If you're reading this, you've heard of a backlink before, but that may be as far as it goes. Or perhaps you've heard of them, know a bit about them and how they basically work, but don't really know the various pros and cons of different techniques.
Maybe you've heard that backlinks don't work anymore, or maybe you're afraid of getting your site penalized by Google if you try to build too many links. Check out our off-page SEO guide to learn more about the different elements that compose a backlink.
Or maybe, you're looking to up your knowledge of the subject.
If any of these situations sounds like you, then this article is likely going to be of immense value.
What You'll Learn Today
- What exactly is a backlink?
- How Google's search ranking algorithm uses links, and how it's evolved over time.
- The downside of link building and getting a site penalized.
- White-hat vs Black-hat vs Grey-hat.
- The quality vs quantity debate.
- General tips: Anchor text, link velocity, nofollow vs dofollow.
- How to check a backlink profile (for you AND your competitors)
- How many links do you need to rank?
- Link building case study overviews
- Different link building methods and where to learn more.
Important note before we continue: While this article is aimed at being an ultimate guide to backlinks, it's NOT going to go deep into actual link building techniques. We will definitely reference many different methods and give our opinions on them, and we will also be weighing up the pros and cons of various schools of thinking when it comes to link building.
What Exactly Is A Backlink? A Brief History Of PageRank
In practical terms, a backlink is any link from another website to your site. This could include something like a link from a Twitter profile or a forum profile as well, so it doesn't have to be from a blog-type site.
If you are ever reading a website and you see a link to another site, that's a backlink. Simple as that.
Why is a backlink significant? Because many search engines, particularly Google, use backlinks as signs that a website is quality. When Google was just starting out, they revolutionized search engines by deciding that whenever a site links to another one, that first site is essentially "voting" and letting people know it thinks the second site is good quality. This is how the PageRank algorithm was born.
Back in its early days, Google used the number of links your site had as the main ranking factor for determining which websites to show at the top of its search results. The more links you had, the higher you ranked.
As you can imagine, this made it pretty easy to game the system. All you had to do was create backlinks to your site and you'd rank. This was done either by creating fake websites to link to your site, by spamming your links all over the place (particularly blog comments and bookmark directories), or paying for sites to link to you.
Google wasn't really pleased with the amount of spam ranking at the top of its search results, so they took action, and started focusing on quality, rather than quantity of links. They had always given more weight to some links over others, but they hadn't really put anything in place to stop spammers.
This is where the Google Penguin algorithm came into play. In its essence, Penguin was an algorithm that would scan the web and identify sites that were using spamming techniques or poor quality link building, and it would penalize them, basically telling the main algorithm not to display them high in the SERPs, no matter what they did.
At the same time, Google also made spammy links such as blog comment links have very little weight.
The result was that if you built only a handful of weak links, you didn't rank highly, and if you spammed them like crazy, your site got penalized. The result was that Google's SERPS were massively cleaned up, and it was a lot harder to game the system. At this point, the Google's Penguin algorithm is now real time - before it wasn't and if you were penalized, you'd have to wait for the reset button to be pressed again.
Google also developed algorithms like Panda, which identifies the quality of a site aside from just backlinks, and they have also added over 200 other ranking metrics over the years. However, we're just talking about backlinks here, so let's stay on topic.
Links Still Work - And Will For Some Time
Now despite making a lot of changes in how backlinks work, and definitely making it harder for spam sites to succeed, Google has never been able to fully eradicate backlinks from their search results. At the end of the day, good content attracts good links, and whenever they tried completely ignoring a site's link profile, they found that the results they displayed for a search term were not as good as when using links.
Google wants to show the best results at the top of their search pages, and for the foreseeable future, backlinks are going to be a core component in how they determine the best results.
As recently as 2016, a key member of Google revealed that backlinks are still one of the top three ranking metrics (alongside content, and user engagement). So let's just get this out of the way now:
Spammy techniques might not work so well anymore, but link building still works, and will do for a long time to come. If you want to know about the right and wrong approach to backlinks, click the link to hear the misconceptions we come across everyday.
Can you rank a site highly without building links? Yes, but it's an uphill struggle, and nothing moves that needle faster than getting a quality link to your site.
You still need to do correct keyword research and build quality content of course, but once that's done, it's time to build links.
What's With All These Hats? White - Grey - Blackhat SEO
One of the biggest fears people have when it comes to linkbuilding, is getting a penalty.
In fact, I asked this very question in our Facebook Group just the other day, and concerns about getting in trouble with Google were prominent answers:
This fear of Google isn’t irrational, it’s based on case study after case study where people break Google’s rules, and get penalized.
When it comes to the color of a hat, this is referring to the type of link building you do. Anything which Google considers to be OK and won’t punish you for, is called White Hat SEO. This might be something like outreach, guest posting, publishing top quality, link-worthy content, and generally attracting links naturally.
Google’s belief is pretty simple;
If you produce great content, people will want to link to it. That is exactly why links have any weight in the search algorithm in the first place.
It makes sense, but it also makes sense that people will want to game the system and build their own links in order to make it look like they are attracting natural links.
There are two real types of link builder who do “artificial” link building (basically anything that wouldn’t be classed as natural). Grey Hat SEOs are those who are willing to do things Google isn’t keen on, such as using PBN’s, web 2.0 properties, scholarships, or some of the more old fashioned techniques like blog commenting or social bookmarks.
The Grey Hat SEO basically thinks “I don’t mind gaming Google, because I understand White Hat SEO can be hard and slow, but I still want to focus on building quality websites and quality links.”
A Black Hat SEO doesn’t really care about quality. They’ll do some of the more illegal things like building links from hacked websites, creating hundreds of automated spam links, and other things that give link builders a bad name. Anything that is easy, automated, and is quantity over quality is Black Hat (as a general rule).
How do these definitions come into play in practical terms, and will grey hat SEO lead to a penalty?
First of all though, let's take a look at what links are classed where.
Most guest posting
Some guest posting
Other Automated Links
Broken Link Building
Some Blog comments
Some Blog Comments
Now that you have a better idea of what kind of links are classed as what, let’s talk a bit more about penalties.
The long and short of it is that the easiest way to get your site penalized is actually not the type of links you build, but the way you build them.
Are you spamming them to your site very quickly?
Are you targeting too many keywords or the same keyword over and over again with each link?
You’re more likely to get a penalty from using exact match anchors too much than anything else, no matter whether that is for white hat or black hat links. Remember that.
White hat becomes grey hat pretty much as soon as you use keyword anchors in your guest posts.
When someone tells me they don't want to do grey hat SEO because they don't want a penalty, I can't help but feel that aren't fully understanding how it all works. I'm not saying grey hat is safe, but if you aren't going overboard and you're not using public link networks, you can quite conceivably fly under the radar indefinitely and avoid a penalty. The internet is a big place.
To this day, I have still never been penalized, manually or algorithmically.
Speaking of manual penalties, these are when a Google staff member views your site and manually analyzes your link profile. If this happens, it is quite likely they will find any artificial links you have built, but that still doesn't mean you will definitely get a penalty, unless they can prove it was you who built them.
Besides, manual reviews don't happen very often.
So while the risk of a penalty IS very much real, it is also a very low risk, at least in the eyes of a grey hat SEO.
Ultimately, it's down to you to research the risks and decide for yourself. If you can make white hat SEO work for you, then don't bother dabbling with the darker shades.
General Tips For Link Building
Ok, let's move away from the actual different types of links, and talk a bit more about things like link velocity, anchor text, dofollow/nofollow links, and then a reminder about quality vs quantity.
For fear of going into too much depth, we will link to other relevant articles for further reading about each concept.
The "anchor text" of a link is the part of the link which is clickable. For example, if you want to read my post about turnkey niche sites, the anchor text in this example is "turnkey niche sites".
Why does it matter? Because a large part of the Google ranking algorithm looks at the actual anchor text of links pointing to your site.
It makes sense that if you want to rank for a keyword like "best straight razor", you'll get more link juice if you're linking with a relevant, keyword based anchor.
However, this is also the area of link building which is most likely to land you in hot water with Google.
Too many keyword-based anchors, especially if they're all pointing to the same page and are all the same keyword, is one of the easiest ways to get hit with a penguin penalty. You really don't want to send too many similar keyword anchors to your site.
Mix them up, use partial match anchors, add in some "brand" anchors (use your site name or author name is the keyword text), or even just use links with no anchor text.
Diversifying your anchor text profile is easy to do and is probably the best way of protecting yourself against a penalty.
By utilizing a mixture of partial match keywords (for example, instead of just spamming "best straight razor" to your site, you can use things like "good cut throat razors" or "what is the best straight razor for beginners". You'll get the same effect in terms of link power, but will be much better protected.
This basically refers to how frequent you build links and how many links you build. It makes sense that a brand new site isn't going to attract 500 links in its first week, so you don't want to do this. You won't see much benefit from it, and you'll make Google consider your site spammy.
It's really hard to give an exact rule for how many links you should build, but what I usually do is focus on about 20 brand links in the first 1-2 months of a site's life, and after that I might be a bit more aggressive and use keyword anchors. I don't really build many more than 20-30 links per month per site though.
You should also consider making some of your first links nofollow. We'll cover nofollow and dofollow shortly, but by making some of your earliest links nofollow, you're following what a normal site does.
Nofollow vs dofollow
Link builders will argue about this kind of thing until the cows come home, but I'm going to keep it short and sweet.
Do you need both types of links? No. Not really.
Is it natural for a site to have both types? Yes. So build both.
For those not in the know, a link can either be classified as "nofollow" or "dofollow". This is basically a way for the site with the link to say to Google "count this link as a vote" or "don't count this".
Nofollow links can still serve a purpose, even if they don't carry any ranking juice. For a start, they can help diversify your anchor text. Building 30-50 blog comment links with your brand name as the anchor is a great way to build some "pillow links".
What looks better, a site that only has 20 dofollow PBN links, or a site that has 20 PBN links, and 40 branded links too? In this sense, it doesn't matter if they're follow or not.
Remember, with link building, the sensible thing to do is think what kind of links a real, legitimate, authority site attracts, and try your best to recreate that.
Final Thoughts - Quality Beats Quantity
The power of any given is dependent on the authority voting for you. By this I mean, it's a lot better to have 1 link from somewhere like Forbes than it is to have 100 links from random web 2.0 blogs.
Quality will always trump quantity, but as most of us don't have access to the most powerful links out there, we need to find a happy medium. Build as many links as you need to rank, but don't just go out there and spam a bunch of low quality junk links to your site.
Link building is something that takes a long time to learn and takes a lot of practice to get the hang of. However, if you want to succeed with affiliate marketing, you need to do your best to master as many skills as possible, so get to it!