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All About Backlinks

In a nutshell, backlinks are hyperlinks coming into a webpage from another website. The underlined links in this newsletter are termed outbound links since they direct you, the reader, to pages we think will provide you with useful supplementary content. To the destination sites, these become backlinks.

It is easy to see why Google would use backlinks as a ranking factor since genuine backlinks act as a ‘vote’ for the content on the referred page. However, the system is open to abuse so the clever techies at Google have made sure that quantity of backlinks alone will not determine the overall position a page will reach in their search engine results pages (SERPs).

There are two ways in which a webpage can attract backlinks: organically (where somebody autonomously chooses to link to a site) or as part of a legitimate (or illegitimate) backlink generation strategy. An example of a legitimate strategy is writing a guest post for a blog in your niche. An example of an illegitimate – or ‘black-hat’ – strategy is buying backlinks from sites with no relevance to your business (something no customers of ours would dream of doing, right?).

Backlink ranking factors

Google (and the other search engines) have invested a lot of time into developing their secret algorithms to sort the wheat from the chaff of backlinks. SEO specialists have, in response, dedicated lots of time into finding out what type of backlink strategy will benefit a business’s web visibility. Their main findings can be broadly split into two areas:

Page Authority

About what we said earlier…Actually, the raw number of inbound links to a website does have a large bearing on its popularity (as this Moz guide shows) but don’t just go crazy asking for links because Google does not value webpages equally.

Google make use of a dynamic system called PageRank (PR) to order webpages on an eleven point scale increasing in quality from zero to ten. In actual fact, the real scale is a long floating point number but was modified and rounded down for public display. It is now no longer displayed at all but is still a potent ranking factor.

The simple logic behind backlink value is that inbound links from a page with a high PR score will be more beneficial than one from a page with a low PR score (you don’t say…). This ‘value’ is sometimes referred to as ‘link juice’ which can be a useful metaphor when getting into the nitty-gritty of backlinks. For example, the amount of ‘juice’ available to pass on is finite which means that a page with a high PR and few outbound links will provide more benefit to the pages it links to than a similar page with multiple outbound links.

Anchor Text and Link Characteristics

However, it is not just the PR and other characteristics of the referring page that are important when it comes to backlinks. The type of link and the words used (or ‘anchor text’) are also crucial ranking factors. For example, certain links include a ‘nofollow’ code which tells the search engines not to pass any ‘juice’ along that route. Google stipulate that advertisements must use this code (we can hear the groans) and some high PR sites like Wikipedia also default to ‘nofollow’ links (you thought you were being clever, didn’t you?).

Anchor text is a subject of great interest in the internet marketing community because words which are semantically related to the topic of the referred site are valued higher than non-related or generic words (e.g ‘this link.’) Anchor text that is within the body of the referring content (contextual links) is also more valuable than links in a bio or forum comment. However, overdoing anchor text construction is also believed to be a negative ranking factor although there is debate about whether this is actually the case.

A matter of trust

The above section focuses on page and link-level characteristics but what about the domain as a whole? Will a relatively low ranking page from a high ranking domain benefit your SERP ranking and vice versa? Researchers have found that links from trusted domains – regardless of PageRank or link characteristics – do seem to have a very beneficial effect on the referred pages. They also found that the fewer steps there are between a referred site and one of these so-called ‘seed’ domains the better, with direct links the best of all.

So to sum up, contextual backlinks using relevant anchor text are great for improving the visibility of your webpages as long as they come from high value pages and do not include a ‘nofollow’ instruction. A direct link from a website with a high domain authority is likely to be particularly beneficial.

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