How Backlinks Affect Your Website’s SEO
Trying to keep up with the current best practices for SEO is a full time job in itself. It seems the strategies that help a website rank are constantly changing. Take backlinking, for example.
For years, websites with the most backlinks could be found at the top of the search results for their targeted keywords. Website owners and search engine marketers spent a lot of time submitting their sites to web directories, article directories, and begging for links from other sites. Any site. The more links the better!
Google’s Advice About Backlinks
Today, backlinks can actually hurt your site if they’re not done correctly. In fact, Google’s webmaster trends analyst, John Mueller, has gone so far as to say we should avoid link building all together:
At the 55:40 mark of this Google+ hangout video, when a webmaster asked, “is link building in any way good?” John said he would “avoid it all together”.
He went on to say that Google does use links as part of the algorithm, but focusing on links alone is going to cause more problems for your website’s ranking than it would help.
But backlinks do affect a website’s search ranking.
Search Results Test
Moz studied the top 50 Google search results for about 15,000 different, competitive keywords to figure out the relationship between the number of links a site has and the rank of the site.
The study found the top search results had external backlinks: 99.2% of all websites found in the top results had at least one external link pointing to their site.
Don’t believe the correlation between external links and search engine ranking? Try finding a website that ranks well in the search engines for a competitive search phrase that has no external links. We dare you.
External Links Lead to Higher Rankings
The Moz study proves that the more external links from unique websites a site has, the higher their search ranking tends to be. The study doesn’t investigate the type of links or the quality of the sites linking however, which is an important piece of backlinking that must be considered if you want your links to help your site rank.
Google has three choices when it finds a link pointing to your site. It can either:
- Count the link and have it help your website rank
- Ignore the link and not give it any weight for boosting or hurting your website rank
- Penalize your site because it believes the link is manipulative
To play the linkbuilding game to your advantage and stay on Google’s good side, you should take a look at Google’s guidelines on manipulative link building, and learn what types of links to avoid.
The safest link building strategy is link earning. Instead of going out and doing all of those old-school link building things like link exchanges, buying links, visiting article or web directories to add your link, or spamming blogs with links to your site using anchor text – you earn the links your site gets.
In other words, you’re going to need to put effort into the process of getting links, now.
You can earn links by creating outstanding content on your website or blog that other people think is awesome. When other website owners find your content useful or entertaining (or both!) they’re going to naturally link to it.
Try writing “top 100” style lists for your blog. If you write a post called the “Top CEOs in Technology Companies” and share the post on social media, you can tag the people you’ve included in the post.
When those people re-share (and they will, because who doesn’t want other people to know they’re at the top of their game?!) continue to interact with comments and responses to their updates.
You can, and should, make it easier for people to link to the stuff on your page. You can add a widget that makes sharing the content simple. You can make sure the URLs on your site are easy to copy and paste.
Sharable Content for Social Media
You can share things on social media that other people can quickly re-tweet, or share to their own followers. But it all starts with having content other people like so much, and wish they wrote themselves – so they will share it and link to you.
Providing quality customer service will also help you earn links. When people write testimonials about their experience with you, you’ve earned a link to your site.
When you’re so interesting that someone wants to interview you – you’ve earned a link to your site through the published interview.
Earn High Quality Links
These are the new link earning strategies that give you the kind of external links to your site that Google will count and that help your site rank. You need to avoid the link building strategies that will cause your site to get penalized by Google.
Links from bad pages hurt your website’s search ranking.
Google used to say that links from bad pages can’t hurt your website, but their release of the disavow tool is basically an acknowledgement that yes, bad links actually do hurt you; and here’s a tool to deal with it.
Google’s Penguin update reduced the rankings of previously high-ranking websites that had low-quality links pointing at them. Penguin is an update that looks for any link building practice that is intended to manipulate a site’s search engine ranking.
Using anchor text targeting for links is a good way to anchor your text right out of the search listings. Don’t do it.
Old Outdated SEO
In the past, SEOs would work to ensure the incoming links to a site used the keywords they were trying to rank for.
If you wanted your site to come up when someone typed in “freelance writers”, you’d try to get links to your site with “freelance writers” as your anchor text.
Penguin will sniff out these anchor text linking strategies and penalize you for it. The average blogger or website owner is not going to link to another website using that site’s exact keyword phrases!
And it’s even more unlikely that hundreds of other sites will link to you using the same exact phrase.
When Google discovers you’re building links to boost your rank, then you’re in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and they will penalize you and remove your site from the search index all together.
So, other than creating amazing content that encourages people to link to you, interview you, and give you testimonials – how else can you get links to your site that will help rather than hurt your search rank?
Broken Link Building
You can try broken link building. Broken link building is the process of finding relevant websites in your industry that have links that don’t go anywhere. You contact the website owner with the broken link and offer your link to replace the broken one.
You can use a tool like Check My Links browser plugin to find broken links when you’re on a page. It highlights all valid links in green, and broken links in red:
If you have an article or page on your site that would replace the broken link, you contact the webmaster to let them know the link is broken, where it is, and then pitch them to replace it with your page, with an email similar to this one:
For broken link building success, the link you’re giving the person to replace the broken link must be exactly what they need to fill the spot.
Sometimes you can benefit from the mention of your company without a link to your site at all. Local citations are mentions of your business name and address on other websites – even if they don’t have a link.
Find Your Business Mentions Online
For example, local business association pages or the online yellow pages directory may list your business even if they don’t link to you.
These citations improve your SEO and are a key component of ranking algorithms for both Google and Bing. The top ranking factor for local SEO is the physical address of your business.
If you work from home or don’t have a physical address for your service-related business, you can still benefit from local citations. You can hide your address publically, but Google will know where you are for verification purposes.
Sometimes people talk about you or your company online. You can try to monitor any mentions of your brand and request a link to your site when you see them.
Set up a Google Alert for your name or business name, and you’ll receive an email every time a mention of the name is found online. It doesn’t cost you a thing, but you will have to weed through some emails that maybe aren’t as relevant to you as you had hoped.
If the mention of your brand doesn’t include a link to your site, contact the site or blogger making the mention and request they add it! Some will, some won’t – but it never hurts to ask.
You can “listen” to conversations that mention you on social media with tools like Hootsuite. In addition to hearing what people are saying about you or your brand, you can use the tool to manage all of your social profiles through a single platform.
An often overlooked way to get links to your site that Google will use to help your site rank is through conference and events pages. If you’re attempting this strategy only for getting valuable links, you may find it is too much effort. However, speaking at events or hosting an event is a valuable opportunity to grow your business in general.
- Host or speak at an online webinar
- Host or speak at an event
- Speak at a conference in your industry
When you become a speaker at an organized conference or event, you end up with links to your site from a number of other sites, including:
- The conference or event’s main website
- Partners, sponsors, and speakers attending the conference or event’s websites
- Bloggers and journalists attending the event who later write about it
If you’re not hosting your own, you can use Google to find opportunities for speakers and apply to attend the event. So, for example, if you’re a writer and want to speak at event, you could try the following search:
Links have always played a role in the search ranking of a website, although the strategies and types of links that work have changed over the years.
The linking methods outlined in this article offer opportunities to improve your website’s ranking through links – provided you get them through methods that Google will recognize rather than penalize you for.
Try our SEO Grader to see if your current SEO strategy is helping or hurting your website:
Solomon Thimothy is the Co-founder of Clickx, a Chicago-based white label digital marketing platform. He has been in the agency space for over a decade and has helped 100s of entrepreneurs build 7 and 8 figure agencies. He helps agency owners on a 1:1 basis to scale sales and fulfillment. Follow him on twitter @sthimothy