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All internet users should be aware of hyperlinks, or more simply, links – the things that you click on to navigate your way around the internet. But there’s a specific type of link that all website owners need to understand, as it can have a real effect on the performance of your site: backlinks.

Backlinks are one of the ways in which Google and other search engines understand the quality, authority and relevance of your website, which makes them a critical piece of the search engine optimisation (SEO) puzzle.

But what exactly are backlinks, why are they important, and how do you make the most of them? In this guide, we’ll walk you through all you need to know about backlinks, including how to get them working for you.

What are backlinks?

A backlink is a specific type of link that goes from another site back to yours, usually displayed as a hyperlink represented by anchor text. They can also be called external links or inbound links, as they direct web traffic from someone else’s site to your own.

Links are the strands that form the world wide web. Internal links are the links that connect web pages and documents within the same domain, and are primarily used to help a visitor navigate around a site – this link to the Traction blog is an example of an internal link.

External links, AKA backlinks, are the links that connect websites web pages and documents across different domains. A site might choose to include a backlink for any number of reasons: to give the reader context, to back up a claim or provide a trusted source, or as part of a recommendation.

Backlinks can be seen as a stamp of approval or a vote of confidence. As an example, this is a backlink for Wikipedia, which directs you, the user, to the definition of the term. It shows that we at Traction feel as though the backlinked site, Wikipedia, is worth directing our web traffic to, whether for reasons of quality, authority, relevance or trust.

It’s for these reasons that search engines like Google and Bing put so much focus on backlinks. If you have a large number of high quality sites linking back to yours, it can help you to rank higher on the search engine results page (SERP).

Why are backlinks important for SEO?

Let’s explore the importance of backlinks a little further. While the extra web traffic that you can gain from people clicking on backlinks is a big reason to focus on them, the SEO benefits can drive even greater levels of traffic, by pushing your website up the Google rankings for relevant search terms.

As we mentioned above, backlinks are useful indicator of how popular, trustworthy and authoritative the internet views your website. If you enjoy backlinks from a large number of high quality and trustworthy sites, it’s a good indication that your site is high quality and trustworthy too. And because Google aims to deliver the best possible results to its users, it will push heavily backlinked sites up its rankings.

This all means that backlinks are one of the most powerful SEO ranking factors at your disposal, and can have an outsized effect on the success of your website in attracting organic traffic. The implementation, management, analysis and optimisation of your backlink performance a therefore a critical aspect of any SEO strategy. Link-building is a part of ‘off-page SEO’: actions taken beyond your own website that help to push up the ranking of your website.

What are the different types of backlinks?

Before crafting a link building strategy, it’s important to understand the different types of backlinks that it might include.

Follow links

A follow link is simply a link that tells Google and other search engines to pass trust and authority to the linked site. Every backlink is a follow link by default, unless you specify otherwise, which brings us to…

Nofollow links

Google views every backlink as a vote of confidence in the site that is linked to. But there are some situations where a site needs to include a backlink, but doesn’t want the backlinked site to benefit from that link. For example, when a business needs to backlink to a competitor, maybe to provide necessary context to a reader.

In these situations a website might apply a nofollow attribute to the backlink, which asks Google not to pass on authority to the linked site (though the final decision rests with Google).

Sponsored links

Sponsored links, such as a blogger who promotes a product and gets a cut of the sales for doing so, should feature a ‘sponsored’ attribute in the HTML code.

Editorially-placed links

Unlike sponsored backlinks, which are paid for, editorially-placed backlinks are those that are included organically – with no payment or kickback involved. These are what Google rightly sees as the most valuable links, as they only appear when they add genuine value. Like ‘follow’ links, all backlinks are assumed to be editorially placed unless labelled otherwise.

User-generated content links

If a website publishes user-generated content (UGC), such as comments below a blog post, they can label any backlinks that might be included with a ‘UGC’ attribute, which tells Google that it wasn’t an editorial decision to publish this link, and that the website therefore doesn’t necessarily endorse the site that is being linked to.

This attribute helps a site avoid being punished for questionable links, like when bots spam the comments section. Speaking of which…

Spammy links (link schemes)

With the value of backlinks so high, it’s inevitable that people will attempt to use questionable, black hat tactics to gain an unfair advantage.

Link schemes are attempts to manipulate Google’s search rankings through the use of things like link exchanges (“if you link to me, I’ll link to you”), unattributed paid and sponsored links, and straight-up link spam, like using an automated program to build backlinks to your site.

Before you get tempted, it’s important to know that Google is very good at identifying and punishing spammy links. The company’s entire business model is built on offering its users the best possible results, so it is very good at sorting the high-quality backlinks from the questionable ones.

Keep in mind too that the above aren’t necessarily distinct types of backlink – there are areas of overlap. You can have an editorially-placed follow backlink, for example.

3 ways to get backlinks to your site

Now that we know what backlinks are, why they’re important and the different shapes they take, how do you get them? This question is surprisingly tricky, because the most valuable backlinks are those that are earned, not paid for, swapped or spammed.

So how do you earn backlinks? Doing so effectively demands a link-building strategy: an established process that begins with a review of your backlink profile and domain authority, then sets out actionable steps to generate relevant, quality backlinks that will showcase you as the sort of high-authority site that Google is looking to deliver to its users.

These actionable steps can include:

1. Create high quality content

To earn backlinks, you need to give other websites something to link back to – you need quality content. Make it educational, entertaining, or a heady mix of both. Gain inspiration from the most common questions your customers ask, or the most popular topics that come up when you Google your industry.

Try to offer something new, from thought leadership to commissioned research. Such unique and insightful content can generate a high number of backlinks, and can even get competitors to link to your site. That said, you can take inspiration from your competitors by checking which content pieces are earning them backlinks, but you’ll then have to write something better and convince other sites to prioritise linking yours.

If you ensure this content is optimised in other ways, such as featuring relevant target keywords, it can turbocharge your SEO efforts.

2. Write guest posts

Consider businesses and organisations that you feel are complementary to your own, then get in touch with them about writing a guest post for their blog. This gives you editorial control over another site, and if the partnership makes sense, it allows you to link back to your own site in an organic way.

Examples include a personal trainer writing a guest post for a health food brand, or a tour company writing a guest post for an online travel agency.

3. Alert the media

Earning website links from a trusted news site can be incredibly valuable for your SEO efforts. There are a couple of ways in which you can get your brand and website on the media’s radar:

  • HARO: Help a reporter out (HARO) is a service that connects journalists to sources. A journalist will upload a story that they’re looking for an expert to comment on, at which point you can offer up a quote for them to use, which is often paired with a link to your site.
  • Issue a press release: Commission research in your field, from a customer survey to data-driven analysis. Once you’ve gained some unique insights, you can pitch them as a potential story to the media via a press release.

Beef up your backlinks with Traction

Another way to drive more backlinks: get help from the SEO experts at Traction.

At Traction Marketing we’ve spent years helping Kiwi businesses to attract more organic visitors through backlinks, and to rise higher on the Google results page in the process.

Backlinking forms a key pillar to our SEO approach, which spans a wealth of tactics from content generation to guest posting to PR.

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