What Are Backlinks and Why Are They Important?

Written by: Levy Online on

As we head into 2019, it’s more important than ever to understand the top-tier ranking factors that will land your website on page one. Backlinks continue to be one of the most vital ways search engines rank a website, but it can be difficult to understand how it all works.

Backlinks on Chalkbaord

We recently had a Q&A discussion with our SEO Account Manager and resident link-building expert, Justin Owens, who shares the basics on what backlinks are, why they are important, and the outlook for this ranking factor going forward:

What is a backlink?

A backlink is simply a link on the internet that leads back to your website. A backlink can be on any page or site on the internet. It’s just a link from one page to another that links back to your specific page.

How do Google and other search engines use backlinks as a ranking factor?

There are over 200+ ranking factors that Google and all the other search engines look at, with links being one of the top ranking factors, if not the top ranking factor. Think of it as a vote. You can have a vote from anyone, but some votes have more weight. So a vote, say, from WhiteHouse.gov is going to hold much more weight than a fashion blogger. A backlink is a vote telling Google that your website carries value and is a trusted source for a given topic.

Are backlinks more important than other ranking factors?

Yes, links and page speed are two of the top ranking factors. As we move more and more towards mobile-first and everybody is using their phones for searches, speed is much more important because with mobile it needs to be fast. It needs to be quick.

As a whole, the internet is moving towards mobile. Websites are moving towards mobile-first indexing. Everyone always used to use desktop first and we were always in a desktop first world. Well, now that’s not the case. It’s mobile first. So everything is built for mobile first, be it speed or design, everything is mobile first and desktop second. Page speed is wrapped up into that equation.

Are backlinks more essential for certain industries or types of websites?

No, but with that being said, certain links are more important for certain websites. Say a link from Food Network might really be more important for my restaurant website. It’s relevant. They’re both about food. Google knows this. That vote is very important. It’s trustworthy because Food Network has authority when it comes to food in Google’s eyes and my website’s all about food. There’s a connection there. We’re trying to connect the dots. So when you have a website about food linking to another website about food, Google sees that it’s relevant and it makes sense.

Now let’s say I’m a lawyer and I’m also getting a link from Food Network. Well, okay, it’s still a good vote, but it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why is a food website giving you a vote if you’re a lawyer? It doesn’t make any sense and Google knows that. Google may just ignore the link.

Some votes weigh more than others. Again, it goes into the relevancy of that vote. It doesn’t make much sense for Food Network to say they’re going to put up a blog piece about personal injury law. Google is going to say, “wait, that doesn’t fit.” But because Food Network is such an authority and they’ve got so much power in Google’s eyes, it might work for them. But 9 times out of 10, that wouldn’t work and you want to avoid jamming links in that way.

Overall, are more backlinks better?

No. It is not a quantity over quality game. I want the links that are going to make the most sense and that are going to be the most authoritative for my industry. I don’t want links just for the sheer sake of links. Links that aren’t relevant aren’t going to make any difference and can hurt your SEO.

Also as we mentioned, some links are more powerful than others. A .gov or .edu address is extremely valuable. It goes back to the same thing. A link from whitehouse.gov holds more weight than foodnetwork.com. Google knows that .gov and .edu links are very powerful because they’re hard to get and therefore have more authority.

Could having irrelevant backlinks actually hurt you?

Yes, they can. Although Google’s getting better at ignoring irrelevant links these days, you can still be penalized. Too many irrelevant backlinks are considered spam and can hurt your SEO efforts.

Is there a wrong way to secure backlinks?

Absolutely. So back in the day, people used to use PBNs, or private blog networks, which is essentially using other websites that you own to help rank your other websites. That’s kinds how PBNs work in a nutshell. Google has ways of knowing if you’re using a PBN or not. If you own a bunch of websites and you’re not careful and you host them all on, say, GoDaddy and they’re all on shared hosting with the same server, Google may be able to pick up on that. If you don’t have privacy listed on all the domains, they can crosscheck the name and see that you’re leaving a footprint because you own website “A” that’s also linking to website “B” and these are both owned by the same person. It’s a “black hat” way.

What you also don’t want to do is purchase links from link farms or things like Fiverr or other marketplaces when you don’t know where they’re coming from. Basically, paying for links, in general, is not the correct way to do it.

What is the right way, or “white hat” way, to get backlinks?

The right way to secure backlinks takes time. It’s all about outreach and building relationships. Very similar to PR. At Levy, we have over 15 link acquisition techniques that we use to build links for our clients. Guest posting, local bloggers, broken link building, and press links just to name a few.

It can be really difficult and time-consuming to secure backlinks the right way. But because Google values them so much it needs to be done right. Invest in the time and resources to secure the right links. A lot of people who do it the wrong way end up coming to us because they don’t know how to fix it once they’ve messed up.

Are giving links as important as getting backlinks?

No. So when you’re doing on-page optimization, there is such a thing as giving links out, or outbound links is what we call them. Typically, what you want to do is only use those for citation purposes. So if you’re citing anything on the internet, you would link back to that source or authority. That used to be a more gray hat type of thing where people would link out to a Wikipedia page on whatever the article is about because it’s an authority. Not so much the case anymore.

You can use outbound links sparingly. It is important and it helps Google understand what the page is about when you’re linking to things that are relevant to that page. So it does help in that way, but it’s not really going to help with your rankings significantly.

Are backlinks going to be as important going into 2019?

Yes, 100 percent. As far as SEO and the way everything’s been going, links are still going to remain a top-tier ranking factor. Page speed and overall user experience are becoming more important and it’s going to continue to be more important in 2019, but links are still right there.

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