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What are backlinks, and why should you care?

Understand the basics of one of the most popular — and powerful — modern SEO tactics: backlink building.

Jessica Thiefels
June 30, 2017
Resources

Backlinks have long been a hot topic in SEO. Marketers regularly debate the finer points of how to get them, how to make them look natural, and how to find high-quality opportunities — all while avoiding penalties from Google. And if you're a freelance designer helping businesses with their marketing, you've got to understand them.

Why? Because your backlink profile says a lot about how valuable your website is, making it a vital factor in your site’s marketing and SEO (search engine optimization) strategies.

That's why, in part 1 of our 3-part series on backlinks, we'll focus on understanding what backlinks are and why they matter. In part 2, we'll dig into how to build backlinks, then move on to some powerful backlink monitoring tools in part 3.

Ok, so what’s a backlink?

Before we dig into how to build backlinks, you need to know what a backlink is.

Luckily, this one’s easy: a backlink is a hyperlink from one site to another — specifically, from another site to your site, or your client’s.

Ok, so why do backlinks matter?

Backlinks provide what SEO specialists often call “link juice,” which can either help or hurt your site’s ranking, depending on the quality of the site linking to you. Let me explain.

When Google analyzes the link pointing back to your website, it associates your website’s value (or “domain authority”) with the value of the website the link is on. This attribution is often referred to as “link juice” because the value of that website flows through the link to yours, kind of like an electrical current.

The idea being: If Website A considers this URL to be valuable enough to link to, and Website A is a high-ranking website, then Website B must be a good website too.

But let’s make that a little more concrete: Let’s say you write a blog post about web design, and Smashing Magazine later decides to link to your post. Because Google regards Smashing as a high-quality website, your site gets a nice little boost from that link.

If, on the other hand, a low-quality website links to your post, Google might look less kindly on your website. 

Over time, you start to build a backlink profile, which is the sum value of all your backlinks.

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Some things to consider for your backlinking strategy

As you work to build your backlink profile (which we’ll dig into later), the quality of the website your link is on will be one of most important factors.

But that’s not the only important element. There are two more details to keep in mind when building a backlink profile for your website:

Nofollow links vs. do-follow links

To get good link juice, the backlink needs to be do-follow. That’s SEO jargon for “Google will attribute value to the link pointing back to your site,” and it’s the default for links.

Websites that want to avoid the potential damage of linking to a low-ranking website will nofollow their backlinks, which does the opposite. I.e., it tells Google not to associate your link with their website.

Many large websites and publications like Huffington Post nofollow their external links to avoid damaging their backlink profile.

Organic anchor text

One of the most popular ways to get backlinks used to be guest posting, because you could easily insert a link to your website into your guest post, or bio, and gain a new backlinks.

Unfortunately, some spammy implementations of this strategy tarnished guest posting’s reputation in the last few years.

Companies would create a list of keywords they wanted to rank for. Then they’d link to landing pages optimized for those exact keywords (i.e., “exact match keywords”) — which Google now considers poor practice. As such, the Google Penguin Update of 2012 destroyed the rankings for thousands of websites that used this technique.

Now, SEO experts suggest you use natural anchor text by linking from:

  • A less “optimized” phrase, i.e., one that isn't an exact match for the target keyword or phrase of the destination page
  • Your business or website name
  • The name of the article you’re referring to

For example:

  • Bad anchor text: When purchasing printer ink, remember to check the price.
  • Good anchor text: When purchasing printer ink, remember to check the price, says the 2016 Office Purchasing Analysis.

In Google’s eyes, the latter example provides more value to the reader. Instead of “hiding” the link with non-descriptive anchor text, you’re providing the reader with more information so they know what they’re clicking through to.

We’ll dive into all the deets on backlink building in the second part of this series: "How to build backlinks."

Jessica Thiefels

Jessica Thiefels has been writing and freelancing for more than 10 years and spent the last five years in marketing. Follow her on Twitter @Jlsander07.

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