What Makes a High-Quality Backlink?
Published: January 30, 2023
Author: Noelle Fauver
*A previous version of this blog originally appeared on inseev.com. It has been altered and updated by 3Q/DEPT.*
SEOs understand that backlinks play an important role in increasing your brand’s organic visibility. But here’s the catch: while generating backlinks is vital to your SEO strategy, not all backlinks are created equal. Find out what it takes to increase your site’s authority, rank higher than your competitors, and determine what makes a good link.
What are the best backlinks?
One of the most influential considerations to backlink quality is relevance. Relevance refers to the context of the page or website that is linking back to you. Relevance is essential for your backlink quality because it signals to the algorithm that the backlink makes sense, adds value to the page, and shows that you are qualified to discuss the subject of the page or website. Google’s algorithm has increasingly shifted towards prioritizing brands that are experts in their space for a given search engine results page (SERP). This shift became even more prevalent when Google implemented E-A-T signals into the algorithm.
As the relevant number of backlinks to your website increases, Google’s ability to determine what verticals you are an expert in increases accordingly. Let’s say you are a knowledgeable pest management company and are producing a lot of informative content about pest management strategies. There’s a good chance that as users more frequently turn to you as an authority in the space, they are also linking back to your website. Google then uses these relevant backlinks that point to your website to indicate that other industry companies trust you as a credible source for pest management.
Trustworthiness and Authority
Backlink quality considerations around trustworthiness and authority are directly related to the websites that are linking to your website. When several trusted websites link to a good deal of content on your website, Google views your site as trustworthy and authoritative.
If the website linking back to your website has many relevant backlinks, they’ll have increased trust and authority in Google’s eyes to “share” or “pass along” to your website.
Several third-party tools like Moz DA, Ahrefs DR, and Semrush Authority Score attempt to recreate how trustworthy Google thinks a website is. It’s important to note that these tools are third-party metrics and may not accurately reflect how trustworthy a site truly is.
Number of Incoming Links
In addition to the quality of backlinks pointing back to a specific website, the number of backlinks pointing back to a website also influences how trustworthy or authoritative a website is. The greater the backlink profile of a website linking to you, the more authority they’ll be able to pass along to your website.
Important Note: Google progressively works toward prioritizing quality above all else in its algorithm. While having a significant number of incoming backlinks is essential for websites that link back to you and your website, it still prioritizes quality. If you build a large number of low-quality backlinks to your website, it will hurt your rankings. The bottom line is to focus on quality over quantity.
Natural Placement and Inclusion
Google works hard to prevent SEOs and link builders from manipulating the algorithm. In the past, SEOs would stuff backlinks into the footer to “hide” external links on their page without disrupting the user experience. Google caught on to this practice and has since devalued footer backlinks. As a result, Google considers link placement when assessing backlink quality.
Google’s crawlers will likely ignore any link placement that appears unnatural or forced. If a site linking to you is engaging in unethical SEO practices, your site could receive a penalty that will significantly negatively impact your organic profile.
Earned or Secured Naturally
It’s important that a link is earned organically or occurs without any outreach. Although, if we never built backlinks and only waited for backlinks to occur naturally, we wouldn’t be able to grow a website’s organic rankings. Natural backlinks pertain to inbound links that are gained without creating them actively or passively.
The key point to know is that you need to refrain from paying for backlinks. Purchasing backlinks is a big no-no in Google’s eyes. If you get caught paying for backlinks, your site will likely receive a penalty, which will negatively impact your rankings and lose significant traffic.
All backlinks pointing to your site should have been earned through best outreach practices or secured through organic placements.
When considering variety as a quality factor for your backlinks, we look at the backlink profile as a whole versus an individual link placement. If you secure backlinks through organic and earned placements, your backlink profile should naturally have a significant amount of variety.
Suppose your backlink profile consists of placements to the same set of pages with perfectly optimized anchor text. In that case, it will flag Google’s algorithm that your website is likely engaging in bad SEO practices.
Search engines love to see a highly-diversified backlink profile consisting of inbound links from many unique domains. A backlink profile composed of 10 links from 10 unique websites is more impactful than 50 links from only three unique domains. It’s crucial to build a backlink profile that is diverse in linking root domains.
To assign additional value to earned or organic backlinks, Google rolled out two link attributes in 2019 to help webmasters indicate the nature of a link. There are now three link attributes available to webmasters: nofollow, UGC (user-generated content), and sponsored.
- The nofollow attribute is used when webmasters cannot confirm the trustworthiness or authority of the third-party site they are linking to. This link attribute does not pass along authority to the page being linked to but may pass along a small amount of authority (there is no conclusive research on the subject).
- The user-generated content link attribute indicates links placed through the comments section of your website or featured articles from guest contributors.
- The sponsored link attribute is used to indicate backlinks that were paid for. Similarly to the nofollow link attribute, Google will not pass authority to sponsored links.
Remember that links that utilize a link attribute will not be viewed as valuable because it indicates to Google’s algorithm that the link placement was not earned or gained organically.
Number of Outgoing Links
The number of outgoing links refers to the number of outgoing links on the page that links back to your website. If the page linking to you has thousands of outgoing links, there’s an indication that the site may not be particularly scrupulous in terms of who they link to. If that’s the case, it will diminish the value your page receives from the site linking back to you, as Google will likely view this site as less trustworthy and authoritative than a site that is more particular in terms of who they link to.
Quality of Other Outbound Links
In addition to the number of outgoing links, the quality of those links is also important. If the site linking back to you is linking to low-quality or spammy sites, it sends the same signals to Google’s algorithm as if they were linking to thousands of different sites. It shows Google that they don’t thoroughly vet the websites they link to and don’t follow Google’s guidelines on best external linking practices.
Once word got out in the late 2000s that links were the magic ticket to getting your website rankings, it was a mad dash for webmasters to acquire as many links as possible. A popular technique that emerged from this rush is Reciprocal Linking, or more simply, if you link to my website, then I’ll link to yours. Often the linking websites were not related and provided very little value to the other’s audience, placing the only value on the link acquisition for SEO purposes. In addition, Google quickly identified these link patterns and severely discounted the equity of reciprocal links. When working on a link-building campaign, the most valuable links come from websites you have not already linked to.
Previous Page or Site-Wide Penalties
If a site has been penalized by Google, it means they have been engaging in unsafe SEO practices. If a website has been engaging in unsafe (also known as black hat) SEO, it could be dangerous to receive a backlink from that website. This could imply that your site has also been engaging in unsafe SEO strategies and could lead to a penalty against your website. Instead, Google is ignoring any links from the site that’s been penalized. If you are concerned about receiving backlinks to penalized sites, you can check for any ranking keyword or traffic changes during the last year that resulted in a 50%+ decline. This data should provide a strong indication as to whether or not the site may have been penalized.
There are both positive and negative considerations to keep in mind around anchor text and backlink quality. Suppose the anchor text appears to be manipulated or structured in an overly-optimized way. In that case, Google may think the backlink is being added solely as an SEO play and could ignore the backlink altogether. However, organically-optimized anchor text can add value. Optimized anchor text will likely help with the quality of your backlink profile–don’t overdo it! In simple terms: use anchor text that is natural and makes sense.
For a backlink to count, the page has to exist for Google’s crawlers. If a page isn’t indexed, it doesn’t exist in Google’s eyes. If Google doesn’t know that the page exists, there is no way for the page to pass along any link equity or authority.
Indexing a page is the process of ensuring it exists in Google’s database. Some pages are purposely assigned a no-index tag because the webmaster does not want Google to know the page exists. Sometimes a page isn’t indexed because the site isn’t maintaining its technical SEO and needs to conduct an indexation audit to ensure all the correct pages are being indexed. When it comes to linking, you’ll want to ensure the page is indexed and exists in Google’s eyes.
Link building has become increasingly complex as Google has found ways to crack down on manipulative or spammy practices. We expect link-building to become increasingly difficult as the market is further saturated, and understanding potential implications and creating a successful strategy is more critical than ever. Despite these challenges, the reality remains that backlinks are still one of the most important ranking signals. If you need support with your link-building strategy, 3Q/DEPT’s experts are here to guide you. Reach out to 3Q/DEPT to connect with our team of experienced SEO professionals.