When you hear the word “links,” chances are the first thing you think of are what used to be called hyperlinks—the stuff you click on to get from one webpage to another. (Well, unless you’re a golfer.) We all pretty much get what a link is: A clickable URL (this stands for Uniform Resource Locator for any resource on the Web such as pages, images, or files). When it comes to SEO though, things get a bit trickier. Suddenly you’re hearing about inbound and outbound links, backlinks, and even bad links. What does it all mean, and why does it make any difference for your website? Here’s a guide to the basics.
What are backlinks? Or inbound links? And what about outbound links?
Let’s start with the terminology. If we’re going to get technical, the term “links” actually refers to links that you can click to navigate within a website or take you to another webpage. Backlinks, on the other hand, are links that point to a certain webpage. Isn’t that the same, you ask? Yes, it is. That means if you have two sites that link to one another, one site’s link is the other site’s backlink (and vice versa). But SEO experts aren’t just looking at links in general—they’re also examining the quality of links to determine the link profile (whether good or bad) for a specific website. When looking at your site’s relationship to other websites, it can be simpler to think in terms of inbound links (backlinks coming to your site) and outbound links (links on your site that take visitors to other websites).
Why are links important?
Both inbound and outbound links can provide different kinds of value to your site. Quality inbound links improve the destination webpage’s visibility to search engines, and can also potentially add value to the entire website. Why? Another site linking to yours—remember, it’s an outbound link for them—tells search engines that the sending site trusts your site. It’s like having someone else vouch for you, and the more trustworthy the site vouching for you is, the higher the quality of the inbound link. (Don’t worry, we’ll talk much more about what makes a link high or low quality in a minute!)
You might think that you don’t want any outbound links on your website. Why would you want to send visitors away? Here’s why: It’s another way to make your content more useful and compelling for your visitors, which is something that search algorithms respect. The basic premise of these algorithms, after all, is to make sure that searchers are being sent to the most relevant information out there. Having outbound links that help site visitors learn more about what’s on your site makes your site more relevant. It’s also important to note that just because you put an outbound link on your site, that doesn’t mean visitors necessarily have to leave your site. It’s easy to set up links to they automatically open in a new browser window or tab, so that the window or tab with your site remains open even while a visitor is checking out your link. All it takes is a little bit of code, or with a CMS like WordPress, simply clicking a checkbox when you’re adding a link.
We should note here that officially, Google says that actively creating inbound links should be avoided. John Mueller, a webmaster trends analyst, says that, “We do use links as part of our algorithm but we use lots and lots of other factors as well. So only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your web site [than] actually helps.” Take this with a grain of salt, however. Virtually all evidence implies that links do matter, but it makes sense for Google to discourage site owners from worrying about inbound links because there are so many “link schemes” and spam strategies out there—more on these in a moment.
What makes a link high quality?
There are several different aspects that contribute to the quality of an inbound link. A big one is simply what page it’s coming from. You know how when you were growing up, your mom would hardly ask a question if you going out on a Friday night with a longtime, trusted friend? But then saying you were doing the same thing with someone else would lead to major scrutiny (and maybe having to check in from a payphone back in those pre-cell phone days!). It’s the same way with search engines. All the websites giving you inbound links might be your metaphorical “friends,” but some of them might be the type to run with a bad crowd.
Here’s what makes search engines happy. Relevance is key: A link to your webpage from another page that’s about the same topic is great, and it’s even better if the sending website ranks well for your page’s keyword focus. Where the link is matters, too. A link that’s within the content is better than one that’s in the footer, in a comment, or in the author line. Another interesting wrinkle is that links from domains that are especially “trustworthy” in a search engine’s eyes—like government, university, or established non-profit organizations—are especially high-quality links.
The same goes for outbound links (since remember, your outbound links are someone else’s inbound links!). Focusing on including links that are relevant to the page’s content and that will be helpful to someone visiting the page are top priorities. For example, say you’re a pediatrician, and you’ve got a blog post talking about spring allergies. The kinds of links you might include in your content could be a link to CDC information about the prevalence of allergies, or a link to a product page for the OTC remedy you recommend.
What makes a link low quality?
One word: Spam. The internet is full of it (by some estimates, 60% full), and this is a major reason why search engines like Google discourage creating links. Getting outbound links on legitimate sites is the lifeblood of many spam sites, and having that kind of link on your site means search engines could assume your site is spam, too. Spam sites have plenty of links to each other, too, and penalizing these sites’ search rankings is the main strategy search engines have for keeping web users off these sites and making sure search results are good stuff. It makes sense—when you’re searching the web, you don’t want to wind up on a spam site. (It’s bad enough finding it in your inbox!) But the bad news is that if your site does contain bad links—or if spam sites are linking to you—you could wind up with lower search rankings, too.
There are also certain kinds of links that search engines simply don’t like (just like your mom didn’t trust that “bad friend”). Low-quality directory sites, links that are hidden or embedded in widgets (making them show up all over the place, whether they’re relevant or not), and “unnatural” links are examples of links Google cites not just as “bad,” but as potentially violating the search engine’s guidelines. If they decide you’re violating their guidelines, your domain’s search rankings are definitely going to take a beating.
An unnatural link means a link that hasn’t been put in place by the page’s author. Spam comments are the major source for these—you know, comments that leave a vague message like “Thanks for the great article! Best wishes from your new follower,” and then proceed to give a list of keywords. These types of automated comments are why extra steps (like including a captcha) are so common on comment forms, and why if comments are enabled on all or part of your site, it’s vital that you run a spam blocker. Sketchy stuff can still get through, however, so even with a blocker you should moderate comments rather than having them appear as soon as a visitor (or “visitor”) posts them. Automatically allowing comments to post could be taken as your tacit approval of the link.
How can I get legitimate links to my website?
You’re in control of the outbound links on your site—well, so long as you keep out spammy comments. But what can you do to get quality inbound links? There are several link building strategies that can help you to get inbound links that you’ll actually want. Content marketing is a big one, whether it’s guest blogging on other sites, widely distributed content like press releases, or through social media. Though the jury’s still out on the value of social media links—usually referred to as “social signals”—for search rankings, at a minimum social media activity is getting your brand in front of more eyeballs. You can also think about other ways to be social online. Actions like leaving a real comment on a blog post, or asking or answering a question in a forum, can be another way that you can get links. Just include your website in your author or commenter profile.
Though spam directories are bad, there are also plenty of completely legitimate directories out there. This includes niche- or topic-specific directories, local directories (like YP or Angie’s List), and large-scale general directories. These vary in utility, but any clicks you get from directory links are legitimate referral traffic, and they can bolster your overall link profile.
Link requests are a more time-intensive way to get links. It’s more sophisticated than in the Web 1.0 days, when site owners would participate in “link exchanges” (basically, “Hey, you link to me, and I’ll link to you”). Instead, use link requests to target specific websites that you would like to link back to your website. You need to convince the site’s owner that your site is relevant to their visitors and worth having on their site. A good way to make this more enticing—since simply asking for a link won’t do—is to offer to write a guest blog post, with the link to your site included in that content. This makes it a more even exchange, since you’re giving them value (nice content!) in trade for an inbound link.
The best way to get legit links? Have great content. If you’ve got a helpful how-to page, or a terrific infographic, or a hilarious list-icle, then bloggers, social media users, and other website owners will want to link to your content. Building the content on your website is a long-term and somewhat labor-intensive enterprise, but it positions you to reap the greatest rewards.
Can’t I just buy links?
Can you? Yes. Should you? No! You probably get pitched all the time for just this, with “SEO professionals” offering a large number of links all for one low price. This is definitely a case where you get what you pay for. Google and other search engines heavily penalize the “link schemes” that the companies offering this type of service use. Why? The search engines don’t look kindly on exchanging money for links. Even freebie link exchange pages are no longer acceptable (after all, these pages are really just lists of links so they’re of limited value at best to site visitors). Large-scale article marketing that’s loaded with keywords all linking to one site or automated programs that create links to your site—like those bots posting all the spam comments—are also definite no-no’s. Bottom line: You might get a quick boost in rankings from one of these link schemes, but when you inevitably get caught your site will take a hit.
What can I do if I’ve got bad links?
Maybe you did buy some links (hey, sometimes it’s hard to resist what seems like a deal). Or maybe you okayed some spammy comments. What can you do to get rid of links that are hurting your site? There are a number of strategies, ranging from the nuclear option (get a new domain and start over) to contacting the owner of the website linking to yours and politely asking that the link be removed. Of course, getting an overseas spammer to remove your link is even more difficult than figuring out who owns a spam site in the first place—and if you do get any reply, chances are, they’ll want payment to take down the link.
If you’re especially plagued by bad backlinks and don’t want to start fresh, the best strategy is to do what you can to get rid of the links manually (like by asking site owners to remove them), then disavow the remaining links through Google. This is an advanced option within Google’s Webmaster Tools (also known as Google Search Console), that lets you say, “Hey, I know these links are here, but please just ignore them.” The links don’t disappear, but your site’s link profile will change once search engines start ignoring those inbound links. It can ding your search engine rankings in the short term (since good or bad, you are losing inbound links), but if you’ve got a big problem with low-quality links, disavowal is worthwhile in the long term.
Whatever your link needs, Higher Power SEO can help! From cleaning up bad backlinks to creating and distributing compelling content, we’ve got your back(links). Call us at 760-881-4736 to learn more.