Spend any time researching the best tactics for ranking a website, and you’ll see “backlinks” mentioned over and over again.
Some SEO practitioners believe you can rank a website without using backlinks, and that the strategy to get to the top of the search engines is all in on-page SEO and keywords.
Others, however, say that backlinks are part of a robust, comprehensive SEO strategy. Just as a website needs great content, targeted keywords, and engaging visual elements, it also needs a healthy backlink profile.
We’re breaking down what a backlink is and why having them is essential to your website SEO.
What Is a Backlink?
A backlink is a link from another website page that points to (and can thus direct traffic to) a page on your website.
Besides potentially driving traffic to your site, backlinks can appear as a sort of “vote of confidence” from other websites that your website contains helpful content for users.
Google holds backlinks from reputable sites in high regard when it comes to your website’s SEO.
So, yes, backlinks still matter quite a bit when it comes to your website’s SEO.
Types of Backlinks
Further, there are two basic types of links:
- Internal links: These are links from one page of your website to another page on your website.
- External links: These links point from another website to a page on your website.
It is important to utilize both types when it comes to optimizing your website for search engines.
Types of Internal and External Links
A backlink is more than just the link itself. How you present a link on the page can make a difference in its power for your SEO and how much traffic it drives to your website.
There are a variety of ways you can add your link to a page, and understanding the different types can help you build the best, most effective linking profile.
Backlinks differ in how the anchor text, or the highlighted words that hold the link, are presented on the page.
Some of the types of internal and external links include:
- Branded links: Branded backlinks use the company’s name as the anchor text.
Ex: “…Amazon’s profits increased last week” with the link on “Amazon.”
- Naked links: These links use just the website’s URL as the anchor text.
Ex: “Visit our website at www.example.com for more information,” and “www.example.com” holds the link.
- Image links: An image on the page is coded to include a link so that, when clicked, the image takes you to the desired page.
Ex: A blog mentions using a specific product in a review, and the image of that product leads to a sales page.
- Exact anchor links: These links are built using the exact keyword you want to target with your backlink as the anchor text.
Ex: You’re looking for ways to increase your position for “cell phone repair,” and the link to your website is attached to those words.
- Variant match anchor links: These links use a variation of your exact keyword in the anchor text.
Ex: You build a link on “smartphone service” when you’re targeting “cell phone repair.” The keywords are similar enough to mean the same thing, but the anchor text is not your exact keyword.
- Supportive or contextual anchor links: These links don’t necessarily include your focus keyword, but they do offer some insight into the information that you can find on the linked page.
Ex: The link you’re building points to a blog post about the benefits of accounting software for small businesses, and the anchor text for your link is “accounting software can make your business more profitable.”
- Action-based anchor links: Anchor text with action-based words is meant to spur the reader into action.
Ex: “Click here for more information.”
No-Follow vs. Do-Follow
Links get assigned with two different attributes, or rel= tags: no-follow or do-follow.
The no-follow attribute tells search engines not to follow the link when someone clicks. These types of links provide no SEO benefit to your site, as the linking site isn’t passing you any of its authority or value. Forum comments, advertisements or sponsored links, links from press releases, and paid links often use no-follow links.
The do-follow attribute, on the other hand, tells search engines to follow the link. Do-follow allows for any of the authority of the linking site to be passed along, no matter how small, to the linked site. These links provide an SEO benefit to the linked site. Use do-follow links for bylines on guest posts, links to the sites of people interviewed for an article, and links in editorial content.
As with all backlinks, there’s value to building links with both attributes to your website, but it’s best to work on getting as many high-quality do-follow links as possible.
How to Generate Backlinks for Your Website
Backlinks come in all shapes and sizes, and thinking of the best way to work on building your site’s backlink portfolio can seem daunting.
How do you find the right types of sites for backlinks that are valuable for your website?
Fortunately, there are many distinct sources you can tap to find relevant, helpful links for your site.
Think of directory sites as the phonebook of the internet.
Directory sites allow businesses to create profiles with their business information and users can search these directories to find lists of businesses that suit their needs.
Most directories allow naked anchors or action-based anchors in their listings, so getting traffic from someone viewing your business’s profile is more transparent and often more accessible than with other types of anchor text. However, many directories employ no-follow links, especially those that you pay to get placed.
When looking at directories to create listings in, more is not always better. It’s best to find directories that are relevant to your industry and your business goals.
For example, if you’re an international software service, creating a profile in a local business directory isn’t likely to help further your business goals. A directory of software providers, however, might.
Save your time, effort, and money for the directories that are the most valuable to your business.
2. Guest Posting
Writing posts on another website, especially one that’s got an excellent reputation, does more than get your name out there to a broader audience. Guest posts are a favorite, and powerful, way to build backlinks on your website.
Guest posting depends significantly on the guidelines of the website you’re posting on, so be sure to check the rules before submitting a guest post carefully.
Some sites allow do-follow links on guest posts, but the type of anchor text is restricted. Meaning, you may be limited on whether you can explicitly link to your website with a brand mention, or backlinks pointing to a page on your website may be restricted.
Website profiles, such as those on social media platforms, can provide backlinks to your site.
As with directory listing sites, you may be able to include naked anchor text when adding your website’s link. These links can be no-follow or do-follow.
If you’ve ever been reading an article online and see a link to another website right in the middle of the content, then you’ve seen an editorial backlink.
As other website owners write content for their sites, usually news articles or blog posts, they may link to any articles, research, or other resources used in compiling their content. If your website provides useful original research or resources, then that attracts backlinks and potential traffic to your website.
The only downside to editorial backlinks is that you don’t have much control over the type of anchor text used, as the website owner determines how your link best fits into the content. Branded, naked, or contextual links are used mostly for editorial backlinks.
Donating a scholarship to an incoming college student, guest speaking at an organization’s meeting, or sponsoring a local sports team, may get you mentioned in a news article, press release, or local event calendar, earning you an acknowledgment link.
Most of these backlinks tend to be branded, naked, or contextual and you won’t have much control over the type of anchor text used in those backlinks.
Some websites create pages of resources – links to helpful articles, informational pages, or useful tools – as a resource for their readers. If you create a page or resource that other sites find it worthwhile to include in these pages, it can earn you a backlink.
Resources backlinks are extremely valuable from a traffic standpoint. Most of the anchor text on these pages are branded or contextual.
7. Blog Commenting
If you find a relevant blog post on another website, leaving a comment can provide a backlink to your website.
Use this method sparingly, as it has become a source of spammy, low-quality links for many websites. If you plan to comment on blogs for backlinking purposes, do so only if you have something helpful and relevant to contribute to the conversation.
Many blog comment links are exact anchor, branded, contextual, or naked links. Note that many website owners make these links no-follow or might remove them after your comment, so they are not always reliable.
8. Guest Post Biographies
If you guest post on a website, they generally include an author biography at the end with information about you and your business. The author biography section is an opportunity to include a link to your website when you mention your business.
This backlink is likely to be branded, when linked from your business name, but also can be naked. Again, many website owners make these no-follow, so it’s worth asking ahead of time.
A Note About Internal Linking
Searching for and grabbing opportunities for external backlinks often take precedence over building a solid internal linking structure on your website. However, internal links help search engines better understand how all the pages of your website relate to one another and which ones are most important.
Linking internally to other pages on your site also helps users find what they are looking for – and user experience (UX) is believed to be an essential component of SEO.
Look for ways to create all types of backlinks on your website – naked, branded, exact anchor, contextual, image, variant match, and action-based – for best SEO results.
The History of Backlinks
While there’s a great deal of advice and how-tos about backlink building now, that wasn’t always the case.
When SEO first developed, backlinks were pretty much whatever people made of them. The more links you could get to your website, the better.
Now that the SEO industry has grown and developed significantly (and search engines have gotten smarter) building a backlink profile requires strategy and careful attention to the types of websites you’re approaching.
The Past – The Wild, Wild West
At the beginning of the SEO industry, the goal with backlinking was to build them as quickly and as plentifully as possible. It didn’t matter if the links were low-quality or if they were on websites that didn’t have any relevance to your niche.
Backlink building often meant a variety of tactics, including:
- Spammy blog comments created using software, often the same thing over and over again without considering the content.
- Linking from irrelevant sites to gain a backlink
- Using social bookmarking sites (such as del.icio.us) to drive links to your content.
- Private blog networks (PBNs) are sets of websites created solely to serve as properties to link content.
- Link schemes or farms are designed to create as many links to and from groups of websites, regardless of the quality of link or topic relevance.
- Article spinning consists of taking an already-written article and running it through software that rearranges the words and sentences to create a “new” (but not quality) article for submission. The tactic used often is submitting these articles to Web 2.0 sites that allow for user-submitted content.
- Mass article submission, where you write one article and submit it to as many sites as possible, hoping several accept.
- Website hacking and link insertion are where people hacked into others’ websites and inserted their links.
These older methods led to websites with scores and scores of links, which helped them game the search engines and increase their rankings.
However, search engines such as Google began to take notice of these tactics, which valued quantity over quality. As search engines and the SEO industry, evolved, building links using these old methods became less critical and even penalized.
Instead, search engines began to prize the quality of a link, including its relevance to both the page it came from and the page it pointed to, as well as the overall quality of both sites involved in the exchange.
The Present – Modern Link Building
Now, search engine algorithms have evolved to emphasize the quality of the content and information on a website, as well as the sites linked to from that site.
Search engines want to provide helpful, relevant information to searchers. They ensure this by boosting the rankings of the sites that help users get what they need and decreasing the rankings of those sites that aren’t as valuable.
The “Popularity Contest” – Why Relevancy Matters
Google has become something like the social atmosphere of a high school:
There are well-known popular kids, and then the sub-groups of teens who fall into different categories (drama kids, academic stars, jocks, etc.).
The “popular kids” of websites are the big-name, heavy-hitting sites, such as Huffington Post, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Facebook, CNN, and the like.
Everyone knows their names and where to find them, and they carry the most weight in the search engine rankings.
Under them come all those sub-groups. These categories are like specific industries, such as software providers, manufacturers, home remodelers, or mechanics.
Each website vies for the top spot within their sub-group despite their popularity throughout the whole “school” of the internet. Becoming popular within your niche is accomplished, in part, by making connections with the other people you “know” in your .own sub-group and, occasionally, with the “popular” people.
If you’re a manufacturing website, getting a link from a yoga studio website isn’t going to do much good for your credibility. However, a link from another manufacturing site or a big news site will.
In other words, building high-quality links from websites relevant to your content and purpose gives you little boosts and votes of confidence with the search engines, helping to improve your own site’s rankings.
The Future – Where Backlinks Are Heading
Backlinks are an essential part of a robust SEO strategy, and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
Instead, search engines continue to grow and evolve to understand user intent in searches better, helping them provide better-quality results to searchers.
By building high-quality, relevant links, you show Google how important and authoritative your website is, meaning it should prioritize your site’s position over the position of another, less relevant site.
In the future, Google will continue to move the needle towards link quality but with even more emphasis on website authority and influence. We always encourage our clients to consider moving towards a more holistic approach to marketing like inbound marketing.
What do you think: Will backlinks continue to matter to SEO? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.