What Are Backlinks And How to Earn Them

You know when you like videos on YouTube or upvote posts on Reddit to indicate you enjoy or value the content? Well, backlinks work the same way – except for search engines.

Here we’ll deep dive into the world of backlinks, what they are, why they matter, and how to make sure you have the right ones (referral research and beyond). Feel free to skip ahead to the 9 ways to earn better backlinks to get straight to the action.

What are backlinks?

Backlinks, also known as ‘inbound links’ or ‘incoming links,’ are links from one website page to another page on another website.

For example, here’s a backlink from Entrepreneur to Mashable:

An example of backlinks from Entrepreneur to Mashable.

How do backlinks work?

For most search engines, backlinks are one of the algorithm’s top ranking factors. If several websites link to the same webpage or website, search engines will infer that the content is worth linking to and will serve it up on a SERP. More so if those backlinks use the right keywords in their anchor text (the linked text).

But it’s not just about the number of links, quality matters. For example, a website that has 10 high-quality backlinks from authoritative, popular websites (determined by domain authority) will outrank a website with 100 backlinks from low-quality websites.

To improve your search engine rankings your SEO strategy has to include more than only relevant keyword research, it needs a backlink strategy.

Why are backlinks important?

Earning backlinks for SEO – more commonly known as link building – is an essential part of off-site SEO. In the same way that you might leave a product review or like a video, backlinks serve as a vote of confidence. They tell search engines that your content is valuable to searchers and worth linking to. So, yes, you do need a link-building strategy.

Earning more backlinks will naturally increase your website’s visibility on search engines and your organic traffic. Of course, site owners can specify if an individual link passes link equity or not by setting them as dofollow vs. nofollow links. Nofollow links give a directive to search engines not to follow to link to the linked page, thus preventing the link equity (or “Link Juice”) from flowing to the linked site.

What is Link Juice/Link Equity?

To understand Link Juice we need to look at the whole website. Let’s say that every website has a sort of quality score (what we refer to many times as “Domain authority”), given to them by Google according to their compliance with the variety of Google’s ranking and quality factors. This score is a general score for the domain, which for this example we can call “A whole cup of juice”.

This “juice” is also distributed into the domain’s pages through navigation, internal linking, etc. The theory states that every link you have on a page passes some of your authority to the linked page. Now we understand that each of these pages has its own “score” (“Page rank/authority”), which is a share of the entire domain’s authority. The equity that’s passed from one page to another by the links is called “Link Juice”.

When site owners choose to set a backlink to your site as ‘dofollow’ – They choose to allow you to enjoy the equity their page will provide. When they set links to ‘nofollow’ they are keeping the juice to themselves, so you get much less value (if any). Get it?

What makes a backlink high-quality?

A chart explaining what high quality backlinks for SEO include.

In truth, no one aside from Google’s masterminds know how Google assigns value to links, but we do know that several factors contribute to link quality, including:

Links from high-quality pages (which is determined by the metric domain authority) with content that’s relevant to your page will pass a lot more link equity – also referred to as link juice – than an irrelevant or lower quality page. How that page fits into the overall site hierarchy will also play a factor in how much link equity it passes on.

Orphaned pages (those with no internal links pointing to them) are less valuable than pillar pages that have lots of links.

Prime example: If a marketing agency in London writes an article on buyer personas and then links to a fast-food restaurant in Singapore, it’s painfully obvious that the link is irrelevant and will therefore pass on very little (if any) link equity.

To determine if a linking page or domain is high quality, you can use competitive backlink research tools. These tools examine backlink profiles, giving you insight into what websites you can build links with and what link building your competitors are doing.

Search engines use a set of trusted seed sites that they know are high quality and difficult to get links from, e.g. Wikipedia, BBC, Huffington Post – typically high-profile sites, as a barometer for trustworthiness. Websites with links from these sites are more valuable than those without. Just being mentioned on a high-profile website can give your brand a boost.

Pro tip: Guest blog for high authority sites whenever possible (and link back to your site when possible). A good guest post with a number of backlinks can help take any blogger’s pagerank up a notch.

Google increasingly looks at social signals, such as people sharing content through Twitter and Facebook, to determine the value of certain web pages.

Anchor text refers to the clickable text of a link (usually blue and underlined). When Google crawls a web page and finds a link, it uses the anchor text to determine if the destination URL is relevant to the linking page.

Anchor text is one of the strongest link signals that search engines use for ranking websites – if a link points to a page and contains the right keywords or phrases, there’s a high chance that the page will rank for those words.

For example, if a link says “click here,” it doesn’t tell you (or Google) where the link is sending you. With this considered, whenever you link to a page, include the keywords that page is optimized for to stand a better chance of ranking.

How to check backlinks

You’re going to need a tool to check your current backlinks for SEO value. There are a few free options available, such as Small SEO Tools’ Backlink Checker or Google Search Console’s link report. With Google Search Console, you can check which sites link to you most, your top linked pages from other sites, top linked pages from within your site, and more.

Similarweb is also useful to get a high-level overview of your top referral sites (and the top referral sites for your competitors). This is a powerful tool when you are strategizing about the best websites to reach out to for link building opportunities.

How do you earn backlinks?

Earning backlinks is arguably one of the hardest and most thankless off-site SEO tasks.

1. Look at your top referral sources

An easy way to build new links is to look at the top referral sources or domains to your website. These sources essentially send traffic to your website through hyperlinks.

Because these sources or domains have deliberately linked to your website, they feel your content is relevant and valuable. Therefore, this is a great opportunity for you to create more similar content and pitch it to them. For example, you can see twitter.com’s top referring website is amazon.com.

Similarweb platform showing twitter.com’s top referring website is amazon.com.

If their article on inbound marketing links to your blog on the buyer’s journey, you could create a new piece on content auditing and content gap analysis as they’re all key parts of the inbound strategy. Then, you can share this article with the referring source/domain and ask if they’d like to add links on their website.

2. Check outbound links and send outreach emails

If you’re linking to authoritative websites, consider sending outreach emails asking about a link building partnership.

We’ve all seen the link building emails before – marketers proposing to add links to an article on your website provided you do the same for them. It’s a great practice – but make sure the links are relevant and valuable to your site. No point asking a high fashion outlet to link to your blog on scuba diving.

An image showing what relevant affiliates look like for websites. A fashion site should use an eCommerce site for links and a fish web

What’s crucial with outreach emails is that you get in contact with the right person, typically someone in charge of the website or blog.

3. Use Google Search Console reports to find new opportunities

There’s a great feature in Google Search Console that enables you to see which websites linked to your site in the past. It’s called the Links report.

Google Search Console shows the top internally linked pages on similarweb.com are legal pages.

You can go through the backlinks and see what type of content referring domains liked and gave you a backlink for. Once you’ve worked out their preferred type of content, reach out whenever you create something new to see if they’d like to link to it. You can also offer to do the same for them.

4. Spy on your competitors

Where are your competitors getting their backlinks from? What’s their strategy and how can you get ahead of them? It’s time to put your detective skills to the test.

Thankfully, you don’t have to go around knocking on doors. There are plenty of competitor analysis tools available to help you uncover which sites are referring to your competitors (as well as opportunities they’ve missed).

For example, using Similarweb Digital Marketing Intelligence platform, you get a comprehensive breakdown of referral traffic, including the percentage of referral traffic won, categories for referrals, and domains to target.

Similarweb shows the top referral visits for hubspot.com, marketo.com and salesforce.com.

5. Find broken links and pitch your content as a replacement

No one likes broken links. They ruin the user experience and damage on-page SEO. By highlighting broken links on a website you want to link build with, you demonstrate your interest and support their efforts. Far better than just sending out an email without doing anything in return. Here are quick steps to identify and fix links.

Of course, once you’ve identified the broken link, make sure you have some content to suggest to replace it. Someone else might swoop in if you don’t (your competitors).

6. Create high-quality content that sites want to link to

This one’s simple in practice but requires a lot of effort.

Sites like Harvard Business Review, Forbes, JSTOR (the go-to digital library for academics), and others, have established a reputation for providing high-quality content – but it’ll be hard for you to replicate their approach unless you have an army of writers.

To win at the content game today, you have to look for unique but relevant keyword opportunities, create pillar pages to answer an array of in-depth questions, optimize and refresh old content, and amplify the reach of your content through social media.
But most important of all: You have to be consistent.

Whether it’s a blog a day or one each week, stick to a routine and gradually you’ll attract interest and build a following that’s happy to link to your content.

7. Build more topic clusters

Extensive guides that cover a particular topic in detail are the flavor of the month. These repositories of content provide searchers with all the information they need – far better than visiting individual articles.

You start by identifying a relevant topic, such as something your brand or business specializes in and wants to be found for. This becomes your pillar page and main keyword term. You then break that topic down into its parts. For example, a content strategy would consist of buyer personas, search engine optimization, social media marketing, content auditing and so on, and assign secondary keywords (separate to your main topic keyword) to each segment.

From there, you optimize each segment for your main keyword and its assigned secondary keyword. This gives you the best chance of ranking for queries related to your main topic.

8. Write testimonials in exchange for links

Every organization values testimonials. Social proof is arguably the most effective way to convince prospects to become customers. Here’s an example from Similarweb:

Similarweb client reviews as shown on similarweb.com.

f you’re a regular user of a tool or service, you could offer to write a review or testimonial in exchange for a backlink. Find sites that are relevant to your industry, reach out to their customer service team and let them know you’d like to submit a testimonial with a link back to your website.

9. Guest blogging

Tried-and-tested, guest blogging is an excellent way to earn backlinks for your website and get your name out there.

But don’t do it solely for backlinks. Successful guest blogging is all about providing value and demonstrating your expertise. If you approach guest blogging with the mindset of obtaining backlinks, you might end up targeting low-quality sites or compromising on content quality.

Instead, incorporate guest blogging into your content strategy.  Focus on creating high-quality articles and then pitch them (or revised versions of them) to contributor sites. If they love your work, they’ll let you include a short bio and even the links you hide in the articles.

Conducting competitive backlink research

Link building is often overlooked due to how time-consuming it is, but when you have the right competitive analysis tools, such as Similarweb’s Marketing Intelligence platform, you can quickly analyze the competition to uncover backlink opportunities and gaps.

Here’s just a snippet of what you can do using the marketing intelligence platform:

  • See information about referring domains
  • Compare referral sources with up to four sites (ideal for competitive backlink research and referral-based marketing)
  • Check total referral traffic and backlink opportunities
  • Identify new topics to go after based on existing referral traffic
  • Uncover your most engaged industries based on referral traffic
  • See which websites are linking to your competitors
  • Build a backlinking strategy based on your most engaged referrals, gaps, and competitor sites

Whatever SEO work you do, link building has to be a part of it. With competitive backlink research, you can take what’s working for your competitors and outrank them.

If you want to find out more, take the Digital Marketing Intelligence platform for a spin.

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Backlink FAQs

What are backlinks and how does it work?

Backlinks are links from one page of a website to another. When several websites link to the same webpage, search engines view the backlink as high quality and will boost its ranking on a SERP (search engine results page).

How do I get backlinks?

There are several methods to get backlinks:

  1. Look at your top referral sources
  2. Check outbound links and sent outreach emails
  3. Use Google Search Console reports to find new opportunities
  4. Check what your competitors are doing
  5. Find broken links and pitch your content as a replacement
  6. Create high-quality content that sites want to link to
  7. Build more topic clusters
  8. Write testimonials in exchange for links
  9. Guest blogging

Why are backlinks important?

Backlinks are important because they tell search engines that your content is valuable. Including backlinks will increase your website’s visibility on search engines as well as your organic traffic.

This post is subject to Similarweb legal notices and disclaimers.

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