Backlinks: The Ranking Factor That Everyone Needs to Take Note of

Published on 10th May 2017

Here at Footprint Digital, we keep our nose to the ground, sniffing out changes in Google’s algorithms (as well as other search engines – we still care about you Bing!), and keeping up with SEO trends and changes. One thing that hasn’t changed for a long time is the importance of backlinks. This article is intended to help even the most novice of readers understand what a backlink is, why they are important, and how to get them. We would encourage anyone who has a website and wants it to rank higher, to give this a read, and then give backlinks a try – you seriously won’t regret it!

What is a backlink?

SEO jargon can be pretty opaque. Often it sounds like tech-y people are speaking in riddles and it can be difficult to understand what they’re banging on about- which is why we want to start at the very beginning; explaining exactly what a backlink is.

A backlink is very simply defined as a link from one website to another. The link is pointing back to your website – hence the name.

For example, if a tourism website for Colchester had a page called ‘The Best Restaurants in Town’ and on that page, they inserted a hyperlink to the website of a Colchester Pizzeria, then that would count as a backlink for the Pizzeria. Simple, right?! In this case, the tourism website would be known as the referrer, and the Pizzeria website would be the referent.

Why are backlinks important?

The reason why backlinks are important is because search engines see them as an endorsement of one website by another. By linking to the Pizzeria, the tourism website is essentially saying to its users ‘this is a really great place to eat, so much so, that we’ve linked to it so you can find it easier’.

Search engines make their money by providing people who use them with the best search results possible. If a search engine showed up poor search results (spammy/ poorly written / keyword stuffed etc) when somebody input a search query, then that person would quickly start using a competitor’s search engine. Therefore, the most important thing to a search engine is making sure that they provide good search results each and every time. However, there are literally billions of websites that a search engine could show to a user and sifting through them manually to provide search results would be impossible. That’s why they rely on algorithms to do the hard work for them (and do it much quicker!)

Google uses lots of algorithms now, but the algorithm that Google first used is called PageRank, named after co-founder of Google, Larry Page. In the late 1990s, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were at Stanford University, working on a project about search engines. Brin wanted to order the information held within the World Wide Web using the idea of ‘link popularity’. Therefore, PageRank measures the importance of web pages based on how many backlinks a page has (as well as on their quality – but more about this later). Backlinks are so important because they are seen by Google as a vote for that page; the more votes you have, the more important and useful the page must be. Just like in an election, a well voted for page will come out on top and will rank highly in search engine results.

How to get backlinks

This is the tricky bit – but don’t be discouraged, if they were easy to get, they wouldn’t be worth having!

  1. Make use of your connections

The best way to get high quality backlinks is to be a bit cheeky and ask people to link to your website. Many people don’t like to do this, it can be embarrassing, especially if the other person says no, but honestly – this is the way that you will build up your backlink profile with the best links.

Let’s take the example of the Pizzeria again. The backlink from the tourism website was a fluke, but it meant that they got a taste for them, and wanted to go after some more. To do this, they made a list of local food bloggers, and invited them in for a free meal, so that they could blog about their experience. All they asked was that the bloggers would insert a link to the Pizzeria website in the article that they wrote – as long as they were happy to do so of course. The Pizzeria had also just had a new kitchen fitted, and had been contacted by the kitchen fitters asking if they could use their kitchen as a case study so that future clients could see examples of their work on their website. The Pizzeria agreed, but asked that the case study would link back to their website. As luck would have it, a local newspaper also ran an online article about the regeneration of the area that the restaurant was in, and mentioned the Pizzeria. The boss of the Pizzeria read this article, and got in touch with the newspaper, asking if they could add in a hyperlink – a little charm and relationship building did the job, and now they’ve got a backlink from there, too.

The point is, every business will have connections that they can contact about links, it’s all about making the most out of every opportunity and working with the people that you know to improve your backlink profile the natural way.

  1. Write amazing content for another website

Guest posting is a really good way to get links back to your website, but only when the post is high quality. This process of obtaining backlinks has been abused by some, meaning those who undertake the process now have to make sure that they are writing something brilliant (with a link back to their website included in the text), and are posting it on a reputable website. We’ll take a little break from the Pizzeria example here, it’s making me too hungry. Instead, imagine that you are a beauty blogger. You have your own online blog, and it’s doing reasonably well, but you’d like to see it performing better. You attend a conference for beauty bloggers, and do some networking where you meet another beauty blogger, who has a much more established and popular online blog. You strike up conversation and after a week or so of emailing each other, you decide to collaborate on a project. You send her a product to review, and she sends you one. You each write a blog article on the product and send the articles to each other, she posts yours on her blog and you post hers on your blog. You each link back to the other person’s website, in case any readers want to find out more. Et voilà! A well-earned backlink on an established website. This type of linking is called a two-way link, because you have linked to each other, rather than a one-way link where just one of you links to the other. It’s obviously not always this easy, but this is an example of how lots of people have built their backlink profile by guest posting.

Guest posts can also be posted on niche forums that relate to your products/services. Often, you’ll be able to submit your article to these forums, they’ll decide if it’s good enough, and if it is they’ll post it for you and you’ll have another backlink to your website. Just make sure that the forums you choose are legitimate and actually used by real people.

  1. Creating cool infographics

Everyone loves an infographic. They essentially provide information in an image rather than in text, they can be shared on social media, and in general look really cool if put together properly. A good way to get backlinks is to create a really good infographic on a topic and then promote this infographic through social media and any other channels such as directories. Once you’ve made your infographic you should try and make it as easy as possible for people to share it (this can be done with code) and also let your industry influencers know about the infographic so they can share it as well if they wish.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, really. There are lots of ways that you can get yourself that all important link, and usually these ways will be unique to you, your business, and your contacts. It’s just important to keep in mind that getting a high-quality link back to your website is worthwhile and will help SEO.

Do backlinks need maintaining?

In a word, yes. This is because they can become broken, so it’s important to keep an eye on them and fix them if need be. They can easily break if you make changes to the page that it’s linked to i.e. if you move or remove it, then the link will no longer work, and the power that that link was giving your website, vanishes. You can imagine that if you make substantial changes, and lots of your backlinks end up breaking, then your ability to rank will be in big trouble!

Can they ever be bad for a website?

Again, yes. In the past, almost all backlinks were seen as good, but as search engines have become cleverer they have learnt the difference between a good one and a bad one, and they can penalise websites with bad ones. There are high-quality backlinks that you want to go after, and then there are the low-quality ones, that you shouldn’t touch with a bargepole. To explain this a little better, we’ve put together a table of the qualities that can (usually) distinguish a good backlink from a bad backlink.

Good Backlinks

Bad Backlinks

From a reputable site trusted by search engines. From a site known for spam or other dubious behaviour.
From a website that people enjoy using and find useful. From a website that doesn’t seem to offer much to its users or doesn’t seem to have a point.
Something that you may have to work hard to get by building a relationship with the website in question. Something that you can simply get by paying the website to link to you – never pay a website that promises you backlinks!
Natural looking links – i.e. from a Colchester tourism website to a Colchester Pizzeria website. Unnatural looking links – i.e. from a cheap handbags website to a men’s cricket club website.
Links from a website that other good websites have linked to. Links from a website that nobody has ever linked to (unless the site is just very new)
Links placed within high quality, unique content. Links placed within low quality, thin, keyword stuffed, or duplicated content.
Links from websites that are local to you or your audience. Links from websites that are in countries your website has nothing to do with.
 Comment spam i.e. leaving a link back to your website in the comments section on someone else’s website.

 

We would always suggest that people keep an eye on their backlinks, and clean up any bad ones. This is something that we regularly do for ourselves, as well as for our clients. However, we would always stress that you should be absolutely certain that a link is bad before you get rid – links bring you more traffic, so getting rid of them means that you might see a drop in traffic, too. If you’re sure that you want to press on, then there are a couple of ways to sort out bad links.

  1. Contact the website in question, and kindly ask them to remove the link. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s worth a try.
  2. Disavow the links that you do not want. To disavow a link means to tell search engines that you have nothing to do with the link and that you’d rather it wasn’t pointing to your website. It’s a bit like when a child gets embarrassed of their dad’s dancing, and pretends they don’t know them. Sometimes you just can help getting poor quality backlinks – there are a lot of spammers out there and search engines don’t want to penalise you for the actions of somebody else. Once you’ve asked the search engine to disavow the links back to your site, they won’t then look at these links when forming their opinion of your website. Pretty decent of them, hey?

We hope that we’ve been able to answer some of your questions about backlinks. We just want to sum up by saying that good quality backlinks really are worth pursuing, and can absolutely help search engines to sit up and take notice of you when they are ranking web pages. If you have any more questions, then please get in touch.

By Alexandra Eade, Content Manager.