3 Elements to SEO: Part 3 – What are backlinks in SEO?

What are backlinks in SEO and why are they so important? Backlinks, also known as inbound links, are a major part of offsite SEO. Offsite or off-page optimisation is the third element of SEO we are focusing on in this series – it is also the hardest to get right.

What we will cover

Why is offsite SEO so hard?

No one likes to be manipulated, in the early years of websites and search engines it was possible to cram pages full of keywords to earn a valuable spot at the top of google.

As well as adding hundreds of ranking factors that span our previous two articles: good content and technical optimisation, the third is something that is very hard to fake, it’s your reputation on the web.

Put simply, Google ranks each page out of 100 for authority, the higher the authority the more likely you are to appear ahead of someone else for a keyword.

So if two sites are created equal and did exactly the same thing from our first two articles, google still needs to decide who is the leading authority on the matter.

Authority relies largely on other websites linking to yours (a backlink), to show that among your peers what you are saying is worthy of consideration, so offsite SEO relies to a large extent on other people. In order to benefit from backlinks, you need to:

  • Identify good quality websites
  • Get the owner of that website to link to your website
  • Make sure the link is set up correctly
  • Repeat the process

Before we break that process down, let’s rewind and go back to the main question:

What are backlinks in SEO?

Backlinks are a pretty simple concept. When writing content for your website – whether that’s a service page, a blog post, a case study or anything else – you have the option to create a hyperlink to somebody else’s webpage. This is called an ‘external link’.

From the perspective of the website you have linked to, this is a backlink (or inbound or incoming link).

From Google’s perspective, you have just ‘voted’ for that web page and therefore given it some credibility.

Google’s original algorithm, PageRank, was heavily based on backlinks and the more backlinks a website had, the higher up the search engine results pages (SERPs) that site’s pages tended to feature.

This led to the growth of so-called ‘link farms’. You could pay a company a chunk of money and they would get as many links as possible pointing to your website. This led to tons of poor quality websites ranking above their station so Google changed the rules. Nevertheless, backlinks are still one of the top three factors Google use to determine search position.

Now we’ve hopefully answered the question, ‘What are backlinks in SEO?’ it’s time to look at how you can go and get some.

Step 1: Identify good quality websites

Google is more of a meritocracy than a democracy. In other words, a vote from My Lazy, Spammy Blog is not going to be equal to a vote from Wikipedia, The Times or BBC News.

Instead, Google gives each website a score out of 100 which is its Domain Authority (DA). Having a high DA is like being the cool kid on the playground: everyone wants to be your friend.

This doesn’t mean you should only hunt down sites with a high DA score but quality does trump quantity. In fact, a link from a high DA website can be worth a thousand links from sites with little credibility.

The most important thing to bear in mind is that the linking site should be relevant to your industry. If you sell shoes and receive backlinks from a gambling company, Google will smell a rat. This is why you should avoid link farms like the plague as they will happily place a backlink on any site that will take it.

Step 2. Earning the link

To earn a link, first of all, you have to have what is known in the trade as ‘a linkable asset’.

Simply put, this is a piece of content that other people will want to link to. Like an informative blog post, a cool video or a smart infographic.

Even so, other website owners are unlikely to link to your content unless you approach them with an offer. There are many ways to earn backlinks (too many to detail in this blog post), but here are some examples:

  • Writing guest posts for other people’s blogs. Your link will usually go in the article itself or in a bio.
  • Finding broken or poor quality links on a website and creating a better linkable asset for that website to link to.
  • Mutual shout outs on social media sites.
  • Approaching websites that provide link roundups.
  • Subscribe to HARO or similar PR sites that ask for expert opinion in return for links.
  • Directory listings. Some of these are ‘self-service’ and it is a good plan to spend 30 minutes or so a week adding your business to relevant directories. It is good practice to make sure your NAP profile (name, address and phone number) are identical on every directory and on your website.

Step 3. Check the set up

This is left out of many guides on backlinks we’ve come across.

Whether your link is from an article, a directory listing or an image caption, make sure you check it afterwards. There is no point in having backlinks if they are broken or they go to the wrong place.

It is also a good idea to double check that the link is a ‘dofollow’ link. Otherwise you won’t get any SEO benefit from it. Ask your web developer for help if you don’t know how to check this.

A note on anchor text: Anchor text is the name given to the highlighted text you click on to follow the link. It is more effective for SEO if the text is related to the keywords you want to rank for rather than a generic ‘click here’ or ‘link’.

So, if people were linking to this article, we would like them to use the anchor text ‘What are backlinks in SEO?’ or similar.

However, there is a caveat. If we asked third parties to only use ‘What are backlinks in SEO?’ we would likely fall foul of Google’s Penguin update because this is how a link farm usually operates.

So, like everything there is best practice and there is trying to manipulate the system, if you are creating authentic connections to your website with relevant info for different audiences then the anchor text will require changing as the context changes.

Are you ready to climb Google?

Hopefully you have learnt a lot in this three-part SEO series and you can start putting some of your new knowledge in action.

If you have further questions or fancy a chat about how our SEO specialists can support you, please visit our SEO Services page and get in touch.

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