In short, backlinks are any link in or on a website page that points (or “links”) back to your website/page.

Backlinks are commonly referred to as incoming links, inbound links, inlinks, or inward links. Conversely, links on your website or web page going to another website/page are called outgoing links, outbound links, outlinks, or outward links. What is an inbound link for your website is an outbound link for that website’s owner and vice versa.

Below is an example of a backlink that we received from an article on the website Engadget:

Example of backlink from Engadget

In the page on the left, the text “Post Modern Marketing” is a link that points to the homepage of our website, www.postmm.com. That link is an outgoing link for Engadget, but for our website it is an incoming link, or backlink.

Backlinks are important for a number of reasons. The quality and quantity of pages backlinking to your website are some of the criteria used by search engines like Google to determine your ranking on their search engine results pages (SERP). The higher you rank on a SERP, the better for your business as people tend to click on the first few search results Google, Bing or other search engines return for them.

But, why do search engines care about backlinks? Well, in the early days of the Internet, search engines were very simple, and relied strictly on keyword matching. It didn’t matter how good the content on a website was, how popular it was, or what the website was for–if a phrase on a page matched a phrase that someone searched for, then that page would likely show up. That meant that if someone had an online journal in which they documented at length how they had to take their car to a “car accident repair shop,” then people searching for a “car accident repair shop” would likely be led to that page. Not terribly useful, right?

Well, to make things worse, website owners quickly realized they could exploit this weakness by resorting to “keyword stuffing,” a practice that simply involved creating websites with massive lists of keywords and making money off of the ad revenue they generated. This made search engines largely worthless, and weakened the usefulness of the Internet as a whole. How could this problem be fixed?

Google was born, and brought with it the value of website backlinks.

Back in the ’90s, two students at Stanford named Larry Page and Sergey Brin started pondering how they could make a better search engine that didn’t get fooled by keyword stuffing. They realized that if you could measure each website’s popularity (and then cross index that with what the website was about), you could build a much more useful search engine. In 1998, they published a scientific paper in which they introduced the concept of “PageRank.” This topic was further explored in another paper that Brin and Page contributed to, “PageRank Citation Ranking: Bringing Order to the Web.”

As they noted in their paper, pages stuffed fulled of useless keywords “often wash out any results that a user is interested in.” While we often complain when we run into spammy pages today, the issue was far worse then. In their paper they state that, “as of November 1997, only one of the top four commercial search engines finds itself (returns its own search page in response to its name in the top ten results).” That’s incredibly difficult to imagine happening now. Imagine searching for the word “Google” in that search engine, and not have it pull up www.google.com in the first page of results. And yet, that’s how bad it was 20 years ago.

But PageRank changed everything. PageRank was the product of two assumptions:

  1. If lots of websites all link to one website, then that one website is probably very good. The more backlinks pointing to a website, the better it must be.
  2. Not all websites are equal. Would you rather have a link from a personal blog or on the front page of CNN or Fox News? Powerful websites likely won’t link to poor quality websites. Thus, a link from such authoritative websites means that the linked-to site is very good.

They used these assumptions to develop a concept called PageRank, in which each website was assigned a value based upon how many websites linked to it. A website that had thousands of websites linking to it would have a huge score. A website with very few backlinks would have a small score.

PageRank Calculation Example

In this illustration from the “PageRank Citation Ranking” paper, the authors demonstrate how webpages pass value onto other pages. The two pages on the left have a value of 100 and 9, respectively. The page with a value of 100 has two links that point to the pages on the right. That page’s value of 100 is divided between the two links, so that each conveys a value of 50. The other page on the left has three outgoing links, each carrying one-third of the page’s value of 9. One link goes to the top page on the right, which ends up with a total value of 53. The bottom right page has no other backlinks, so its total value is 50.

For the purpose of their second paper, Brin, Page, and their coauthors took PageRank for a spin by incorporating it into an experimental search engine, and then compared its performance to AltaVista, one of the most popular search engines on the Web at that time. Their paper included a screenshot comparing the two engines’ results for the word “university.”

PageRank versus AltaVista Comparison

The paper’s authors noted that AltaVista (on the right) returned a rather random assortment of search results–rather obscure optical physics department of the University of Oregon, the campus networking group at Carnegie Mellon, Wesleyan’s computer science group, and then a page for one of the campuses of a Japanese university. Interestingly, none of the first six results return the homepage of a website

On the other hand, all of the results for the PageRank engine (aside from a single secondary listing) link to the homepage of major American universities. The results are much more logical and useful in nature. If you search for “university,” are you going to want the homepages for popular universities, or random subpages from a sprinkling of colleges all over the world?

Larry Page and Sergey Brin decided that the concept of PageRank showed real promise, and built it into a little search engine they called “Google.” You know how the rest of that story played out.

Okay. Backlinks are important. So how do you build backlinks?

As you now know, Google looks at the number of backlinks and the quality of these links to determine the importance of a website. Consequently, SEO experts put a lot of effort into getting more backlinks for their customers. But there are good and bad ways of accomplishing this.

Building quality backlinks takes a lot of effort and time. This isn’t a one-and-done type operation. This takes ongoing dedication and effort. Some examples of proper backlink building include:

  • Guest Posting/Blogging – Are there quality websites dedicated to your industry that accept guest articles? Try contacting them with the offer of a free article on a relevant topic in exchange for a byline with a link back to your website.
  • News Articles – Journalists and writers are always on the lookout for experts to contribute quotes for their articles. Some (but not all) will include backlinks to their sources’ websites. Websites such as HARO and Profnet help you to connect with journalists who have specific needs, while other tools allow you to send interesting pitches to writers.
  • Local Citations – Address listings on Google, Yelp, Facebook, Yellow Pages, and elsewhere count as backlinks, and also go a long ways towards helping customers find your business!
  • Blog/Forum Comments and Profiles – Commenting on blogs and forums used to be a great way to build backlinks. While this approach is no longer as strong as it once was–due in part to frequent abuse–providing support in industry-specific forums, as well as on sites like Quora can help build backlinks and raise awareness of your website.
  • Press Releases – These are published in many news sites with backlinks to your site. However, cheap press release services don’t publish anywhere that will get you worthwhile links. For this to work, you’ll have to work with high quality publishers such as PR Newswire. But it will cost you dearly–about $1,000 for a 500 word press release.
  • Directories – While the value of web directories has diminished dramatically submitting your website to local, industry-specific and niche directories can net you worthwhile backlinks.
  • Business Network Profiles – LinkedIn profiles, for example, allow you to post your URL and so may other industry networking sites.
  • Reciprocal Links – These are ‘tit-for-tat’ links—your friend has a website that links to your website, and your website links back to your friend’s site. While reciprocal links are seen by some to be effective, it’s kind of in the gray area where they can be used both honestly and solely to improve Google ranking. Be careful. Try and only link with sites where it makes sense. A mechanic’s website probably shouldn’t have reciprocal links with a beekeeper’s website.
  • Social Media – You simply can’t ignore the value of social media. And even on the basic level of backlinks, there’s a modicum of value, as social media sites display a profile owner’s website URL. However, since Facebook and some other networks don’t allow Google’s crawlers to index  profile pages, backlinks from these networks will not affect Google SERPs directly.
  • Internal Site Links – Surprise! Links from one page on your site to another count as backlinks. Technically, internal site links are not backlinks, but when used appropriately, internal links can help increase the ranks of your internal web pages for certain keywords.
  • Paid Ad Links – Technically, this is a grey/black hat area, as it can lead to link farming. When done in an appropriate manner, such as by paying for advertising with a reputable industry organization, it can work well. Just be careful.
  • Donations – Donating your time or money to local charities, organizations, and schools can be an effective way of obtaining backlinks.

Having a diverse “link profile” not only helps your website attract more visitors, but is looked at positively by the search engines. But remember that some links, especially unnatural links, will not help increase your site’s rankings, and can actually be harmful. With that knowledge in hand, just be careful who you link to and who is backlinking to you.

Don’t forget, links aren’t just about search engine rankings. Another great benefit is they help people find your website while browsing other websites that are linking to you—and hence, can drive traffic to your website. The more people clicking on backlinks to your website, the higher the traffic to your site and the better chance of converting those clicks to a lead or sale (if your website sells something that is).

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