What Are Backlinks? Do They Still Matter for SEO?

Spend any time researching the best tactics for ranking a website, and you’ll see “backlinks” mentioned over and over again.

Some SEO practitioners believe you can rank a website without using backlinks, and that the strategy to get to the top of the search engines is all in on-page SEO and keywords.

Others, however, say that backlinks are part of a robust, comprehensive SEO strategy. Just as a website needs great content, targeted keywords, and engaging visual elements, it also needs a healthy backlink profile.

We’re breaking down what a backlink is and why having them is essential to your website SEO.

What Is a Backlink?

A backlink is a link from another website page that points to (and can thus direct traffic to) a page on your website.

In addition to potentially driving traffic to your site, backlinks from other websites that serve as a sort of “vote of confidence” that your website contains valuable content for users.

Google has high regard for backlinks from credible websites when it comes to the SEO for your website.

So, yes, when it comes to SEO of your website, backlinks still matter quite a bit.

Types of Backlinks

Further, there are two basic types of links:

  • Internal links: These are links from one page of your website to another page on your website.
  • External links: These links point from another website to a page on your website.

It is important to utilize both types when it comes to optimizing your website for search engines.

Types of Internal and External Links

A backlink is more than just the relation itself. How you present a link on the page for your SEO and how much traffic it drives to your website can make a difference in its power.

There are a variety of ways to add your link to a page, and understanding the different types of links can help you create the best, most effective profile.

Backlinks differ in how the anchor text, or the highlighted words that hold the link, are presented on the page.

Some of the types of internal and external links include:

  • Branded links: Branded backlinks use the company’s name as the anchor text.
    Ex: “…Amazon’s profits increased last week” with the link on “Amazon.”
  • Naked links: These links use just the website’s URL as the anchor text.
    Ex: “Visit our website at www.example.com for more information,” and “www.example.com” holds the link.
  • Image links: An image on the page is coded to include a link so that, when clicked, the image takes you to the desired page.
    Ex: A blog mentions using a specific product in a review, and the image of that product leads to a sales page.
  • Exact anchor links: These links are built using the exact keyword you want to target with your backlink as the anchor text.
    Ex: You’re looking for ways to increase your position for “cell phone repair,” and the link to your website is attached to those words.
  • Variant match anchor links: These links use a variation of your exact keyword in the anchor text.
    Ex: You build a link on “smartphone service” when you’re targeting “cell phone repair.” The keywords are similar enough to mean the same thing, but the anchor text is not your exact keyword.
  • Supportive or contextual anchor links: These links don’t necessarily include your focus keyword, but they do offer some insight into the information that you can find on the linked page.
    Ex: The link you’re building points to a blog post about the benefits of accounting software for small businesses, and the anchor text for your link is “accounting software can make your business more profitable.”

Action-based anchor links: Anchor text with action-based words is meant to spur the reader into action.

No-Follow vs. Do-Follow

Links get assigned with two different attributes, or rel= tags: no-follow or do-follow.

The no-follow attribute tells search engines not to follow the link when someone clicks. These types of links provide no SEO benefit to your site, as the linking site isn’t passing you any of its authority or value. Forum comments, advertisements or sponsored links, links from press releases, and paid links often use no-follow links.

In contrast, the do-follow attribute tells search engines to follow the link. Do-follow allows to transfer to the linked site all of the authority of the linked site, no matter how little. Those links provide the linked site with an SEO benefit. Using do-follow links on guest posts for bylines, links to the websites of people interviewed for an article, and links to the editorial material.

As with all backlinks, there’s value to building links with both attributes to your website, but it’s best to work on getting as many high-quality do-follow links as possible.

How to Generate Backlinks for Your WebsiteA Note About Internal Linking
Searching for and exploiting opportunities for external backlinks sometimes takes priority over building on your website a strong internal linking system. However, internal links help search engines understand better how all of your website’s pages relate to each other, and which are most important.

Linking internally to other pages on your site often helps users find what they’re searching for – so it’s assumed that user experience ( UX) is an integral component of SEO.

Look for ways to build all kinds of backlinks on your website – nude, advertised, accurate anchor, contextual, picture, variant match, and action-based – for better SEO outcomes.

The History of Backlinks
While there’s a great deal of advice and how-tos about backlink building now, that wasn’t always the case.

When SEO first developed, backlinks were pretty much whatever people made of them. The more links you could get to your website, the better.

Now that the SEO industry has grown and developed significantly (and search engines have gotten smarter) building a backlink profile requires strategy and careful attention to the types of websites you’re approaching.

The Past – The Wild, Wild West
At the beginning of the SEO industry, the goal with backlinking was to build them as quickly and as plentifully as possible. It didn’t matter if the links were low-quality or if they were on websites that didn’t have any relevance to your niche.

Backlink building often meant a variety of tactics, including:

  • Spammy blog comments created using software, often the same thing over and over again without considering the content.
  • Linking from irrelevant sites to gain a backlink
  • Using social bookmarking sites (such as del.icio.us) to drive links to your content.
  • Private blog networks (PBNs) are sets of websites created solely to serve as properties to link content.
  • Link schemes or farms are designed to create as many links to and from groups of websites, regardless of the quality of link or topic relevance.
  • Article spinning consists of taking an already-written article and running it through software that rearranges the words and sentences to create a “new” (but not quality) article for submission. The tactic used often is submitting these articles to Web 2.0 sites that allow for user-submitted content.
  • Mass article submission, where you write one article and submit it to as many sites as possible, hoping several accept.
  • Website hacking and link insertion are where people hacked into others’ websites and inserted their links.

These older methods led to websites with scores and scores of links, which helped them game the search engines and increase their rankings.

Search engines like Google, however, began to notice those tactics, which valued quantity over quality. As search engines and the SEO industry grew, the use of these old methods to create links became less important and even penalized.

Instead, search engines began to prize the quality of a link, including its relevance to both the page it came from and the page it pointed to, as well as the overall quality of both sites involved in the exchange.

The Present – Modern Link Building

Now, search engine algorithms have evolved to emphasize the quality of the content and information on a website, as well as the sites linked to from that site.

Search engines want to provide helpful, relevant information to searchers. They ensure this by boosting the rankings of the sites that help users get what they need and decreasing the rankings of those sites that aren’t as valuable.

The “Popularity Contest” – Why Relevancy Matters

Google has become something like the social atmosphere of a high school:

There are well-known popular kids, and then the sub-groups of teens who fall into different categories (drama kids, academic stars, jocks, etc.).

The “popular kids” of websites are the big-name, heavy-hitting sites, such as Huffington Post, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Facebook, CNN, and the like.

Everyone knows their names and where to find them, and they carry the most weight in the search engine rankings.

Under them come all those sub-groups. These categories are like specific industries, such as software providers, manufacturers, home remodelers, or mechanics.

Each website vies for the top spot within their sub-group despite their popularity throughout the whole “school” of the internet. Becoming popular within your niche is accomplished, in part, by making connections with the other people you “know” in your .own sub-group and, occasionally, with the “popular” people.

If you’re a manufacturing website, getting a link from a yoga studio website isn’t going to do much good for your credibility. However, a link from another manufacturing site or a big news site will.

In other words, building high-quality links from websites relevant to your content and purpose gives you little boosts and votes of confidence with the search engines, helping to improve your own site’s rankings.

The Future – Where Backlinks Are Heading

Backlinks are an essential part of a robust SEO strategy, and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

Instead, search engines continue to grow and evolve to understand user intent in searches better, helping them provide better-quality results to searchers.

By building high-quality, relevant links, you show Google how important and authoritative your website is, meaning it should prioritize your site’s position over the position of another, less relevant site.

Google will continue to move the needle towards quality of the links in the future, but with even greater emphasis on website authority and influence. We also urge our customers to consider going towards a more holistic marketing strategy, like inbound marketing.

What Are Backlinks? Do They Still Matter for SEO?