Link building has been a vital part of Search Engine Optimization from day one. A quality backlink profile for a website is one of the main factors involved in ranking a website on a search engine. Think of backlinks as one website recommending another. The more something is recommended, the better it should be, right?
In the beginning, it didn’t matter where or who you got a backlink from, it was purely a numbers game.
The early SEO pros loved this because they could easily acquire hundreds or even thousands of backlinks without much effort or time.
So what happened?
When search engines started improving their algorithms to ensure that the user could find the best websites for what they were looking for, they realized they had to rethink how backlinks affected rankings. Websites that lacked quality, as well as useful information, could easily be ranked well using link schemes. For example, going to several freelance forum websites and posting keyword-stuffed comments and linking to your site could result in high rankings although they offer no value.
There had been a lot of algorithm updates in the 2000s that slowly improved the way links affected rankings, differentiating quality backlinks from spam links. But, the big boost was the Google Penguin update in 2012. Today, let’s see how backlinks have evolved over time.
The Penguin update completely changed the way link building in the SEO world. The fundamental changes to Google’s algorithm were that it would penalize keyword stuffing and link patterns. We’ll be focusing on the links aspect of this update, but to learn more about why you should avoid keyword stuffing and best practices for optimizing your homepage for SEO, read more. here.
Google has started to analyze domain authority, which is affected by a variety of different factors, one of which includes the number of irrelevant outbound links from a site. Once a site is classified as spam or is caught participating in a linking system, any websites that hyperlink to that domain may be penalized. (See the full list of Google penalties and how to recover from SEJ for more information on Google penalties.)
As a result, websites that relied on link schemes to achieve high rankings began to crumble. Some of the worst offenders have even been deindexed overnight, which means your website is no longer ranking at all for search queries. Fortunately, however, there was a way to remedy the situation – either by asking site owners to remove your link on their website (preferably) or by disavowing those backlinks. While there is no guarantee that your rankings will bounce back, you could have reduced the damage from the penalties received from spam backlinks. While a new iteration of the update, Penguin 4.0, made a difference in 2016 by devaluing these links rather than inflicting penalties, there is still evidence that these links continue to have a negative impact (check out Michael Cottam’s article about it here). These are still best practices today if your website has unnatural links pointing to it.
After this update, many websites started using “Nofollow” links more frequently to avoid harming their own website when linking to questionable sites.
While Nofollow links have been around for a few years now, they quickly became much more prevalent after the Penguin update. Essentially, when a backlink has a Nofollow tag, Googlebot will not save it as a link during the crawl which means it will not pass any link juice. So if you have a website that has a lot of seemingly weak links, you would want to use a nofollow tag to make sure you don’t get penalized.
Does that mean all websites should automatically attach a Nofollow tag to every link? Absolutely not. Google wants you to connect to other websites with outbound links, which will help your own website rank as well. But, these backlinks must be relevant to the page they are on. You also don’t want to overload a single page with too many outgoing links, as this could be seen as spam.
A good way to tell if you have too many links, or even not enough, is to think about the user experience. Will they find valuable information on the linked web page? Does it flow with the rest of the page content? Is it visually pleasing or authoritative? These are questions you should always ask when adding a backlink, both inbound and outbound.
Sponsored links and user-generated content links
In September 2019, two new link assignments were created so that search engines can better understand the nature of the backlink in question; Sponsored and User Generated Content (UGC) links. These attributes help set their intent on the web page and are meant to override the nofollow tag where appropriate.
The sponsored link tag is used to differentiate a link for the purpose of advertising a product or website from a regular organic link. The UGC tag is for anything created outside of the website’s own editorial team (like comment sections on forum pages).
While these two new tags don’t pass link juice and are basically subcategories of a nofollow backlink, they are the preferred tag to use where appropriate. Plus, you are more transparent with the backlinks to your website that search engines will appreciate. Because of this, it is possible that they play a bigger role than we currently think in SEO, but we will need to investigate more about the effect they have before making a definitive assumption.
How to get quality links
With black hat SEO tactics penalized, SEOs had to start rethinking their link building strategy. The main lesson we learned from Penguin is that quality will beat quantity every time. Keep your efforts sincere and acquire backlinks in ways that can provide useful information to the websites you are trying to get a backlink from as well as their users. There are plenty of ways to do this (check out this article on how you can use guest blogging to earn quality backlinks). A great way to get backlinks is to use public relations (PR) strategies.
If you can get yourself, your business, or your website mentioned in any media, that opens the door to a backlink. Connecting with journalists and bloggers who are working on an article related to your area of expertise is a great way to get a backlink to a reputable site. Not only that, but if you are successful in getting a backlink in the article, there is a good chance that the webpage will be filled with keywords related to your business which will result in an even more impactful backlink. Use your knowledge of the industry to provide insight that the writer can use. You will usually be credited as the source, or even cited, in the published article and will likely get a link back to your website in your credential.
In conclusion, Google wants the best websites that can provide information to its users to rank well for their specific search queries. Building backlinks from domains / pages related to your domain is one of the best ways to show Google that your website is an authority in your industry. It can be long and difficult at times, yes, but the rewards for your efforts are well worth it. Plus, isn’t it nice that brand mentions in popular media like Forbes are also considered backlinks? You can discover the value of strong digital public relations efforts here. And if you are in need of legitimate backlinks to strengthen your site, please do not hesitate to contact us.