strategy, but may be supplemented nicely with an outreach campaign. We recommend trying out a few techniques and seeing what works for you. With persistent hard work, you will see your backlink profile start to build nicely, and your keyword rankings alongside it.
- Link Schemes, Google Search Central
- Eric Enge, 2020, Links as a Ranking Factor, Perficient
- Tim Soulo, 2020, 90.63% of Content Gets No Traffic From Google. And How to Be in the Other 9.37%, Ahrefs