Years ago, SEO (search engine optimization) used to be pretty straightforward: use the right keywords, and the links and traffic will come. These days, it’s gotten a lot more complicated—and in many ways, that’s a good thing. Search engine algorithms have gotten smarter, and it’s no longer effective to simply splash some lists of keywords anywhere on the page, sit back, and wait for the results. Now, search rankings more accurately reflect what people conducting search want—relevant, authoritative, and well-written content.
Aside from keywords, other ranking factors like backlinks have become a big source of discussion and confusion for marketers in the last few years. Keywords are still important, but backlinks also play a major role in creating visibility and improving a page’s rank in search results. So how important are backlinks to SEO strategy, and is there such a thing as a bad backlink?
What is a Backlink/Link Building?
Before we look at how backlinks affect rankings, it’s important to really understand what a backlink is. Essentially, a backlink is really just a link embedded in anchor text (text relating to the link content) from another site or page that points back to your own page. These are also known as inbound links, while the sites you link to on your page are called outbound links. When you add a link to a piece of external content, you’re providing a backlink for the owner of that website and vice versa.
A link building strategy simply involves getting established sites to link to your page in a natural way so that it will rank better in search results. The higher the ranking of the page featuring your backlink, the better. It takes time to build the authority and relationships needed to get high-quality inbound links, but the content will get a significant boost for links pointing back to that page from a related site.
Why Backlinks Matter
So why do backlinks matter? Are they really essential to an effective SEO strategy? The answer is yes, absolutely. When a search engine “crawls” and factors in different SEO components, the inbound links it finds can make a big difference. They can tell the search engine something about the content that keywords can’t: the context of the page relative to other pages of that type.
Search engines use backlinks heavily in determining placement in search results because the number of backlinks and the quality of those backlinks indicates the popularity and authority of the page to a certain extent. The logic is that if others are linking to your page on a regular basis, then the content is relevant and reflects some authority, expertise, or interest in that subject.
To cut through the noise online and get more eyes on your content, it’s essential to pay attention to every ranking factor, especially ones weighted as heavily as inbound links. These days, link building is one of the most crucial activities marketers can take in improving organic search rankings, but it must be done ethically and carefully.
How Backlinks Help SEO
Search engines use backlinks to help them figure out which pages are reputable and popular. But what can a link building strategy do for you? Here are just a few ways backlinks can help with SEO and building authority.
Backlinks Get Pages Ranked More Quickly
Everyone wants higher rankings for their pages—and quickly. Unfortunately, getting a page ranked can take a lot of time, especially if you’re only using traditional on-page SEO strategies. Search engines use links to find new pages, and the more links to your site that are out there, the faster your site will be indexed and the faster you’ll get ranked. Think of links as sort of a professional network that’s introducing you to search engines. They may find you eventually without an introduction, but it will take longer.
When we think about SEO, we’re usually thinking about how to get in front of the customer organically via a search engine. But backlinks can provide even more traffic opportunities than simply search engine clicks. If someone sees an outbound link on a piece of content with relevant anchor text, they may click it to get more information. If that backlink leads to your site, you’ve just gotten some more organic referral traffic.
Relevant Backlinks “Future-Proof” Your Content
Lots of marketers get spooked when there’s a new update to the Google Penguin search algorithm. Truth is, however, that those who are making the effort to make their SEO strategy match up with what consumers actually want shouldn’t have much to fear from future updates to search engine algorithms. Think about it—search engines rank by choosing the pages they think will be the most helpful for the person requesting the search. If you focus on building high-quality, relevant backlinks, you’ll set yourself up for long-term success, even if the algorithms do change.
Are Some Backlinks “Toxic”?
Now that we’ve talked about just how important and beneficial quality backlinks are for SEO, it’s time to talk about the dark side of link building—toxic backlinks. Since search engine algorithms are getting smarter all the time, taking shortcuts and inviting low-quality linking can be a big mistake for long-term strategy. Sometimes, however, toxic links aren’t your fault—they get introduced via comment spam or other means.
Google Penguin, an update that was first launched in 2012 to help cut down on abuse of link building schemes and keyword stuffing, has gone through many different versions since it was introduced. The goal of the update, however, was to cut down on irrelevant, spammy, or otherwise bad links that were manipulating search rankings and putting poor-quality websites above authority sites simply because they had more sites linking to them.
For this reason, a toxic link can have a negative impact on a site’s ranking. That’s why it’s so important to monitor links on a regular basis and to use the tool that Google has provided (known as the disavow tool) to exclude spam links and irrelevant backlinks that could be hurting your site’s reputation. It’s also important to ensure that any external link on your own site is to a site with a good reputation. Even linking to a poor site can have a negative impact on your ranking.
Focus on Building Links the Right Way—and Keep Your Eyes Open
There’s a lot involved with search engine optimization, building links, and getting the right kind of attention for your site. Don’t pour all your energy into nurturing backlinks, but do take this ranking factor seriously and focus on ethically building relevant links that will help bring in new traffic and build the authority or trustworthiness of your content. It’s also important to keep an eye out for those toxic backlinks so you can put that disavow tool to good use.
Remember, to get higher rankings, you always have to keep your eyes open for factors that could hurt your organic search and you should never focus on just one strategy alone. But above all, helping consumers find what they’re looking for is what’s really going to get you noticed in the right way.