Feel like something’s missing from your SEO? I know what it is, and it’s right under your nose.
It’s the almighty SEO backlink—a detail that’s overlooked all the time, by SEO newbies and experts alike. Yup, there are people with tons of SEO and keyword research experience who still have questions about backlinks.
What are they? How do you get them? How do they impact SEO? Are backlinks really worth my time?
And even people with the answers to those questions may flounder when building backlinks. They end up going about it all wrong.
If you spend any appreciable time on the internet, you’re surely coming across a plethora of backlinks all the time, even if you have no idea what a backlink actually is, and even if you don’t know how prominent a role they play in your own experience with the world wide web.
Don’t worry, if you’ve ever secretly asked yourself “what are backlinks?” then you’re finally going to find the answer here, broken down in a simple way so that even SEO beginners will get it.
Backlinks 101: The Complete Crash Course to Backlinks and SEO
What the Heck Is a Backlink?
The simplest way to explain what a backlink is involves breaking down the word like so: It’s a link that leads back to a webpage.
So, for example, if you manage a website that reviews and sells spatulas, and a food blogger posts a link to your spatula retail site on her blog, that would be a backlink—and a good backlink at that, since your sites have a common theme and potentially a shared audience.
If three bloggers, one local news reporter and one major retail website each embed one link to your spatula site on their respective sites, that would be five backlinks you’ve earned.
They’re really only considered backlinks by the website to which said links point. For the person who’s embedding the link on their website, it’s just a link or external link.
Why Do Backlinks Matter for SEO?
The more quality backlinks a website has, the more traffic it’s likely to get. Before we delve into the how of it, let’s make sure the why is clear.
We’ll start this explanation with a familiar offline example. If a professor of medieval history writes a book about the evolution of Gothic cathedral design, the book would have a poor reputation—despite the quality of the book itself—if no one ever read or discussed it.
If, however, his excellent architectural treatise came to be seen as a seminal volume and was cited in countless other books, papers, essays and articles, the professor’s work would continue to improve in stature and reputation. Eventually, it might be considered the most authoritative resource on the topic.
While it must also be a high-quality, accurate book to be considered an authority on the topic, the references feed into the overall reputation of the book.
What’s a Good SEO Backlink?
Backlinks work much like the aforementioned citations, albeit in this case the entity using them is a search engine running algorithms, not an erudite academic.
The more good backlinks a website has, the more prominently it will rank in a search engine results page (often abbreviated as SERP, FYI).
A search engine uses keywords, backlinks and other metrics (such as sponsored content; money always talks, doesn’t it?) to choose which results it will display to its users and in what order.
For SEO, Quality Backlinks Beat Quantity
The more quality backlinks your website or webpage has, the more likely your content is to pop up on that all-important first page of results, and maybe even in the vaunted top five.
Now, what’s a quality backlink? A quality backlink is one that’s placed naturally into the content of a respected website.
This can be an academic site, a legitimate news outlet, a well-trafficked blog or even a retail site that sells quality merchandise or services.
People might reach out to you about linking to your site, or you might embark on a backlink-requesting expedition by emailing relevant websites. Either way, it’s mutually beneficial because those external links help boost the other website’s SEO as well—and the better your website is, the more beneficial it is for them to link to you.
So, you can produce some truly awesome content, identify websites that might find it valuable, then reach out about it. All the better if you can find a specific place on their website where it would be super beneficial for them to add that link to your site, for example, a place where there’s currently a broken or sub-par link—or no link at all.
And sometimes you’ll produce such outstanding content that people find your content online and give you backlinks on their own. That’s always a good feeling—and a good sign that you’re doing something right.
Have Backlinks Placed Naturally, Whenever Possible
So you have an opportunity to have backlinks pointing to your website placed embedded in some respected blogs/reports/articles? Congrats! Your SEO bonafides are about to rise higher.
Remember that, unless you run a very simple, stripped-down website indeed, your site is a collection of webpages, not simply one page. This means that you need to choose which specific area of your site the backlinks will point to
Beyond the enhanced search engine results a backlink creates, remember that these are actual links a person can use, too. You might only have one shot at leading people in, so to avoid a webpage bounce (where someone immediately clicks away from a site after landing there) you should point to your most relevant and enticing material. Choose your proverbial best foot and put it forward.
As for natural placement, that is to say, a link embedded into the copy in an organic way and not forced awkwardly onto irrelevant terms or jammed at the bottom of a page. A link to a site about growing tomatoes should be embedded in the words “growing tasty tomatoes” as opposed to “click here,” for example.
If you’re reaching out to request that someone update their site to add links to your site, then you should be very specific about where you’d like them to add your link.
Now, why do I keep saying things like “quality backlinks” and “good backlinks?” Well, it’s because not all backlinks are good.
The Bad and the Ugly of SEO Backlinks
Bad Backlinks Hurt Your Site
If you’re thinking about backlinks, you’ll also need to start thinking about sniffing out bad backlinks.
The wrong backlinks can do real damage to your SEO and rankings. Some backlinks start out bad, like those in mega-directories of content, poor-quality websites with very little original content, websites which have tons of duplicate content, spammy-looking websites and, of course, sites with hacking, phishing and malware problems.
Even backlinks pointing to your site from thematically unrelated websites can be bad. For example, if you’re still running that spatula website and have a backlink from a website about DVD and CD sales, it could look fishy to users and search engines alike.
Having tons of bad backlinks like the above will often result in search engine result page suppression.
Google or Yahoo will identify a site as being pointed to by lots of low-quality links and will then hide or demote the page in its results pages.
So, having lots of garbage backlinks can damage your webpage rankings as much as good backlinks can help it. You might even say that bad backlinks de-optimize your website for search engine results.
Now, there’s one type of backlink that’s commonly built up by mistake—people often think it’s an appealing or viable type of backlink, and it’s most often created when somebody pays for their backlinks.
Let’s examine this common, reputation-damaging backlink.
Clickbait Backlinks Definitely Don’t Look Good
Have you ever seen a link that says something like:
- Find Out Why Supermodels Are Eating Their Own Shoes! Click HERE Now!
- Learn This Millionaire’s Secret Trick For Making Five Hundred Dollars Every Fifteen Seconds!
- You Won’t Believe This Hamster’s Shocking Net Worth!
Ah, those are the ridiculous but almost enticing links known as clickbait or linkspam.
It’s a link that baits you into clicking on it. Shifty marketing and advertising people keep on cluttering up our precious world wide web with ’em. And just like any fish who has ever bitten baited hook and lived to tell the tale will tell you, those links are best left alone.
Chances are, a clickbait link will take you to a website with questionable moral integrity that, at best, probably wants to sell you stuff you don’t need. At worst, it might be the front for a hacking operation seeking to steal information or damage devices.
So, you can already see why clickbait is a bad way to promote your content:
- It’s a low-class approach that tries to trick people into clicking, rather than earning a visit that the person actually intended to make.
- Search engines know what clickbait is and they hate it.
How to Avoid Bad Backlinks
To avoid having lots of bad backlinks, first and foremost, don’t pay for them! It’s very hard to find a reputable service that gets you good backlinks on a strict pay-per-link basis. (Though you can find reputable marketing and SEO companies that might take your money and do good work, through actual know-how and diligence.)
Don’t push dozens of guest posts out onto other sites just to get backlinks. Only write guest posts if the content is actually valid of its own merit, and if you’re posting on high-quality websites—both people and search engines can figure out the difference between good guest posts and bad ones.
Track down the bad links that do exist on spammy pages and try to have them removed by contacting the webmaster of the page. Or, better yet, arm yourself with a tool like Monitor Backlinks, which allows you to see all of the backlinks—the good, the bad and the ugly—that are pointing to your site on one simple dashboard.
Crash Course Conclusion: The Takeaways About Backlinks and SEO
If you only remember two things from this entire article, first please remember what a backlink is, which to reiterate is a link that leads back to your webpage. (Or to any webpage, but yours is probably the one you care about the most.)
The second thing to remember is that the only backlinks that are genuinely good for improving SEO are organic and are embedded in high-quality content.
If you limit the number of bad backlinks pointing your way, you’ll see your web traffic rise and your bounce rate fall.
Just don’t forget to have high-quality content there on your website waiting for all those people who take the time to visit.
You don’t want to spend all the time and energy getting people onto your pages only to let them down!