Author: Ashwin Balakrishnan
If search engine optimization had its own currency, there are few better candidates than the backlink. In the past, digital marketers would plan elaborate strategies to acquire as many backlinks as possible. It’s not an exaggeration to say they were once the building blocks of online traffic growth.
Today’s search algorithms are more adept at deciphering user intent, which allows Google to rank sites based on much more than referrals. But, backlinks are still valuable, even if they’re no longer the determining factor in ranking websites.
If you’re curious about how to best use backlinks for your website—or just want to get started from the very beginning—this article will walk you through:
Note: This article refers to Google as the default search engine due to its market share and advanced language processing capabilities. Many of the principles and concepts discussed here are applicable to other search engines as well.
The fundamentals of backlinks
Backlinks aren’t complicated: they’re hyperlinks that take users from one web page to another, and they form the strongest referral network in online search.
Before we get into the details of how backlinks work, here are some helpful terms that are universally applicable to all websites, SEO practitioners, and link-building programs.
The web domain where a backlink originates. For example, the referring domain for all links in this article is wix.com.
The specific page where the backlink is found. For example, the referring page for all backlinks within this article would simply be this page’s URL, https://www.wix.com/seo/learn/resource/backlinks-101.
When a backlink points to a page that is inaccessible or no longer exists, most often identified with the error code “404” (page not found).
When a previously existing backlink no longer points to your content, such as when the referring domain webmaster changes the hyperlink URL.
The text on a referring page on which a link to your page/site is placed. For example, “SEO podcast” is the anchor text in the following sentence: “SERP’s UP is a new SEO podcast hosted by Crystal Carter and Mordy Oberstein.”
One of many algorithms used by Google to rank web pages. This differs from search rank, which is the position of a page on a search results page.
You’ll run into some of these terms when using keyword tools, such as Ahrefs (shown below), Semrush, RankRanger, etc.
Reminder: Not all backlinks are made equal
When building a strong backlink profile, the most critical factors are the quality and relevance of referring domains and pages. Relevant backlinks from authoritative sites signal to Google that your page is worthy of attention. You might hear SEO practitioners refer to this associated equity as “link juice.”
To get the most benefit from the link juice you’ve earned, aim for quality over quantity—as suggested by the search engine with some of the world’s most sophisticated language processing capabilities.
Pages can rank even with “one really good link from one website . . . . that is, for us, a really important sign that we should treat this website as something that is relevant because it has that one link,” said Google Search Advocate John Mueller during a webinar from early 2021.
In other words, the total number of backlinks to a page does not matter.
So, what does that mean for link building?
Let’s say you’re trying to rank a blog post about how to improve your CTAs (calls to action). Focus your link building strategy on websites that Google deems to be authorities in related domains, such as conversion rate optimization or digital advertising. You’ll do better with a couple of those links, rather than dozens from low-quality sites or ones with no connection to your topic.
How backlinks add value to your website
It’s clear that backlinks make the internet go round, but what exactly do they do? And why does virtually every large business seem ready to invest in a link building program? These are some reasons why marketing teams find link building valuable.
01. Increased organic traffic: Backlinks remain one of the leading search ranking factors. All other considerations being equal, a page with relevant, authoritative backlinks is more likely to rank on page one of Google for its target queries.
02. Increased referral traffic: Links from high-traffic sites and pages tend to increase traffic to your website via clicks from the referring page.
03. Credibility with Google: Google assesses a site’s content quality based on signals that indicate expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (E-A-T). Backlinks are a sign that your page knows what it’s talking about and can be trusted.
04. Credibility with readers: Pages with links from websites established in their industry are more likely to be convincing and reliable to the people you want to reach.
05. Faster indexing time: When you publish a page with internal backlinks from already-indexed pages, Google is faster to discover and crawl the new page.
Situations where backlinks are especially valuable
There are no instances where the right backlinks are detrimental to search rank and quality. Investing in link building is rarely a bad idea as long as your site is well structured and optimized for search. However, some scenarios make the investment truly worthwhile.
01. Your content is truly unique: Expert interviews and proprietary research are two examples of content that’s often original and difficult to replicate, making it a natural target for link building.
02. Your target keywords aren’t generic: If you’re writing a blog post targeting generic keywords like “best lipstick colors,” you’ll have a much harder time building backlinks than someone doing so for a listicle targeting the “top 10 plant-based lipstick brands.” Not only is there likely to be more competition for backlinks for more generic topics, but that heightened competition will also play out in the search results as well.
03. You’re writing for search terms with no data: Some keywords have a low number of monthly searches or are so specific that it's tough to find search history data for them. Many businesses ignore the opportunities these keywords offer, such as acquiring high-intent customers or dominating the results for a query. As you publish content to win more of this traffic, you’ll likely earn relevant backlinks, which signals to Google (and your readers) that you’re the new authority on the subject.
Referring domain attributes that influence link quality
When searching for a new job, a reference from a respected expert in your industry can put you ahead of the competition. Similarly, being associated with websites in good standing with Google can decrease the time it takes for your online content to rank. Here are a few factors that make some referrals more valuable than others.
01. Site quality: Google tends to view referring domains with strong E-A-T, site structure, and user experience more favorably. Backlinks from these sites are preferable to similar websites without those qualities.
02. Site relevance: The proximity and relevance of a referring domain/page to the target page on your website makes a huge difference in terms of backlink quality. It doesn’t have to be exact, but it should be close. For example, Google is likely to more favorably value links between sites from two different digital marketing disciplines, as opposed to those links existing between a site about marketing and a site about pet adoption.
03. Anchor text: Google looks at anchor text to better understand what a page is about, as well as what a given link is trying to indicate. The more direct and relevant the anchor text is to the topic it links to, the more context Google will have to be able to rank it appropriately for relevant queries.
04. Link type: Follow links tell Google’s crawlers to “follow” the link and crawl the target page. These are the most valuable type of backlink for passing link equity and are typically the default setting (although some brands and publishers do elect to nofollow all external links). Nofollow links use a specific tag to cut off link juice (although Google treats this attribute as a hint rather than a directive, meaning that it may choose to pass link equity anyway), while UGC (user-generated content) and sponsored tags tell Google that a link is either outside a site’s control or paid for.
3 under-utilized tactics for a better backlink profile
Link building isn’t easy, but it’s one of the most crucial parts of a successful SEO strategy. While every business and site should make the right strategic choices for their particular goals, there are some best practices everyone can apply to earn and retain the best backlinks possible.
Nurture relationships with your industry’s top creators and brands
One of the easiest ways to win links consistently over time is to approach it like a good sales rep: treating people like people. Take a genuine interest in what they do, give and help more than you take, and even add a personal facet to your rapport.
Cold emails might work some of the time, but even relevant pitches can feel transactional. It’s far easier to make relevant, appropriate backlink requests of someone with whom you have a relationship.
Just be sure not to take liberties with the relationships you cultivate; they can take months to build, but minutes to undo. Avoid behaviors such as:
Asking for backlinks too frequently or in multiples
Pitching pages or sites that aren’t mutually relevant
Making it their job to find/suggest anchor text
Monitor and resolve broken backlinks
Once you earn a backlink, it’s not safe forever. Referring domains change, pages get deprecated, and even their subject matter can move in a completely different direction. You want to stay on top of these links, but you also want to make sure that the pages they point to are active and accessible.
Backlink monitoring is as much a part of SEO as winning the initial link. Tools popular with many SEO practitioners include:
Google Search Console, which is free forever
SEO Spider from Screaming Frog, which is free for up to 500 URLs
Semrush, which offers a seven-day free trial with full access
SEO Spyglass, which is free to try and offers deep backlink insights
Explore niche sites
Ever come across a recipe blog where all the recipes are from the southern US? Or a website dedicated to Dungeons and Dragons novices making their first characters? Both of these are examples of niche websites.
Niche sites typically cater to a very specific topic and audience, and are often one of few sites competing for a sizable chunk of traffic. If they align with your website’s topic, it may provide an opportunity to build a relationship that comes with a steady supply of backlinks.
In addition to niche sites, there are other opportunities to win different types of backlinks (beware: many are nofollow links, which are better for traffic than authority). Examples include:
Social media profiles and bios, including those of the key employees at your company
Directory sites like G2, Capterra, Yelp, and other aggregators that allow you to edit a profile
Community sites like Reddit, Quora, and topic- or niche-specific forums
How many backlinks do I need for my website?
Google has confirmed that there is no minimum number of backlinks required to rank a page or website. When PageRank was Google’s only search ranking algorithm, link quantity played a role in determining SEO success. While the ranking algorithms today are more varied and complex, it’s likely that outdated best practices still play a role in the remaining emphasis on backlink count.
If traffic is your primary concern, emphasize quality; a single, relevant referring domain can provide you with far more traffic than thousands of backlinks on less relevant, lower-quality sites.
What should I do with backlinks I don’t want?
All websites receive links they don’t want. Some are irrelevant; others are inappropriate or spammy. From adult websites to low-quality content aggregators, there are many reasons a backlink can be undesirable.
According to Google, you can simply ignore them. But, if you have a manual action against your site for unnatural backlinks, you can use Google’s own disavow feature in Search Console.
Is building backlinks enough to rank?
Sorry, it’s not; content quality is paramount. However, when comparing two pages of similar quality about the same topic, the one with more quality backlinks is much more likely to rank higher. And, since we can’t know exactly what factors Google uses to determine content quality, any successful SEO strategy should prioritize both content and backlinks.
I don’t want to spend time building links. Can’t I buy them instead?
This is a bit of a gray area in SEO: Google’s Search Central documentation states that “any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines.” While it’s always better to build links organically over time, many websites do bend these rules to finance a paid link building strategy with no penalties.
If you decide to pursue a strategy that violates Google’s guidelines, know that you risk incurring ranking penalties or even being removed from the results entirely.
The secret to a winning link building strategy
Like all other parts of SEO, link building doesn’t translate to success in isolation. Some of the reasons why link building fails (or why businesses give up on it too soon) include:
Expecting overnight results
Content that isn’t original or high-quality
Neglecting internal linking
Poor site structure and experience
No cohesion between organic and paid content
Every site has to work harder at the beginning of its link building journey. But, backlinks are one of marketing’s best examples of the Snowball Effect, where initial slow momentum gives way to compounding benefits that require less effort.
As you publish more high-quality content and win more relevant backlinks, more people will discover those pages organically (through search and referrals). That leads to more pages linking to your content without any effort from you (known as passive link building).
Link building isn’t about flash and wizardry. It’s about getting the basics right day after day, week after week, year after year. Great SEO is a marathon that never ends; there’s no destination, only a journey that can prove to be either very rewarding or very expensive.
Ashwin Balakrishnan - Head of Marketing at Optmyzr
Ashwin is a digital marketer specializing in content strategy and SEO. He currently looks after organic marketing at Optmyzr and contributes to Search Engine Journal. His writing can also be found on Wix, Nutshell, and other SaaS sites. Twitter | Linkedin