Every search engine loves them. Every SEO expert craves them, and every website benefits from them.
If you ever Google anything SEO-related, you’ll also realize that everybody talks about them. But what are backlinks in SEO?
In plain English, a backlink (a.k.a. inbound link) is any link that points to your website. Since you are seeing it from your website’s perspective, it links “back” to you and not somebody else. Hence the term!
So, it lives on some other website but it links to yours, bringing you web traffic and transferring some of its authority (or lack of it) to your site.
All of the backlinks your website has will make up your backlink profile, which is a kind of portfolio of your domain’s authority.
A high quality backlink is a golden goose for any website, whereas a rogue one can get you into Google jail.
Welcome to this quick beginner’s guide to backlinks!
Unlike the more comprehensive guides, we will steer clear of technical lingo and try to keep it as simple as possible so that ANYONE can understand it.
So let’s dig right in!
How Do Backlinks Help SEO?
You opened up a bakery. Even though the competition is fierce, there’s plenty of fish in the sea, and everybody needs to eat. You can’t possibly fail, the logic goes. Or can you?
But even though your pastries are superb, your humble bakery is in an alley that’s tucked away from the main pedestrian streets in your town. You only have a few customers who happen to pass by. And there’s not enough cash to rent an attractive place on a busy corner that would be noticed by everyone.
But then a reputable local newspaper publishes a story about bakeries or donating unsold food to a local food bank, and mentions YOUR business.
Having read the story, a local celebrity drops in to buy a tart. Another customer snaps a picture of them and shares it on social media with a check-in.
As both stories meander through the community, they’ll get picked up by more people, and voila! In just a few weeks, you’ve got exposure you’d never had before. All of a sudden, your bakery’s modest location isn’t a problem anymore.
Now, if this sounds hardly attainable, it’s because it probably is.
But you can get the same effect with a much greater number of “lower-level” mentions and recommendations.
That’s exactly how backlinks work. Every link to your website works as a recommendation for you as a source or a brand. The benefits of a good backlink are countless, but here are the most vital:
- It sends some referral traffic your way. If your incoming link is living on a page or website that ranks well on Google, you’re likely to get many visits from this domain.
- It transfers over some of the “link juice” from that website. In other words, if an authoritative website links to you, your own website will also get a small portion of their authority. After all, they wouldn’t mention just about anyone!
So how do you get those priceless backlinks? You’ll likely get a link or two organically every now and then. But it rarely happens with websites that are not well established.
For people to find you, your website’s SEO needs to do its bidding. Which it can hardly do without, you guessed it, backlinks.
So you can wait and hope that someone would link to you. But a far better way is to invest deliberate effort in getting some backlinks through an off-page SEO strategy of link building.
After all, the bakery from our story would stand much more chance to get mentioned if it deliberately tried to gain reputation by attracting reputable members of the community, who would spread the story about it further!
So let’s see which link building strategies are best for small businesses.
Choosing the Easiest (and Cheapest!) Link Building Strategy
There are many methods of building backlinks, but most of them require tons of time – and tons of cash. Backlink audit tools such as Ahrefs are pretty expensive, so it won’t be an option for most small business owners.
So, here are a couple of methods that are either completely or relatively cheap. In most cases, they won’t require anything but time!
The concept couldn’t be any simpler.
You make a list decent and relevant blogs within your industry by Googling “your niche” + “write for us”.
Many websites and blogs happily accept guest posts. If and when they publish your contribution, you’ll get a nice brand mention at the bottom, and an SEO backlink to your site!
The biggest con of this approach is that you’ll spend tons of time writing blog posts, many of which just won’t end up published.
But a huge benefit (besides a better link profile) is that you’ll develop and strengthen relationships with other websites in your niche.
You’d be surprised how often your competitors are willing to actually help you out!
Just like there is local SEO, there’s also local link building!
Remember the story about a local newspaper promoting your bakery from above?
You don’t have to cross your fingers and pray to God that it happens. Instead, you can roll up your sleeves and reach out to local journalists to pitch them an idea for their next business feature.
On the surface, it might sound a bit obtrusive. But trust me, journalists are hungry for new stories and sources! (Speaking as a person who worked as a journalist, and wrote features for DOZENS of interesting, unusual, mention-worthy businesses.)
Submitting your business listing to local AND global business directories such as Google My Business, Whitepages, Yelp, Better Business Bureau etc. will also land you some awesome, authoritative links!
If you’re willing to splurge some cash, you can also consider sponsoring a local sports team, club, cultural venue, summer festival or just about any event. You’ll support them financially, and they’ll be more than happy to give you a small piece of the real estate on their website!
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of Backlinks
Not every link was born equal!
So here are three checklists to help you tell them apart by quality.
The first checklist contains must-haves for a high quality link.
The second gives you an insight into what a “so-so” backlink looks like.
Finally, the third is a list of absolute no-nos that can hurt or even bury your website’s domain authority and SEO ranking.
What Makes a Good Backlink?
- It comes from an authoritative website (links from top-level domains such as .gov or .edu are extremely difficult, often impossible to land, but they are not the only ones!)
- It’s relevant to your niche
- It’s a dofollow link (marked “dofollow” by the publisher who is confident about the quality of your content and, in a way, vouches for it; it’s a tag only Google and specialized tools can see)
- It has a relevant anchor text (the clickable portion of the text where the link is placed; this text needs to be relevant, accurate and contextual)
- It sits in the upper half of the page (the higher up, the better!)
What Makes a “Meh” Backlink?
- It comes from a website whose domain authority is about the same as yours
- It’s a nofollow backlink (marked by the so-called “nofollow tag”, which means the publisher doesn’t vouch for your website). That being said, getting a nofollow link (especially from an authoritative domain) always beats getting no link at all. Such links still bring you traffic, and they carry SOME weight in Google’s eyes too!
- It sits towards the bottom of the page
- It comes from a non-relevant domain (e.g. a fashion retailer linking to your bakery blog). If the article or link placement isn’t relevant either, it can be downright toxic.
What’s a Toxic or Bad Backlink?
- ANY link is bad if you bought it or exchanged it for something! If Google detects something like that, it may penalize you heavily.
- Links coming from spammy websites (sites that have no value at all and are breeding ground for various dishonest practices) such as link and content farms or private blog networks (PBNs)
- Press release links (not bad in their own right, but they can be super bad if Google detects tons of those)
Frequently Asked Questions
Are backlinks good for SEO?
Not only are backlinks good for SEO, but they are SEO’s bread and butter.
In fact, they could easily be Google’s #1 ranking factor. And that’s out of more than 200 factors!
Do backlinks still work 2021?
Absolutely! In fact, if you follow Google algorithm updates, you’ll see that quality backlinks don’t seem to be going anywhere.
In other words, search engines will always reward websites that are deemed relevant and valuable by other websites.
After all, pointing to and sharing valuable content is the whole point of hyperlinking!
How can I create backlinks for free?
The only worthy backlinks are those that you’ll get for free! If you pay for links, it will cost you so much more than just money. Google’s algorithm is quite good at detecting paid links!
However, every link-building effort will gobble up much time, which can be frustrating since you won’t see immediate results.
Some of them will even cost you money in terms of tools you’d have to pay.
In most cases, small business will benefit from a dedicated backlink service. If you’d like some help (or even hand-holding!) to build backlinks and boost your SEO, feel free to give us a call!