The importance of building links and link quality
At their core, links connect relevant content together. Quality content builds on itself, and eventually a network of related, authoritative websites begins to take shape. In this lens, the rationale behind the importance of linking makes perfect sense: the more links a website has, the more trustworthy that site (and by extension, the associated brand) theoretically is. That’s why search engines have always relied on links to learn more about a website and the content it contains. By following links to and throughout a website, engines determine rank based on the quantity and quality of these links.
Backlinks have long been a backbone of Google’s organic search algorithm. They provide third-party, (often) unbiased perspectives that help Google understand the trust and value of that website from a searcher’s perspective. We know that Google likes to see lots of links, but not lots of links from the same domain. For example, if a website has 2,000 incoming links, but all originate from the same domain, those links will not improve the site’s rank as much as 2,000 links from 50 domains. Diversity is key. Google is looking for lots of links that stem from many different domains, but even still, quality will outrank quantity every time.
There is still much debate over what constitutes a “quality” backlink – should a niche blog with high engagement and below-average SEO count as much as a generic industry website with strong SEO? A sound, forward-thinking backlink strategy will treat both site types as a critical part of the larger offsite SEO picture.
links good, links bad, links good again
A few years ago, links got a bad reputation. Why? Lazy marketers were buying links from low-quality, unrelated websites rather than taking the time to cultivate genuine, relevant links with complementary websites. The Google gods were mightily displeased. And marketers were uncertain about how much time to put into link building efforts.
Fortunately these shoddy practices were short-lived, as Google Penguin and the ever-evolving algorithm came down hard on the offending sites. Using links to make websites appear more expert, authoritative, and trustworthy than they really were in an attempt to boost rankings led to some sites disappearing from results altogether.
Google also provided clear guidance about proper link building practices, and conscientious marketers need only follow their direction to benefit.
BACKLINKS: THEN AND NOW
For many years, simply having a link from a high-traffic, high-authority webpage featuring your target keyword would be enough to get a page to rank consistently. Webmasters were ready and willing to link to a website in exchange for some level of publicity for their site. Link building was often as simple as writing an email, pitching an idea for a blog post or link, and following through.
This naturally led to an explosion in paid link schemes, link-driven guest blog posts, and quantity-driven link acquisition strategies. The idea of backlinks as independent arbiters of website authority was great, but it became too easy to fake.
Google’s solution was twofold: Improve the algorithm’s ability to spot link manipulation (enter: Google Penguin), and de-emphasize its reliance on the link itself.
As strange as it sounds, link building is both harder and easier than ever before. Webmasters are rightfully more discerning and know a link request when they see it come through their inbox. Google has effectively called guest blog posting a spam tactic, and the algorithm has evolved to a point where it values backlinks in the context of the linking and linked websites.
Gone are the days of traditional, scalable link building tactics. But with the newfound challenges of a smarter landscape come some positive evolutions from Google. Most importantly, they (along with Bing) are now capable of applying backlink SEO authority to a brand mention, even if there is no link (Search Engine Land). Naturally, Google’s ability to measure offsite SEO authority without links makes it easier to focus more on digital PR initiatives and less on acquiring the hardcoded backlink itself.
The future of link building is one in which search engines can measure offsite SEO authority using a combination of backlinks and implied links (such as brand or social media mentions) to determine the value of content to a searcher.
Internal Links Clarify Site Architecture and Enhance Customer Journey
The internal linking structure within a website is often overlooked as a ranking factor, but it’s one that deserves your attention. Pages that are not linked anywhere may not rank – sometimes they are not indexed at all – because Google views them as irrelevant to the site experience (which makes sense, if they are not linked or promoted on the site).
Treat your website’s link architecture as if it were a store, with important pages (like products) and sections displayed most prominently. As visitors travel through your website, ensure that they can follow a natural path to purchase by logically linking each page to the next step in the customer journey. Blog posts can link to relevant product pages, and vice versa.
The majority of new visitors to your site probably enter via the homepage. A logical site architecture makes it easy for visitors to go deeper via category pages, then to individual product pages. It also tries to anticipate questions they may have along the way. For example: Do customers frequently have questions about warranties, your return policy, or need information about product care? If so, make sure there are visible, live links to relevant content for easy access in the appropriate places on your site.
If you anticipate your customers’ questions and information needs, and link to them consistently throughout the customer journey, you’ll be way ahead of the game in terms of internal linking.
WHAT MARKETERS NEED TO KNOW
Links continue to be an essential part of the overall vitality of a website. A healthy backlink profile and smart internal linking structure requires ongoing attention, and a little extra effort can pay big dividends in terms of brand awareness, traffic, improved rank, and customer satisfaction with your website.
This post is based on sage advice from MOZ, found in the excellent, nearly 90-page Beginners Guide to Link Building – highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to build links the right way.
Look for Part 2 in this series, where we’ll discuss common backlink issues (broken links, no anchor text) and how to find and fix them; and for Part 3 where we’ll offer practical suggestions to enhance your digital PR initiatives.
Photo source: Pexels