Backlinks are one of the most important SEO ranking factors you need to be paying attention to if you want to grow your website’s traffic from Google. In fact, it was confirmed by Google themselves back in 2016 that, alongside content, backlinks are one of the two most important signals used to rank websites.
But if you are new to SEO or run your own business and are trying to increase your traffic, you are probably not familiar with what backlinks are and why they are so important. Keep reading, and we will share everything you need to know.
Understanding Backlinks and Their Role in Your Strategy
Also referred to within SEO as ‘inbound links’ or ‘external links,’ backlinks are links that point from a page on one website to a page on another. They are the links from third party sources that point to your website, in comparison to internal links that exist between two pages within your website.
If you want to drive SEO success for your website, you need to pay attention to links, as Google and other search engines use them as a way to understand the authority of a page. Think of them as the online reputation of a website, with a link from Website A to Website B being seen as a vote that it is a trustworthy source. If five people who didn’t know each other all recommended a particular restaurant as the best in your city, you would likely trust that you would be able to get a good meal there, as multiple individuals would all be vouching for it.
This is how Google views backlinks as votes of popularity for a website or webpage, and there is a strong correlation between those with a higher number of links pointing to them and higher rankings.
See this link on Wired’s review to the GoPro Hero 8 Black?
That is one of GoPro’s backlinks. It points from an article on Wired to a product page on the GoPro website.
And these ‘shop now’ links to Amazon, Walmart, and more on Oculus’ ‘where to buy’ page:
They are backlinks too.
Any link from someone else’s website to yours (or any other site) is a backlink, but you will soon learn that not all links are created equal. Just as you would trust a recommendation from someone who you respect over someone you have never met before, Google trusts backlinks from trusted, authoritative websites over those from those which are either less trustworthy or unknown.
This trust comes in the form of PageRank, one of Google’s algorithms which evaluates the quality and quantity of backlinks pointing to a page to determine a relative score of that page’s importance and authority.
Types of Backlinks
We have already alluded to the fact that backlinks aren’t all the same, and below are the different types which you need to know about and understand.
We have already shared that links are like votes for trusted resources, but what if you don’t want to vouch for a website but still need to link to it?Nofollowed links use the rel=”nofollow” attribute to inform Google and other search engines that they shouldn’t pass trust (PageRank).A nofollowed backlink looks like this:
<a href="https://www.domain.com/" rel=”nofollow”>this is a nofollowed link</a>
Given that nofollowed links don’t pass PageRank, they won’t help you rank higher on the SERPs. However, Google announced in September 2019 that they were evolving the nofollow attribute, stating, “when nofollow was introduced, Google would not count any link marked this way as a signal to use within our search algorithms. This has now changed. All the link attributes are treated as hints about which links to consider or exclude within Search.”
There are some who believe that this change to being treated as a hint means that Google will pass trust through nofollow links in some instances, such as when an authority news platform adds the attribute sitewide.
Quite simply, a followed link is one which does pass trust (PageRank), and, therefore, does not have the nofollow attribute added.
Note: there is no ‘follow’ attribute and ‘dofollow’ backlinks aren’t a thing.
A followed backlink looks like this:
<a href="https://www.domain.com/">this is a followed link</a>
Sponsored or Paid Links
Sometimes, you might pay a blogger or influencer to promote a piece of your content or to post a review of one of your products. If money, or a product or service, has changed hands in return for a link, a rel=”sponsored’ attribute should be added to inform Google.
As a word of warning, paying money or gifting to get a followed link back to your website from another is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site's ranking in search results.
The rel=”sponsored’ attribute stops your site from being negatively impacted by these links.
A sponsored backlink looks like this:
<a href="https://www.domain.com/" rel=”sponsored”>this is a sponsored link</a>
Using another of the new attributes rolled out in 2019, UGC (User Generated Content) links are those that come from the likes of forums and blog comments. The attribute informs Google that the link has been placed by a user and not the webmaster.
A UGC backlink looks like this:
<a href="https://www.domain.com/" rel=”ugc”>this is a UGC link</a>
High Authority Links
You might see it recommended that you aim to build high authority backlinks to your site to help it rank higher. Remember, we mentioned that not all links are equal and that Google’s algorithm is weighted towards those which it trusts more than others?
High authority backlinks are those that come from trusted sources; as an example from a newspaper (it makes sense that Google would trust a link from the New York Times, doesn’t it?) or from an established website which has earned trust.
Of course, as mentioned previously, the way Google assesses authority is through their PageRank algorithm, but that’s no longer a public-facing metric since they stopped updating, and subsequently retired, their PageRank Toolbar in 2016.
You can learn more about PageRank and how this applies to link building in 2020 here, however when assessing whether a link is high quality or not, consider factors such as credibility and whether the site shares quality content of real value to users.
While there are various metrics used by software platforms, these are not ones that are used or endorsed by Google and are only an indication as to a domain’s authority. As a simple measure of authority, ask yourself whether you would trust an endorsement from a website or publication.
Toxic Links (Unnatural Links)
The wrong links can harm your website’s ability to rank on Google and can even negatively impact any rankings you already have. ‘Bad’ links are often referred to as toxic or unnatural links.
Toxic backlinks are those that typically come from low quality or suspicious websites or that are in direct violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and exist solely to try and manipulate search engine rankings. This could mean paid links that aren’t marked with nofollow or sponsored attributes, those from low-quality directories or bookmark sites, widely used footer links, or an unnatural number of links that use exact match anchor text.
The tool can help you to analyze and get rid of any toxic links pointing to your domain which could decrease your rankings, and by connecting to your Google Search Console account, you will be able to get a comprehensive picture of your overall backlink profile health, before taking the time to check each and every backlink.
Once the analysis is complete, you can choose from a number of actions including generating a disavow list and submitting to the Google Disavow Tool, leaving links in your 'remove' list if you want to contact a site manually to request removal, or simply whitelisting any links you know are safe.
If you need to clean up toxic links and request removal, you can do this directly through the Backlink Audit tool.
Editorially Placed Links
Google rewards and passes the greatest authority through those that are editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner. An editorially placed or earned link is one where a journalist or webmaster has taken the decision to link to another website or webpage due to it being deserved of being sent traffic and authority. The reason for the link is to enhance a reader’s experience, not to manipulate search engine algorithms.
Why are backlinks important?
You see backlinks talked about a lot, and there is no denying that they are an important area to focus your efforts on improving. But why?
They Will Help You to Rank Higher
You probably already know this by now, but backlinks help you to rank higher on Google and other search engines. Without great backlinks pointing to your site, you are missing out on one of the most important ranking factors, one which helps to showcase that you are a trusted authority in your industry and, therefore, deserve to rank at the top for key search terms.
In fact, a study by Backlinko demonstrated that a higher number of backlinks correlates with higher rankings on Google.
For links to help you rank higher, you need to make sure that you are earning quality links. You want to avoid those that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, such as the type of link which falls under the classification of a link scheme intended to manipulate search results.
Follow the tactics we are going to share shortly, and you will have nothing to worry about, knowing you are earning links the right way.
They Are One Way That Google Finds New Pages
Google’s spiders (Googlebot) uses links to find new pages on the web — this is one of the main ways how content is discovered, crawled and indexed, and one way to think of links is as the way in which Google navigates the web. A link from a trusted source will help your content to be indexed by Google faster, meaning it should also rank quicker.
They Boost your Trustworthiness and Credibility
Great links from authoritative and trusted sources help you to rank higher from an SEO perspective, but they can also help boost your trustworthiness and credibility as a business. Think about it this way…Let’s say you are a tech startup. There is a good chance not too many people know about your business (yet).
So, if you manage to land some press coverage and a link from TechCrunch, you will get a serious credibility boost from that. If you then go on to gain links from the BBC, TechRadar, and Wired, that is some serious industry authority talking about you and sending traffic to your website.
Even if we ignore the SEO value, having journalists and editors at key publications in your industry choose to link to you goes a long way to show people are talking about your business, and that is worth its weight in gold.
They Send Referral Traffic to Your Page
When the web first launched, links were solely navigational. The purpose of links, in the most simplistic form, is to take web browsers from Page A to Page B, not just within one website but also between different sites. And while links are now used as a ranking factor by Google, the principle hasn’t changed that great links send very valuable traffic to your page.
If we step back to the example above, relevant press coverage can (and will) send interested readers to your site. This, in turn, introduces your brand to new audiences who could turn into customers. You have also then got the ability to add this traffic to a remarketing list to target across paid media channels to make your referral traffic work that little bit harder.
Don’t discount the traffic potential of links, and a great way to qualify whether a link is valuable is to think about whether that link could drive traffic from your key target audience.
How to Check Your Website’s Backlinks
Whether you want to plan a link building campaign and look at tactics you could use to earn more great links to your website, want to see how your competitors are performing from a link perspective, or simply want to see how you benchmark against others competing for the same rankings; you need to know how to check for backlinks and gain an insight into your link profile.
There are a number of different tools you could use to get a clear snapshot both of your own link profile and your competitors; you can do so with Google Search Console and SEMrush.
Using Google Search Console to Understand Your Link Profile
Google Search Console will give you an insight into what your own link profile looks like, but it won’t give any information about your competitors. That said, it is a free tool, and you definitely need to know the links which Google sees pointing to your site, even if the insights which you can gain here are a little limited compared to other tools.
First, head over to Google Search Console and log in. Using the left-hand menu, navigate to Legacy tools and reports > Links
You should then see an overview of your website’s backlink profile under the ‘External links’ heading.
You will be able to see insights into:
External links - How many external links point to your site.
Top linked pages - The pages on your site that have the most backlinks pointing to them.
Top linking sites - The website which links to yours the most times.
Top linking text - The most common link anchor text used for external links.
You can also export your site’s external links as a CSV file in the top right corner.
Using SEMrush to Analyze Your Own & Your Competitors’ Backlink Profiles
Whilst Google Search Console is a great way to understand certain elements of your own link profile; if you want to use link insights to help you to build great links and identify the tactics your competitors are using, you will need to use a dedicated tool which will help you to do just this. There are a number of ways in which SEMrush can help you to understand your own link profile as well as your competitors, all of which can offer valuable insights to utilize in your strategy.
Start by using our Backlink Analytics tool to collect data on the backlink profile of not just your own domain but also your competitors’ to gain insights into a whole host of metrics and data points to help you to develop a better strategy. Once you have loaded up a domain into the tool, you are ready to start gaining a deeper insight into the site’s link profile.
But just what insights can you actually gain from the tool, and how can you work these into your strategy?
Categories of referring domains - Here, you can see how the domains which link to a site are topically classified, helping you to understand how the topical relevance of a domain’s link profile looks to identify sectors and opportunities to target with your own campaigns.
Top anchors - Understanding the most common link anchor texts used across a domain’s backlink profile is a great way to minimize the risk of negative actions associated with toxic link building tactics, as well as to ensure your own strategy targets natural link text.
Referring domains by Authority Score - Understand the quality of a link profile by seeing a breakdown using SEMrush Authority Score, helping you to see not only how your own site performs but how you stack up against the competition.
Referring domains - The number of unique referring domains holds a strong correlation with higher rankings, and using this as a competitive benchmark helps you to identify the true link gap.
Link attributes - Once you understand the split between follow, nofollow, sponsored, and UGC links, you can use these insights to plan a strategy that replicates the successful link profile of those who outrank you.
Backlinks - Analyzing the backlinks of a competitor can help you to spot opportunities to reach out to try and earn a link to your own domain, whilst also understanding and keeping an eye on who is linking to you, and how.
TLD distribution - Are your links coming primarily from your main country of operation? Are there global opportunities to build links that are working for your competitors? Understanding the TLD distribution of a link profile is great to get an insight into a business’s wider strategy.
Similar profiles - Looking to delve deep into a competitors’ link profile? You can use the ‘similar profiles’ insights to see examples of other domains with a similar link profile to top-performing sites to find new opportunities.
Top pages - Here, you can see which pages have the highest number of links pointing to them and plan how to utilize this link equity as part of your own internal linking strategy.
If you want to gain a detailed insight into the backlink profile of your own or any other domain, you will find this here and can learn more about using the Backlink Analytics tool here. Don’t underestimate the power of competitor analysis, and with the right tools, you will be in a great position to build the right links, which will help you to increase rankings and drive organic growth.
How to Get Backlinks to Your Site
How do you actually go about building backlinks?
The reality is that there are many different tactics and ways to do this, but some have a much higher success rate and help you to build better quality links than others. There is also a common misconception that you always need to pay an agency to help you build links, but that is not true. There are many ways you can easily get started earning great links yourself today. Remember, you shouldn’t be buying links, but earning them. Here is a look at some popular (but relatively simple) ways to earn links to your website:
1. Ask Your Suppliers to Link to You
If you sell other people’s products, you will find that many of your supplier’s websites include a ‘where to buy’ or ‘stockists’ page with details (and links) for each, just like this:
Often, you will find that you are not included on these lists as they are typically not updated as often as they should be. Find the stockists pages on your supplier’s websites and, if you are not included, reach out to your contact and ask to be added.
2. Use HARO to Respond to Requests From Journalists
HARO (Help A Reporter Out) is an established platform where journalists seek sources and quotes for upcoming stories. Sign up and receive three source request emails every day (Monday to Friday), which are relevant to you or your client's industry.
If there is a request which matches your experience, send a response by the stated deadline and, if yours is used, there is a good chance you will earn a link too. As a word of warning, though, not every submission is successful or earns a link. Make sure you only respond when you can add value through your experience and be clear that you would expect to be credited with a link.
3. Write a Guest Post for an Industry Publication
Although Google’s Matt Cutts proclaimed that guest blogging was dead back in 2014, he simply referred to low-quality guest posts intended solely for the purpose of earning links from anywhere who would publish your content.
Today, guest posting remains a great tactic for earning links and sharing your insights and experience from topically relevant industry publications. Let’s say you are an accountant and are looking to write guest posts.
Head over to Google and run a search for: accounting intitle:"write for us"
Using the intitle advanced search operator alongside a keyword means you will get results from pages that include “write for us.”Here are the returned results:These are relevant websites that are looking for contributors who you could pitch guest post ideas to. Here is a great guide to guest blogging from the Content Marketing Institute.
4. Use Niche-specific Directories
Most industries and niches have active directories that recommend and showcase companies operating in that sector. You will also find that local variants of these exist for many towns and cities. As with guest posting, you can use Google to find these opportunities.
Run a Google search for: accounting intitle:"directory"
And you are quickly presented with a number of industry-specific directories which you could submit your site to:
5. Turn Brand Mentions Into Links
Most businesses find themselves covered in the press, be that regionally, nationally, or internationally from time to time — be it because of a new product or service you have launched, a new hire, or even a charity drive. Whatever the reason, it is not uncommon for mentions in the press not to link. But, the hard work is done — securing the coverage.
It is always worth following up with the journalist or editor when you have been mentioned in the press without a link and asking them to add it in. While some won’t, others will, and it is a really easy way to earn some great quality links. You can monitor your brand mentions with our Brand Monitoring Tool, which is as simple as creating a campaign around your domain, brand terms, and target country.
You can also set a report frequency (to receive a report straight into your inbox, so you don’t miss out on any opportunities).
The tool allows you to filter, within your dashboard, mentions which do and don’t link to your site. So, you have a clear list of mentions to work into your link reclamation strategy.
You can then send these brand mentions straight to our link building tool to help you organize your link reclamation efforts, connect your email account and send email pitches and keep track of mentions you successfully turn into links.
6. Become Cited as a Resource
If you have spent time creating great content or a great product, you should look to build links by being cited as a resource. As an example, many universities have ‘careers resources’ sections just like this:
Notice the links to platforms where you can find graduate employment? If your business was a graduate recruiter, you could absolutely reach out here and showcase why you should be added; as a resource to help students find their first role.
Opportunities like this exist in all sectors, and you can take the same approach using great content as well as your main product or service.
7. Publish Research and Pitch It To the Press
Unique research is a surefire way of landing press coverage for your business, but don’t be fooled that it is a quick and easy task.
Launching a data-driven PR campaign using either your own or third-party data takes time, but it is well worth the return. Journalists and publishers absolutely love sharing research studies and surveys, and this can be a great way to earn fantastic links if you are prepared to put in the time and effort.
Here is a great guide to help you understand this tactic more.
8. Analyze Your Competitor’s Backlink Profile To Identify Opportunities
If you are looking to identify opportunities to earn the links which are helping your competitors to rank, you can spend time analyzing their backlink profile to identify opportunities that you could follow up on.
In fact, you can use SEMrush’s backlink gap tool to help you to do just this and discover untapped backlink opportunities for you to pursue.
Simply enter your domain alongside your main competitors to get started:
It is a great way for you to identify gaps in your competitors’ link building strategy and prioritize opportunities where you have established that one or more competitors have earned links from a domain that you haven’t.
Debunking Common Backlink Myths
Link building has changed significantly over the last decade, but it is for the best. However, that means that there is a whole host of common myths that go alongside backlinks, and we want to debunk a few of these right now, so when you come across them in the future, you know what advice to follow and what you should avoid.
1. The More Links You Have, the Higher You Will Rank
We can understand where this one comes from, but it is not necessarily true. As we have already shown, not all links are equal, and one great link from a newspaper or top industry publication could be worth hundreds of low-quality links from blog comments on unrelated posts. Link building isn’t just a number game — you need to earn quality links at scale. That said, there is a strong correlation between the number of quality links and higher rankings, but don’t fall into the trap of focusing only on numbers alone as this could result in tactics that yield low-quality links which harm, not help, your rankings.
2. You Shouldn’t Bother Earning Nofollowed Links
This is a common one, yet one which is often taken totally out of context. Historically, nofollowed links haven’t had an impact on your SEO performance, but in September 2019, Google announced that this is now a hint, not a directive.
Many SEOs believe that, based on other signals, Google may choose to follow a link which has a nofollow attribute applied in cases such as top-tier newspapers who apply an automatic nofollow to all external links. Aside from this, nofollow links still send traffic and boost your credibility.
So long as the links are relevant and from trusted sources, you shouldn’t discount a link simply because it is nofollowed.
3. Buying Links is a Quick Way to Boost Your Rankings
You should not be buying links (or gifting free products in exchange for a link) as this is a direct violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines, and doing this could see your rankings negatively affected or even a penalty imposed.
If you are sponsoring content for other reasons besides getting a link, you need to be using the rel=”sponsored” attribute.
4. Tool Link Scores are the Only Way to Identify a Quality Link
Many wrongly believe that the only way to identify a quality link is by looking at a link score in a toolset; this isn’t true. In fact, Google’s John Mueller recently confirmed that Google does not use one of these scores as a ranking factor. It is simply a metric that is calculated by a toolset in an attempt to indicate potential authority in the eyes of the search engines.
However, it is important to understand that it isn’t a ranking factor or one which explicitly highlights a link’s quality. If a link is from a relevant resource and has been editorially placed, meaning it could send targeted traffic, don’t discount it just because it has a lower metric in a tool.
A natural link profile includes links from different sources of differing ages and authority, and it is unnatural and unrealistic to only earn links from high authority sources.
5. You Receive a Penalty If You Earn Too Many Links
There has been an age-old myth that earning too many links in a short period of time will result in your site getting a penalty, but this is all it is. Imagine launching a PR campaign that picked up hundreds of editorially placed links from unique publications over a few days? A product announcement, research study, etc. That is simply the nature of virality, and you certainly wouldn’t be penalized for this. So long as you are building quality links, you don’t need to worry about earning ‘too many. This myth comes from those buying unnatural links.
Backlinks are a key ranking factor and one which you can’t ignore if you want to rank higher on Google. Link building is an expansive field of SEO in its own right, and you will find many specialists who focus only on this area, but the good news is that there are plenty of ways you can get started with quick-win tactics such as those we have listed above.
Build great links, and you will see an increase in your rankings; just be sure to keep an eye out for what your competitors are doing and jump onto fresh opportunities as quickly as you can.