What are Backlinks and Why Are They Important for Organic Search Engine Marketing?

What Are Backlinks?
What Are Backlinks?

Backlinks are the most important factor affecting your ability to rank in Google and earn free traffic to your website. A solid backlink strategy is a keystone to any search engine optimization strategy.

And trust me, if your business doesn't have an SEO strategy you are leaving a key source of customers out of your marketing plan. That's because 93% of online activity starts with a search engine.

But they are more than an SEO tool, they are a fundamental feature of the web that makes the web a powerful medium to share content, ideas and make these resources discoverable.

As a business owner or stakeholder you may be asking some of the following questions:

What are backlinks?

Why are backlinks important?

How to backlinks work?

What type of backlinks are there?

Backlinks are what makes the web the web. Without links between web pages it turns into another isolated document repository. Links make it possible for us to not only find related and supporting content they act as a way to differentiate the best content from low or average competition.

Google made links between web pages the unique factor separating it from competing search engines in the 90s. That unique selling point is why Google was able to dominate their competition and establish its platform as the place to go to find what you are seeking.

The importance of links cannot be discounted because they offer a variety of benefits:

  • Improve Ranking
  • Faster Indexing
  • Referral Traffic

What Are Backlinks

A Backlink is a link from one website page to another. They can link pages on the same site or between domains. Links from external sites are known as Inbound links (IBL's) or incoming links.

Any link from an external site is called a backlink.

Backlink Diagram
Backlink Diagram

This is really what sets the web apart from its native counterparts. While there are some ways native applications can 'connect' to external applications, this capability is limited and often proprietary.

From its inception the ability to link between pages and sites was a first-class feature of the web. This is where the platform gets the name web, because it symbolizes how content connects as a complex mesh of disparate pages to create a strong network of content.

Links may be the most important feature of the web because they connect pages, creating a map for us to find related content. But they can also be used to provide direct access to deep content in a website.

They are so important Google's Alex Russell call's them the web's super power.

This matters because URL sharing is the proto-social behavior. It’s what enabled the web to spread and prosper, and it’s something we take for granted. In fact, if you look at any of my talks, you’ll see that I call it out as the web’s superpower.

Alex likes to equate the advantage links give the web as the great differentiating factor raising Progressive Web Apps above native counterparts.

To navigate to specific content in an application you must first open the application then find the content. Hyperlinks provide direct access to specific content or landing pages in a website.

This direct access eliminates friction or frustration a visitor might have trying to find an answer to their question, the product they want to buy or just how to contact someone to help.

For marketers this means they can directly promote specific offers to increase leads and sales.

Why Backlinks Are Important?

When Google's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, created the platform they recognized a weakness in the search engines of the time, they were not using links as a valued metric to rank results. This meant it was difficult to not only find matching content, search engines were not returning results based on human valuation.

So, the two founders decided a good way to 'rank' results should lean on the votes being cast around the web by external pages. These votes are backlinks.

An Authority Hacker research study “are still the most strongly correlated factor for SEO success.” They are not alone, other studies back up their findings.

When a page links to another page it is saying the target is a qualified, authoritative reference.

Links are not only a signal Google uses to rank web pages, they are a source of traffic. Face it, links on popular pages get clicked. Because they have lots of traffic some of it will pass on to your page as well.

You can consider these links as votes for your page that signal authority and drive traffic.

Quality of Backlinks

The combination of backlink volume and 'quality' of link sources has proven to be a valuable combination to determine quality search results.

While backlinks are not the only signals Google and Bing use to rank search results they remain a very valuable signal.

Backlink Quality Matters
Backlink Quality Matters

Backlink volume or number of links is an indication of the importance or popularity of the target page. This makes links important for SEO because Google and Bing give more credit to pages with more incoming links.

But the link volume is not the only deciding factor, the link source quality matters too. More popular or higher quality websites and pages are considered more relevant than others. This popularity or quality bleeds over to the target site. We call this link equity or link juice.

And just like high school more popular sites and pages carry more weight when determining what pages were determined to be the best resource to match the searcher's intent.

But more importantly the source of links matters. The popular athlete endorsement won’t matter as much as a popular actor for your theater arts ability. You want quality links from authoritative sites in your niche.

If you are trying to establish yourself as an authoritative source for motorcycles a link from the Harley-Davidson website is more valuable than a link from the Huffington Post. Not that you should turn down a Huffington link, it still matters, just not as much for the niche you want to reach.

For a link source to be considered higher quality it must also have a good backlink profile, etc. The idea here is to try to earn links from quality sources or neighborhoods. They pass relevance or credibility to your pages. This can then elevate your site's quality and more importantly search engine positions.

Another backlink attribute used for search engine optimization is the anchor text or the text wrapped by the anchor tag. This text provides a signal or content context used by search engines to classify the target page.

So if you are trying to rank for 'blue widgets' you will want external links to your target page to use 'blue widgets' in their anchor text.

Because backlinks are a source of authority this also leads to marketers abusing the signal. This has led Google to create link classifications of follow and no-follow.

Follow vs No Follow Backlinks

Authority is not the only value a backlink offers, there are technical factors to consider as well. To prevent abuse the search engine community created the concept of dofollow and nofollow links.

Now websites can mark hyperlinks as no follow to signal search engines not to count the link toward search ranking. A common link source sites mark links as no-follow is user create content like article comments and forum posts. Because the site administrators tend not to have editorial control over the user created content they can't 'trust' the link's intent.

A no-follow link is still a backlink, just not one with much power for SEO.

Normally a hyperlink is a 'follow' link, which is one search engines use to rank pages. A link is marked as no-follow by adding the rel="nofollow" attribute to the link.

When seeking links for SEO you should prioritize follow links, but don't discount no-follow sources too. There is still some power available from these links. If nothing else they can supply some free traffic.

The Anatomy of a Backlink

In your page's markup a link is an anchor tag (a) with an 'href' attribute. The href's value is the URL or address of the page the link points to.

<a href="{backlink}">{Anchor Text}</a>

The text or content wrapped by the anchor tag is called the anchor text. Images can also be used to link to additional pages.

As I mentioned in the last section to make a link a no-follow link you add the rel="nofollow" attribute.

<a href="{backlink}" rel="nofollow">{Anchor Text}</a>

For search engine optimization this is all there is to making a backlink.

External vs Internal Backlinks

So far I have talked about external links, or hyperlinks coming from one website to another. But you should not discount internal links. These are still considered backlinks, but they connect pages within the same website or domain.

The good news is Google uses these links to pass link equity around a site and for contextual guidance. And the best news is you control the anchor text and surrounding content to help the search engine better understand how to classify the link's target.

Internal Backlink Strategy
Internal Backlink Strategy

A standard SEO plan for internal linking is to structure your content so related, topically relevant content connects to each other. This is known as an SEO pillar or silo strategy.

You will notice I have linked to multiple pages on this site over the course of this article.

Earning Backlinks

By now I hope I have convinced you the power of backlinks and you want to earn as many as possible.

So how exactly can you earn backlinks?

This is the magical question, but there are no 'magical' answers. It takes work, lots of hard work. It requires a combination of great content and outreach.

Your first priority is to create content, which would be articles, images, video and more that people want to engage with. To do this you need to understand how to create online content.

If you don't have content people want, they won’t link to it no matter how much effort you put into an outreach campaign.

There are numerous outreach strategies promoted by online marketers. I won't lie, they all require time and energy. But you would be surprised how much difference just a few links to your content can make.

A year ago, I made SEO a priority for this site. I was struggling to receive 3000 visitors a month. Today my typical weekday traffic exceeds 7000 visitors and over 3000 on weekends and holidays.

The main reason is I started writing higher quality content targeting topics people in my target audiences were seeking. This led to more links to the content, which has earned me better search rankings.

It does not happen overnight, but over time.

What to Do Now

Now that you understand how backlinks work and why they are important you should put more effort into a formal backlink strategy to help you rank better in search engines and get more free traffic to your content.

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