Inlinks, backlinks, inbound links.
They all mean the same thing – someone else’s web property is linking to yours.
A hyperlink from one webpage to another.
A simple, integral part of the internet.
Spend any time in the SEO industry and you would think links directly equal profit.
Some SEO pros spend their entire careers specializing in obtaining links.
Why are they so sought after and how can you get them?
Why Inbound Links Are Important
To understand why links from other webpages are so important to SEO professionals we need to look at Google’s PageRank algorithm.
PageRank was developed to help Google understand how a webpage fit into the rest of the web.
In a now archived Google guidance page, PageRank was described as working
“…by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is. The underlying assumption is that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.”
This admission from Google that links are important to its ranking process is what spurned an entire industry to go chasing after them.
Other Search Engines
Google is not the only search engine that uses inbound links as a ranking signal.
Bing’s Webmaster Help and How-To guide mentions how the search engine perceives links:
“Bing prefers to see links built organically. This essentially means the links are built by people linking to your content because they find value in your content. This is an important signal to a search engine because it is seen as a vote of confidence in the content.”
Yandex also considers inbound links within its algorithm.
It gives guidance in its support documents on the importance of links and how they are gained.
The Perceived Power of Links
When surveyed by Moz in 2015, over 150 SEO professionals reported on what they believed to be the top factors that influence a page’s ability to rank well.
The respondents rated “domain level, link authority features” as the most influential factors, followed by “page-level link metrics.”
Although this is a study based on the opinions, it does go to show the perceived importance of links within the industry.
What Makes a Link Valuable
Not every link is created equally. That is, not every link will be as useful to a site as it would be to another site.
This is because of the ways the search engines use links to determine the relevance and authority of a webpage for a given search.
Google states in its help documentation:
“Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote by page A for page B. Votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily and help to make other pages “important.””
A link from a website that is considered important will be of more benefit to your site than one from a website than a low importance one.
There is however a caveat to this. Relevance.
It is not just the “importance” of a page that determines how useful it is in determining the rank of the page it links to.
The contents of the linking page will also have an impact.
Ensuring the website has a similar or related topic to the page that is being linked to will help reinforce the subject of that page.
This in turn can help it to be perceived as more relevant to search queries about that topic.
A Word About Metrics
There are many tools available that contain metrics to help you gauge the importance of a page.
You may have come across scores for “domain authority”, “page authority” and “domain rating” before.
These are the tool manufacturers’ attempts to quantify how the search engines perceive the importance of a linking page.
They can be useful guides but it is crucial to remember they are not used or recommended by the search engines themselves.
There is no longer any publicly accessible score for how Google rates a page’s authority.
Why Is Gaining Links Dangerous?
Search Engine Guidelines
Although links are a good way for search engines to get third-party verification on the importance of a page, they are also easily manipulated.
Over the years the voting system became compromised by link purchasing, link exchange, and other schemes.
Due to this, the search engines had to become proactive in identifying where links had been gained for the purpose of higher rankings.
The search engines do not want links built that will artificially give the impression the site is more relevant and important than it is.
The penalties for engaging in link building that contravenes the guidelines can be severe.
In some instances, entire websites might be removed from the search engine results pages.
This makes link building a contentious subject.
The mere practice of trying to increase links for the sake of rankings is technically against the guidelines of most major search engines.
Links Change Over Time
The other important point to note is that the value of a link changes over time.
For instance, what if the page that links to yours change its content?
The relevance of that link to your site might increase if the content becomes more aligned with yours.
If a website linking to yours acquires more relevant links to itself it might be perceived as even more of an authority by the search engines.
This can make the link to your site even more powerful.
The opposite can happen too of course.
What if the site linking to yours gets hacked?
Suddenly the search engines’ concept of what that site is about will change, so will its relevance to your site.
Good Ways to Gain Links
The all-important question is, if links are so powerful how do you get more of them?
Below is a quick overview of some popular tactics to gain new links.
However, link building needs to be a strategy, not a tactic.
It should be a mix of great content marketing and relationship building.
This article is an introduction to inbound links.
I don’t have enough time to go into detail about how to create an effective link building strategy.
For more information on that you should take a look at these articles:
- Anna Crowe‘s guide on moving from link building to link earning.
- Patrick Reinhart’s 5 tips to run a sustainable link building campaign.
Common Link Building Tactics
A good way to build links to your website is by creating content that other sites find informative, interesting, and link-worthy.
Creative campaigns that are designed first as content marketing, second as link-magnets are an effective tactic.
These creative campaigns take many forms.
Write-ups of interesting research, interactive media, and anything that you could see being shared well on social media have the potential to be picked up by digital publishers and linked to.
Be a Source of Authority
A quick check of any thought leader within an industry is likely to reveal a wealth of links pointing to their site.
Because they are being referenced by other publications.
Consider Search Engine Journal itself.
The backlink reporting tool I use suggests the website has in excess of 14 million links pointing to it. It is often used as an authoritative source in other publications.
Digital PR is an example of effectively leveraging expertise.
Contacting journalists as a source of information they can use within a story can often lead to your website being linked to.
This is especially true if you have an asset on your website that the journalist is referencing in their story.
Often an easy place to start with building links is making the most of existing ones.
Using a backlink checking tool such as Ahrefs, SEMrush, or SE Ranking it is possible to see where links are coming into your website.
These tools will also tell you if those links are still live or no longer work.
If you see that you used to have a website linking to yours but the link has since broken then there is a possibility it could be reactivated.
For instance, when a website’s content changes links are often taken out.
Sometimes the hyperlink itself is removed even though the link is supposed to be there still.
In these instances, you might find it fruitful to contact the owner of the site and ask if the link can be reinstated.
Links to 404 Pages
Over time as you change and grow your website you might let pages return a 404 status code.
If you have links from other sites pointing to these pages then the value of those links is lost.
Regularly checking your site to see if pages that have a 404 status code have links pointing to them, and redirecting those pages, can retain the value of the link.
Wherever possible leverage existing relationships.
The likelihood is that if you have an existing relationship with a publisher it is because your organization has some relevance to theirs.
This means a link from their site to yours might actually be beneficial to their readers. As such, the link makes sense.
Do a lot of your team play for a local club? Do you participate in charity events?
There might be organizations you are already involved in where it would make sense for them to link to your site.
A word of caution:
If you sponsor a local football team and in exchange, they link to your website you are paying for a link.
It is highly possible that the search engines will be able to use the context of the page the link is on to deduce it is a link to a sponsoring organization.
In that instance declaring the link as sponsored using rel=”sponsored” as an attribute for the link.
Otherwise, you may fall foul of their algorithms designed to detect link manipulation.
Are you an authorized retailer of a brand’s products?
Often brands will list their retailers on their site to help their clientele find a local distributor.
Make sure you are included on that list.
It is a highly relevant link to your site and should also refer converting traffic to your site.
What Not to Do
This could fill several articles.
There are many, many old link building techniques that can be damaging to your site.
For a starting guide on where not to look for link building opportunities, I want to direct you to Brain Harnish’s article: 10 Bad Links That Can Get You Penalized by Google.
I also want to make a plea on behalf of all website admins who manage popular websites.
Don’t email them asking for a link.
They get hundreds of emails a month asking for the same.
Just because they used to link to your competitor’s infographic does not mean they want to link to your infographic instead.
They might if your infographic presents more up-to-date and relevant research.
They won’t if it’s essentially the same information in your company branding.
Be wise in how you reach out to publishers. Build relationships where possible instead of cold emails.
Inbound links are still considered to be highly valuable in SEO.
Good inbound links are hard to build.
If they are easy then they are unlikely going to help bolster your site’s perceived authority.
At worst, they can lead to a penalty.
Link building is a hotly debated topic in the SEO world. Keep in mind that the search engine guidelines around link acquisition are all quite clear.
Links should be gained by your site naturally. Really, without interference from the site’s owner.
If you are embarking on a link building campaign then make sure the links you acquire genuinely add value to the readers of the linking sites.
Remember too that the search engines are forever tightening the net on spammy links.
Their ability to detect manipulative links grows stronger.
What tactics might be flying under the radar now might not for long.