If you’ve read anything about or studied Search Engine Optimization, you’ve come across the term “backlink” at least once. For those of you new to SEO, you may be wondering what a backlink is, and why they are important. Backlinks have become so important to the scope of Search Engine Optimization, that they have become some of the main building blocks to good SEO. In this blog post, I will explain to you what a backlink is, why they are important, and what you can do to help gain them while avoiding getting into trouble with the Search Engines.

Without backlinks, the effectiveness of every other technique in the SEO strategist is dramatically reduced. According to a recent Moz study, which sought to ascertain just how important backlinks are after years of widely-acknowledged saturation, it is still an uphill battle to rank a website without them.

What are Backlinks?

Backlinks are also known as inbound or incoming links, and they are links to your website from another place on the internet. They are extremely useful to search engines because they give a good indication that a website is popular. Another website adding a link to you is essentially a vote for your website, as it shows their customers that they think your site is worth visiting.

In addition to promoting your site via social media, it may be worth seeing if you can get links to your domain included anywhere else – for example, if you are a trade supply firm and the stores and tradesmen who use you have links to your website on their own sites, these backlinks will generate visitors to your site. They will also show search engines that your website is relevant to the type of people who are interested in those particular products or services.[1]

How do search engines assign the value to links?

Global Popularity

The more popular and important a site is the more links from that site matter. A site like Wikipedia has thousands of diverse sites linking to it, which means it’s probably a popular and important site. To earn trust and authority with the engines, you’ll need the help of other link partners. The more popular, the better.

Local/Topic-Specific Popularity

The concept of “local” popularity, first pioneered by the Teoma search engine, suggests that links from sites within a topic-specific community matter more than links from general or off-topic sites. For example, if your website sells dog houses, a link from the Society of Dog Breeders matters much more than one from a site about roller skating.

Anchor Text

One of the strongest signals the engines use in rankings is anchor text. If dozens of links point to a page with the right keywords, that page has a very good probability of ranking well for the targeted phrase in that anchor text. You can see examples of this in action with searches like “click here,” where many results rank solely due to the anchor text of inbound links.


It’s no surprise that the Internet contains massive amounts of spam. Some estimate as much as 60% of the web’s pages are spam. In order to weed out this irrelevant content, search engines use systems for measuring trust, many of which are based on the link graph. Earning links from highly-trusted domains can result in a significant boost to this scoring metric. Universities, government websites, and non-profit organizations represent examples of high-trust domains.

Link Neighborhood

Spam links often go both ways. A website that links to spam is likely spam itself, and in turn, often has many spam sites linking back to it. By looking at these links in the aggregate, search engines can understand the “link neighborhood” in which your website exists. Thus, it’s wise to choose those sites you link to carefully and be equally selective with the sites you attempt to earn links from.


Link signals tend to decay over time. Sites that were once popular often go stale and eventually fail to earn new links. Thus, it’s important to continue earning additional links over time. Commonly referred to as “FreshRank” search engines use the freshness signals of links to judge current popularity and relevance.

Social Sharing

The last few years have seen an explosion in the amount of content shared through social services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Although search engines treat socially shared links differently than other types of links, they notice them nonetheless. There is much debate among search professionals as to how exactly search engines factor social link signals into their algorithms, but there is no denying the rising importance of social channels.[2]

What do backlinks do?

Backlinks promote your brand.

Simply by virtue of their existence, they provide additional exposure for your online presence. Since your website and information show up on web pages relevant to your niche, backlinks help create awareness of your brand. This translates into a massive boost to your Web traffic over time – one that you don’t need to put additional work into maintaining.

Backlinks boost your authority.

The more Google’s automated processes “respect” your authority, the higher your website’s ranking in relevant, organic search results. A high-quality backlink tells search engine crawlers that your presence online is the real deal – an authority within its niche. This, followed by registry listings, is the major deciding factor in Google’s regard for your website’s authority.

Backlinks work well with social media.

Backlinks in social media work with social media marketing, or SMM, encouraging social media users to spread awareness of your brand on their own recognizance. With Google’s recent emphasis on SEO in social media, this adds additional muster to Google’s regard for your website’s authority within its niche, as well as driving additional traffic to your site directly.[3]

What are Good Backlinks?

A quality backlink comes from relevant authoritative domains in your niche. If the website linking to your site has a high Domain Authority and has similar content, your backlink will be good for SEO.

Every SEO consultant will have at least a slightly differing opinion on the topic, however, most would agree that a good quality backlink would be comprised of several of the factors listed below and that a backlink that ticks all of these boxes would be the perfect backlink.


Google and other search engines want to provide their users with the most relevant search results. If the quality of the search results they provide declines, so does their audience. So, it’s only logical to consider relevance as a measure of link quality. A backlink is more valuable if it comes from a relevant source. For example, if you have a website about home décor, an incoming link from a construction website might be more useful than one coming in from, say, a health and fitness website. This is, of course, an oversimplification, though. Search engines consider a myriad of factors to determine relevance.

For instance, a relevant link is likely to be clicked. Anyone building a home is likely to be interested in interior décor and click that link. On the other hand, someone browsing for outdoor fitness tips may not be in the best frame of mind to click a link to a home décor site. The anchor text (be careful not to over-optimize anchor text links), surrounding copy and surrounding links also help search spiders find out if your link is relevant or if it is spam.


By ‘trust’, we mean how much Google trusts the website from where your links are originating. Some argue that, in all likelihood, search engines use a set of “trusted websites” to determine the trustworthiness of a domain. The examples of trusted websites might include BBC, HubSpot, or Huffington. The closer a particular domain is to a trusted domain, the more trustworthy it is. The nearness is measured in terms of the links that stand between a trusted website and the subject domain. So, theoretically speaking, if site A has a backlink from, say, BBC, and site B has a backlink from site A, the search engine is likely to trust site A more than site B, and so on. It is expected that Google uses a trust scale to determine the value that a link from certain domains might pass through to the link destination.

Of course, the above is an overly simple explanation of how search engines determine the trust factor. In order to be ranked higher, a website must have backlinks from high trust websites.


A diverse link profile would consist of links from different domains, and different types of domains. By “different domains” I mean that all or majority of your links should not be from the same domain. Different types of domains mean that all or majority of your links should not be the same type of domains, e.g. web directories. A robust link profile is diverse in both the senses.

Diversity should also cover where on the page the link is (body, footer, sidebar, etc.) as well as the diversity in the anchor text you use. It might also cover the link attribute, whether that be FOLLOW or NOFOLLOW.

When people talk about link building, they’re usually thinking about building explicit links from other websites. The fact is that today’s search engine spiders are fast and intelligent enough to track even implicit links, reviews, etc. from all across the internet. That’s why a reliable citation profile and social media presence should always help. Building links from these and other popular citation, review and social platforms will make your link profile more diverse and set up a good foundation for your link building efforts.


There are many ways to consider ‘authority’. There seems to be an insistence within the SEO industry on assuming that DA (Moz domain authority) is the default authority metric. Truth be told, DA is simply Moz’s attempt at understanding how Google might calculate authority. Domain Authority is simply a 100-point algorithmic scale which you can measure using Open Site Explorer.

The domain authority of CNN.com, for example, is 97/100. It has more than 152k total links from more than 5000 root domains. Similarly, you can check the DA of any particular domain before targeting it for your link building initiative. Anything above 70 is great, but above 40 isn’t bad either. Using the DA metric alone, though, doesn’t tell you the full story of the domain.

Other tools have their own way of trying to determine authority.

Majestic developed Citation Flow
Link Research Tools developed LRT Power
Ahrefs developed Domain Rating

It is important to remember that it can be quite easy to school/manipulate authority metrics by building a lot of links from untrusted websites, so it is also recommended to use trust metrics and try to build a picture in your head about the link profile of the website which you want a link from.[4]

Good Backlinks vs. Bad Backlinks?

How to determine the bad backlinks? Here are important things to remember when you are looking at the backlinks[5]:

Not All Backlinks Are Good

Surprise! Not all backlinks are good! Most SEO service companies still regard all backlinks as good. That’s because for a long time Google did relatively nothing about spammy backlinks and, in fact, often rewarded the spammiest link-builders. That is no longer true.

In fact, Google has found a way to catch spammy link builders and it is punishing those sites using spammy tactics. Backlinks have been treated as a positive ranking signal for so long that relatively few companies have evaluated how Google has changed its ranking scheme.

Most SEO companies have never questioned the status quo of backlinks. Today we would estimate that 90% of SEO companies have not changed their backlinking tactics. If you are working with a company that has not kept up with the changes in Google, you will be surprised to find your site plummeting in the search results.

Too Many Backlinks Can Be Problematic

Too many backlinks can be a problem. Google is no longer concerned about how many backlinks you have. It’s difficult to explain this to some SEOs because they cannot fathom that Google would make such a drastic change. However, through our research, we have discovered that Google wants to see quality over quantity and if there are too many links built in an unnatural way Google will catch you and penalize your site.

Anchor Text is Important

The anchor text for your backlinks is also extremely important. Constantly bombarding sites with the same anchor text will not help you. Google wants to see natural links being built for real people. Any attempt to fool the search engines will be frowned upon. It isn’t worth the risk.

Site Quality & Content is Paramount

Google wants to see links coming from high-quality sites that are associated with the outbound link given. Therefore, if you have a link from a completely unrelated site, it won’t be as valuable as a link from a related site. For example, if you are a carpet cleaning company and you are getting links from an internet forum about celebrities, something would seem fishy to the search engines. And rightly so! Why would a forum discussing celebrities want to link to your carpet cleaning company? It doesn’t make sense to users and it won’t make sense to the search engines either.

Spammy Backlink Tactics Cause Harm

The bottom line is that spammy backlink tactics can cause real harm to your domain. The longer you allow the spammy techniques to continue, the more work you will have to get those spammy links removed. If you notice that your current SEO service is building spammy backlinks, you should notify them immediately and discontinue service. These tactics will harm your rankings!

Because Google made a change in its algorithm to penalize spammy backlink techniques, it also released a tool for webmasters to “disavow” spammy links. However, Google’s disavow tool is intended as a last resort for webmasters that cannot get the spammy links removed manually. The process to remove spammy links is lengthy and time-consuming. Therefore, the process is also expensive.

How to Identify Spammy Backlinks

How can you identify spammy backlinks? There is a simple tip that will help you identify if the links being built for your site are valuable or spammy. Ask yourself a simple question, “If I were to visit this page, would I click on this link?”. If you are honest with yourself, you will be able to spot spammy links easily. In fact, that’s how Google is able to spot spammy links. Google can track if users click on a link and evaluate what percentage of people that visit a page actually click on the backlink. The more people that click and stay the better quality the link is. That makes sense right? Conversely, the more people that visit the page and do not click on the link gives a hint to Google that the link is relatively useless. This is proof that Google can identify spammy links and quality links. Think before you link![5]

How Do I Get Backlinks?

The link building activities you engage in depend largely on the type of site you’re working with.

For smaller sites, manual link building, including directories, link requests, and link exchanges may be a part of the equation. With larger sites, these tactics tend to fall flat and more scalable solutions are required. I listed common strategies here.

Search for sites like yours by using keywords and phrases directly relevant to your business. When you locate sites that aren’t directly competitive, email them, use their online forms, call them on the phone, or even send them a letter by mail to start a conversation about getting a link.[2]

Get your customers to link to you

If you have partners you work with regularly or loyal customers that love your brand, you can capitalize on this by sending out partnership badges—graphic icons that link back to your site (like Google often does with their AdWords certification program). Just as you’d get customers wearing your t-shirts or sporting your bumper stickers, links are the best way to accomplish the same feat on the web.

Build a company blog; make it a valuable, informative, and entertaining resource

This content and link building strategy is so popular and valuable that it’s one of the few recommended personally by the engineers at Google. Blogs have the unique ability to contribute fresh material on a consistent basis, participate in conversations across the web, and earn listings and links from other blogs, including blogrolls and blog directories.

Create content that inspires viral sharing and natural linking

In the SEO world, we often call this “linkbait.” Good examples might include David Mihm’s Local Search Ranking Factors, Compare the Meerkat, or the funny How Not To Clean a Window. Each leverages aspects of usefulness, information dissemination, or humor to create a viral effect. Users who see it once want to share it with friends, and bloggers/tech-savvy webmasters who see it will often do so through links. Such high quality, editorially earned votes are invaluable to building trust, authority, and rankings potential.

Be newsworthy

Earning the attention of the press, bloggers and news media is an effective, time-honored way to earn links. Sometimes this is as simple as giving away something for free, releasing a great new product, or stating something controversial.


1.Allison, Kathryn. “How to Improve SEO with Backlinks.” Yell Business, 15 June 2017, business.yell.com/knowledge/what-are-backlinks-and-how-can-they-improve-seo/.
2.“SEO: The Beginner’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization from Moz.” Moz, 4 Mar. 2014, moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo/growing-popularity-and-links.
3.“What Are Backlinks and How Do They Work?” Arcalea, 10 Feb. 2017, arcalea.com/what-are-backlinks-and-how-do-they-work/.
4.“What Makes Good Backlinks (& How to Build Them!).” Search Engine People Blog, 1 May 2017, www.searchenginepeople.com/blog/good-backlinks.html.
5.“Good Backlinks vs. Bad Backlinks.” SEO Hermit, 11 Jan. 2016, www.seohermit.com/articles/good-backlinks-vs-bad-backlinks/.