What are backlinks?
Backlinks or ‘inbound links’ are created when one website links to a page on another website. The quantity, quality and relevancy of backlinks is a significant SEO ranking factor. Ranking algorithms consider backlinks as “votes of confidence” for a website.
How does a website get backlinks?
The most common ways to get backlinks are to earn or build them. You can earn backlinks by creating high-quality content that people choose to link to.
You can also invest in digital PR. These will be “earned links” because you didn’t request the website to link to your content.
Building backlinks is the process of reaching out to websites, publishers, or journalists and asking them to link to your content. To get a link, your content will need to offer unique value to their readers or customers.
The days when you could buy links from a website for SEO are long gone. Today, this will negatively affect your performance or result in a Google penalty.
How to earn backlinks
Mediocre content won’t “earn” you backlinks. To naturally get positive links, your content must stand out from the crowd for all the right reasons.
Here are a few of our top tips to earn backlinks:
- Create helpful, in-depth, “go-to” guides for your industry
- Work with experts on authoritative content
- Publish original research and surveys with statistics that people will care about
- Create useful or fun interactive tools
- Publish evergreen content or fresh, trending content that can be updated each year
- Find existing content with a good number of backlinks and create a similar piece of content, but make it more engaging
An example of a great piece of content is Diet Doctor’s Keto Diet Guide. According to Buzz Sumo, the page has had 11,400 backlinks in the past 12 months and 20,500 Facebook shares. As a result, it has a high Page Authority score of 58 (Moz, April 2020).
How to build links
How you build backlinks will depend on the size of your company as well as the time and budget you have available.
If you work in a large organisation, you might team up with the PR and content departments to execute full-scale campaigns. These campaigns are likely to be costly and have a goal of achieving 30+ links and a high number of brand mentions from one campaign. This would target industry relevant, high authority sites and national news.
On the other hand, you might use an SEO agency that spends a certain number of hours a month on link building. And, in that month they must achieve a target number or quality of links.
For smaller businesses, it is likely that you won’t have an in-house SEO team or the luxury of big-budget campaigns. This is where you’ll need to get creative and find cheaper ways to build links.
Link building for a small business
As a small business, you should use your loyal customers and local contacts to your advantage. Play the small business card in a polite and friendly way, and people will naturally want to support you.
Here are some simple, yet effective, ways to build links as a small business:
- Find a relevant place on your clients or suppliers website. Then, reach out to ask if they could link to your product or service from that page
- List your business on directories (i.e. Yelp, Bing Places, Yahoo)
- List your business on relevant and niche directories for your industry
- Get your business on local review sites and encourage customers to leave reviews
- Sponsor local community and charity fundraising events
- Run an entry-worthy competition that requires entrants to link to your website
- Reach out to local community sites to let them know what you’re doing and when. If it’s newsworthy, they’ll post it on their site.
- Have a look at the local news and see what businesses are being written about and why. Find or create a reason that the local news would want to talk about you or your business, then reach out to the editor
- If you have specific expertise, offer to write a guest-post on a small local industry website
- Use your expertise to write your own blogs and share them on social media for others to share and link to
- Find websites that mention your company without linking. Then, reach out to see if they would mind providing a link for their readers
Simple ways to build links
If you’ve already got a mention or link from a website, you’re in a great position to get in touch with the company. This is where you ca take advantage using the following two strategies.
Unlinked brand mentions
If a website has mentioned you in a positive light, send them an email to say thank you. It’s clear they already value your business and want to tell their readers about you. So, in your thank you email, also make a polite request for a link too.
You’re likely to have a 50/50 success rate, as some websites won’t want to link in fear of people leaving their site. But, Google doesn’t favour them in the long run for not linking to other websites.
This tactic is great because once you’ve crafted an email that works, you can use the same template. All you need to do is amend as necessary and send each time you have an unlinked brand mention. It’s quick to do once you’ve done it a few times.
Broken link building
This is another great strategy whereby you regain link authority from broken links. A broken backlink is where a website has linked to your website but the link has broken and returns a 404 error page. Broken links are bad for SEO and user experience.
The link is either broken because they entered it wrong or you’ve removed the page they linked to.
Either way, if it’s broken, the link will not be passing through any value to your site, so it’s worth fixing.
There are two ways you can fix broken links. Either contact the website, tell them it’s broken, provide a new link and ask them to update it.
If this is not successful, redirect the broken URL to another similar page on your site using a 301 redirect. A 301 redirect passes approximately 90% of the original link’s value. It also ensures users land on a working page on your site.
Redirects are within your control, so it’s an easy fix if you have a lot of broken backlinks.
And, if you no longer need a page, it’s also important to check if it has any backlinks before you remove it. If it does, make sure you put a redirect in place first to ensure you maintain the link authority.
How many backlinks do I need?
Unfortunately there’s no definitive answer to this question. It depends on backlink quality, the size of your site and your competitors. A backlink SEO audit would be able to identify if you need more backlinks.
The key thing to remember is that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to backlinks. So, it’s more beneficial to get one high quality backlink, than 10 low-quality links.
Google will also look at how fresh and frequent your links are. You should aim to build links at a consistent pace with a diverse range of referring domains. You won’t see significant SEO value in getting links from the same website every month, unless it’s for traffic.
You’ll also see more benefit from getting a link from a site relevant to your industry niche or local to your business, than a well-known site with little relevance to your business. As an example, if you’re a local gym, you’d benefit more from getting a link in Men’s Health or the local online news publishers than a construction industry website.
What are quality backlinks?
A good quality backlink should be from an authoritative, trusted and relevant website. The better quality the link, the more Google will reward you.
If you don’t have SEO tools to hand or an agency to ask, you could just review a website yourself and make a call. Ask yourself:
- Does the website look trustworthy?
- Is it a legitimate business? (Check Companies House)
- Who is responsible for the content on the site?
- Does the website have an address and contact information for the company? (Do your research and confirm if this is correct to see if they are legitimate)
- Does the website or company have any specific credentials?
If you are able to access SEO tools, upUgo, Moz or Ahrefs have metrics, which look at website authority. These metrics are:
- Trust and Citation Flow (Majestic, available on upUgo)
- Domain Authority (Moz)
- Domain Rating (Ahrefs)
The metrics are scored on a scale of 1-100. The closer a site’s score is to 100, the higher the authority and the better the value of a link from that site.
Although, it is important not to use these metrics in isolation. If a site doesn’t have a high score, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t target it. If it’s a website that is relevant to your industry and audience, the link will still be valuable. It is also more likely to drive traffic.
When looking at the quality of backlinks, the type of backlink also impacts how valuable it will be.
Types of backlinks
In SEO, there are two main types of backlinks that people talk about – do follow and no follow.
Before recently, follow links passed link value from one site to another. Whereas no follow links provided a link without passing any value.
However, in September 2019, Google announced changes in how they handle link attributes. The most impactful change came into effect from March 2020. This is when Google started using ‘no follow’ as hints rather than directives.
Going forward, this means, no-follow links could help a website’s ranking performance. So, if you’re building links, you should value both follow and no follow links as supporting your SEO efforts.
For more information on link attributes, Google Webmasters have published guidelines.
Before building links to your site, you should do backlink research first. Start by reviewing your backlink profile against your competitors. Use this research to decide what content you need and what sites you want to target.
Check your backlinks
There are plenty of free SEO tools available online to check your backlinks. As always, it can be beneficial to use more than one tool to get a full picture of your backlink profile.
Google Search Console reporting also gives you backlink data. This includes the latest links, top linked pages, linking domains, and anchor text. You can also export this information out of Search Console.
You can also use Link Explorer and other tools to check your broken backlinks. Whilst using these tools, you can collate a list of all your broken links and work through fixing them.
Check competitors backlinks
Buzz Sumo and Link Explorer are good free tools to check competitor’s backlinks. They offer limited free options and trials. But, the cost to invest in the tools is definitely worth the benefit if you’re looking at building backlinks.
BuzzSumo is a popular tool for competitor research and content planning. You can use the tool in many ways, for example, you can:
- Input any competitors page and find out how much social engagement and backlinks it has Input a keyword and find out the most engaged content for that search term or topic
- Set alerts so you can monitor when competitors get backlinks
- Find out what content is or isn’t getting engaged with online
- Find key influencers or websites that would be valuable to outreach your content to
This is another great tool to have in your toolbox for link research. Link Explorer gives you link metrics for any website, including Domain and Page Authority scores. You can perform up to 10 searches a month for free.
It also shows you what websites and pages are linking to your competitors. This can help you to identify if they have performing content that you don’t have.
Backlink research should be a part of your content gap analysis and link building plans.
Key takeaways on backlinks
To wrap and summarise, here are the key takeaways from this article:
- Backlinks are still a Google ranking factor
- Focus on backlink quality and topical relevance
- Build a target list of sites you want backlinks from
- Get links regularly from a range of relevant websites
- Unique and valuable content will “earn” backlinks naturally
- Try a range of link building tactics
- Value all backlinks, not just followed links
- Follow Google’s guidelines on ethical link building
- Start with backlink research first
If you found this article useful, why not explore the rest of our SEO guide for more helpful tips on improving your organic search visibility.