Why do search engines care about backlinks?
Most ranking factors fall into three categories for Search Engine Optimization;
Content, Technical and Backlinks.
Since search engines cannot determine on their own what a useful or quality search result is, they rely heavily on factors in addition to the actual written content on pages. While they crawl every page on the web that they can discover, they also find it useful to pick up on other signals and information while they are categorizing this content. One of these is backlinks.
When a web page creates a clickable link to another page, especially a page to another website, it allows the algorithm to attribute a certain amount of value to both pages based upon the link itself.
Simply put, the link in this text – SEO – provides signals to the search engine in a variety of different ways.
- The actual anchor text used helps provide context for the target page of the link. Whether it reads “seo”, “click here” or “dog,” the algorithm factors this into affirming the context and definition of the page. It will even utilize the surrounding text in the paragraph to reaffirm the anchor text itself.
- Are the pages or websites topically related? This too passes down to the value of the link and can vary depending upon it’s similarity of category.
- It utilizes the the authority that it has determined of the linking page and even the website as a whole to weigh the value of the signal (backlink) and how it should be attributed to the receiving page. Since quality of backlinks is favored over quantity, this makes a big difference. But remember, all links factor in even if they have near zero value.
- They type of link (will be explained later) can be a factor as well.
What is the Value of a Link to Search Engines?
Basic assumptions are often made regarding links, so this is a good time to dispel a lot of them. Let’s look at some examples of links usefulness and try attribute value so you can have a better understanding of how they work and which ones are important for your search marketing efforts.
Many in the industry look at a website to determine it’s rating and judge a link based on this numerical value. This comes in a variety of variations. Ahrefs.com, an authority in the SEO industry, attribute authority to websites using Domain Rating for their grading system while Moz.com has their own called, Domain Authority.
Whatever they decide to call it, it ultimately means how strong their backlink profile (quantity and quality of links) that website has. Factoring this and determining if it would be worthwhile to get a link from their website to yours would seem like a simple mathematical formula.
Ultimately it is not and I will show you why. Though these ratings are useful, most people look at them in a one dimensional view and miss the big picture of how SEO works.
The reason they provide these types of metrics is because everyone is always trying to measure things. And in this case, we are trying to give a numerical value to a piece in this puzzle to know its value to the search algorithms.
The problem with this is that the algorithms are far more complicated than that. Yes, they do factor in these elements, but they go far beyond a simple (95 + 87) ÷ 2 =. They analyze all sorts of things:
- How easy it is to get the link?
- How many outbound links are their from the website?
- Do they charge for these backlinks?
- Is the page receiving the link similar in niche and/or industry to the website?
- Does the website have any penalties?
- Is the link nofollow or sponsored?
These and so many other factors do not render these rating systems useless. They just can’t be the highest focus.
What you need to keep in mind is that you are not trying to beat the entire internet to the top of all search results. You are just trying to beat competitors for your keywords. Focusing in on your keywords will make it a lot easier in determining valuable links for your website.
Easy To Get Links From High Authority Websites
Let’s make the case for Pinterest.
I am utilizing Ahrefs, an online tool that scours the internet and provides valuable data for the SEO industry. According to them, this is quite literally in the top ten list of most authoritative websites on the internet. Number 9. It has almost 8 Million websites linking to it with a total of over 18 Billion backlinks from those websites. OK, take a moment to catch your breath on that.
It seems logical that receiving a link from this website would be a highly targeted win to build authority for your website. The thing is that there are a few flaws in this theory. Pinterest is a platform that allows anyone to create a profile and yes, you can create a link back to your website. That means it is easy for anyone to create and because of this, Google and other search engines do not place a high value on these links. It just makes sense.
And that is really the point when evaluating backlinks. Does it make sense? If I can go online and in one evening build links to my website from the top 50 social media websites, why wouldn’t everyone do it. Well, some people do, and have. And this is another reason the search algorithms do not put a lot of shall we say, confidence, in these link tactics.
The other thing to keep in mind is that Pinterest and many other social media websites and an attribution code of nofollow to these links to let Google know that this links are not intended for building authority.
Now that I have deflated the deflated this high and mighty authoritative website, allow me to backtrack a bit. This does not mean their is zero value in the link from your profile page. Even Google now admits they use signals from nofollow links and it should definitely be on your target list. I would bolster Pinterest above many of the other social media platforms for two reasons.
First of all, when you set up a business profile, Pinterest allows you to validate your site through a code snippet process. Twitter and others do not do this, so I think Google may give them a fraction of a percentage more confidence than say, Twitter, for that reason.
Second, I often see Pinterest showing up in Google Search Console data far more often than other platforms, so because of this anecdotal evidence, I make it a priority for what I believe to be low quality links.
Google has an expectation to see social media profiles surrounding your domain so it is a good idea to to create them. You just can’t rely upon this as a complete backlink strategy.
Other High Authority Websites
So apparently it would be best to go after high authority websites that are not social media platforms, and do not have nofollow attributes in their links. Yes, to a point. I am always reminiscent of an old movie I saw called The Dead Poet’s Society. Robin Williams is making a point about poetry and utilizing an example in a book where they were trying to measure the greatness of a poem based upon mapping out the importance vs its artful perfection.
To judge backlinks based on a scale and simple mathematical formula is a mistake. If you have a horse saddle website and a equestrian veterinarian website links to yours in a blog article designating your product as the most comfortable for both rider and the horse. This may be a lower authority website than say say PC Magazine linking to yours. Mathematically the higher authority website might be stronger in a mathematical formula, but the Vet website just makes more sense. (Truth be told, I’d take a link from both because everything helps)
The engineers at Bing, Google and Yahoo have had about twenty years of analyzing and understanding backlinks and continue to work this knowledge into their algorithms. It is not as simple as, “get as many high authority sites as you can.” Not that that is a bad goal.
Industries demand terminology be attached to everything. In the world of SEO, marketers often set up goals to attract specific types of links. It is not that there is clear difference in these variations, but we do classify them from time to time. Branded backlinks can be regular (often referred to as dofollow) and nofollow. The key element is that they anchor text is the same. It is the name of your company and it is usually linked to the home page.
This reinforces the “brand name” online and of course benefits from the link itself. These are important to the search engine algorithms because the more often the name is cited, the more the search engine will equate your company name with specific keywords.
Buying Paid Links
There is nothing inherently wrong with paying for a link. You are not breaking laws and you shouldn’t choose not to based on articles you read. If you are intending on receiving traffic directly from a website based upon the visitors on that website, do so if you see value in this marketing strategy.
Now, if you are doing so to increase your backlink profile for SEO, know that Google has repeatedly stated that they place little to no value on backlinks that have been purchased and recommend against this practice. They even went so far as to provide an attribute for webmasters. labeled “sponsored”, to include in the HTML of these types of links to assist them in sorting these out. The bottom line is that if you are paying a website for a backlink, you are likely not getting the value you intended.
Niche or Industry Related Websites
Mentioned before in this article, these are absolutely the recommended type of link building practices that the search engines recommend. For a dog products website to have non profit canine shelters, dog bloggers, puppy trainers, pet product review and dog magazine websites all linking to to your website, it just makes sense.
I would rather have ten links from a specific niche rather than 20 from random non-industry websites. Search engines will find it easier to see the relevancy in your website for these related keywords.
Although they are still very active, there seems to be far less of this tactic being deployed on the webs nowadays. Back when search engines were young and far less sophisticated, unscrupulous marketers utilized quantity of links to drive pages to the top of search results. Since it worked to great effect, it became a massive problem. Rather than finding results that were most relevant, it became a competition of who could build more links tin the comments sections of websites.
These tactics were both detrimental to the search engines and webmasters of these sites. So the first step was taken by Google by introducing the “nofollow” attribute.
In a very short period of time it was adopted by website managers and over the course of years, black hat SEO practitioners mostly looked elsewhere. It did not go away altogether, because some still believed it worked while some customers were convinced that it still worked.
The other big issue with spammy links was server farms of useless websites filled with aggregated and spun content that served no other purpose than to provide backlinks to other websites. Over time the engineers at Google refined their evaluation of websites and these backlinks were identified for what they were – a tactic to game the system.
All of these practices still exist to different extents. It is easy for some marketers to fool customers by just producing a report of all of the backlinks that were built, even though they provide no value and in the past, had serious negative effects on a websites rankings.
Directory listing submissions is not a link building strategy unto itself. These types of links are often easy to attain, very likely have a “nofollow” attribute and are the first thing a business should do when starting SEO.
Finding the right directories for your site and industry is a worthwhile task. Ecommerce, HVAC, retail stores, non-profits, etc. There are directory listing websites all over for almost every industry. It is not that Google places a lot of value on these links, it is that it is just expected that if you have an auto repair business, then many other auto repair shops are listed on RepairPal.com and it is likely you would too.