Backlinks: Inbound Links Are the Lifeblood of SEO, and Here’s Why

In the previous edition of Mediavine’s SEO series, we discussed the importance of external links, or links you send out to other websites.

On the other side of the SEO coin, and perhaps even more fundamental to your longterm website health, are inbound links or backlinks.

The terminology can be confusing.

Backlinks are often called inbound links or one-way links in the world of SEO. By any name, they are links to you from third parties.

Obviously, the more backlinks you receive, the better, but there are a surprising number of additional factors and nuances involved.

Which backlinks help the most? How do you determine quality? Where should they point to? Below, we’ll break down all of this and more.

What are backlinks?: Why they are so important, and how inbound links are essential for SEO success. - Mediavine Pinterest Image

Backlinks: Essential For SEO Success

While we always stress to publishers that producing high-quality content is the single most important factor in long-term ranking success, that’s ultimately an inexact science, and not to mention subjective.

What is quality content? What makes content the best, not just good? That is what Google is trying to determine every second, using many variables.

Enter the famous backlink.

PageRank, the original foundation of the Google search engine, was built upon the simple concept of a backlink being a “vote” for a site.

While there’s more to the ranking algorithm than PageRank, backlinks are often cited as the most important facet by SEO analysts.

Quality, Not Just Quantity, Moves the Needle

The sheer number of backlinks pointed at your site isn’t what matters, although by consistently producing good content over time, you’ll likely accumulate a fair amount.

Quality matters more than most people realize, though. Think back to my PageRank post. The higher a website’s PageRank, the more their link to you is ultimately worth.

No matter what linking model Google is using this month or what tweaks they made to the ranking algorithm, this is fundamentally true.

You need backlinks from sites that are authorities, and they become authorities by others linking to them. In essence, it’s still PageRank.

In real-world terms, if a blog is just starting out, its links to you won’t mean as much as those from a long-established blogger that consistently ranks well in the search engines.

Desk with coffee, computer, smart phone and office supply organizer on top.

A Diverse, Unique Link Profile is Important, Too

While backlinks from the same few sources can be easier and will certainly help boost PageRank, receiving links from a variety of web pages is even more impactful.

Think of it like this: Would you trust a single critic’s review of a film? Even a famous one? Maybe, but a Rotten Tomatoes score better summarizes how all critics feel.

Multiple authorities telling Google that your website is, itself, an expert on a particular subject makes a significant difference — as does the range of pages they link to.

Just as a studio wants critics to review every movie they release, you want the authorities in your niche to link to as many of your blog posts as possible.

Relevant Authorities Drive the Most Value

Just as you’re not an expert in every field, no website is either.

You’ll often see me say this throughout the Mediavine SEO series: Google is constantly parsing websites to establish what you — and the rest of the web — are authorities in.

Again we return to the theme of increased value from higher-quality, relevant backlinks — in this case, links from authorities on the same topic you’re writing about.

If The New York Times links to you, that’s terrific and its high PageRank will help, but it doesn’t necessarily make them the most valuable authority on every subject.

A well-established site in your niche, even with a lower PageRank than the Times, is likely to be even more useful if Google has established it as an authority in your space.

Don’t focus too much on how “big” a site is relative to the overall web. A variety of niche-specific backlinks from quality sites will deliver the SEO results you need.

Woman blogging on laptop computer.

Homepage Links Are Fine, But Deep Links Are the Key

Some of the most common links you’re likely to get are homepage links — people will mention your site by name and link to it. But what you’re really after are “deep links.”

Deep links, or links directly to the content, not only provide a much better user experience, but do a better job of telling Google specifically what’s great about your content. 

When I refer to Google on a SEO topic, I try to link directly to the blog post or video; I don’t link to Google or YouTube generally and tell you to search for it there.

That would be a terrible user experience and sounds ridiculous when phrased that way, but surprisingly, a lot of people don’t follow simple SEO or UX best practices.

People quoting a source with links to their homepage is a common practice. If you have the relationship with the linker, reach out and ask them if they’ll go deeper.

UX aside, Google’s algorithm is going to love this. You’ll get much more mileage from backlinks pointed directly to a page that’s the most relevant authority on a subject.

What Anchor Text is Ideal For Backlinks?

If you remember my anchor text blog post (I forgive you if you didn’t), I discussed how exact or partial keyword matching offer the best user experience.

It sounds obvious, but again, often times publishers don’t choose anchor text that matches what the content is about and should really be the keyphrase.

Of course, absent a close relationship with the publisher linking to you, the choice of anchor text on backlinks is ultimately beyond your control.

Try not to stress out about this and instead focus on the anchor text you select when using internal links — the SEO you can control.

How Do You Get Backlinks?

Ask nicely? We kid, but this important SEO question is also one of the hardest to answer. How do you get people to link to you, anyway?

Joshua Unseth did a great guest blog post on how to get backlinks — and how giving and receiving them is something of an art form.

We kid again, but not entirely. It’s a great place to start, and we’ll be writing a complete guide on these backlink strategies in the future.

Backlink Tags 101: nofollow, ugc, sponsor 

While some SEO analysts think nofollow links do carry some weight in Google’s algorithm, the company says that links with the rel tags of  nofollow, ugc or sponsor “will generally not be followed.” 

When we refer to backlinks, we’re only considering backlinks without one of the aforementioned rel tags. In other words, the default behavior of links — do follow.

While Google may make exceptions — it’s easy to see a scenario in which a nofollow link from a source like Wikipedia might be followed — it’s much simpler to assume not.

Thinking in binary terms where nofollow links are not followed, as the name implies, is generally more helpful to publishers trying to focus their link hunting efforts.

using a computer

Can Bad Links Hurt You?

In our post on external links, we discussed Google bombing, the infamous prank of a bygone era in which a deluge of external links were able to drive up rankings to a post.

The point was that it’s possible for external links to be used in a way to manipulate Google. There’s also a chance they can harm you, but likely not how you think.

Links from non-authorities or spammy sites aren’t necessarily going to hurt you. As with Google bombing, Google has done its best to get smarter with bad links.

Google knows inbound links are not something you can control, and therefore, they’re not going to ding you for a few links from sources that are less than ideal.

The only concern is if Google believes you are buying bad links or spamming, in which case you’ll get an “unnatural links to your site” manual action.

If you’re registered for Google Search Console and did not receive one of these notifications, then your bad links aren’t hurting you. Just ignore them.

If you receive one of these warnings, then you’ll know Google has noticed and it’s impacting your SEO. Otherwise, this isn’t worth losing sleep over.

We repeat, DO NOT BUY LINKS and you’re fine. You also don’t need to disavow bad links, unless you received a penalty or a manual action.

NOTE: Link disavowal is a controversial topic with a lot of differing views, and one we will revisit with more detailed blog post in the future.

TL;DR? Quality, Depth and Understanding

Backlinks are the internet voting for your website.

They establish you as an authority. The more diverse your link profile is, the deeper within your site the links go and the most relevant sources you have, the better.

However, it’s important to understand the limitations of backlinks, and what you can and can’t control. Focus your efforts accordingly. Trust in yourself, and Google.

Are you keeping up with our SEO series? Our next posts are centered around keywords, including longtail keywords, keyword prominence, keyword density, keyword proximity and keyword research

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