January 12, 2018

Backlinks: What are they and what do they mean for SEO?

If you’ve taken even the shallowest dive into the world of SEO, you’ve probably heard of backlinks.

And that’s how it should be, because If Search Engine Optimization were a song, backlinks would be the chorus.

They are that important.

Quite simply, they’re an essential element lying at the foundation of any website that actually gets found.

There’s only one problem:

As much as backlinks get talked up, there’s a massive gap between just knowing that backlinks are important and knowing how to gain quality authoritative backlinks that boost SEO.

In this post, we are going to talk about what backlinks are, how Google has refined its algorithms around them over time, and why they are such an important element of a website’s search rankings.

Most importantly, we are going teach you about the current climate around backlinks, and what you should focus on in your SEO and Content Marketing efforts if you want to gain quality backlinks that improve your search rankings.

Let’s get started!

What is a backlink?

A backlink is created when a page of another website links to a page on yours. For example, Moz.com would consider the second word in this paragraph to be a backlink, because it leads users from a different site to theirs.

Backlinks are important to search engines because they are a signal that the site being linked to has quality, worthwhile information on a topic relevant to the site linking to it. You can think of it as a digital vote of confidence.

The definition of a quality backlink, and the determination of how much value a backlink adds to a site’s search rankings has also changed over time.

There are a variety of different types of backlinks, and the SEO benefit provided to the website receiving them differs.

Contextual vs. Non-Contextual links

A Contextual link is a link that is surrounded by text, like the one at the beginning of this sentence.

Contextual links are the most valuable type of link for a variety of reasons:

  1. They are extremely relevant to the content that directly surrounds them
  2. They make it easy for users to expand their knowledge base on a specific topic
  3. They provide the opportunity to use valuable keywords as anchor text

Google understands these benefits and places more value on contextual links because of them.

Internal contextual links (contextual links that link to a different page on the same website) are beneficial because they increase the amount of pages viewed by a website visitor, thus decreasing bounce rate and increasing time on page. However, keep in mind that when creating links within your own website, Google won’t assign as much value to the backlink as if it were to come from an external source.

An example of a non-contextual link would be a link in an online directory or in a content roundup.

These backlinks can still be really beneficial, they just don’t hold as much weight as contextual links because they are less specific and less intertwined with the user experience of the linking site.

Types of Backlinks

There are hundreds of types of backlinks and even more ways to get them. Here are a few examples:

  1. Contextual links from another website
  2. Contextual links from guest blogging on another site
  3. Inclusion in a content roundup
  4. Inclusion on a resource page
  5. Online professional directories
  6. Forum posts and/or comments
  7. Inclusion of a link in a testimonial
  8. Inclusion of a link in a social media post

Some of these backlink types are much more beneficial to SEO than others, and some have no effect on SEO whatsoever.

More on that later. [Link to do follow vs. no follow heading]

Now that we know what backlinks are, let’s dive into how they became important and why they continue to be one of Google’s top ranking factors.

A Brief History of Backlinks and SEO

Google’s algorithms change. A lot.

In fact, in 2017, Google made over 500 changes to its algorithms.

Most of these changes are minor.

But in Google’s history, some of the major algorithm updates—those that change the course and the mission of the SEO industry as a whole—have been directly related to backlinks.

The most important of these is the Panda update.

Google Panda and Its Aftermath

Back in the day, a website’s search rankings lived and died by its number of backlinks.

As Moz likes to describe the state of link building in the early days of the internet,

“Links on the web can be interpreted as votes that are cast by the source of the target.”

These votes were all considered to hold equal value, meaning a backlink from any website would boost search rankings an equal amount.

Because of this immense opportunity, webmasters scrambled to get their company on as many online directories as possible, knowing that this would improve their search rankings.

Clients paid SEO companies to fabricate spam links from link farms (a group of websites where each site links to all other sites in the group).

Through these methods and other link schemes, a website could gain thousands of backlinks.

Backlink quantity, at the time, signaled to Google that the site was a high-quality, reputable source and it therefore boosted their results in search rankings.

This strategy worked well until Google caught on that people were taking advantage.

In 2011, Google released its Panda update, which among many other major changes to SEO, began to penalize websites with undeserved links.

With the update, Google shifted the emphasis on backlinks from quantity to quality. It was no longer possible to cheat the system and come out on top of competitors with fewer, yet higher quality backlinks.

This led to many websites with massive amounts of traffic losing huge portions of it essentially overnight.

Authoritative Backlinks

Realizing that thousands of links from a link farm or dummy online directory have no correlation with the actual quality and relevance of a website or a piece of content, the Panda update and updates to Google’s PageRank algorithm enabled Google to improve its criteria for identifying websites deserving of an SEO boost.

Google wants to reward content that receives backlinks from authorities in its field. These are referred to as Authoritative backlinks.

For example:

Let’s say I’m a blogger who writes about transportation and infrastructure reform. If I receive a backlink from a friend’s new website, which focuses on providing recipes and dietary advice, Google doesn’t have much reason to give me a boost in search rankings. The backlink is from a website that is irrelevant to my content and not established enough to be identified as authoritative.

On the other hand:

If I receive a contextual backlink from my State’s Department of Transportation website validating my claims, Google will attach a great deal of value to this and give me a major boost.

Receiving authoritative backlinks can also improve your website’s TrustRank, a metric related to PageRank created by Google to weed out websites with high spam content.

What is PageRank and what are its implications?

One of the major factors coming out of Google Panda, specifically pertaining to backlinks, were simultaneous improvements to Google’s PageRank algorithm.

PageRank and its evolution over time is the best way of understanding how Google assesses the quality and relevance of backlinks, and how those backlinks will consequently affect a website’s search rankings.

Earlier, we discussed the idea of a backlink as a vote of confidence from one site to another. Initially, all votes on the internet were considered by Google to hold equal importance, and therefore equal SEO implications.

With PageRank, Google implemented a method for assessing the SEO weight of a backlink based on the importance and quality of the linking site.

In other words, links from more authoritative, well established websites would have a greater effect on SEO.

But Google’s criteria for analyzing the value of backlinks didn’t stop there. It continued evolving:

According to Search Engine Land,

“Important pages mean nothing to you if they don’t match your query. So, Google combines PageRank with sophisticated text-matching techniques to find pages that are both important and relevant to your search. Google goes far beyond the number of times a term appears on a page and examines all aspects of the page’s content (and the content of the pages linking to it) to determine if it’s a good match for your query.”

How PageRank affects Content Creation and Link-Building

First and foremost, Google Panda nullified the effectiveness of link farms and other link scams, which caused the art of link-building to evolve beyond gimmicky techniques and focus on the creation of quality content that would appeal to authoritative sites all over the internet.

The further evolution of PageRank and Google’s related algorithms has made it necessary for link-builders to be even more creative with their link-building methods and put more work into researching content topics and link sources that would lead to the most significant SEO improvements.

It’s no longer enough to receive a backlink from a high-profile, authoritative website. Google can analyze the relevance of that backlink to determine whether or not your site will give users what they are looking for. If relevance is lacking, your search rankings will suffer.

Dofollow vs. Nofollow Links

Google uses a number of tactics to reward websites that receive authoritative, relevant backlinks. Similarly, it offers little to no help to those who try to find shortcuts.

One of Google’s primary methods for doing this is through its differentiation between dofollow and nofollow links.

Simply put, a dofollow link is a link that Google counts as productive points toward your PageRank.

An example of a dofollow link would be a contextual link from another website.

Nofollow links are not counted by Google as productive in terms of improving your PageRank and improving your search rankings.

An example of a nofollow link would be a social media or forum post that links directly to your website.

Nofollow links are not completely useless, as they can help drive referral traffic (people who click on the link) to your website, but they do not carry any SEO weight.

Google’s differentiation of dofollow and nofollow links further emphasizes the fact that valuable backlinks rely on quality and relevance, not quantity.

How can I get backlinks to my content?

There are two major takeaways from Google’s evolving behavior toward link building:

  1. Good backlinks are both authoritative and relevant.
  2. The best way to get this type of backlink is by creating high quality content and promoting it to the right people.

Let’s tackle #2 in particular, because it’s aiming at achieving what’s described in #1:

Google’s Panda update, and subsequent updates to its PageRank and TrustRank algorithms, tell us that “high quality content” is much more than just well-written.

Content that earns authoritative backlinks adds value to the entities that link to it. In today’s era of SEO, it’s important to think about who these entities may be, and why they would link to a piece of content before beginning on a piece.

Google’s philosophy on backlinks may be a Democracy, but it is also a Meritocracy. It’s much more difficult to earn quality backlinks today than it was in 2011, but a small amount of quality backlinks can have a far larger SEO impact today than ever before.

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