blocks in a pattern

What Are Backlinks and Why Do They Matter in SEO?

Backlinks are a crucial but often mysterious part of a complete SEO strategy. While the number of backlinks you build is important, the types of backlinks and the way you build them matter most.

This article will cover what backlinks are and why getting the right ones can massively benefit your long-term SEO growth.

What Are Backlinks?

Backlinks are when one website includes a hyperlink (backlink) to your website on theirs. The backlink could be hyperlinked text or a hyperlinked image. Getting more backlinks is one of the key metrics and goals of a successful search engine optimization campaign.

Why Are Backlinks Important for SEO?

It’s important to keep in mind how competitive it will be to rank content in your niche. While optimized content is arguably the most important part of SEO, high-quality backlinks help close the gap (faster) with your competition and signal a vote of confidence for your content.

Unlike paid marketing, where you pay platforms to show your content, SEO requires some behind-the-scenes effort for your content to rank higher in search engines. Backlinks are essential to make your content competitive with search engines.

Here are a few technical points about the importance of backlinks:

  • Building backlinks to targeted pieces of content can increase the rankings of specific keywords. That is the goal of building links. When a website has higher rankings for keywords, it gets more organic traffic
  • Backlinks are a ranking factor for search engines and have been tracked by search engines like Google and Bing for decades
  • While Google doesn’t provide official information on how it measures backlinks, SEOs point to the concept of Pagerank as evidence of why backlinks really impact SEO. Pagerank is a measure of all the backlinks your website has. Backlinks from high-quality domains can raise your website’s domain authority and PageRank and are a signal of how authoritative a website is in the Google search algorithm
  • We don’t build backlinks to grow brand awareness or to get referral traffic the way a public relations firm might. Back to the first point, backlinks are all about increasing keyword rankings.

Does Every Website Need Backlinks?

Every company should pay attention to its backlink profile, whether it’s actively doing SEO or not. While there are some rare exceptions, the vast majority of websites need backlinks to rank higher.

What Makes a Great Backlink?

Not all backlinks are created the same. These criteria separate good backlinks from average/bad ones:

  • Authority – Backlinks from established websites with high authority will be more impactful to your SEO than websites from no-name bloggers or spammy sites. Websites like WSJ.com, GQ.com, yahoo.com, or other leading sites carry a lot of weight to search engines
  • Relevancy – Along with authority, a backlink from a website that is relatable and authoritative to your niche is important. Getting a link from a website that talks about food and drinks to an article about mountain bikes might not move the needle
  • Optimized Anchor Text – SEOs build backlinks to rank pieces of content for specific keywords. The anchor text – the exact text that is hyperlinked – matters a lot. SEO strategists do keyword research for each piece of content, and the target keyword informs the anchor text terms you should aim for

How Do I Build Backlinks?

To get more backlinks, webmasters and content creators invest in link building. There are multiple link-building strategies, each with its pros and cons, which we will cover below.

Guest Posting

Without a doubt, the most popular way of building backlinks today is through guest posts. It’s a proven and effective way to get great backlinks at scale.

In guest posting, also referred to as guest blogging, writers pitch content ideas to site owners. The writer creates the piece of content and includes a link to their desired website in the article. When it’s published, a backlink is created.

Although it’s popular, guest posting requires a level of manual outreach, which means it’s difficult for many amateur site owners to do it efficiently. For this reason, many companies looking to scale their guest posts hire an agency or consultant to perform this service.

Link Inserts

Virtually all links are paid. Even guest posts often have a placement fee attached to them. However, when getting a link insert, you’re purchasing a link in an existing piece of content instead of writing an original guest post.

This is a popular way of building links because it’s fast and relatively affordable. The downside is prospective websites need to be thoroughly vetted. If a website gives out links to just anyone who will pay, there is a chance your backlink won’t be as “powerful” to a search engine. A good SEO agency will carefully screen publishers to ensure websites are highly relevant and niche to your industry.

Digital PR

Digital PR is similar to guest posting but is less focused on just guest posts and more on building a brand through outreach. Traditional PR companies strategize and pitch ideas and content to a variety of sources like radio, TV, newspapers, and websites. This content tends to be trendy and is designed to grow a company’s brand recognition. Digital PR is similar but is focused more on the digital world.

The main difference between digital PR and traditional PR is that digital PR specialists keep SEO in mind when doing outreach. Digital PR specialists will try to build links to specific pages and get optimized anchor text. It’s an expensive way to build links.

HARO Outreach

HARO (Help A Reporter Out) is a platform where journalists post requests for information to anyone who subscribes to the platform.

Anyone can respond to a request, which the reporter can then include in their story. SEOs monitor HARO for opportunities to build links to their websites. If they find a relevant request, they can submit a response which can sometimes lead to a backlink.

HARO has a tremendous upside in that journalists from some of the world’s largest publications use it frequently. A backlink you may not have been able to get through a guest post can be secured with some luck on HARO.

However, HARO is all manual and takes a tremendous amount of time. Its extremely low conversion rate makes it a low priority for link builders.

Broken Link Building

This is one of the oldest ways of building links, and while it’s still effective, it has lost popularity recently. Many SEO tools have ways of finding content that has broken links. For example, if a website has an article about “20 of the best mountain hiking boots” and one of the brands they linked to has gone out of business, the link to their page would likely be broken.

A boot brand could theoretically ask the webmaster to replace the broken link with a link to their website. Sometimes it works, but it’s an inefficient way of building links.

Skyscraper Technique

Sometimes, a piece of content that once got a bunch of links is no longer relevant or becomes completely outdated. SEOs will find pieces of content they want a link from, create a better resource, and then contact the publisher and ask for a link. We do not recommend this approach. These kinds of requests have happened so many times that webmasters get annoyed with them.

The vast majority of websites, especially those investing in content marketing, are trying to get backlinks. Our recommendation is to use a form of guest posting and digital PR and supplement with link inserts to hit your goals. Above all, focus on creating original, high-quality content to increase your success in getting backlinks.

The Different Types of Backlinks

There are several common types of backlinks, and it’s important to know which one you’re getting because they’re not all the same when it comes to SEO.

Do follow backlinks

Getting a dofollow backlink is the preferred outcome of a link building campaign. A dofollow backlink signals to search engines that the webmaster meant to link to this piece of content, and therefore it should be given the maximum SEO value.

No follow backlinks

A nofollow backlink means a backlink is not meant to count towards a website’s backlink profile. Getting nofollow links is still a valuable link, but it might not have the same SEO benefit as a dofollow link.

Sponsored backlinks

A sponsored backlink is used when the backlink has either been paid for or is an affiliate backlink. This carries the same sentiment as a nofollow backlink meaning it is still helpful for SEO.

How do I Know How Many Backlinks My Website Has?

Several great SEO tools track your inbound links. Here are a few.

  • Ahrefs – this is considered the most authoritative software to track backlinks
  • SEMrush – another SEO tool, similar to Ahrefs, that can show you your backlink profile and backlink metrics
  • Moz – The OG of SEO tools, it also has a backlink checker tool to see which websites link to you and how your backlinks stack up against the competition
  • Google Search Console – This is Google’s free SEO tool that is an essential part of SEO. Search Console has a dashboard where it tracks incoming links, but it isn’t as reliable as the tools mentioned earlier

Should I Pay For Backlinks?

As we mentioned before, a lot of backlinking is pay-to-play. Google’s official policy is against paid backlinking, so we recommend staying away from pure paid links without the right strategy. Here are some more recommendations and mistakes to avoid when it comes to building links:

  • Make sure to build a list of target pages you want to rank for your target keyword and then do a competitive analysis first to see how many backlinks the top pages have
  • Try to diversify your backlink profile. Getting backlinks from the same websites over and over again won’t hurt your SEO, but it won’t provide the same power as getting links from multiple good sites
  • Don’t forget to check your redirects. Many websites have broken links that have backlinks they don’t even know about. Redirect those broken links to pages on your website for an SEO boost
  • Footer backlinks, sidebar backlinks, and random hidden backlinks are considered low quality and “blackhat” and won’t help your SEO at all. They might even hurt it
  • Avoid link swaps. There are some publishers who will only accept a guest post or link insert if they can also get one on your website

Can I Build Links Myself?

Yes, you can. You might want to handle this in the early days as you ramp up your content creation and outreach.

Building links yourself can save money, but know that learning the technology and outreach strategy will consume a significant portion of your time.

How Much Does Link Building Cost?

Link building is one of the bigger investments companies make in their SEO. As we mentioned earlier, virtually all backlinks are “paid” in one way or another. So when you’re setting a budget for link building, here are some things to consider.

  • If you build links yourself, you’ll need a healthy budget to pay for guest post opportunities or link inserts. Webmasters often want several hundred dollars per guest post or link insert, but that price goes up significantly if the website has a higher DR
  • Agencies and consultants charge for the time it takes to research your competitors’ backlinks, find great backlink opportunities, and communicate with webmasters to secure your backlinks. They also charge for the hard price of the link. Your backlink budget depends on the competitive nature of the content you’re trying to rank and how many backlinks you’ll need. Budgets can range from $2,000-$3,000 to upwards of $15,000+/month if you’re building lots of links to multiple pages.
  • Public relations firms are great at getting online placements, but that doesn’t always translate into getting more backlinks. Many brands try to use their PR firm for link building, but the strategy to build the right kind of links isn’t something most traditional PR agencies have experience with. Again, link building is about increasing domain authority, not generating brand awareness.
  • The cost to find backlink opportunities, secure the backlink, the technology to do outreach at scale, and manage the backlink machine adds up quickly. Good links cost money, and cheap links are virtually always useless
  • Be cautious if an SEO company says you don’t need backlinks. While there are certainly some exceptions, most websites need backlinks to rank their content
  • No matter the type of content you want to rank, backlinks can help. Whether it’s your homepage, a blog, a landing page, or a product page, backlinks will help it rank

Sitemap.io can help with your link building needs

We include link building as a part of our SEO campaigns. We use both guest posting and link insert strategies with great success. Our team has built links for B2B brands, SaaS companies, medical companies, and eCommerce companies. Contact us for help with your link building today.

Picture of Austin Cline

Austin Cline

Austin Cline is the founder and principal at Sitemap.io. He is actively involved in the SEO community and frequently writes about the intersection of great content marketing and search engine optimization. You can connect with him on his LinkedIn and sign up to get his posts to your email by joining our email newsletter.

Related Content