“I think they’re important, but I think people overestimate the importance of links.”
Speaking at a conference in 2023, Google analyst Gary Illyes questioned whether backlinks are still as important in today’s SEO landscape as they were in — what we’ll refer to as — simpler times.
But has the significance of backlink building as a strategy really diminished? Should we all be abandoning link building and turning our attention to other aspects of SEO?
The answer, of course, is a resounding no. Despite links apparently being downgraded in terms of importance in recent years, they remain a key ranking factor among many, showing search engines that your site is worthy of being linked to and of a place in the SERPs.
But what exactly are backlinks, and why are they still so important for SEO? Let’s dive into all things link-related, explaining how and why backlinks are essential to the overall performance — and crucially, the authority — of your website.
What are backlinks?
You might hear them described as inbound or external links, but backlinks are essentially links that point from one website to another. In SEO terms, they’re often thought of as “votes of confidence” — when one site links to another, it’s in effect vouching for that site (i.e. this site is legit and we consider its content to be valuable and trustworthy).
Here’s an example:
If I was writing a blog about the merits of owning a pet, I might include a link to some related content explaining why dogs are better than cats; I’m linking directly from my site to the other, effectively endorsing this site and its content. For the website I’m linking to, this is a backlink. And for the record, yes — dogs are indeed superior to their feline foes.
However, backlinks can come from any page on a website, and from a variety of different sources. These may range from simple anchor links within a blog post or landing page, for example, to images or banner ads on a homepage.
Backlinks can point to a diversity of different pages, too — whether you’re focusing on building links to products, increasing the visibility of your blog content, or driving referral traffic to key landing pages.
While backlinks are just one of many elements within an SEO strategy, they hold a significant amount of power, and have historically been considered one of the top ranking factors for search engines alongside other crucial elements such as domain history and topical authority.
But while a 2020 study by Ahrefs found that the more backlinks a page has, the more organic traffic it receives from search engines, more recent debate has centred on the apparently dwindling importance of links as a ranking factor — with some of Google’s own experts (like the aforementioned Illyes) claiming they’re not as decisive as they once were.
Are backlinks still important in 2023? In short, yes, but let’s delve a little deeper into their significance as part of a successful SEO strategy.
Why are backlinks important for SEO?
Backlinks are mainly crucial because they signal to search engines that others trust your site’s content, playing into the E-E-A-T principles of experience, expertise, authority, and trust. A site with a high number of legitimate, quality backlinks is typically viewed as credible, relevant, and authoritative — key factors in Google’s search algorithm — and thus is likely to rank highly.
Besides this, however, there are a multitude of reasons why backlinks are a fundamental cog in an SEO strategy. For instance:
- Backlinks enhance discoverability. Search engines use bots to crawl the web and index content, and backlinks help these bots discover links to your site and effectively index your pages. Equally, sites with high numbers of quality backlinks may be crawled more frequently, ensuring their content is swiftly and regularly indexed.
- Backlinks drive referral traffic. Backlinks from high-traffic websites can lead to an increase in referral traffic, which means more visitors coming to a site not just through search engines but directly from other sites. Moreover, backlinks from relevant websites attract qualified traffic, meaning those visitors are more likely to be interested in your content or your products, potentially leading to more conversions.
- Backlinks boost reputation. A backlink from a renowned, authoritative site acts as a strong endorsement of your own credentials, enhancing your site’s reputation in the eyes of not only search engines — leaning into Google’s E-E-A-T guidelines — but users, too. Crucially, search engines consider the trustworthiness of a linking domain, contributing to its so-called “Trust Rank”.
- Backlinks have a direct impact on ranking. Google’s PageRank algorithm considers the number and quality of backlinks a site has. While the original PageRank system is no longer the sole determinant of ranking, the principle that a high number of quality backlinks contributes to high ranking remains. In short? Several high-quality backlinks = increased ranking potential.
- Backlinks tell search engines your content is valuable. As we’ve touched upon, backlinks are akin to votes of confidence in the eyes of search engines. If a number of sites are linking to the same content or site, search engines can infer that the content must be worth linking to, and therefore also worth surfacing on the SERPs.
- Backlinks help build relationships and communities. Acquiring backlinks often involves building relationships with website owners, editors, bloggers, and journalists, which can lead to collaborative opportunities beyond link building. Links from community-driven platforms like forums, Q&A sites, and social media, meanwhile, can also aid in building a community around your brand.
The importance of a healthy, varied backlink profile can’t be overstated when it comes to cementing brand authority, driving qualified referral traffic, and dominating the SERPs for industry-defining keywords.
At Seeker, we’re strong believers that a diverse backlink profile — with links from various domains, including directories, blogs, and relevant news sources — can be a strong signal of a natural, healthy link ecosystem.
Are all backlinks created equal?
In a word, no. Not every backlink is as influential or as impactful as the next. The quality and relevance of backlinks are key factors that determine their relative value. Search engines place importance on relevant, high-quality links from trusted sources — these will have a greater impact on your SERP rankings — above those that are low-grade or even ‘spammy’.
For instance, a backlink from a reputable website such as The Independent would hold decidedly more value than one from a dubious, little-read blog.
Just as in the ‘real’ world you’re more likely to trust an authoritative, fact-loyal news source over a bloke in the corner of a pub (or at least, you probably should), search engines treat high-quality backlinks as credible votes of confidence, while considering substandard, potentially spammy links to be irrelevant and often dubious.
That said, there are several other factors that contribute to the overall value of each backlink, which include:
- Domain Rating (DR). On a scale from 0 to 100, this metric measures the relative strength of a site’s backlink profile compared to other websites. The higher the DR, the stronger its backlink profile (a strong backlink profile suggests a high number of quality backlinks) and the more value a backlink from the site will ultimately provide.
- Relevance. Because search engines aim to provide users with relevant results, a backlink from a site within a closely-related niche is more valuable than an irrelevant link from an unrelated site. When a site that covers similar topics links to yours, it suggests that your content is relevant to users interested in that subject matter.
- Link structure. The way a backlink is structured also plays a role in its value. ‘Dofollow’ links (in comparison to ‘nofollow’) are generally favourable for SEO because they pass on ranking power (or ‘link juice’) to your website. That said, a natural-looking backlink profile will contain a mix of ‘dofollow’ and ‘nofollow’ links (having exclusively ‘dofollow’ links may appear suspicious to search engines).
- Anchor text. A backlink’s anchor text (in this rather on-the-nose example, “anchor text” is the anchor text here) is also crucial since it provides context to search engines about the content of the linked page. It’s important to use relevant, descriptive keywords in your anchor text, but also include a mix of exact-match, branded, generic, and long-tail phrases as part of a healthy and diverse link strategy.
So while link volume is important, there’s a whole range of additional factors to consider when building links: where those links are built, how they appear on the page, the anchor and annotation text, the speed at which those links are built (link velocity), and so on.
Sure, generating a plentitude of links is an astute and admirable aim, but those links will have little tangible impact if they’re mostly from irrelevant, low-quality, or spammy sources.
A good backlink profile is rich and diverse, encompassing links from niche industry publications, local links (particularly for businesses with a brick and mortar presence), high-traffic sites with established authority, as well as smaller — yet highly relevant — websites with more modest traffic.
In short, good link building requires care, tact, planning, and nuance, and this one area Seeker specialises in. We’ve built thousands of links as part of unique campaigns that are tailored to our client’s specific goals and needs — no two link building campaigns are the same.
What different types of backlinks are there?
Just as not all backlinks are created equal, links come in many different guises and forms. Some of these links will be more effective than others, of course, with those with more potential impact often requiring more effort and persistence to acquire.
The list below is not exhaustive, but some of the more common backlink types include:
Similar to organic backlinks, editorial links are often the holy grail, since they’re typically embedded in relevant, quality content. Editorial links are acquired when your content (an infographic or a data study, for example) is mentioned as a source within an article or roundup. The key is to produce high-quality assets that will naturally pick up links, but digital PR tactics such as newsjacking and reactive PR can also be employed here.
Guest blogging backlinks
A common link building approach is guest blogging on sites that are closely (or at least somewhat) related to your own in terms of subject matter. The process involves identifying relevant sites to post content on, outreaching and pitching to those sites, and then producing guest content that includes a link back to a page on your own website. Due diligence is important, since you’ll want to avoid posting on loosely-relevant or poor-quality blogs.
Relationship-based backlinks often fall under the umbrella of editorial backlinks — and there’s admittedly some crossover — but as the name suggests, they’re dependent on building strong relationships with site editors, bloggers, or journalists, who in turn link to your content as a trusted source. In contrast to more artificial link-building tactics, this approach secures valuable links through forging authentic connections and networking effectively.
Business profile backlinks
When you set up profiles for your brand on business directories, social networks, industry-specific listings, and so on, the links you add here are effectively backlinks. Links from these sources tell search engines that your business is legitimate and well-established. Business directory websites such as Crunchbase, for example, enable you to create your own profile and link back to your website, though building links through directories at excessive scale can seem like a spamming tactic to search engines — so tread carefully.
Sponsored or paid links
It’s also possible to pay for links, such as through an advertisement or a paid guest post. It should be noted that you need to be wary here, since sponsored links which are not correctly attributed (using the rel=“sponsored” tag) may be flagged by Google for a link scheme violation. A sponsored backlink is often more useful for driving referral traffic than improving SERP position, but can still be highly effective if deployed lawfully and strategically.
Some backlinks are more trouble than they’re worth, however, and should be avoided. For instance, backlinks acquired through link schemes or private blog networks (PBNs) are seen by Google as trying to artificially manipulate its algorithms and may incur penalties. Similarly, spamming forums or blog comments sections with links to your site is a now old-school black hat SEO technique that will likely do more harm to your site than good.
How many backlinks do you need to rank?
If you know anything about SEO, you’ll know that the answer to myriad search-related questions is it depends. And the answer to the number of backlinks it takes for a site to rank is exactly that, we’re afraid. There’s no fixed answer to this question since ranking is dependent on a number of factors, meaning there’s rarely a one-size-fits-all approach.
The number of backlinks required for a site to rank in SERPs can depend on:
- The quality of your backlinks. A small number of high-quality backlinks from authoritative and relevant sources can often impact your ranking more than an abundance of low-quality or barely-relevant links.
- The level of competition. If you’re targeting a keyword with relatively low competition, you could rank with a few good quality backlinks or even none at all, especially if your on-page SEO and content quality are on point. Highly competitive keywords, on the other hand, will require significantly more backlinks.
- The industry you’re in. The number of backlinks required to rank will naturally vary between niches. Some industries are more online-focused, of course, and thus more competitive when it comes to ranking, often necessitating a greater number of backlinks.
- The quality of your content. Just as the quality of your links is paramount, so too is the quality of your on-site content. Exceptional content can rank with fewer backlinks, given that it’s likely to naturally attract links and be favoured by Google’s algorithms.
- The authority of your domain. Newer websites may need more backlinks to rank — since they’ll likely have little domain authority in the eyes of search engines — compared to established sites, as their existing authority and brand reputation can often enable them to rank with fewer links.
- The ever-changing nature of Google’s algorithms. Search engine algorithms are continually evolving, meaning what works today might not work tomorrow. For example, recent Google algorithm updates have increasingly prioritised the relevance and quality of content over the outright number of backlinks.
Remember, your focus should be on the quality and relevance of your backlinks, rather than simply their sheer quantity. A strategic approach to link building includes a combination of factors, such as building relationships with relevant and authoritative websites, creating share-worthy content that naturally garners links, and using tools like social media and content marketing to increase visibility.
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How do you build backlinks?
Unsurprisingly, building high-quality, valuable backlinks at scale is not a straightforward endeavour, and requires a diversity of tactics and approaches in addition to a large dose of persistence and dedication — particularly when it comes to networking and outreach. It’s why we’d recommend enlisting the services of an experienced link building agency. *Wink wink*.
From content quality to competitor monitoring, at Seeker we apply a number of different techniques to target and secure high-value backlinks. Here are our top tips for generating backlinks at volume while focusing on link quality and relevance:
- Create high-quality content. The most effective way to naturally build links is to craft engaging, unique, and informative content that provides value to your audience — this might include industry-shaping research or data studies, illuminating infographics, and influential thought-leadership articles and blog posts.
- Build ‘pillar pages’. Pillar pages are comprehensive, authoritative pages that cover a core topic in extensive detail — a sort of ultimate guide — and provide a thorough answer to a user’s needs. They tend to attract backlinks due to their value as a one-stop information resource, ultimately enhancing your site’s E-E-A-T credentials.
- Offer up guest blogs. Guest blogging remains a widely-used link building tactic, but it’s important to look for good quality, reputable sites that cover relevant topics. Avoid sites that post an overabundance of articles on seemingly disconnected subjects, or those whose content is spammy and lacking in quality and relevance.
- Focus on digital PR. An effective digital PR strategy is crucial for building valuable backlinks from industry-relevant sources. The key is creating shareable content and assets (such as press releases, expert commentary, and thought-leadership pieces) that grab the attention of journalists and lead to local or national coverage in relevant publications.
- Experiment with the ‘skyscraper technique’. This approach involves identifying top-performing content within your industry and improving on it by creating something that is more comprehensive or up-to-date (see the previous point about ‘pillar pages’). You can then reach out to sites linking to the original content and encourage them to link to your upgraded version instead.
- Try broken link building. Thousands of websites are likely harbouring broken links within their content. By identifying broken or outdated links that are relevant to your niche, you can suggest to the site owner or content editor that they replace these links with one of yours. It’s a win-win, since you get a backlink and they fix a broken link on their site.
- Reclaim unlinked mentions. Using a tool like Google Alerts, you can monitor the web for mentions of your brand within content such as blogs, roundups, or news stories. If the site has mentioned your brand without providing a link, you can simply contact the editor asking them for proper link attribution.
- Create visuals and infographics. Visual content is an often overlooked method of backlink building, but it can in fact be very effective. If you can explain something fairly complex in an engaging, straightforward visual way — using a graph or diagram, for instance — there’s a good chance that other sites will use it in their content and attribute the link back to your site.
- Utilise business directories. As previously mentioned, having your brand appear in multiple directories — such as Google My Business, Yelp, or Local Pages — can be a simple yet effective way of building links to your site. This can also help fortify your reputation as a trusted, established brand, but it’s important to avoid spammy directories that exist solely for the purpose of link building.
- Monitor competitor backlinks. Using a tool such as Ahrefs, you can monitor where your competitors are picking up links and target the same (or similar) sources. You could even identify specific links and suggest your content as a superior alternative, proposing to site owners or editors that they link to one of your pages instead.
But are backlinks still important to search engines?
If you believe the aforementioned Google analyst, Gary Illyes, “People overestimate the importance of links.” But have they really become less significant as a ranking factor? Or have the search engine’s algorithms simply evolved to the point where links are just one of a multitude of important factors that determine a site’s value and relevance to search queries?
Like Illyes, Duy Nguyen of Google’s ‘Search Quality’ team also urges us to consider that, as a ranking signal, backlinks have a “less significant impact” now than they once did. Interestingly, though, while making this point Nguyen goes on to stress that, “We have robust ranking signals — hundreds of them — to make sure we’re able to rank the most relevant and useful results for all queries.”
What Nguyen may be saying, then, is that while links may not play as crucial a role in the grand scheme of Google’s evolving algorithm, this isn’t necessarily because they’re any less important per se. It’s simply that, when considered within the broader context of ranking signals — and the growing importance placed on factors such as UX and E-E-A-T — backlinks are but one (yet no less crucial) part of an overall ranking strategy.
Think of early Hollywood icons like Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. In the days where effects were sparse and expanded cinematic universes were nonexistent, their names alone could virtually cement a movie’s success. Nowadays, factors like VFX, franchise familiarity, and the virality of marketing campaigns are of equal significance, but these don’t diminish the importance of the stars themselves — they’re simply now one factor among many that determine box office success or failure.
So, are backlinks still as important as these were in the halcyon early days of SEO? When you consider the myriad factors that now contribute to a site’s ranking potential, maybe their significance has somewhat faded among the noise, but links remain a vital part of an SEO strategy that cannot be overlooked.
Just remember, not all backlinks are created equal, so balancing quantity and velocity with quality, relevance, and a diverse range of links from varied sources is the sweet spot.
Keen to hear how Seeker can help your brand build authority-boosting backlinks? Perhaps you’re interested in our industry-leading in-house training courses? Either way, contact us to find out how we can help enhance your backlink profile.