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Backlinks: Do They Matter, And If So, How Should I Use Them?

One of the big misconceptions that spawned out of the SEO world’s intense focus on ‘content marketing’ has been the idea that somehow creating amazing content is enough. We’ve been telling people that extraordinary content builds its own backlinks for so long that we’ve stopped thinking about those backlinks as though they matter — but they totally do matter.

The fact that Google opened up a huge can of Panda-and-Penguin whoopass on a wide variety of black- and grey-hat SEO practices a few years ago doesn’t mean they suddenly stopped using their core algorithm to decide which websites rank where. And that core algorithm must rely on perceptible factors about a site in order to establish that site’s ranking. And we know that one of the factors that they look at is the set of links that point at your website.

So unless we believe that there’s literally nothing we can do to optimize that matrix, of course backlinks still matter!
The difference between today and four years ago is how they matter. Because technology has advanced at a pretty pace recently, and we’ve gone from weighting backlinks based on domain age and size (alone) to weighting them based on a huge number of factors, including whether or not that link is most likely to be created by the same entity that created the website.

What Makes a Good Backlink? Part 0 – Usability
Before all else, and few others will even mention this because it’s so fundamental, a link has to be crawlable, meaning the search engine’s bots can find it, traverse it, and read the page on the other side. Links that are NoFollow links, links that contain characters the search engine’s bots can’t interpret, and links on pages that bots will never find in the first place (like links from a truly deep page on an older website, which will get crawled at random maybe once every few years) are truly worth absolutely nothing.

What Makes a Good Backlink? Part 1 – Authority
The first thing that sets a backlink apart from its peers is authority — that is to say, the link comes from a page that can be trusted to only link to high-quality pages. There are a number of excellent ways to establish the authority of a site, and no one outside of Google knows precisely what measure Google uses (same for Bing, etc.), so it’s impossible for an outsider to measure authority to a high degree of accuracy.

Fortunately, we don’t really have to. Authority is a pretty easy thing to intuit; all you have to do is ask yourself, “If I click on a completely random link from this site, how likely is it that I’ll end up at a spammy, low-quality website?” For example, you’re almost never going to get a crappy site on the other end of a link that is imbedded in a Forbes or New York Times article. Wikipedia is less certain, but the editors do a pretty good job of keeping the sourcing on that site high-quality, so it’s still pretty dang authoritative. A random link from EZineArticles, on the other hand, is highly suspect, and a link from BlackHatWorld is presumably dangerous.

There’s a further detail to this: the number of outgoing links on a page dilutes that page’s authority. This is obvious when taken to the extreme: a page that is nothing more than a long list of links is rightfully going to have almost no authority whatsoever, even if it belongs to the Wall Street Journal. But it’s true on a lower level, too — if a blog post links out to seven different pages, it’s going to pass each of those pages less authority than it would if it only linked to one. (Note that this doesn’t count internal links; there’s no ‘penalty’ for getting linked to from a page that also links to a hundred different pages on the same website.)

What Makes a Good Backlink? Part 2 – Variety
The best backlink is one that is unlike all of your previous backlinks, because it shows the search engines that your website has a broad appeal. This means, for example, that the second backlink that comes from a given domain is less valuable than the first. It’s still potentially valuable, especially if it comes from a different section of the site, from a different author, a month apart — but getting the same guy to link to you about the same subject from the same part of a news site is about as impressive as the second time you told that joke about the difference between a duck.

But more broadly than that, it means that a second backlink from the same kind of site is less valuable than the first. If you get a backlink from Reddit, your backlink from Digg will mean less, and your subsequent backlink from StumbleUpon will mean even less. If you get a backlink from the Argus leader, getting a backlink from the Star Tribune will mean less, and so on. Search engines want to see that your site is making waves across a wide variety of sites.

Note that a big part of this is about timing: if you get a massive surge in backlinks over a few days, Google will assume that something cool happened on your site, and you’ll see a bump in ranking…for a few days. But unless that surge becomes a trend, your site will sink back down. Similarly, if your site starts to get regular backlinks that are all forged between 8 and 11 pm on Wednesday night, they’re going to know someone was hired to do it, and they’re going to discount all of those backlinks. Variety in every aspect of your link building, from host domain to IP C-block to time of day the link is built, is crucial.

What Makes a Good Backlink? Part 3 – Relevance
There’s a lot of confusion about relevance in SEO. That’s because there are a lot of different kinds of relevance in SEO. When you’re talking about what subject a page ranks for, for example, you look at the relevance of the linking page to the linked page. For example, if your page is about tiger lilies, you’re more likely to get ranked for “tiger lilies” if the page linking to you is about tiger lilies than you would if it’s about fertilizer.

But when you’re talking about how much juice a link has to offer, the relevance isn’t referring to the page doing the linking — it’s the link itself. Specifically, the anchor text. If the anchor text to your page is relevant to the content of the page, the link is stronger. It doesn’t have to be a keyword (though it helps (though Penguin made it dangerous to be too ‘helpful’ in that manner)) — it can be the words “this blog about tiger lilies” or even “Eve’s blog,” assuming that your blog features your name prominently.

This is, however, severely constrained by the above rule about diversity. Google assumes that different people are going to prioritize different aspects of the page they link to, and if too many of your anchor texts start to look too similar, you could easily get pinged for a lack of diversity. (And that’s not even counting the Penguin coming down on your for “over-optimized anchor text.”)

What Makes a Good Backlink? Part 4 – Details
The details of the link itself can also affect how a search engine interprets its ‘juice.’ The size of the link (relative to surrounding text and in an absolute sense), the link’s position within the page, the link’s position within a list (if it is in a list at all), the size of the image (if the link is an image), the number of letters/words used in the anchor text, and the existence of ‘arguments’ in the link can all change the way that a search engine allows the link to share juice. (Arguments, in this case, are anything that comes after a question mark in the url, as in ‘http://www.website.htm?argument=ThisRightHere’.)

What Makes a Good Backlink? Part 5 – The URL It Links To
This might seem a little odd — if the point of a backlink is that it passes juice to the URL it links to, how does the URL itself affect the quality of the backlink? Well, Google’s primary focus is to ensure that its users have a high-quality experience on the web, and as such, they’ve begun penalizing the link-juice of backlinks that go to places that have malware hosted on them, or that go to a chain of redirects that’s several items long, or that Google can’t crawl due to a robots.txt file.

 

So, how does this answer the question asked in the title? How should you use backlinks? Well, the accurate answer is “Sparingly, but carefully.” Too many backlinks created by any one entity will always betray some pattern that Google’s algorithm will notice, and they’ll start to devalue all of the backlinks that fit the pattern — even the ones that you didn’t create. But once or twice a week, putting in the effort to get a well-placed, well-anchor-texted backlink from a high-quality, authoritative domain, keeping all of the kinds of variety needed firmly in mind, can do amazing things for your SEO. Pardon me, I mean, your content marketing.

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