SEO Ranking Factors Series #3: Backlinks.
In a series of posts, we look at some of the key factors that Google and the other search engines take into consideration when deciding on where to place a site in the organic results for a given search query. This time, it’s backlinks and whether they are the be all and end all for success.
Without backlinks will your site rank at all?
The external links directed back to your own website, known as backlinks, are one of the principal aspects of SEO. The volume and quality of these backlinks help search engines to determine the authority of your site which is a major determinant of where it will be placed in the SERPS for keyword queries. Ranking without their presence is next to impossible.
In the past backlinks have been the focus of “blackhat” techniques, such as link-buying or creating artificially constructed link networks called link farms – practices that Google has clamped down on and now classes as invalid.
What you should be aiming for is a healthy link profile, where you have an adequate mix of as many natural dofollow and nofollow backlinks as possible from websites with a vast range of authority given from Google. Your profile should be built up over a period of time to help the natural flow and ideally contain no links from spammy websites in order to stay respectable in the eyes of Google. Fresh links should be developed as part of an ongoing process, as if the number of backlinks tails off, it signals to search engine spiders that a website is no longer of interest.
This guide outlines the fundamental requirements and techniques of good backlink practice.
Number of backlinks
A high volume of backlinks may seem optimum, but quality will always take first place over quantity. Search engines use sophisticated analytical methods to establish which links should be taken seriously and which can be ignored due to their forced intentions to help rankings, or worse… penalised for!
The speed at which a website attains its backlinks is also monitored by search engines. If they are observed to be building them aggressively, this can be perceived as suspicious and could see the target website penalised.
The content of the domains referring back to your site should be as relevant as possible to your own content, in order for search engines to give the links natural acceptance.
These domains must also be reputable, with good levels of authority, because if they are blacklisted at some point then it could taint your own site with reduced visibility.
Links from news sites
Authoritative and globally popular news sites that are known for the high editorial quality of their content, such as the BBC, score highly for trustworthiness, and will provide increased link equity, because trusted, high authority sites tend to link to other trusted, high authority sites. Have doubts on which are suitable? Answer – look at those which have been approved to appear on Google News. The difficulty of course lies in getting those backlinks in the first place, but there are several tactics which can help.
If you have something you consider newsworthy, such as the results of a survey, or a product hitting the market, send out a press release. This is just one way of establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with journalists, which can also involve making them aware of your site as a potential source if you know they tend to write about topics related to your content. If they contact you with a query, provide a helpful response and you may receive a backlink in return.
Leaving a self-created backlink in below-the-line comments is less effective, but doesn’t hurt. Ensure your comment and the page linked to are relevant to the subject of the article, that the comment links constitute a very small proportion of the overall backlink profile, and that the source web-page has good trust metrics.
Nofollow links should be utilised when you don’t want to vouch for the quality of the content on the websites from which they originate. Paid links should also be marked nofollow. You’re essentially telling search engine spiders not to use these links, or to pass value to them, whether positive or negative.
On the other hand, too many dofollow links can indicate manual manipulation, damage the credibility of your site and downgrade your search rankings, at times resulting in penalties in some scenarios. The same is true of links from poor-quality websites, or excess numbers of links that use exact match anchor text.
A happy balance needs to be found. While opinions vary on what the ratio of dofollow to nofollow should be, around 60/40 in favour of dofollow links is a good measure. A healthy link profile will always include a mix of both.
The age of backlinks is known to be of importance because of a Google patent that described how it can be used to determine the topicality of a piece of content. Crucially, backlink age cannot be faked, so Google can trust it!
Backlinks with short lifespans, those that appear and then disappear again shortly afterwards, are an indication that they are being paid for, something that search engines are strongly against making this tactic fall under blackhat SEO.
Anchor text keywords
Websites earning a lot of backlinks with exact match keywords will score highly for those keywords, but rich anchor text should be rotated regularly, so it doesn’t look as though your link profile is being deliberately manipulated. Google’s Penguin update targeted overly optimised anchor text as a major sign of manipulation which resulted in penalties and loss of visibility for websites that partook.
Analytics software can help you to learn what anchor text is being used in backlinks directing to your site, and if necessary you can contact the webmasters to change the text so that it’s optimised with your preferred keywords or, if they do not respond, use Google’s disavow tool.
Effectively optimised backlink anchor text might incorporate your brand name, URL or a brand name combined with keywords, such as “SEO ranking advice from Found”.
Domain name keywords
Your link profile can get some extra muscle if you can encourage the use of your URL as your keyword anchor text to brand a portion of your backlinks.
Domain name keywords are generally regarded as the safest form of anchor text you can use, as not only will they not arouse the suspicion of search engines, but they will also often contain your brand name within.
Links to homepage
Your homepage is your content hub. Once someone follows a link to an inner page on your site, such as a blog article, assuming they like it, then their natural next step is likely to be your home page.
By strengthening your homepage with backlinks in this manner, you’re distributing its authority around your entire website, so having a large number of external links heading there makes sense. But that doesn’t mean you should neglect developing links to other content you want to be found or for which you wish to rank.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of a strong link profile, but without knowing what sites are linking to you and how, you’re flying blind.
With the assistance of analytic software, you can perform a link audit to establish, among other information:
- Which sites are backlinking to your own
- Their domain and page authority
- The age of the link
- What anchor text is being used
You can build on that information using the various available techniques, while always keeping in mind that if you build a great website that provides a solid user experience, and has valuable, informative and relevant content, then it will grow in popularity and recognition. From there, good backlinks should naturally follow.