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What are Backlinks and How Do They Work?

What are Backlinks and How Do They Work?

Disclosure: Links in this post may contain affiliate links, read my advertiser disclosure for more info. 

When most people think of search engine optimization (SEO), they think of keywords, content, and Google rankings. But one component that can make a world of a difference then it comes to attracting more traffic to your website – backlinks – is probably one of the most misunderstood terms of them all.

Whether you already know what a backlink is or not, there may still be some confusion about what constitutes a “good” versus a “bad” link, the difference between a follow and nofollow link, or where to find these links to begin with.

In this comprehensive guide, we’re covering what a backlink is, why they matter for your site, and where to find the good ones!

What is a Backlink?

A backlink is an incoming link to a webpage on your website. When an outside website links back to your website, it is called a backlink. Backlinks play a major role in how search engines rank pages in the search results. 

It used to be that websites with a lot of backlinks would rank higher in search engines (such as Google), but today it’s becoming more important to consider quality over quantity. You’ll want to generate high-authority backlinks to your site if you want to improve your SEO.

Why Are Backlinks Important for SEO?

Backlinks are important for SEO because search engine algorithms give more credit to webpages that have a decent number of high-quality backlinks and will therefore be more likely to rank those pages high in the search results.

This is due to the fact that a backlink is essentially a vote of confidence from another website that your website is a good source of information, isn’t spammy, and is relevant to whatever content they have on their site. 

This can indicate that your website is more relevant than other sites when it comes to satisfying what a user is searching for when they search a particular keyword.

How Do You Build Backlinks?

Getting (or “building”) backlinks is often easier said than done. When looking for backlink building strategies, you’ll likely come across services saying “Get backlinks fast!” or “Buy cheap links here!”, but as we know now, quality is really more important than quantity.

So, you’ll need a method for building backlinks that suits your particular site, industry, and audience. It will also depend on your marketing budget and ability to conduct outreach. The reality is that link building looks different for just about every business.

However, here’s the gist of link building: Trying to convince outside websites to link back to your website.

As you can imagine, there are many ways to do this. Here are the most common link building methods:

  • Cold outreach – Emailing websites and asking for links back to your website (kind of spammy, poor results)
  • Guest posting – Reaching out to websites and offering to write a guest article (usually for free) in exchange for a backlink
  • Content marketing – Publishing and marketing amazing content that attracts backlinks, naturally; or, marketing this content to websites directly to get them to link back to your site
  • PR – Working with a PR firm or doing outreach on your own to get your website/business featured in leading publications
  • Round up posts – Listicle-style posts that highlights products, expert advice, etc. and then asking brands/participants to link back to the article
  • SEO – Publishing SEO-friendly content that ranks high in the search results so it’s an obvious first choice when other websites are looking to link to reputable sources
  • Directory listings – Submitting your business information to reputable, industry-related directories to earn a backlink (often unfollowed)
  • HARO - Registering as a source on HelpaReporter.com. HARO connects journalists with sources for upcoming stories. As a source, you can pitch media requests and build high quality backlinks (and press coverage). The ahrefs blog published a case study on this strategy
Help A Reporter

Get HARO requests sent to your inbox

Need more link building ideas? In the video below, AuthorityHacker.com's Gael Breton and Mark Webster discuss six passive link building ideas.

Follow vs NoFollow Links

Now, you’ll see us reference followed links vs nofollow links a few times throughout this article. The difference between the two is important.

A nofollow link is a backlink that does not work in a webpage’s favor, as it does not boost the webpage’s authority or influence its placement in the search results. This is because the link “juice” does not follow from the linking site to the recipient site.

A followed link is just the opposite. These links do work in a website’s favor and can influence their rankings. 

So, when you are trying to build links for your website, you will want to be sure that these links are followed links, because a nofollow tag essentially tells search engines to not count these links.

What Makes a “Good” Backlink?

A “good” backlink is one that increases the authority (PageRank) of your webpage because it comes from a high-authority, highly relevant website.

These links usually come from industry or location-related websites, websites that have been around for a long time, and/or websites that are highly regarded as good sources of information (think: Forbes, Entrepreneur.com, Marketing Land, etc.)

  • Industry and/or location related
  • Long-standing websites
  • High-authority websites
  • Non-spammy website 

Of course, the best backlinks are often the most difficult to earn because every website wants them. There is an infinite supply, but high-authority sites can be strict about who the link out to, and rightfully so. Who they link to is a reflection of their own site as well.

All this being said, it’s worth it to pursue good links, even if it is more time-consuming. Your efforts will pay off much better than if you work to get a ton of low-quality links. 

What About Bad Backlinks?

Bad links, as you can imagine, are those that don’t add value to your site or may even harm your site because they come from spammy websites. You want to avoid these because they can hinder your rankings, send spam traffic to your site, or even get you penalized by Google.

Bad backlinks come from untrusted sources or sources that have no relevance to your website. If a website violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines or has otherwise been penalized for spammy practices, links from this site can have a negative impact on your SEO.

Avoid backlinks from sites that:

  • Appear spammy at first glance
  • Are not relevant to your own site
  • Have low website authority
  • Seem not secure or untrustworthy 
  • “Link farms” that appear to link out to tons of sites for no clear purpose (or because they appear to be selling links)
  • Do not pass your website audit (using SEO tools

You can use SEO tools like SEMRush to check the authority and spam score of a website to determine whether it’s worth trying to earn a link back from this site.

Related Article: What is a Sales Funnel? Definition & How to Create One to Drive Sales

Should You Buy Links?

The best backlink is one that comes to your website “naturally”, either through inbound marketing (SEO or content marketing) or authentic outreach. These tend to be links that are highly relevant to your site that you hand-picked yourself through careful consideration.

But buying links is risky, especially if you don’t know the source or whether the link is high-quality. You also risk investing in a link farm that’s at risk of getting penalized itself, which would end up being a waste of your money.

Instead, we recommend working with a marketing agency or the link to help you build genuine links. That way, you have more control over where the links are coming from and whether your budget is being put to good use. You also minimize your risk of being penalized for “unnatural” link building.

How to Create an SEO Link Building Strategy

As we said previously, link building looks different for different types of business. Therefore, you should create a link building strategy based around your unique business, industry, and audience.

1. Consider Your Goals

What are you hoping to achieve when it comes to link building? Do you want links from a particular source? Do you need links to certain pages in order to boost their rankings? Consider your goals, as these will shape how you approach link building.

2. Determine Your Budget

Do you have a set budget when it comes to creating content, marketing your content, and conducting outreach? Are you going to do your own link building or work with a marketing agency? Knowing your budget will help you set your priorities and make sure you’re putting your money to good use.

3. Spy on Your Competitors

What types of content do your competitors have on their sites? Which websites are linking to them? You can use SEO tools to analyze your competitors’ backlink profiles and find your own backlink opportunities.

4. Use SEO Tools

You can use SEO tools like SEMRush or Ahrefs.com to find backlink opportunities based on which websites are already ranking for your target keywords. You can also use tools to find “unlinked mentions” (instances where sites mention your brand but don't link to you) to reach out and ask for a backlink.

freedomrep backlink semrush

Analyze backlinks inside of SEMRush

5. Plan Your Content

If content marketing and/or SEO are part of your linking building strategy, then plan on your content based on the keywords you want to rank for and what content is likely to attract links from reputable sites. Round up posts (like brand reviews, expert interviews, etc.), “evergreen” content, ebooks, and infographics are all types of content that tend to attract backlinks.

If you aren’t sure, consider working with an SEO agency or content marketing team to plan your content and get it in front of more eyes. Again, it’s worth it to invest (time or money) into attracting high-quality backlinks!

Type of link building content:

  • Blog posts
  • Round up posts
  • Ebooks
  • Infographics
  • Guest interviews
  • Guest posts
  • Press releases
  • Videos
  • Tools (calculators, etc.) on your website
  • “Evergreen” (never gets old) content
  • Trending topics

6. Market Your Content and Conduct Outreach

Lay out a strategy for how you plan to market your content or reach out to websites for links/guest posting opportunities.

You might want to schedule out these tasks – content creation, content marketing, follow-up, and tracking success – to stay on top of your link building efforts. This will help you make the most of your budget and ensure that no opportunities fall through the cracks.

Some link building tasks might include:

  • Researching websites that offer guest posting opportunities
  • Emailing websites asking for them to check out your content
  • Marketing your content to your existing email list
  • Sharing your content on social media
  • Following up with guest contributors asking them to link back to your round up article
  • Running paid ads to your content
  • Designing and publishing ebooks or infographics
  • Submitting your business information to directories
  • Tracking the success of your link building efforts using analytics tools

Need Backlinks? Get Started with Link Building to Improve Your SEO

Link building doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. If you plan out your link building strategy the right way, you can make the most of your time and budget and get some really great results. Just avoid buying spammy links or you risk getting penalized by Google!

Your link building strategy should be based around what your business does, what your audience is interested in, and what content is likely to attract links from other sites in your industry. Focus on quality over quantity to land the best chance of ranking high in the search results.

Want more tips for how to improve your marketing and SEO? Be sure to check out our digital marketing archive here!

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Ilir Salihi

Hey! I'm a blogger, affiliate marketer, and #freedomfighter. I love digital marketing. My goal with FreedomRep.com is to help entrepreneurs and small business owners leverage the internet to build a passive side-hustle or full-time income.

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