Blog: SEO

Back Links and SEO

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is an SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps established businesses rank higher through his web agency. Lockedown Design.

No discussion of SEO would be complete without it talking about back links to your site.

Google has gone on record saying that on-page content, back links, and machine learning are the three most important factors in search rank as early as March 2016.

For those who don’t know, let’s talk about what back links are.

The Definition of a Back Link

Any time a website links to a page on your website, that’s a back link.

When all other ranking factors are equal, the website that has a superior back link profile will outrank another site with a weaker back link profile.

This may be an oversimplified way of looking at it, but think of each back link to your website as a vote for that page.

When another site links to a page on your site, that is a signal that there is relevant information on the linked page.

Types of Back Links

There are two different types of back links, follow links and nofollow links.

Follow links pass the voting power from the linking page to your site. Nofollow links don’t pass any voting power to the linked page.

In the past, your SEO consultant would call this passed voting power “link juice”. Back in the day, the focus was on finding sites with high PageRank, and getting indiscriminate back links from those pages to your site. PageRank was an internal mechanism that Google used for assessing a page’s link profile.

Google no longer uses PageRank, perhaps in part because so many people found a way to manipulate rankings by trying to game the system.

More on follow and nofollow links

The most valuable type of link is a follow link from the main content of the page. This type of link is most powerful if it comes from a site that is related to yours. Links from sites inside your industry mean more than links from random, unrelated sites.

These links from the main content are what we call editorial links. These links mean more because the author of the page intentionally put that link there. Editorial links carry the expectation that readers will click on the link and visit the page that’s being linked to.

In the early 2000s, many people tried to run up as many back links as they could, in an effort to push sites up the Google ranking. Since then, Google’s ranking algorithm has been refined several times.

Link Quality Matters

Today, it is more important than ever to have high-quality links. Quality links have more impact than sheer quantity.

Quality links would be from websites that are closely related to the subject matter of your site. Back links from sites that are completely unrelated to yours have less topical authority, and Google gives them less weight than high-quality, topically-related links.

Links in the main content of the page are usually follow links by default.

Some types of links are nofollow links by default, like links from a name in the comment section of a blog. (Some blogs let you add your name and link to your website.)

Certain types of links, like blogroll links in the sidebar, may or may not be no-followed.

Google looks at certain types of links as a lower value than editorial links. These include any site-wide links, such as those in the sidebar or footer. It is widely believed that Google counts these repetitive site-wide links as a single link.

Though nofollow links do not pass any voting power, many SEO consultants consider them a week ranking signal. More importantly, people will still click on the links and send traffic to your site on occasion. Nofollow links are still good to have, but not as good as dofollow editorial links.

Anchor Text

Another important factor when it comes to ranking is something we call anchor text.

Anchor text is the words that are in the back link itself.

What these words are matters a great deal.

Even now, Google uses anchor text as a clue for what the linked page is about. Knowing this, in the past, SEO companies have over-optimized anchor text in a link profile to make sites rank for a given search phrase.

Now, it is safest to have a mix of your brand name and your main search phrase as anchor text, with more link going to your brand name. If too large of a percentage of your back link profile contains your exact search phrase as the anchor text, that is going to look like unnatural manipulation to the search engines.

It’s safest to have most links carry your brand name, and have a lesser percentage with your optimized search phrase.

Many of the sites that I see ranking high have a certain amount of optimized anchor text. This is not to say that because it works for someone else, you should do it too.

It’s best to make links as natural as possible. Don’t overthink it. Anytime it’s natural to link using your brand-name, that’s what you should do.

Semantic Recognition (Synonyms, Antonyms, etc.)

In recent years, Google has gotten very good at recognizing synonyms and semantic equivalents. So, if you use words that mean the same thing as your main search phrase, Google will understand that. There is no need to always use the same search phrase repetitively.

Types of Back Links You Should Be Looking For

When most businesses start their first serious SEO efforts, they have very few back links. In fact, it’s going to be very difficult to ever rank number one in Google without a good amount of credible back links.

The authority of the site linking to you makes a difference. When you get a back link from a site with a lot of authority, like a national newspaper or large industry blog, this will have more impact than a back link from a local site that only gets 10 visitors per month.

Sites that have a a high domain authority usually have thousands of incoming links from different websites.

Not all links are created equal. You need a lot of links to rank well. Links from websites that are similar to yours are more important than links from random sites.

Where to Get Back Links

You’re probably wondering where you can get quality back links.

Here’s an article that lists 19 ways to get back links for local SEO. Here are some other ideas.

If you have something newsworthy that you’re doing, send out a press release to get coverage in your local newspaper or Business Journal. Many local Business Journals will do announcements for businesses that are just opening, or are changing leadership positions. Call your local Business Journal to find out their policy and talk to the person at the desk that can tell you how they work.

Note: Press releases themselves have less authority than they did in the past. Many SEO consultants in the past used these to build back links. But, the power is not in the back link from the original press release, but in the distribution to other news sources.

Another thing to look at are local citations.

Citations are all the places that your brand name, address, phone number, and website would be mentioned. These would include places like Google My Business, Facebook, Yelp, YP.com, and other industry specific sites.

These are good for a foundation, but these do not constitute a robust back link profile by themselves.

Add to really win at SEO, you’re going to need more than these.

Quality Content is What Attracts Quality Links

The best way to get a back links from a variety of sites is to produce quality content for your industry and ideal customers.

When you produce content that people want to share, or that definitively answers a question, your chances of attracting back links increases substantially.

On this site, we have several pages that have been back linked in web development forums, WordPress forums, and SEO websites. It is the quality content and answers to questions from our customers that allows this to happen.

This is the same sort of approach that you should take.

Your site content should always be answering the questions that your ideal customers have. These questions could come from things your customers tell you over the phone, face-to-face, or in email, forums, or social media.

Textual site content is the most easily indexed form of website content. It is the type of content that search engines have the easiest time understanding.

You can also have videos, audio content, infographics, or anything else that conveys information and answers questions.

Getting Content in Front of People When You Have No Traffic

To get back links to your content, you have to get it in front of people.

One way to do this is to have a social sharing campaign, were you promote content so it gets in front of your targeted audience. Social sharing is correlation to search rank, not a causation. Nevertheless, if people are engaging with your content, you are doing something right.

One method for creating great content is to exceed the current best ranking page on the subject.

By going one step beyond the most authoritative page for a specific search result, you can attract more viewers. This leads to more on-site engagement (time on site, comments, shares), which are signals that Google uses to gauge the quality of a search result.

Consistently producing quality content around a specific subject can also tell Google you are a trusted source.

This is a chicken and egg problem. You have to create great content on a consistent basis for Google to want to rank future content as authoritative. Without content you’re not going get a lot of back links.

This is why it is important to have a content publishing schedule. Content is one of the first things to fall through the cracks when a business gets busy.

The more content that you create, the better chance you have of earning back links to your site. You will not always be able to predict what content earns those back links, so it’s best to get in the habit of creating content for your site on a regular basis.

What We’ve Covered So Far About Back Links

To recap, getting links from authority sites is good for your search rank. Creating quality content that answers questions is a good way to get back links.

Back links are like a vote for your site. Without back links, you’re not going to rank very well.

Sites that only have a handful of back links will usually be outranked by competing sites with a stronger back link profile.

A Note About Links In Blue Collar Industries

The one saving grace is the competition is the websites in a lot of blue-collar industries do not have a strong back link profile.

If you’re in the automotive, construction, or HVAC industries, the sites you will be competing against generally don’t have a strong back link profile either. With a bit of effort you can gain a lot of ground on your competitors.

After you get links from directories and social sites, a lot of link building comes down to creating great content that people are going to want to link to. To do this you really have to have the definitive answer to us some sort of question.

Then it comes down to getting that content in front of other people that have the ability to link to it.

Sometimes this takes the form of outreach campaigns to people who are influential in your industry. Anytime that you can speak on the radio and on TV, or if he quoted in newspapers or magazines as the industry authority, that’s also going to help you a great deal. Always seek opportunities to be heard on larger platforms and terrestrial media.

Affiliate Links

One thing I want to talk about is affiliate links. These will apply more to online marketing than blue-collar websites.

Affiliate links are any sort of link out from your site where you get compensation if someone makes a transaction on the linked site. We use affiliate links in certain places on this site, and have an affiliate disclosure. Federal law says you must have an affiliate disclosure on your site if you link out to other sites and there is some sort of sales commission in place.

Anytime you have a link out from your site where you’re compensated, those need to be nofollow links. Google does not want your site to pass voting power to the lined site if it could be a compensated link.

If anyone is linking to your site with an affiliate or sales commission link, those also need to be nofollow links.

Internal Links

One more thing we need to cover are internal links.

Internal links are links between the pages on your site.

Most sites have internal links in the main navigation at the top of the page, and possibly at the bottom of the page in the footer.

You have an opportunity to make pages rank higher on your site. Use internal links with optimized anchor text in the main content of a page. For example, link to another page on your site from a blog post on your site.

Let’s pretend you have an auto body shop. You have a page that talks about transmission service. Find another page, like a blog post that mentions transmission service, and link to the dedicated page on transmissions. That’s how you can help your internal linking profile.

Internal links pass voting power is well. Though internal links aren’t looked at exactly the same way as external back links are, they still have some power.

Take advantage of internal linking whenever you can.

Summary

The two most important things to focus on is your site content and back link profile.

How users interact with your site, and the overall user experience of your site are also important.

But without quality content, and authoritative back links to your site, it will be nigh impossible to make your site move up the search rankings.


More Posts in this Series

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is an SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps established businesses rank higher through his web agency. Lockedown Design.

5 comments on “Back Links and SEO

  1. Excellent article John! I love your suggestions for how to build up back links, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on guest blogging. Do you think that guest blogging is still a valid method to get back links, or do you think that it’s something that’s come and gone?

    1. Hi Adam:

      Definitely guest blogging is still a good way to get back links, but more importantly, it is a way to expose yourself to another brand’s audience.

      Paul Jarvis and Curtis McHale both recommend choosing a guest post over a regular post on your own blog, if you only have time to one or the other. This is strong advice.

      Sure, you can get back links via a author profile, but the bigger benefit is getting exposure for your name, and your brand. It takes a bunch of times of hearing your name over and over before people start to associate you with a certain thing.

      Back links are essential, but brand exposure is also important. More on that in a future installment of this series.

      Thanks for the thoughtful question!

      – John

      1. That makes sense. I guess the main thing is to get in front of someone else’s pre-built audience, instead of ministering to your existing audience. Like you say, it probably takes a bit of time to really build a rapport with a new audience, but at the very least you get the opportunity to speak to a large group that you’ve never been in front of before.

        Thanks for the reply John, very enlightening.

  2. All these are true effects or is on the books only? Have you ever increased the SEO with these tactics?

    1. Hello εκπτωτικα:

      That’s a valid question. To clarify, the methods described in this blog have indeed produced real results. Not theory. Not wild guesses. Results.

      We’ve been able to take some our local clients to the top spot in Google for their money keyword phrase, and everyone we’ve worked with has increased their rankings significantly.

      Now, every website is going to have unique challenges. That’s why we start with an SEO audit, so we know exactly how much work we’re looking at to move the needle, and how difficult the competition is for that category.

      After outlining a plan for improvement, we get to work.

      Hope this answers your question.

      Thanks,
      John

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