When I hear someone mention the word backlink as part of an overall digital marketing strategy, I tend to cringe. I’ll explain why through this post but want to begin with some history.
At one time, search engines used to be large directories that were primarily constructed and ordered much like a directory. Google’s Pagerank Algorithm changed the landscape of search because it utilized links to the destination page as a weight of importance.
A common link (anchor tag) looks like this:
As search engines crawled the web and captured destinations, they ranked the search engine results based on how many links were pointing to that destination, what the keywords or phrases were that were utilized on the anchor text, married with the content indexed on the destination page.
What Is A Backlink?
An incoming hyperlink from one domain or subdomain to your domain or to a specific web address.
Why Backlinks Matter
Let’s provide an example. Site A and Site B are both competing for search engine ranking. If Site A had 100 links pointing to it with that keyword in the backlink anchor text, and Site B had 50 links pointing to it, Site A would rank higher.
Search engines are critical to any company’s acquisition strategy. Search engine users are using keywords and phrases that show their intent to research a purchase or solution… and your ranking has a dramatic impact on the click-through rates (CTR) of search engine users.
As the industry observed the high conversion rates of organic search users… and the subsequent ease of producing backlinks, you can only imagine what happened next. A $5 billion industry exploded and countless SEO agencies opened shop. Online sites that analyzed links began to score domains, providing search engine professionals with the key to identifying optimal sites for links to gain their clients better ranking.
As a result, companies incorporated link-building strategies to produce backlinks and drive up their ranking. Backlinking became a blood sport and the accuracy of search engine results dropped as companies simply paid for backlinks. Some SEO firms programmatically generated new link farms with absolutely no value but to inject backlinks for their clients.
Google Algorithms and Backlinks Advanced
The hammer fell as Google released algorithm after algorithm to thwart the gaming of ranking by backlink production. Over time, Google was even able to identify the companies with the most backlink abuse and they buried them in search engines. One highly publicized example was JC Penney, which had hired an SEO agency that was generating backlinks to build its ranking. There were thousands more who did it and weren’t caught, though.
Google is in a continuous battle against the system being artificially gained in order to imporve the accuracy of search engine results. Backlinks are now weighted based on the relevance of the site, the context of the destination, and the overall domain quality in addition to the keyword combination. Additionally, if you’re logged into Google, your search engine results are both geographically and behaviorally targeted to your browsing history.
Today, producing a ton of shady links on sites with no authority can now damage your domain rather than help it. Unfortunately, there are still Search Engine Optimization professionals and Agencies that focus on backlinks as the cure to achieving improved ranking. A couple months ago, I did a backlink audit for a home services client that was struggling to rank… and found a ton of toxic backlinks. After creating a disavow file and uploading it to Google, we started seeing a dramatic improvement in their overall organic ranking and associated traffic.
Today, backlinking requires careful research and a lot of effort to ensure that you’re producing a backlink that will help and not hurt your brand’s organic search visibility. This animation from 216digital illustrates that strategy:
Not All Backlinks Are Created Equal
Backlinks may have a distinct name (brand, product, or person), a location, and a keyword associated with them (or combinations thereof). The domain that’s linking may also have relevance for the name, location, or keyword. If you’re a company that’s based in a city and well known within that city (with backlinks), you may rank high in that city but not others. If your site is relevant to a brand name, of course, you’re most likely going to rank higher on keywords combined with the brand.
When we’re analyzing search rankings and keywords associated with our clients, we often parse out any brand-keyword combinations and focus on the topics and locations to see how well our clients are growing their search presence. In fact, it wouldn’t be a reach to assume that search algorithms are ranking sites without a location or brand… but because domains backlinked to them have relevance and authority to particular brands or a location.
Citations: Beyond the Backlink
Does it even have to be a physical backlink anymore? Citations are rising in their weight in search engine algorithms. A citation is the mention of a unique term within an article or even within an image or video. A citation is a unique person, place, or thing. If Martech Zone is mentioned on another domain without a link, but the context is marketing, why wouldn’t a search engine weigh the mention and increase the ranking of articles here? Of course they would.
There’s also the context of the content adjacent to the link. Does the domain pointing to your domain or web address have relevance to the topic that you’re wishing to rank for? Is the page with the backlink that’s pointing to your domain or web address relevant to the topic? In order to evaluate this, search engines have to look beyond the text in the anchor text and analyze the entire content of the page and the authority of the domain.
I believe algorithms are utilizing this strategy.
Authorship: Death or Rebirth
A few years ago, Google released markup that allowed authors to tie the sites they wrote on and content they produced back to their name and social profile. This was a pretty impressive advancement because you could construct a history of an author and gauge their authority on specific topics. Replicating my decade of writing about marketing, for example, would be impossible.
While many people believe that Google killed authorship, I believe they only killed the markup. I think there’s a very good chance that Google simply evolved its algorithms to identify authors without the markup.
The Era of Link Earning
To be honest, I cheered the demise of the pay-to-play era where companies with the deepest pockets hired the SEO agencies with the most resources to produce backlinks. While we were hard at work developing great sites and incredible content, we watched as our rankings dropped over time and we lost a significant portion of our traffic.
Low-quality content, comment spamming, and meta keywords are no longer effective SEO Strategies – and with good reason. As search engine algorithms become increasingly sophisticated, it’s easier to detect (and weed out) manipulative link schemes.
I continue to tell people that SEO used to be a math problem, but now it’s returned to a people problem. While there are some foundational strategies to ensure your site is search engine friendly, the fact is that great content ranks well (outside of blocking search engines). Great content is discovered and shared socially, and then mentioned and linked to by relevant sites. And that’s backlink magic!
Backlinking Strategies Today
Today’s backlinking strategies look nothing like those a decade ago. In order to aquire backlinks, we earn them today with highly targeted strategies using the following steps:
- Domain Authority – Using platforms like Semrush, we can identify specific keywords and get a list of destination sites that are both relevant and rank well. This is typically referred to as domain authority.
- Native Content – We produce amazing, well-researched content, including infographics, primary research, and/or well-written articles for the destination site that include backlinks to our site.
- Outreach – We incorporate a public relations strategy to reach out to those publications and we promote our content or request to submit an article to their site. We’re transparent about our motivation in doing so and few publications deny the backlink when they see the quality of the article or infographic we provide.
Backlinking is still a strategy that you can outsource. There are very competent link building services that have strict processes and quality controls around their outreach process and strategies.
Paying for a backlink is a violation of Google’s Terms of Service and you should never put your domain at risk by paying for a backlink (or being paid to place a backlink). However, paying for content and outreach services to request a backlink is not a violation.
Outsourced Link Building Services
One firm that I’ve been impressed with is Stan Ventures. Their pricing is varied based on the quality of the domain, the article, and the associated number of links you wish to acquire. You can even request the destination site. Here’s an overview video:
Stan Ventures offers three types of programs that your company may be interested in. They also offer a white label managed SEO service as well.
This infographic from the On Blast Blog is an updated and thorough walkthrough of how to build high quality links for your site.