The Art of Giving and Receiving Backlinks

woman at office desk on laptop next to glasses and coffee

This post is brought to you by my Theory of Content podcast partner, Joshua Unseth. He’s the Director of Marketing at AlarmGrid, and an all around great guy. He knows his stuff, which you know if you listen to us every week. If you aren’t listening yet, why not?! – Amber, co-founder, Mediavine

Backlinks are the holy grail of SEO.

The history of backlinking is one of the most interesting elements of the internet’s history. Suffice it to say, when Google launched their search engine using links as a means to evaluate the importance of content on the internet, everything changed.

Entire industries began to pop up around the notional value of links. What is the value of a link? Well, today, if you were to purchase a good backlink, you might pay $100. But 10 years ago, if you wanted to buy a link on a site of note, you might even spend $10,000.

The reason is simple.

10 years ago, some links were worth $10,000. If you wanted to rank for the keyword “vacuum cleaner” then you could sure as shootin’ do it if you could get a little bitty link in an article on the New York Times. The result of the linking economy was that Google had continue iterating on their algorithm such that links have become a more and more diluted portion of their ranking signals.

A word art image featuring blogging buzz words.

Nowadays, the algorithm has become so complex that Google relies on complex analysis to determine search that is better and search that is worse. Basically, they use the millions of people that use their service every day to evaluate whether an algorithmic tweak gives users marginally more utility, whether it gives users marginally less utility, or whether a change gives users no marginal benefit whatever. These are hard problems.

When you’re running a website, you are going to want to do your best to ride the line of making sure that you give Google what it needs today, while measuring what Google will want in the future. The answer to the first part of this question is fluid. Google makes changes every day that can affect your immediate rankings. The answer to the second part of the question is simple.

Google wants great, useful content.

In all cases, Google strives to deliver content that is more and more useful to its users. Which means, those that create the best content today, will eventually be rewarded by Google as they make more and more tweaks.

The Art of Giving and Receiving Backlinks | Mediavine

Basically, if you’re reading this now trying to figure out how to get more links, I am here to tell you that you’re stuck in a very 2007-2010 mentality. Links matter, but only in context of everything else. And, as any good search marketer will tell you, the key is to be worthy of a link or to be worthy of being talked about. So at risk of writing an article that is too long to read, let me start by going through how to give a link.

Links are like words. The way that you pick a word in a post is simple. You write content, and as you write it, the words come out. Each word considers the previous word, and each word enhances the article. You don’t add superfluous words. You write from the catalog of words you know, and each word has a purpose.

Likewise, links must be purposeful. They need to proceed from the content. They should enhance the words they are on, and the article should be made better by them. Be judicious about linking to articles that are off site. You should regard links as treasures. You use them when you must. You give them when the content calls for it. Anything else is doing a disservice to your readers.

A word art image of the word "Trust".

In a sense, a link is a way to share the value of the words on your site with another blogger. You built that value. That is your value to dole out. And you should be careful about who you give it to. Giving links to just anyone is a bit like going to your neighbors home with a wad of $1 bills and throwing them into his front door. Without context, the act would be inexplicable.

Likewise, you should recognize that links you are given are someone else’s way of giving you their value. You must work hard to be deserving of someone’s value. Your content needs to be so valuable that it unbelievably enhances their content. So much so that you are able to pry their value from their cold dead hands. The best links are the ones you get because someone had to link to you.

More on that later. First let’s finish discussing what you ought to be linking to.

The decision to link is not entirely objective. Most people link to others because they feel like it might be a good place to link to. You can be as objective as you want about the decision. Honestly, a quick thoughtful, gut-based answer to the question: “would this be an useful article for my readers,” is probably enough.

But you should hone your ability to assess a number of factors when deciding whether a site is worthy of a link. The reason this is all worth considering is because the more of these areas your site hits on, the more likely you are to be worthy of a link from others.

1) Is the domain I’m linking to a trusted authority on the subject?

This isn’t a deal breaker. After all, how can you become a trusted authority without first getting noticed. But I would rather link to someone with low traffic who I consider a trusted authority on the subject rather than linking to a person because they’re popular.

A great example in the security space might be Bruce Schneier.

This dude is boring.

His blog is ugly.

And he’s the most competent person to write on his subject matter.

If you are writing something he’s touched on, your readers will almost certainly benefit from his content.

For food bloggers, you might consider someone an authority on cookware, another a great authority on the quality of cooking ingredients, and you might have another blogger who does the science of food. These are all neat elements that would enhance your writing if you’re putting together a recipe.

Link to your inspiration. Make sure that the writers you borrow from are compensated with some link love.

2) Is the content current?

If the blog your linking to isn’t being updated anymore, then avoid linking.

Blogging is a forever job for some people. For others, it’s something they tried and don’t do anymore. Those blogs will eventually disappear. You are rewarding a dead blog with the gift of the eyeballs and trust of your users. If the blog is infrequently updated, but every post is amazing, that is one thing. But if it’s been 2 years since anyone has touched the blog, it might be worth grabbing and recreating the stale content yourself if it’s good.

3) Is the content un-reproducible and thoughtful?

This is a big one for me.

If the content on another site is just a listicle, then whoooooooo cares. “Top 10 pans to cook with” might be an example of a piece of content that is not that original.

Also, you can make your own list. You should favor linking to your own content over linking to other people’s content.

If the content is the kind of thing that you can not only reproduce, but can add a better spin to or that you can make more specific, you should capture that article like it was that cute little Pikachu you’ve been searching for.

Write your own “Top 10 Pans” piece. Better yet, if you’re doing a recipe article, do a “Best cookware for Chinese cooking” article, or a “Best pan to use for stir fry.”

This is a highly targeted article that will add value to the article you’re writing. It will keep traffic on your site, and it will enhance your users’ experience with the content. (For those of you wanting to increase pageviews, this is how to do it without playing games).

If the content on a site is not reproducible and it is thoughtful, then that’s a great reason to link to it. An article about Susan making Bao with her adopted Chinese son and making a cultural-connecting memory right before he goes to college might be that kind of thoughtful, personal content that you can’t repurpose. It is evocative, emotional, and will give your readers a connection to your content that you couldn’t have without the article. Content that is reproducible is less valuable than content written from one’s own experience.

4) Is the blog focused on content or ads?

You can tell a lot from a blog’s look and feel. There are a lot of great bloggers out there that will litter the landscape of their pages with ads. This is one of the reasons I love working with Mediavine. The work they do attempts to minimize ads and maximize revenues for bloggers. This will enhance user experiences on sites while ensuring that the bottom line for bloggers isn’t hit.

So how do you build content that is worth linking to?

It’s the same question you should ask when evaluating whether content is worth your linking. But since the content is in your control, you should take special care to make sure that it is even better than the kind of content you would find yourself linking to. Send it through the following rubric:

Focus on quality.

Is it high quality content? Is it unique? – The content must be unique and personal. It’s cliche to say, but your content must be risky. Tell stories that make your audience feel like they are in on a secret. Give them a glimpse of your life. In the context of a recipe, tell them why this recipe is meaningful to you.

Do you invite readers to engage (leave comments, tell their stories, tweet, share, etc)? – Readers can add a ton of unique value to a story. They will tell you why it meant so much to them. They will add their own reflections. They will invite others to engage. It’s free content. Also, if they share it, it’s more eyeballs. Your content exists to inspire others. Sometimes it inspires them to create content of their own. If they are kind, they will link to the article that inspired them to create.

Is your site fast? Does it look good enough? – User experience matters. An user should never think about anything on your site short of, “I love this content.” Make your site as fast as you can. Make your pictures small enough to load quickly. Make them pretty, and make sure your site isn’t an eyesore. WordPress has great plugins for this. But I don’t think it would be prudent to endorse them here, necessarily. That said, measure your site speed. See what makes pages are hanging up. I like Google Pagespeed Insights. Though there are others that work great as well.

Is your content written for people? Did you do your keyword research? Is the site structured well? – Getting seen is the simplest way to get links. If the content hits on all points, people will link to it. Don’t write for search engines. After doing keyword research, writers will often try to stuff their blog with all the variations of keywords they can. This is a bad move.

Google’s been working on rolling out what is known as the Semantic web. They are doing their best to determine what a page is about without the contextual keywords that used to matter. That means, hopefully, you can get away with a bit of artistic pomp and actually write stylistically. Google isn’t perfect at it. But it’s getting there. If you want to include keywords, the title is probably a pretty good place for them. Maybe throw in one or two in the text. But then surround those words with your poetic license.

Finally, it doesn’t hurt to ask for links. If you have an article that you think is great, find bloggers whose articles you think your content enhances. Consider asking them to link to it. Don’t do it with any expectations. If they link to you, awesome! If not, move on. Needless to say, if you have made a habit of producing great content, the old stuff will be found. New articles will build an audience. And as time goes on, the links will follow. Oh, and if you link to someone else, do it charitably. Don’t do it with any expectations either. You linked to it because it enhanced your content. There should be no expectations of them doing the same for you.

Ultimately, while often link-obsessed, it’s worth noting that link-getting is not the most valuable thing you can do with your time as a blogger. Producing content worth linking to is going to yield results that will blow you away.

Good luck!

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