What Are Backlinks? A Guide For Beginners and Non-Marketers
A lot of debates have been going on among digital marketing experts and enthusiasts about backlinking. What are backlinks and what are they worth?
Backlinks are links found on different websites that link to your site. You can think of these links as acknowledgments or votes of confidence — others include your website in their content because you offer informative, valuable, or expert content.
Creating backlinks is done through a process known as link building. Link building includes all initiatives done to acquire these backlinks, such as outreaching. For example, you could reach out to other sites within your niche and ask them to do guest-blogging in exchange for your website’s link.
Good backlink strategy contributes greatly to the SEO efforts. It’s not just the number of links you get; much of the value comes from getting backlinks from high-quality websites.
Backlinks: The Basics
In this guide, we aim to address the following frequently asked questions:
- What is a backlink and how does it work?
- How do you start with link building?
- Why are backlinks important?
- How do backlinks affect your SEO?
- Are there different kinds of links?
- What are some of the best practices and strategies for getting backlinks?
Hopefully, we answer these questions and more in this guide to help beginners and non-marketers better understand backlinks and how they affect site ranking, inbound traffic, brand awareness, lead generation, and sales.
This guide will also come in handy for practitioners who need a quick review of the subject matter.
Definition of Backlinks
Simply put, backlinks are hyperlinks that other websites use to point to your website. In most cases, it’s to acknowledge or cite you as a relevant source of information on a particular topic or to otherwise draw attention to something you’ve written or put online. These links ultimately bring visitors to your site, making it more visible and searchable online.
The act of gaining (i.e., earning or even purchasing) backlinks for your site is known as link building.
Are backlinks worth to a website? Think of them as votes for your website. The more backlinks you have coming in from different sites, the more visible you are, and therefore, more readily accessible and discoverable to other people.
Of course, this is the most fundamental concept behind backlinking. Bear in mind that a good number of other factors are taken into account by search engines when passing on the value of those “votes” to you.
Let’s try to illustrate backlinks and how they work with a simple example. If we are to examine the HTML code of a backlink, it would look something like this:
<a href=”http://jakebakescakes.com/”>Jake’s Cake Shop</a>
This is a hyperlink from a website linking to the fictitious Jake’s Cake Shop.
Let’s break it down. The <a> tag indicates a hyperlink in HTML, with the href attribute defining the target website (in this case, JakeBakesCakes.com), anchored to the text “Jake’s Cake Shop.”
These elements define backlink structure generally. A variation might look something like this:
<a href=”http://jakebakescakes.com/” target=”_blank”>Jake’s Cake Shop</a>
Where the extra target=”_blank” attribute tells the browser to open a new tab when people click the link to Jake’s Cake Shop.
Of course, other attributes may be added to the general structure of the link’s HTML code. We’ll point out another example below.
Backlinks: A Quick History
Now that we’ve touched on backlinks definition let’s have a quick look on the evolution of backlinks and how they are regarded today.
Link Building Then
Not so long time ago, it was a simple matter for a website to amass dozens of backlinks, sometimes even resorting to link farms and link pyramids. These were websites (or series of websites) that hardly had any content other than links to just about any kind of site.
In 2012, however, Google caught on to this shady tactic (it wasn’t quite illegal at the time) and launched the Penguin update. Since then, SEO and backlinks were never the same again, as this crucial adjustment to the search algorithm effectively rendered all these directories, link farms, and link pyramids all but useless.
For digital marketers, the Penguin update was a “gentle reminder” from Google to focus on creating quality content that other sites would want to link back to, instead of resorting to black-hat SEO tactics.
Even as Google and other search engines continually make adjustments to their algorithms to encourage more relevant, helpful content, building and maintaining a good backlink profile is essential for any website looking to rank better on search results.
What Are Backlinks – 2019 Edition
Today, link building is still an essential part of digital marketing for online brands. Understand that backlinks are still of great value SEO-wise, but now you have to earn these links and citations legitimately through a mix of awesome content, more active outreach, and getting picked up by quality sites.
Keep in mind that the rules of search engine optimization are constantly changing, which means that it’s a good idea to keep yourself up-to-date with the latest developments, especially if you’re a digital marketer.
Reinforcing the idea of what is a backlink, the emphasis has now shifted more towards better outreach efforts — genuine, non-spammy methods that require quite a bit of interaction online.
Digital marketers and website owners know the importance of these links, and so as long as you bring in value through participation by sharing your expertise and being an active and valuable part of your industry, backlinks are readily given as a way of showing gratitude and encouraging helpful behavior.
Not All Links Are Created Equal
Follow vs. No Follow Links
The two types of backlinks are “follow” and “no follow” links.
Websites usually link back to other sites as a form of acknowledgment or as a way of giving credit. To make things simple, “follow” links are your most typical variety of backlink. By using them, your site tells search engines to count them as well for the ranking business, which means they pass on a bit of SEO value to your website.
The more you have of these from relevant, authoritative websites, the better your search rankings.
“No follow” links, on the other hand, tell search engines to ignore them, which is why they do not directly influence your SEO.
Before 2012, marketers thought they found the answer to the question of what are backlinks and why are they important to websites. To boost their sites, they’d employ shady tactics like spam comment sections and online forums, edit Wikipedia entries to insert references that link back to them, and employ directories and link farms for even more backlinks.
When “no follow” links finally came into existence, we got a much more civilized online world. “No follow” links are commonly used with:
- Paid advertising
- Comment sections
- Online forums
- Anything else that search engines consider to be “untrusted” content.
So should you still bother with “no follow” links? If you remember our backlinks definition, these links help others discover your site. While you don’t get the extra boost in terms of SEO, you still get a bit of referral traffic. Strategically used (e.g., in forums, blogs, etc.), these can still bring a good number of visitors to your website.
Going back to Jakes’ Cake Shop example, if he had to place some advertisements in neighborhood websites, his backlink from those sites might appear as:
<a rel=”nofollow” href=”http://jakebakescakes.com/”>best birthday cakes</a>
This indicates a “no follow” backlink as it is a paid ad.
Quality of Backlinks
There are backlinks Google and other search engines consider to be more important than others. Search engines today are sophisticated enough to determine any website’s value in terms of authority and relevance.
Essentially, more authoritative, more industry-relevant websites linking back to your site carry more weight than any other random website.
It used to be that links from big brands like The Huffington Post, Forbes, or Entrepreneur were much sought-after by all sites doing link building. But take for instance that you’re a neighborhood cake shop.
If you get backlinks from other bakers and cake-makers, these links would carry more weight than any of those big brands mentioned above because they’re more relevant industry-wise.
But if your cake shop got a backlink from Wilton, Pillsbury, or Tasty, it would be even more valuable because these sites are not just relevant but also a lot more authoritative.
The Significance of Link Building on SEO
In this section, we’ll be taking a deeper dive into link building, reviewing what some top digital marketing sites have to say about the subject matter.
What Is Link Building?
Let us assume that you already have the following:
- A fair amount of high-quality content
- A website optimized for mobile users
- A decent website speed
- Security via an SSL certificate
- Proper on-page optimization.
You can now work on your link building efforts. Think of your website as your online home. Link building is your way of inviting guests to a house party — you want them to respond to your invitation, enjoy themselves at the gathering, and hopefully tell all their friends and colleagues about it.
This is what backlinks SEO practitioners hope to get — acknowledgments from online folks who find their content useful and relevant, telling others about it via their own websites and even social media.
Moz.com on Backlinks
Moz is one of the authority expert websites in the digital marketing space, especially when it comes to SEO. Its staff has been blogging about SEO since it started in the early 2000s and continues to be a trusted source for marketing professionals and enthusiasts alike.
If you ask Moz what is a backlink, the answer is as follows:
Backlinks, also called “inbound links” or “incoming links,” are created when one website links to another. The link to an external website is called a backlink.
Backlinks are important because these represent a “vote of confidence” from one website to another. These send signals to search engines that others vouch for your content. More inbound links to your site tell search engines that your content is worth linking to, and thus, might deserve better rankings on a results page.
Backlinko on Link Building
For a good resource on what are backlinks and how do they work, Backlinko is one of the internet’s leading authorities in the space, focusing on practical and actionable tips on how to gain more traffic for your website, so you might want to check it out as well.
It is important to note, however, that links are not the sole determinant of a website’s ranking on search. Google has over 200 ranking factors, and Backlinko has them listed out for your review.
So aside from your link building efforts, factors like domain authority, content quality, and user experience, among others, are all taken into account by search engines in determining your ranking.
How to get backlinks, as you would expect, is Backlinko’s area of expertise. A lot of it has to do with having the highest quality content, getting creative, genuinely being helpful, and doing a lot of outreach. Some of their tips for link building include:
- Guest posting. This still works well, especially if you’re starting out.
- Link roundups within a topic or industry.
- Finding broken links on a website within your industry. Ask the site owners if they’d like to replace the broken link/s with one of your own.
Utilizing services like HARO to help out journalists (thereby getting cited back as a source).
Backlink Checker by Ahrefs
SEO leaders like Neil Patel and Brian Reed frequently mention using the free tool provided by ahrefs for checking a site or page’s backlink profile. Not only is it great for keeping tabs of your own backlinks, but also your competitors’ incoming links as well.
When you have an awesome piece of content, such as a thorough industry guide or a well-designed infographic, for example, look for another similar piece online and run it through the checker. Find out who’s been linking to it, then try to get in touch with them and offer your own content.
If you still wonder what are backlinks, SEO experts from Ahrefs would tell you that they are a valuable link building tool. It’s slow to build them at first, and it’s going to take quite a bit of an effort, but peddling your content around can pay off nicely in the long-term, giving you increased visibility and traffic, and hopefully better search rankings.
Neil Patel on Link Building
Neil Patel’s YouTube channel frequently cites the importance of a good link building effort. You should invest the same amount of energy and work into promoting your content as you put into creating insightful, helpful pieces.
More examples of backlinks acquisition strategies are commonly described by Neil step by step in his series of helpful SEO videos. In many of these strategies, he suggests a number of his favorite internet marketing tools, including Buzzsumo, which you can use to discover popular pieces of content online, who shares these, and how they get shared.
More Answers To Frequently-Asked Questions
Let’s try now to deal with other common questions and doubts related to link building and SEO.
What Are Backlinks Indexing Services?
It’s mostly the search engine crawlers that do the actual indexing, but backlinks play a big role in how these bots assess a website’s value.
Backlinks serve as roads in between websites — some are narrow side streets while others are wide highways. Search engines know that users can discover new websites by way of these backlinks.
For this reason, search engines have a backlink profile for each website which contains details about where all these links are coming from, where they’re linking to, what kind of sites have been referring traffic, and how relevant these sites are to yours.
Should I Use a Backlink Generator?
Backlink generators are online services that automate the link building process for you. We recommend against them, as they would only likely create red flags for search engines or even worse — search engines will penalize you for the black-hat SEO behavior.
Forget about this and focus instead on creating high-quality content. It would make more people likely to link back to you or share it.
Are Backlinks Free?
They are — you don’t have to pay for them. If you do pay, however, then they fall in the domain of advertising, and those will likely be “no follow” links, as we explained above.
At the very least, search engines discourage users from buying links to boost their search rankings. Instead, website owners are encouraged to earn them organically. Backlinks are more likely given to you because:
- You offer comprehensive, relevant, or otherwise insightful content
- You bring a value to someone
- You provide help to your visitors who are searching for a solution to their pain points.
To put it another way, if you wonder what are backlinks, Moz would tell you, for example, that it is a way to show gratitude and appreciation for the kindness and helpfulness of others.
What About Links Coming From Social Media?
Inbound links coming from Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. no longer carry the same weight as they did years ago.
Granted, they don’t have an impact on your SEO as much directly, but they do allow your content to be discovered by a wider audience and potentially get more shares. More high-quality traffic is always welcome, and with it, more page engagements, a bump in rankings, and closed sales.
What are backlinks from social media worth these days? They are still quite significant, fortunately, as incoming links from social networks have a considerable impact on both your discoverability and incoming traffic.
Are Backlinks Still Worth Pursuing in 2019?
Yes, they are. Although the dynamics are different now in that they’re generally harder to earn and take more time to yield tangible results on your ranking, once they do start kicking in, the results are well worth the effort.
In fact, many internet marketing practitioners opt to build their expertise and become an SEO backlinks builder, outreach expert, or as an analytics specialist. These are all key areas within a well-designed and well-implemented link building strategy.
The online marketplace is only getting more competitive, and anything to get a leg up on the competition is very much welcome.
Not surprisingly, there are site owners who feel they could spend more time on outreach and promotion instead on creating more content, especially from the perspective of a startup.
We’ve been able to cover much ground, and we hope we’ve been able to demystify much of the link building process and its importance today.
Acquiring backlinks should not be the only aspect of your online marketing efforts. It must be used as part of a more comprehensive marketing mix, which best works alongside other tools and techniques.
When we talk about what are backlinks worth today, we could say that link building processes will always be a big part of both successful backlinks profile and SEO. They have a profound impact on how websites are ranked, especially if earned properly through good outreaching efforts.
List of Sources
- “Growing Popularity and Links” from Moz.com: https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo/growing-popularity-and-links
- “A Successful Link Building Strategy in 6 Easy Steps” from Yoast: https://yoast.com/successful-linkbuilding-strategy/
- “9 EASY Link Building Strategies (That ANYONE Can Use)” from AHREFS: https://ahrefs.com/blog/link-building-strategies/
- “13 Efficient Link Building Strategies for Busy Marketers” from Neil Patel: https://neilpatel.com/blog/13-efficient-link-building-strategies-for-busy-marketers/
- “Four Link Building Strategies For Beginners” from Forbes.com: http://bigcountrymarketing.com/everybodys-hustlin-should-you-start-a-side-hustle/
- “Link Building Is Useless. Do This Instead.” A video by Income School: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TH06B0N_Pjw
- “Should You Focus on Link Building in 2019.” A video by Growth Everywhere’s Marketing School (with Neil Patel and Eric Siu): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Tas5LMYUG0
- “Google’s 200 Ranking Factors: The Complete List (2018)” from Backlinko: https://backlinko.com/google-ranking-factors
- “30 Most Important Google Ranking Factors A Beginner Should Know” from Unamo: https://unamo.com/blog/seo/30-important-google-ranking-factors-beginner-know
- “Follow Links Vs. No Follow Links: Should You Care?” by Wordstream: https://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2013/07/24/follow-nofollow-links
- “What Are Backlinks” by Moz.com: https://moz.com/learn/seo/backlinks