SEO experts worldwide debate how much importance should be attributed to backlinks. Considering Google and the other search engines generally use about 200 ranking factors determine how to rank websites in search engine results, it is impressive that one of these factors can take up so much discussion in the SEO community.
Quite simply, a backlink is one website mentioning another website and linking to it. It is not merely referencing the website or it’s web address. It has to be a clickable link using an href attribute within the code. It is the difference between http://www.moz.com and Moz. Even though the first example displays a URL, the search engines do not register this as a backlink, whereas the word that has a link (often underlined and in a different color), is.
Years Ago, Linkbuilding Was Easy
In the early days of search engines, backlinks were everything. Basically, you could launch a website with links reaching out to all corners of the web, and before you knew it, you were on the first page of Google for any keyword you wanted. Of course, this was before the finely tuned algorithms we see today were in place.
At one point, backlinks developed a reputation of damaging a site’s credibility through search engines. This is due to “black hat” SEO practices would add 5,000 links to a website overnight (a practice that is still used today). While the website would launch to the top of search ranking results for a few weeks, it wouldn’t stay there, and the site’s credibility would be damaged because a few dozen servers with thousands of useless websites existed for the sole purpose of creating backlinks.
Fortunately, Google never gave up on the idea of backlinks; it just got better at qualifying them and utilizing other online signals to determine quality from disreputable tactics. Unethical methods can not only hurt your rankings, but can cause your domain to incur penalties from Google. Yes, your domain can be penalized and can even be removed from Google’s index if the offense is serious enough.
Google’s Algorithm Is Better With Numbers
So enough of these scary stories. Google actually likes backlinks and relies upon them. The whole idea behind them is that they help to tell Google what is good and useful out there. Remember, it is still an algorithm. It doesn’t know that your page describing the best technique for restoring a 1965 Ford Mustang bumper is all that great. But if enough people are talking about how great it is, and thereby referencing that page on other websites, Google will actually know.
It not only counts the number of links, it attributes values to different links. Here is the tricky part. The valuation of links can be complicated because we don’t completely know how Google rates the value – that’s private information.
The ART of SEO
When considering backlinks, it is much easier for us to consider a link from a website using the acronym, ART.
You always want to use these sources as backlinks when you’re building links for your own site or it’s something to look at when you’re seeking an outside SEO agency to assist you in online marketing.
Keeping those three words in mind will help you determine the value of backlinks. Let me give you a far fetched example:
Let’s pretend you have a friend that works at ESPN, and you have a plumbing company in Tucson, AZ. Your friend decides he is going to help you out and, in a blog post for ESPN.com, he sneaks in a link to your website. (Yes, this is far fetched, but I wanted an extreme example)
Google will index this link and see that ESPN has a high authority, and there is a lot of trust in that website, but the relevancy is fairly low. After all, you are a local plumber and they are the biggest sports news website in the world. Once it has indexed your website, it can see that they do not have a lot in common. Now, Google will definitely give you credit for the link, but there is no telling how much.
By the way, it’s still a valuable link, I am just using it as a teachable example. However, if the State of Arizona website linked to your website referencing an article you wrote on soldering tips, that would be a trusted source and your link would be highly relevant.
On the other hand, if your friend Ben launches a website tomorrow to provide plumbing industry information for consumers and includes a list of the best plumbers in Tucson and includes your business on the list, this may not get too much of a boost in the short ter. Though it meets the criteria of relevancy, the website is too new to be a trusted authority.
Not All Links Are Created Equal
A backlink’s value doesn’t only come from the website authority itself. There are other factors to consider as well. You’ll sometimes times hear those in the industry refer to “dofollow” and “nofollow” links. This goes back to the unethical linkbuilding tactics in the early days of SEO. One practices included commenting on blogs and leaving a link. It was an easy method and back then, search engines couldn’t tell the difference between a blog post and other site content.
This was just as bad for the managers of those blogging websites because then they had tidal waves of people posting comments that often times had nothing to do with their topic. Once programmers realized they could write scripts that could automate this process of posting, an entire industry was born and the problem got even worse.
An idea was born to create an attribute for these links. Since blogs still wanted people to comment and leave useful links, the developers automatically made the links of any post a “nofollow” link. The thinking was that if there were no SEO value for comment links, it would not be abused so much, and they have proven to be right to an extent.
Now what I am about to state is hotly contested in our industry. Google does in fact attribute relevancy to these links, just not as much as dofollow links. In fact, a good mixture of dofollow and nofollow links is helpful to your SEO profile, so long as it is not overdone and abides by relevance, trust and authority.
It’s What’s in a Link That Matters
Now that we’ve covered a lot about backlinks, let’s go back to the example I gave earlier with Moz. The actual link is to www.moz.com. The text “Moz” is what we refer to as the anchor text. Google indexes the anchor text and factors it differently as well.
Great SEO Articles
All of the examples above and more could be used as anchor text for the same backlink. Google will index each differently. Not only that, Google will even examine the few words before and after the anchor text as well as take into account all of the text on the page. It will also attribute value to which backlink was first in the page and diminish the value for each following link.
While there may be 200+ ranking factors to get your website to the top of Google search engine results, backlinks definitely play a role in your SEO strategy.