Search engine optimisation… it’s just about adding in some relevant keywords to your content, right? It would be nice if that was the case. But the fact is that keywords are just one part of SEO. And while ranking algorithms are often shrouded in mystery, what we do know is that there’s considered to be 8 distinct SEO ranking factor categories:
1. Domain factors
2. On-page factors
3. On-site factors
4. Backlink factors
5. User engagement
6. Brand signals
7. On-site webspam factors
8. Off-site webspam factors
At focus on digital, through our experience providing a leading SEO service UK, we know that businesses are usually pretty familiar with some of these. On-page factors – things like content length, keywords, reading level, and so on – are often well known.
However, there are some that businesses tend to overlook, and we want to discuss one of them in a lot more detail here: backlink factors and their role in off-page SEO.
What is Off-Page SEO?
When we think about off page SEO, we mostly think about on-page SEO or on-site SEO; any optimisation efforts that take place on specific pages or across the specific website we’re trying to promote in the search engine results pages. Things like posting content in a blog, developing a good site architecture, and so on… it’s all stuff we do on-site.
Off-page SEO is the opposite. It’s any optimisation efforts that take place outside of the website we’re trying to promote. So it refers to things like Youtube videos, Google My Business listings, and user reviews on third party sites… they’re all considered off-site SEO.
Backlinks fall under this category. Backlinks are any links on ‘outside’ websites (off-page) that point back to the website you’re trying to promote. For example, a link in a guest post you publish on another website that directs traffic back to your own website would be a backlink. Backlinks are different from internal links, which are links from your own website to other pages within that site. Internal links are often used for user navigation.
Why Does Linking Matter for SEO?
That’s a question that’s best answered by Google:
‘Links help our crawlers find your site and can give your site greater visibility in our search results. When returning results for a search, Google uses sophisticated text-matching techniques to display pages that are both important and relevant to each search. Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote by page A for page B.
Something that’s worth mentioning at this point is that, when we talk about the importance of backlinks for SEO, we’re generally talking about follow links.
There are two types of backlink: follow links, and nofollow links. Follow links are the links that search engines use to help determine a rank in the SERPs. Nofollow links still direct traffic to the website they’re pointing at, but they don’t influence SERPs positioning.
‘In general, we don’t follow them’, states Google. Nofollow links are usually found in:
- Blog comments
- Social media posts
- Forums and discussions
- Press releases
- Some specific news websites
Nofollow links don’t directly contribute towards SEO. However, they do drive traffic to a website, they do help to boost awareness of a brand or website, and they do generate social signals that some search engines do in fact use as a ranking factor. So nofollow links are still important – even for SEO – but for the purposes of this guide, we’ll be focusing primarily on follow links which are going to help you maximise your visibility.
How to Get Links
There are a number of ways to build a backlink profile for SEO. These include:
- Reaching out to bloggers and other websites and asking if they’d be willing to publish a guest post. This is content written by you – with a link back to your website – that is published on websites looking for that type of content.
- Identifying broken backlinks to other websites, and asking if the site owner would be willing to swap that broken link for a link to similar or other relevant content on your website. This can be mutually beneficial as broken links can break trust, too.
- Creating highly valuable, interesting, and engaging content that other websites naturally want to link to. Consider publishing your own data on a subject, or turning existing content into eye catching, shareable visuals such as infographics.
- Focusing on other aspects of SEO. Research shows that high ranking pages organically acquire new backlinks at a rate of between 5% and 14.5% per month, so focusing on other areas of SEO can help you boost your efforts.
Developing a Link Building Strategy
While we may never know the true extent of factors that search engines use to determine rank, it’s believed that there are no less than 47 distinct backlinking factors that may be used. These are factors that businesses must take into account with any sort of SEO link building. By ticking off at least some of them, you know you’re helping to boost your position and maximise your website’s visibility in the search engine results.
We won’t go through all 47 factors here, but we will cover some of the most critical:
- Number of linking domains & pages
This is perhaps the most obvious factor. Quite simply, the more domains that link to your site, the more signals search engines have that say ‘this is a site people want to see’. This is reflected in the SERPs, with research showing that websites ranked in first place typically have between 250 and 300 backlinks, compared to around 50 backlinks for the websites ranked in 10th position. And it’s not just domains that matter. Even if two links come from pages within the same linking domain, they both help with SEO.
- Domain and page authority
Earlier, we showed how Google considers backlinking to be ‘a vote from page A for page B’. But not all votes were created equal. As Google also notes, ‘votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily and help to make other pages “important”.’ So a link from a top level domain (for example, a .co.uk or .gov.uk domain) would be worth more ‘SEO points’ than a link from a lower level domain (like .men). That’s because search engines trust these authoritative websites more.
- Age of linking domain
This is more of a controversial one. If you’re looking for websites where you can start building your linking profile, should you choose older sites, or new ones? The age of the linking domain is a factor that’s widely debated, and maybe it doesn’t hold much weight at all. But at the same time, we know that authority and trust matter. And which is likely to have more authority and trust: a well-established site or a new one relatively few people have visited? Although age may not be a direct factor, it definitely matters.
- Anchor text
Anchor text matters for internal linking because it provides search engines with even more information about what a page is about. What many don’t realise is that it does exactly the same when it comes to backlinks, too. John Mueller, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, alludes to this in a 2017 tweet, saying ‘most links do provide a bit of additional context through their anchor text. At least they should, right?’. And as we know, when Google understands your page, it’s able to rank it for relevant searches.
- Type of linking site
Search engines often place more importance on backlinks that come from sites that are relevant to your own – including your competitors! For example, if you sold cakes, a backlink from a food-based website would be more beneficial in terms of SEO than a backlink from a garden centre website. So a good rule of thumb when reaching out to potential link-givers is to focus on websites operating within the same industry or field as you. Sites don’t have to be an exact match, as long as there’s some connection there.
- Link position
The first link on any page is always given the most power in terms of SEO, with the impact decreasing for every subsequent link. Now, for pages where there are only two or three links, having your link at the bottom isn’t really that big a deal. But if there are tonnes of links there, you’re not going to be getting the most SEO value from the backlink if you’re right down near the footer. So if you’re creating your own content for backlinking it’s best practice to always try and have your own link up near the top.
Now, with backlinks that you publish yourself – guest posts, for example – you’ll have some level of control over these things. But what about backlinks that are put out there by others? It’s important to remember that you don’t always get a say in where your links end up, what anchor text is used, where it’s positioned on the page, and so on.
Most of the time, you won’t need to worry too much about this. However, there’s always a chance that your links end up on some pretty spammy sites. And not only will this not help your SEO efforts, it could hurt them, too. Be prepared to request for any links on dodgy sites to be removed. And, of you can’t get them removed, you may be able to use Google Disavow to ‘disavow the URLs of the questionable pages or domains that link to your website’. It’s a last resort, but it can help in tricky situations.
What Not to do
We’ve looked at how to do white hat link building. But how about doing it wrong? Is there a wrong way to do SEO link building? Absolutely. It’s called ‘black hat’ SEO.
Black hat link building involves any method of gaining links that is designed to forcefully manipulate ranking. There are lots of black hat techniques, including…
- Buying links using money
- Exchanging products/services for links
- Large scale link exchanges
- Link spamming in guest posts
- Use of automated tools that generate backlinks
If caught, search engines can penalise websites, making it more challenging – or even impossible – to rank highly for relevant search terms. White hat link building using above board methods is definitely more effortful, but it’s worth it to avoid the penalties.
With Google, the penalties can be quite severe. Black hat techniques violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, which form the basis for practically everything Google does. The search engine states that ‘the best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off’.
Backlinking is definitely an area of SEO that’s largely overlooked by businesses. But as it’s clear to see from this guide, there’s an awful lot of stuff going on in off-site SEO, and focusing on this particular area can have a huge impact on your position in the SERPs.
Ignoring backlink factors – or building links in the wrong way – can hurt your efforts to promote your website and become visible and accessible to the people trying to find you. Don’t let that happen. Make off-SEO just as important a consideration as on-page.
If off-site SEO and link building for SEO seems a bit overwhelming, contact the Focus on Digital team. Maximising visibility in the search engine results pages using approved, tried and tested methods is what we specialise in. We can assist in all areas of backlinking, from identifying opportunities to optimising efforts to have the biggest impact. Get in touch with us by requesting a callback through our online contact form.