Backlinks are a cornerstone of great SEO, and there are a number of best practices surrounding them. We’ll show you how to fix problems on your website, get quality backlinks, avoid bad ones, find relevant online directories, and strategize properly.
What are backlinks?
A backlink is a link on someone else's website that sends the reader to your site. Think of it as an expert testimonial. If a blogger or someone else from your industry is referring people to your page, they must think it's pretty great.
Google rates pages based on their expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, or E-A-T score. For Google to rank a page highly, it needs to know that other people think its content is valuable.
If lots of people are sending their readers to you, then you're what organic search experts call “worthy of amplification.” That's why backlinks have made their way into the top 5 ranking criteria.
In short, you need backlinks. But your website may need some technical fixes first.
Are you ready for backlinks?
Backlinks alone won't get you a great ranking. You also need a website worth visiting. Before you go looking for backlinks, make sure that your site is ready for the visitors that will follow them.
Check your outbound links.
If you have outward-facing links, you need to make sure that they still work. If a visitor follows a backlink to your site and then finds that the external links there are invalid, it'll seriously hurt your credibility.
Tools like Screaming Frog SEO Spider and Siteliner can help you find these broken links without having to click on every single one you've placed.
Eliminate broken links.
Screaming Frog can also help you identify and get rid of broken links, which will appear as 404 pages. (Error code 404 indicates that a page does not exist.) Stumbling upon this error page tends to drive users off your site, so it’s in your best interest to repair these links, regardless of whether they’re internally or externally directed.
If you’ve deleted a page that’s received backlinks from other sites, you'll need to create a 301 redirect. Otherwise, users will end up on your site’s 404 page.
Avoid redirect chains.
A 301 redirect or 2 won't hurt your user experience too much, but you don't want to end up with chains. That's when one page redirects to another, which redirects to another, on and on.
Redirect chains are frustrating. Aside from being an annoyance, they reduce the value of backlinks. Remember that Google favors websites that receive a lot of links. Since a redirect takes readers somewhere other than the originally intended link, it loses some authority.
You can fix this by cutting out the chains. Make sure redirections only happen once. Link the original page to the real one and get rid of the rest.
Fix the page load experience.
A reader following a backlink won't wait forever for your page to load. If it takes too long, they’ll click the back button. The same is true for mobile pages that aren't optimized. If your page doesn’t display properly on your reader’s device, they’re likely to leave and never return.
If you want your website to give your visitors a positive experience, make sure your pages load quickly and correctly on all devices.
Minimize duplicate content.
If the same content appears more than once on your site (for example, if you re-list an old blog post), Google's crawlers will have difficulty navigating it. Since Google values original content, it’ll be confused by the appearance of 2 identical or very similar pages and won’t know which one to show readers.
Fix canonical problems.
In the SEO world, you'll often hear people talk about “canonical” URLs. A canonical URL is the “correct” address for a page, selected from a group of URLs that appear to be similar.
A layperson might look at the following addresses and think they lead to the same place:
Let’s assume that the first URL, www.acmewidgets.com, is your current homepage. The rest might be old versions of your site or just URLs for pages that don't exist. Make sure your server is set to send visitors to these URLs away from them and toward your real site.
How to get quality backlinks
Once your site is ready for backlinks, it’ll be tempting to get as many as you can. But the quality of your backlinks matters more than the quantity. In fact, the wrong links will actually hurt your ranking. Here are the criteria that determine whether a backlink is good:
Some backlink opportunities will be perfect for you. These are the ones that come from pages directly related to your product or service.
For example, if your company manufactures maternity clothes, you'd jump on a backlink from a product review site that targets expectant moms.
But, a word of warning—don't be a backlink snob. You won't find many perfect fits, so stay open to backlinks that are adjacent to what you do. Your maternity clothing company will do just fine with a backlink from a parenting magazine or even a fashion blog.
A word on geo-targeting
If you have a purely e-commerce brand, geo-targeting won't matter much in your search for backlinks. But if you have a brick-and-mortar location or you offer in-person services, your most relevant backlinks will be those that are both directly related to your business and in your area. Second best are those that are either subject-relevant or geographically targeted. Anything below that are links that are only moderately relevant.
Google uses algorithms to determine a website’s authoritativeness. The company used to publish the details of the algorithm—known as PageRank—but it stopped doing that a few years ago. Now the only way to figure out a page's official ranking is to go through the algorithm yourself, but that requires knowing your way around things like “eigenvector” and “normalized link matrix.” Yikes.
It's much easier—and less brain-melting—to use a third-party tool like Ahrefs or Open Site Explorer. And since none of the tools available today are perfectly aligned with Google, so it's best to use more than one.
3. Link quality
Most of the time, you can trust a site with high scores on third-party evaluation sites. But there are also some malicious sites that know how to game the system. Sites can pretend to be authoritative by falsifying reviews, testimonials, and ratings, but the overall quality of the domain will tell you the truth.
A site can fake authority, but it can't fake organic keyword ranking and organic search. If you go into a third-party tool like Ahrefs and analyze the domain that your potential backlink comes from, you can tell if it's ranking well for multiple keywords and driving traffic. Manipulated sites won't top that list.
4. Editorial standards
You'll get more street cred with a backlink from a site that's selective about the backlinks it offers. If your backlink comes from a site that hands links out like candy, no one will be impressed. Seek out sites that have actual editorial standards. It'll take longer and you might not get accepted right away, but it's worth it to get that nod of approval.
5. Outbound link quality
Whenever you have the opportunity to pick up a backlink from a site, visit it and check out what other outbound links they have. Are they organically placed, or did someone clearly force them in there? Do a thorough quality check. If the site looks like it accepts relevant and authoritative links, and it places them appropriately, you can feel good about your link being there as well.
6. Indexing status
Don't bother getting backlinks from any site that isn't indexed. If a site isn't in the index, it will never show up on an organic search.
Sites get indexed when Google's spider crawler visits and explores them, following links to find out what's there. Each page it discovers will have either an index or a no-index meta tag, and the spider files that page in the index or not as instructed.
Fortunately, it's really easy to find out whether a site is indexed. If you have a backlink offer from BrainSurgery.com, just do a Google search for “site:brainsurgery.com.” If it doesn't appear in the results, don't accept the offer.
Avoid these backlink opportunities
Some backlinks won't get you much traffic. Others are actually harmful. Watch out for these red flags when searching for backlink opportunities.
1. Public link networks
A public link network is like a club you pay to join. The network will place an outbound link on its site for a fee from the link's owner. Yes, it's a link, but it's one that can earn you a penalty.
Google hates these networks because they don't create value for the reader. They pack their home pages with unrelated links and have hardly any content. When Google finds these networks—and they often do, either because someone complains or because they notice that they're trying to block crawlers—they can de-index the network and shut it down.
Google can also penalize the owners of the links, so don't think that losing the backlink is the worst that can happen. It’s best to avoid these full stop.
2. Automated link building
There are software programs out there that take advantage of your desire for backlinks. Tools like SENuke and Ultimate Demon will get your link on as many sites as possible, but they don't discriminate. They'll put your link out of context on any site that’ll take it, which is a great way to get another penalty.
You may have heard that commenting on other people's blogs is a great way to earn backlinks. That's only true for relevant comments on related blogs, which rules out the majority of purchased comments.
Yes, purchased comments are inexpensive. But they're also often irrelevant and they pack your backlink in with countless others, many of which go to extremely disreputable sites.
4. Sitewide backlinks
You would think that a backlink that people could see on every page of a site would be a great idea, wouldn't you? The truth is that Google prioritizes backlinks that are relevant to the content on the page. If your backlink is on every page of the site because it's embedded in the sidebar, footer, or header, it's less likely to be relevant on all of those pages. That's why Google tends to de-prioritize sidebar or footer backlinks in favor of links within the content.
The exception to this rule is the kind of completely relevant backlink that we talked about earlier. If your site published a glowing review of a company, for example, that company would be justified in posting a “what others are saying” kind of backlink on their sidebar or footer. Those are unlikely to earn penalties.
5. Irrelevant sites
Just because someone offers you a backlink, you don't have to take it. In fact, if the offering site has nothing to do with yours, don't place your backlink there. For one, you'll look desperate. It isn't a good look. Secondly, links from irrelevant sources can look spammy.
As mentioned, this doesn’t mean that you should be a backlink snob—just that you should be discerning about where your links come from. For instance, a link to your culinary blog from a used car website looks fishy, whereas a link from a nutrition website makes perfect sense.
How to build backlinks: strategies that work
Now you know what good and bad backlinks look like. So how do you get the good ones?
It's all about getting your name out there in an honest way. We do business in a world where genuine buzz is worth far more than shameless promotion, and that's just as true for backlinks as it is for anything else. Google and viewers can both tell if a backlink is genuine.
1. Participate in industry forums.
If you participate in forums relevant to your niche, you can get your backlink out there and get some referrals to your site as well. First, do a Google search for the word “forum” plus the name of your niche or industry.
Just filling out your profile on one of these forums will usually get you a backlink, since they're likely to ask for it as part of the registration process. Make sure you add the keywords you want to rank for as part of your profile.
Then, get after it:
- Start discussion threads.
- Post on others' threads.
- Connect with other users.
- If others are posting their links in comments, go ahead and add yours.
If you take this route, it’s best to avoid being overly promotional.
If you're selective about the blogs that you choose to comment on, and if your comments add value to the post, you can get significant traffic with this method. Adding value is your top goal. You're not just trying to get your link posted, you're looking to build a connection with the blogger and present yourself as a thoughtful, intelligent contributor to the industry.
To make the best possible impression, choose one point from the article to address. Share your thoughts in a sentence or 2 and work your backlink in organically.
3. Get listed in local and niche directories.
If a plumber in Des Moines listed his business in the Miami Yellow Pages under the lawyers section, he wouldn't get any business, and he'd probably be taken out of the next edition. But if he put it in the Des Moines book's plumbing section, he might snag some new customers.
Online directories are similar. If you find one that’s relevant for your niche and, if applicable, your location, you can work on getting a followable link on the site.
4. Format your links clearly.
There are 2 kinds of backlinks that you can count on to be clearly relevant:
- Naked links, which appear as the URL itself
- Branded links, which feature your company name
It might seem obvious, but you need Google’s crawlers to know the link is relevant. Otherwise, they might discount it.
Go forth and post good backlinks
Now you know when to post your backlink and what kind of site to post it on. You know what sites to avoid and what sites count as relevant. You're ready to get out there and get noticed.
Remember, it can take some time to find and secure good backlinks. It's worth the trouble, and it's worth being picky. Now, get out there and make your website everything it should be!