Alongside content, backlinks are the most important ranking factor for SEO performance. This has been proven by numerous tests, and Google has said multiple times that links are a key trust signal for their algorithm.
But before you invest your time or money in generating links, you probably want to know: why are backlinks important?
That’s what we’ll explore in this article.
Quick Refresher: What Is a Backlink?
A backlink is a link on a website that goes to another site. People typically use backlinks to add value to their content. This could be by linking to an article that provides more information about a particular topic or using the link to reference a statistic or fact.
Why Are Backlinks Important for SEO?
Backlinks are important because they are a primary Google ranking factor.
The search engine’s algorithm uses a page’s backlink profile to decide whether to rank it for a particular search term.
A backlink profile consists of both the number of links a site has, and the quality of these links.
Generally speaking, the website or page with more backlinks is will rank higher on Google than other websites.
There is a strong positive correlation between the number of domains that link to a page and how much search traffic it gets.
Links are a Confidence Signal
Why does Google put a value on backlinks?
Incoming links are a trust signal. When a website links to another page page, it’s a vote of confidence that the content is valuable.
This makes a lot of sense.
Website owners are unlikely to link to bad content. This means Google can be confident that pages with many links are worth showing at the top of the search results page.
This idea was central to the Google PageRank algorithm that the company used to build the early version of the search engine.
While the methods the company uses to rank websites have grown more sophisticated, links still play a huge part.
They Have Other Uses Too
When people talk about the importance of backlinks for SEO, they’re typically talking about a link’s ability to improve a page’s ranking.
Although links are important for SEO, they also have other benefits beyond simply improving a page’s ranking.
They can also:
- Generate traffic: A link on a high traffic page may result in many people clicking through to your website.
- Increase brand exposure: The more links you get, the more exposure your brand will receive as people click on the links.
- Better relationships: Outreach campaigns can help you build relationships with others in your niche.
Not All Backlinks Are Equal
It’s easy to read the above passage and assume you should go out and get as many backlinks as possible.
But you should remember that not all backlinks are equal.
Low-quality links from directories, social media, new websites, and blogging platforms (Tumblr, Blogger, etc.) will not move the needle.
Many types of backlinks can even harm your business.
The Google Webmaster Guidelines warn against anything that could be considered a “link scheme.”
Because of this, you must be very careful only to build links that Google likes. Fail to do so, and you’ll not only waste your time but you may even harm your website.
What Should You Look for in a Backlink?
There are many factors you should look for when getting links.
We’ve even created a complete guide that tells you everything you need to know to find great sites (and avoid bad ones).
We look at the following metrics
- DA and DR: DA and DR are metrics that rate a website’s authority based on its backlinks. Backlinks from websites with high domain metrics tend to be better than those from sites with lower scores. But there are ways that websites can game these figures. You should always look beyond DA and DR when assessing a website.
- Aesthetic: Does the website look professional? You can often tell a website is low quality by looking at it. Look for things like basic themes and an overreliance on stock imagery.
- Traffic: Steady or rising organic traffic suggests that Google likes a website. Avoid websites with high domain metrics but low traffic.
- Original content: Look for websites that frequently publish high-quality, original content.
- ‘About’ information: Look for websites that clearly say who owns and creates the content.
- Hard to get links from: If a site makes it easy to get links, they are likely to be less valuable.
The most powerful links tend to be editorial links from high authority publications.
Consider top-tier websites like the New York Times or the BBC. These sites tick all the boxes above. They have high domain metrics, tons of traffic, and publish new content every day.
It’s also very difficult to get links from these sites. If the link doesn’t add lots of value to the story, it won’t get through the editorial process.
Links that are less valuable include:
- Directory websites: these sites don’t tend to publish their own content, often have low traffic, and they may let anyone create a profile.
- Link farms: These are websites set up for the specific purpose of selling links. They sometimes have a high DA, but they tend to have low traffic, poor content, and are easy to get links from if you’re happy to pay.
- New websites: New websites tend to have little traffic and low domain metrics. Links from these sites aren’t as powerful as those from established sites. They may still be worth getting, as the link will grow in value as the site becomes established.
There are plenty of links that fall somewhere between the above examples.
Links on personal blogs, niche websites, local news sites, and more can all benefit your site, even if they don’t have as much authority as one from the NYT.
Other Relevant Factors
The website you get the link from isn’t the only factor to consider. Anchor text and the type of link also play a part in how it affects your site.
Anchor text is the text in the article that the link is attached to. Google’s algorithm uses this to decipher what the page is about.
If the link is attached to the text “Best smartphones,” Google can see the content is about the best smartphones.
Discover everything you need to know about creating anchor text here.
Follow vs. Nofollow
Another important factor is whether the link is follow or nofollow.
Nofollow links are those that the website owner has told Google’s algorithm not to crawl. This makes them less valuable than regular follow links.
Can You Rank in Google Without Backlinks?
You absolutely can rank on Google without building backlinks. But you’ll typically struggle to rank for anything other than low competition terms.
And these terms are low competition for a reason.
They tend to have either:
- Low search volume: meaning they don’t generate much traffic.
- Low value: meaning that even if they bring in traffic, the visitors are hard to monetize.
If you plan to target this type of term, you won’t necessarily need backlinks.
But if you want to rank for more competitive terms, you’ll struggle to do so without links.
There’s No Guarantee of SEO Improvement
Google undoubtedly uses a website or page’s backlink profile as part of its ranking algorithm. While it is an important ranking factor, it isn’t the only ranking factor.
No one knows all the factors that the Google algorithm considers. Depending on who you ask, it could be over 200.
But most people agree that links, content, searcher intent, and on-page experience all affect your ranking.
To rank, you need to make sure that your website ticks all (or most of) the boxes, not just the one for backlinks.
Think about these questions:
Does your page match searcher intent?
Searcher intent is arguably the most important ranking factor.
And it’s easy to see why: Google wants to provide the most relevant pages for any given search term.
If your page doesn’t include the information the searcher is looking for, it is very unlikely to rank—no matter how many backlinks it has.
When creating content, you must consider whether your page contains information someone searching for your target term is likely to find useful.
The good news is that discovering searcher intent is easy. Just search for your term on Google to see what the search engine already shows for the query.
Use these pages as the basis for your own content.
Is your page optimized?
You should also optimize your content for the search term.
Key optimization factors include:
- Using the correct keywords
- Ensuring the content is the right length
- Using the correct headings
Is the on-page experience good?
Google likes to promote sites that offer a good user experience.
The search engine recently began using Core Web Vitals to measure the experience a website offers.
This is a set of four tests that measure how quickly and consistently a page loads.
It does this by tracking:
- First contentful paint: How quickly the first content loads on screen.
- Largest contentful paint: How quickly the main content on your site loads.
- First input delay: How long it takes from the user first interacting with your site to the browser responding.
- Cumulative layout shift: How much content on your page moves once it has loaded.
Google measures each of the above points and then gives your website a score out of 100. Anything over 90 is a great score.
If you combine great backlinks with the above three points, it won’t be long before your site ranks.
How to Build Quality Backlinks?
You now know that backlinks are crucial to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) success. And more importantly, you know what type of backlinks will move the needle.
The next piece of the puzzle is going out and building backlinks.
You can do this in many ways and effective strategies are constantly changing. What works one month may not work the next.
Current link building strategies that work well include:
- Help a Reporter Out: Help a Reporter Out is a service that connects journalists with expert sources. If you’re chosen as a source, the journalist will often link to your website.
- Guest posts: Guest posts are an effective way to generate links from high DA websites. Just be sure to avoid low-quality websites that only exist to make money from guest posting.
- Use your network: If you know other people with websites, consider contacting them to discover if you can collaborate in a way that results in a link on your site.
- Linkable assets: This is when you create content specifically to attract links and then promote it to other websites. It’s tough to get right, but if you succeed you can generate many links.
You can find out more about each of these link building strategies, as well as more information about the latest ways to build high authority links in this article.