So You Want Backlinks!
Soon after most people create a web site, they realize that just because they built the best site ever known to humankind, traffic didn't come flocking to the pages!
If you ask for advice on what to do to get more traffic, there are several responses that will generally be given. The first should be to apply SEO Best Practices to your fantastic site content and then give the search engines time. Unfortunately, a more common response will be a suggestion to build as many backlinks as you can.
What are Backlinks?
Backlinks are simply links from other websites to your site. Backlinks are an important part of SEO, but they are only one of many key elements. Having a lot of backlinks is like having a lot of friends. The more friends you have, the more popular you can seem to be.
While the concept of backlinks is simple, there are actually a number of details about them that are important to understand. Just as friends can help your personal success, backlinks can be one of the key factors for a successful SEO strategy. Unfortunately, like having the wrong friends, they can also be a toxic element to your SEO if you have the wrong ones or in the case of backlinks they are implemented wrong.
Here a Link, There a Link, Everywhere a Backlink…
Many, many years ago it was believed that it was important to get as many backlinks as possible. It was thought that the site with the most backlinks would be considered the most popular. As such, there were companies that could be hired that would get you links from sites from around the world. This was easy for these companies to do by using directory sites, link farms, discussion forums, and within comments on articles. In many cases, these links would be spammed to sites anywhere and everywhere.
With time, the way backlinks are treated has changed. Just as different friends can influence your reputation, different factors about where a link is placed can impact their value to your site's reputation. For example, some sites were ranked as being higher quality because they had higher traffic. Just as being friends with a popular person can have a positive impact on your reputation, a back link on sites that are ranked as high traffic, or with lots of their own links could be seen as having a stronger impact on your site. Getting on these popular sites was considered to be a good move…
But then the search engine algorithms were changed.
The result of one of the earlier changes to how search engines dealt with backlinks related to sites that had poor reputations. This could be link farms (a site that is primarily a bunch of links), directory sites that were primarily a bunch of links with no content. It could also be sites that contained low-quality content, pornography, or minimal content with lots of ads. These sites were considered low-quality and could be considered toxic. Regardless of their traffic, they could hurt your site's reputation.
Not only were changes made to push for backlinks from sites that had substance, but additional changes were made to check the relevance of sites that are linked. Backlinks to your sites should come from sites that have content that is related to the content or topic of your site.
The rules for backlinks will continue to evolve. The general rule of thumb is that a link to your site should be added on another site only if it is relevant to that site's readers. If the site does relate, then you should not need to do any of the following, which can be flagged as bad backlinking practices. Simply put, the following are things you should avoid doing when building backlinks:
Trading links is bad. Just as you need to be careful of having sites link to you, you should be equally cautious on sites you link to. Linking to unrelated or low-quality sites can also be bad for your site.
Paying for a backlink
If you are paying for a backlink or paying to be listed on an exchange, then there is a risk of being penalized. Payment can include trading links as mentioned in the previous bullet, or it can be money, services, or anything of value.
Creating an excessive amount of links
Having a lot of links from one site can also be flagged as unusual. For example, spamming forums or comments can have a negative impact. Signatures on a forum can result in excessive links from the forum site. Note that some forum sites, such as StackOverflow are at a higher quality and thus might provide a positive backlink (assuming it is not marked as nofollow).
Adding links on Footers and Headers
Links in footers and headers on a site are a form of excessive linking.
Using automated link generating tools
While there are automated tools that can help you create links, these can be identified as low-quality links.
Implementing text ad links
Advertisements are exactly that — ads. Using ads to link to your site might drive traffic due to clicks, but those ads also run the risk of being seen as extremely low-quality content with the potential to be flagged as toxic. The result can be lower ranking on the search engines.
Having low-quality directory or bookmark listings
While it might seem great to be listed and linked in directories, if the quality of the directory or bookmark site isn't top notch, it can hurt your SEO ranking. It is worth noting that some directory sites are of higher quality, such as DMoz.
Allowing widget listings
In the same way that directories and bookmark sites can be bad; widgets that contain a bunch of links can also be bad news for SEO.
Using native content / advertorials solely for linking
One of the more popular ways to get links today is to create a marketing article with links within it and then pay a site to publish it.
Keeping broken backlinks
If third party sites are linking to pages that don't exist on your site, then they are likely to get a 404 error. These 404s (missing page) errors are also something that relates to backlinking, and they are something you should also work to have fixed.
Stopping a Backlink from Hurting Your Site…
You might be thinking that if you execute on all of the above types of links, there won't be many links to your site left. That is not the case. Additionally, you can actually allow other site's links, as well as do some of the above links, and still avoid much of the risk. You can do this by having the linking site tag the link so that it doesn't impact SEO ranking. This flagging is done by adding using the 'rel' tag within the link. For example, if you linked to HTMLGoodies, but didn't want the link to do any damage, you could would add rel='nofollow' as shown:
<a href="http://www.htmlgoodies.com" rel='nofollow'> link </a>
By adding rel='nofollow' you are telling the search engines that it should ignore the link. If there are toxic sites linking to yours, you can check the site to see if a 'nofollow' is included with the link. If so, then it shouldn't be hurting you. Similarly, if a good site is linking to you, and they add the 'nofollow' to the link, then chances are you won't be getting any SEO value from the link.
So What's Left for Getting Backlinks?
This article has talked about a multitude of things to avoid for building backlinks. If backlinks are important, then it seems like there is very little that can be done to build good backlinks. The reality is, getting backlinks is hard unless you do the number one most important SEO step — create great content.
If you create great content, then people will be more inclined to reference and link to it from their own sites. All SEO strategies, including backlinking, should start with quality content. In a future article, I'll cover tools that can be used to find backlinks as well as qualify them.