Backlinks occupy a critical niche within the digital marketing industry. There’s simply no other tool available that will do so much, so efficiently, for your SEO. There’s a lot of information available about backlinks, in terms of what they are and how exactly they can be of use to you (a brief definition is available here, courtesy of Majestic’s documentation). Some of what’s out there can certainly be inconsistent or difficult to understand. This is due to the various effects of “good” backlinks… and the way in which recent Google policy changes have affected their function.
So what are backlinks? Put simply, backlinks are links to your blog or website – whatever constitutes your online presence – from elsewhere on the Web. For this reason they are sometimes known as “inbound links,” or IBL. Now, what exactly does that mean, from your end of things? An awful lot, as it turns out.
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 webpages relevant to your niche, backlinks help create awareness of your brand. This translates into a passive 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.
Without backlinks, the effectiveness of every other technique in the SEO strategist’s toolbox 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. Writing for ManagedAdmin.com, Wil Bartleman notes that while it is possible, “you are going to have a difficult time trying, particularly if you are hoping to rank for a competitive keyword.” This article about backlinks on Webconfs.com, a major hub for SEO-related tools and utilities, goes further into depth about the importance of relevant backlinks:
“For example, if a webmaster has a website about how to rescue orphaned kittens, and received a backlink from another website about kittens, then that would be more relevant in a search engine’s assessment than say a link from a site about car racing. The more relevant the site is that is linking back to your website, the better the quality of the backlink.” (Webconfs, 2013).
An example of how backlinks look for the popular shopping site, eBay.
Why backlink quality matters:
The emphasis is on quality over quantity. In a world where grabbing as many vaguely relevant backlinks was the go-to SEO strategy only a few short years ago, the overall importance of backlinks hasn’t diminished in the slightest; rather, it has simply been refocused. The idea now is to shoot for the most highly relevant backlinks available, while avoiding those which offer only questionable relevance to your niche.
Let’s go back to the kitten rescue example provided above, which comes from an article written in 2013. Back then, the level of backlink saturation was a relatively new and harmless problem. Today’s kitten rescue website, on the other hand, would benefit far more highly from a backlink from another orphaned kitten rescue site – perhaps one that served the same niche, but was based in a different part of the same country – than it would from a backlink from a website that focused predominantly on funny cat memes. Once upon a time, the latter would have been golden; now, it’s tarnished copper.
The reason for this added level of refinement is twofold.
The saturation level of backlinks directly influences the quality of backlink needed for a new website to gain a foothold. More kitten adoption sites in existence mean that each individual backlink needs to rank highly in terms of relevance – in order to outweigh those which go to the competition.
Policy changes implemented by Google, which controls a staggering 71% of the global search engine market share as of this writing, are probably the major reason behind the increased need for higher quality backlinks. Beginning in the 2012/2013 fiscal year, Google began to take note of an increasing number of phony and irrelevant backlinks involved in the mad scramble for search engine rankings. Their response to this was to alter their crawlers’ algorithms to be more picky with the importance that they assign each backlink.
So, backlinks themselves aren’t any less important than they used to be. They simply need to be of higher quality, with the implication being that a bad backlink can actually hurt your website’s search engine ranking, thereby hindering your own traffic flow. Thanks to the aforementioned changes in policy implemented by Google, in terms of how its crawlers recognize backlinks, a significant number of irrelevant or loosely contextual backlinks will register as spam – lowering Google’s esteem for your authority within your niche.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways in which search engine algorithms determine the quality of a backlink:
Authority. The authority of the website providing you with a backlink plays a part. The more a search engine “respects” the authority of a website within its niche, the more valuable it is to you as the source of a backlink.
Relevance, as mentioned previously. Ideally, you want the sources for your backlinks to be as relevant to your own website’s subject matter as is possible.
In their Beginner’s Guide to SEO, Moz.com characterizes backlinks as the “streets” that search engine crawlers use to navigate between the pages of the vast and intricately organized World-Wide Web. Elsewhere, in their 2015 expert survey, Moz presents backlink quality as the top determining factor in search engine ranking. The overall view of backlinks is that they are of central importance to SEO – and that individual link quality is becoming increasingly vital as we enter 2016.
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