One of the first terms anyone encounters when taking their first steps into SEO is “backlinks”. Also known as inbound links, backlinks are a powerful ranking signal that, if mastered, can boost a page’s popularity and make its organic search engine ranks skyrocket. But how did they become so important, and what’s the best way to know if backlinks have any ranking effects?
So, first of all, why are backlinks so important for SEO?
Backlinks are basically websites that link back to your website and content. Having many different websites link back to your website signifies a sort of “vote” in your favor from the online community to search engines. It shows search engines that your website is of interest and has at least some level of authority. It signals search engines that something of importance is there and therefore should be more prominent in the organic search results.
It actually relies on a very basic principle that occurs in nature. Points of importance have more “links” leading to those spots. A waterhole in the savanna will have all the local wildlife “linking” to it. If an alien species would observe with an infrared lens, they will see this giant red spot of importance, even without knowing anything about our ecosystem. The ideal for any SEO expert is for their promoted website to become a “waterhole” of content and have the wildlife of the niche flock to it, establishing it as an authority website.
We can thank Google for this guiding principle. One of the groundbreaking principles their PageRank algorithm (named after Larry Page by the way, and not after the noun) introduced was determining a website’s authority and ranking it according to how many websites link back to it. It was one of the key factors that made Google stand out as a higher-quality search engine and really did deliver better quality search results. So much so that Yahoo! (the leading search engine at the time) famously made the mistake of letting Google power their search engine for a short while and basically laid the groundwork for the up-and-coming giant to take over the search market.
The PageRank method isn’t exactly a new idea, but its implementation in a search engine was a brilliantly novel approach that defined Google and modern search engines as a whole. It’s a form of academic citation analysis that was adapted to indexing websites. And the now hidden PageRank score is, in a way, the search engine equivalent of the academic journal impact factor and citation impact that is widely used in academic fields.
PageRank gives websites scores of authority from 0 to 10, also known as “PR score”. A score of 10 is reserved for extremely-high-level authority websites such as usa.gov and twitter.com, having countless backlinks from all kinds of sources pointing to them, essentially making them rank no.1 in almost every search result. There are only a handful of websites with a 10 PR score. Next tier is PR 9, with some of most-visited websites on the internet, websites such as Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn, often ranking within the top 5 on the SERP. The next tier is 8-6, and if your website reaches this tier, you can be proud and know you did very well for yourself and your client, as tier 9 is nearly impossible to obtain. PageRank 5 tier websites still have a decent number of inbound links, PR 4 and PR 3 sites have a smaller amount, but still enough to count, and brand new websites without any backlinks begin their journey at PageRank 0.
Up until 2016, PR scores were public and on everyone’s radar, but they’re now a hidden factor in Google’s ranking scheme, and many speculate whether PR scores should even be taken into account anymore as a relevant factor.
The current state of backlinks
The PR score may be hidden from us, but, nonetheless, it’s still used somehow to determine a website’s strength. We just don’t get the privilege of knowing how. Google has never made any official statements about it being dropped from their method of ranking. In fact, the opposite is true – there have been enough official statements scattered by Google to confirm that it’s still very much used below the surface, perhaps carrying less weight than it used to among the 200+ other ranking signals – but it’s one of the backbones of their algorithm, so we don’t imagine they will get rid of it too easily.
Just having a lot of backlinks isn’t enough. Unlike a democracy, where all votes are equal, votes are not equal in this case. Some votes carry more weight than others. One link from a prominent authority website with a high score on Google (PR and others) will carry more weight than hundreds of links from insignificant low-score websites. In fact, links from low-quality, blacklisted, spammy websites will only serve to lower your score and can even lead to penalties.
It’s the same as getting advice from someone you trust. Consider advice coming from a well-known scholar who actually bothers to read research papers and study important topics. If he or she gives you advice, it will carry more weight than any advice from the quirky friend who just hops from one trend to another and thinks the Earth is flat.
In addition, there’s value in having authority websites in your niche linking back to your website. For example, a popular bicycle maintenance blog linking to a drone manufacturer won’t carry as much weight as a link to a store selling bicycle maintenance tools. To continue our life analogies, if your ace car mechanic with tooth decay recommends a motor oil, it will likely carry more weight in your eyes than his recommendation of a tooth brush.
And then there’s also the so-called “damping factor”. Websites
not only enjoy the direct influence from links by authority websites, but also from “collateral linking”. The PR formula takes into account that people who visit a certain link might also continue, with some probability, to visit another link featured on that linked page. This is called “link-hopping”. So, let’s say National Geographic links to a wildlife blog post, and that post also links to a website that offers tours to some exotic location that was discussed in that post. The website that offers the tours will enjoy the direct influence of that blog and also the indirect influence of National Geographic via two link-hops. Three link-hops might also carry some weight, but four is estimated to be so insignificant that there’s no point even thinking about it (here is the damping factor formula if you’re interested).
The highest-quality backlink you can get is from a geo-targeted, niche-relevant, high-quality source. A post in the said blog addressing a new boutique bicycle store that opened in NY should provide a nice boost to ranking in that niche. The ideal result of a solid backlink strategy is solidifying your influence in a narrow niche – creating a “cloud” of relevance around your website with as many niche-relevant websites linking back to you as possible, while linking to relevant, high-quality websites yourself.
The more unique, high-ranking websites linking back to your website, the better. Creating backlinks is considered a fairly difficult, time consuming and sometimes expensive aspect of SEO, and obtaining backlinks from reliable, popular, high-authority websites is certainly no easy task. Luckily, there are countless guides out there on how to acquire backlinks properly and how to develop a solid backlink strategy. If you take the time to do your research and learn the subject, it can give you significant results.
The surefire way to succeed here is to make truly awesome content that will have people linking to it without you even asking for it. Easier said than done, but don’t forget that by the end of the day, at least some of your direct competition won’t be putting the effort in to truly excel at creating high-quality content, and they will perhaps stick to various “shortcuts”. This improves the chances of the excellent minority to actually succeed, and that is true for almost any field of expertise – not just SEO.
The “dark side” of link building
That was the basic principle and history, anyway. Naturally, the second you present some sort of formula, people will try to exploit it in their favor. Predictably, many quickly began to manipulate this principle, and link spamming was born. In the early days of Google, before their algorithms got advanced and powered with crazy, neural-network AI, it proved to be a shady yet highly lucrative pursuit. Some made a fortune by link spamming (we’re talking about millions of dollars per successful spammer!), while completely poisoning the search engine well for the rest of us.
The methods of dark-link building are very diverse, and include automated link-building software, link farms, private blog networks, buying expired domains inside the niche, and comment spamming, just to name a few.
Google eventually caught up to all those methods and started heavily penalizing websites that practiced this kind of dark SEO magic, which is why it’s very important you avoid using questionable methods and do your research about proper backlink strategies. Don’t dive headfirst into shady tools or methods tempting you with easy spoils and riches (like the best of crooks, they can be very persuasive and misleading).
Speaking of backlinks and dirty spammy methods, it’s worth noting that we never used those – and yet we still grew to more than 50k users. How? By being so good at what we do! Our users recommend us to their colleagues, and as a result, we enjoy the most powerful marketing you can get: word of mouth.
Hopefully you are now on your way to becoming a real SEO scholar. So if you ever hear a discussion about backlinks in a cocktail party, you will be able to contribute to the conversation and without a doubt be invited to future events.
Next week we are releasing our beginner’s guide to monitoring your backlink strategy with PRT, so be sure you are subscribed to our blog!
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