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What Are Backlinks & Do They Matter in 2020? (Case Study)

Backlinks are created when one website links to another website. Google (and other search engines) consider backlinks to be “votes” for a page. In fact, Google’s original PageRank algorithm used backlinks as a signal of content quality. Many studies have found a correlation between backlinks and organic search engine rankings. FREE Download: Get access to…
Backlinks-1024x347.jpg

Backlinks are created when one website links to another website. Google (and other search engines) consider backlinks to be “votes” for a page. In fact, Google’s original PageRank algorithm used backlinks as a signal of content quality. Many studies have found a correlation between backlinks and organic search engine rankings.

how backlinks work

FREE Download: Get access to 7 untapped link building techniques for 2020.

In this guide, I’m going to show you data that proves the importance of backlinks, and then I’ll show you how to build backlinks (the right way).

Here’s everything you’ll learn:

  1. PROOF That Backlinks Matter for SEO
  2. When to Build Backlinks
  3. What Do Quality Backlinks Look Like?
  4. 4 Proven Link Building Methods (For Getting Powerful Backlinks)

Why Are Backlinks Important for Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

There have been many search engine studies conducted on the importance of backlinks. But, these studies support what’s already available to the public. If you want your head to explode, read about Google’s PageRank algorithm.

PageRank Example

Here’s an explanation of PageRank in Layman’s terms:

Backlinks can improve or decrease your SEO performance on Google. Backlinks can improve your SEO performance if they come from high-quality sources. And vice versa.

If you’d like to geek out about PageRank and Google’s various algorithms, then Bill Slawski is your man.

It’s easy to conclude that backlinks are essential based on PageRank alone.

But, as of September 24, 2019, PageRank and all associated patents have expired. [1]

What’s Google scheming up? Don’t know and don’t care.

All that matters in the world of SEO is what works and what doesn’t work in search engines.

So how do you figure that out? You have to test and analyze Google’s search engine results daily.

The good news is that many studies have done that already.

Check it out:

PROOF That Backlinks Matter for SEO

Most SEO companies know that backlinks are critical based on their experience. But it helps to have additional data to support our experience.

That’s the purpose of the following section. I’ve gathered data from several in-depth SEO studies so you can reference whenever you need to.

Let’s dive in:

1. Powerful Sites = Better SEO Performance

Look through any Google Search Engine Results Page (SERP) and you’ll see one thing in common:

Search engines like Google love authority sites.

“Authority” in this case is defined as having a number of backlinks from trustworthy sites. And there is overwhelming data to support this idea.

Backlinko studied 11.8 million Google search engine results and found that:

“A site’s overall link authority (as measured by Ahrefs Domain Rating) strongly correlates with higher search engine rankings.” – Backlinko [2]

SEMRush conducted a 2.0 version of their ranking factors study and found that:

“The more backlinks a domain has, the higher is its position on the SERP.” – SEMRush [3]

To solidify this point even further, Rankings.io conducted a ranking factor study in the personal injury sector and found similar results. They said:

“While the number of referring domains per page appears not to influence rankings, the overall number of referring domains for the domain was a top indicator of overall domain traffic.” – Rankings.io [4]

Let’s start by saying that “Domain Rating” is not a metric that search engines use.

It’s a third party metric created by Ahrefs.

Ahrefs DR

It’s not complete, but it’s a useful gauge for anyone doing SEO.

In short, your goal should be to increase your DR (Domain Rating).

Moz also has its metric for measuring the strength of one website.

It’s called DA (Domain Authority).

Moz DA

You can also look at the Majestic SEO Trust Flow metric as a way of gauging site strength.

Majestic Trust Flow

Your goal should be to grow these metrics. The stronger your website is, the better it will rank in search engines.

You get the point by now. The data supports the idea that you need to work super hard to get more backlinks to your site. That is how you grow your website authority.

But you must also acquire website links to the actual pages you want to rank on search engines like Google.

Here’s the data to support that:

2. Powerful Pages = Better SEO Performance

It’s possible for a page to rank without a number of backlinks hitting it directly. That’s what happens when your site has established authority.

For example, when Forbes publishes a new article, they often rank on the first page (without any direct links).

That said, Forbes is the exception. Most sites will need direct backlinks to SEO-driven pages.

Here are data Ahrefs to support this idea:

“The more backlinks a page has, the more organic traffic it gets from Google.” – Ahrefs [5]

“Only one in every ~20 pages without backlinks has traffic… and the majority of these get 300 organic visits or less each month.” – Ahrefs [6]

This data point is easy to take out of context. Why?

Because it didn’t specify the quality of links. There are many pages online that have a large number of backlinks, but they have terrible search engine performance.

That’s because their backlinks are garbage.

The key isn’t to get backlinks.

The goal is to get backlinks from QUALITY sites.

Reread that ten times.

There is no nuance more critical.

Have no standards, and you will pay the price.

3. Better SEO Performance = More Backlinks

The rich get richer in SEO. Meaning, the better your SEO performance, the more backlinks you’ll acquire. I call this “The Snowball Effect.”

Backlinko’s study proved this be true:

“The #1 result in Google search has an average of 3.8x more backlinks than positions #2-#10.” – Backlinko [7]

Ahrefs found similar results:

“Top-ranking pages do tend to acquire more backlinks (and at a faster pace) than the pages that rank below them.” – Ahrefs [8]

And SEMrush’s study agreed as well:

“The higher the domain’s position on the SERP, the more referring domains it has.” – SEMRush [9]

In short, once you achieve high rankings, you’ll start to get organic links. As a result, your page strengthens and will often solidify your positions.

Keep in mind that the exception to this rule is with competitive keywords.

Here’s the truth:

Having more inbound links isn’t enough to maintain rankings for competitive SERPs.

You also have to keep your page updated and fresh.

For example, a powerful page with stale content likely won’t maintain rankings.

In short, don’t get complacent once you start ranking.

You have to battle to keep those rankings. That means consistent link growth and fresh content.

4. Your Website Needs Vote (Backlink) Diversity

“The number of domains linking to a page correlated with rankings.” – Backlinko [10]

You should aim to get backlinks from many different trustworthy sites in your industry. If we equate backlinks to votes, this makes perfect sense.

Many votes (backlinks) from different sources are more valuable than many votes from one source.

It’s hard to measure, but there are likely diminishing returns from getting backlinks from the same website.

Now would it hurt to get several backlinks from The Washington Post? No way.

Let’s say you had the choice between two links from The Washington Post or one link from fifteen different DR 20 blogs in your industry.

What would you pick?

Here’s a comparison:

The Washington Post has 730,000 referring domains.

washington post referring domains

And this example, DR 24 blog, Retailbound.com has 80 referring domains.

DR20 blog

So let’s assume that most sites around 20 DR have ~100 referring domains. That means that 15 DR 20 sites equate to 1,500 referring domains total.

730,000 vs 1,500.

Let’s assume there is a 50% reduction of strength for the second link from The Washington Post. That’s still the strength of 365,000 domains.

Keep reducing it further, and it will continue to crush 15 backlinks from DR 20 sites.

I barely passed Algebra II, but the math is clear here:

Getting several links from one authoritative website is better than getting a bunch of weak links.

That said, it’s not always that simple, and that’s by design!

Getting backlinks from The Washington Post is difficult, so you don’t need to worry about getting too many.

5. Most Pages Don’t Get (Deserve) Backlinks

“66.31% of pages don’t have even a single backlink.” – Ahrefs [11]

“94% of all blog posts have zero external links.” – Backlinko [12]

Most pages aren’t worth linking to, so this makes perfect sense. Also, most sites aren’t engaging in link building campaigns.

The whole “build it, and they will come” mentality doesn’t work well with SEO.

You need to build and then spend 80% of your time link building. It gets easier over time.

That said, every SEO campaign requires a massive link building campaign in the beginning.

The key is to create things that are worth promoting. Now before you dive into link building, you need to first understand what quality backlinks look like.

I’ve mentioned “quality” backlinks throughout this article, but what does that mean?

Here are seven indicators you should use to prioritize your link prospects:

1. Relevance

You should spend most of your link building time trying to get links on sites in your industry. I recommend using a model I created called The Relevancy Pyramid.

The Relevancy Pyramid can help you prioritize your link prospects based on relevance.

Relevancy Pyramid

The model is simple:

There are fewer link building opportunities that are 100% relevant to your website. You should focus on these first.

Then, once you’ve tapped those out, move down the pyramid where there will be more prospects with less relevance.

Now there are two exceptions to this prioritization strategy.

First, it’s ALWAYS okay to get links from super authority sites like the New York Times, Washington Post, or .edu/.gov sites.

Second, The Relevancy Model changes if you’re working in local SERPs.

I recommend focusing on geo-targeted opportunities first. Then move onto topically relevant prospects on the national level.

This will create the most natural and relevant link profile.

Local Relevancy Pyramid

Now, of course, it’s not all about relevance. If that were the case, you could create hundreds of relevant websites yourself and link to your site.

That doesn’t work because it would be missing all the other factors that make a backlink powerful.

Bringing me to standard #2:

2. Traffic

You need to get links to your site from websites that are relevant and have organic traffic.

Think about it:

If Google is sending organic search traffic to a site, what does that say?

It means that it’s likely a trustworthy website. In general, sites that are popular in organic search are valuable link building opportunities.

You can use SEMRush to see if a website is getting organic search traffic (and to see the “value” of that traffic):

traffic cost

3. Authority

If a website is getting organic traffic, it likely has authority. You can use Ahrefs’ DR to prioritize link building prospects based on their site authority.

The stronger a website is, the harder it will be to get the link.

That makes those links even more valuable, so it’s worth the effort.

4. Link Quality

It is possible to manipulate third party metrics like Ahrefs’ DR or Moz’s DA.

So that’s why you need to analyze the backlink profile of all your opportunities manually.

I like to run the website through Ahrefs and filter their links by “DoFollow.”

DR

I then sort them so that the strongest links with the highest DR are at the top.

In short, you want to see that the site is getting links from high-quality sources.

Use the same criteria from above.

5. Editorial Standards

Why are diamonds valuable?

Because they’re difficult to get. That’s how you need to approach your link building. The harder it is to land a backlink, the more valuable it is.

The opposite is true, as well:

The easier a backlink is to get, the less valuable it is.

Focus on getting links on websites that have high editorial standards.

6. Outbound Link Quality

Websites with strong editorial guidelines will likely only link out to quality resources. You want your link to “live” around other trustworthy outbound links.

Examine every prospective website and ask:

  • How are they linking out?
  • Are the outbound links relevant?
  • Are the outbound links going to respected, trusted sites?
  • Do the outbound links look natural, or do they look like paid links?

7. Indexation

Nothing is more important than making sure you get links on indexed websites. If the site isn’t indexed in Google, then your links will be worthless.

Go to Google and search “site:example.com”.

site search

If they don’t show up, avoid the website.

8. Bonus: Anchor Text Matters

Anchor text is the words you’ll see in a clickable hyperlink. Most people who are new to SEO don’t realize how impactful anchor text is. That applies to both how you use on your website (through internal links) and how you use it off of your website (backlinks).

In the case of internal links, you should use keyword-rich anchor text. Notice how I used “anchor text” as my anchor to link to my guide about “anchor text”. This is known as exact match anchor text. It’s safe to use with internal links.

However, you need to be super careful when it comes to backlinks. Read the guide above to learn more, but in short: exact match anchor text is a big footprint that you’re building links (which is against Google’s guidelines).

The catch 22 is that keyword-rich anchors work well. That means you need to be careful with how you use your anchor text when you’re link building.

Read this anchor text guide to learn how to use it the right way.

There are many ways to build backlinks, but not everything is worth pursuing.

Here are 4 link building techniques worth using:

1. Steal Your Competitors Backlinks

The first place you should do your backlink research is from your competitor’s backlink profile. The good news is SEO tools like Ahrefs makes this super easy. Watch this video:

How to Legally STEAL Your Competitor's Backlinks

2. Guest Blogging

Guest blogging is when you write content for another website in your industry. From a link building perspective, it’s an opportunity to get links on relevant websites.

But guest posts have other benefits such as getting more referral traffic and growing your brand.

The key is to focus on guest posts using the criteria above.

Check out Backlinko’s guide to land more guest posts.

3. Link Reclamation

Link reclamation is the process of reclaiming backlinks that you should likely have in the first place. Some examples include reaching out to websites that used your images, logo, or any assets without linking.

Siege Media has an impressive guide you can follow.

4. Create Link Bait

Link bait is the process of creating a content marketing asset that websites are likely to link to. Some of the best forms of link bait are data-driven content, free tools, and even paid tools. For example, examine the link profiles of SEO tools.

They’ve attracted enormous amounts of links like SEMRush:

SEMrush link profile

I recommend diving into WebFX’s guide to learn this method.

Need a full-scale link building strategy? Watch this video:

19 Link Building Techniques (That Work in 2020)

TLDR: Backlinks Matter for SEO

Shocking development, I know. Here are the two big takeaways:

  • You need to acquire quality backlinks to your website as a whole so you can grow its authority.
  • You need to acquire quality links to specific SEO-driven pages you’re trying to rank.

Now go out there and start acquiring more links. If this guide was helpful, please share it. Thanks for reading.

FREE Download: Get access to 7 untapped link building techniques for 2020.

References

1. “Method for node ranking in a linked database“. Google Patents. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

2, 7, 10. “We Analyzed 11.8 Million Google Search Results. Here’s What We Learned About SEO“. Backlinko. 28 April 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

3, 9. “Ranking Factors SEMrush Study 2.0“. SEMRush. 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

4. “SEO Data Science: A Study of 112K Personal Injury Law Firms“. Rankings.io. 5 May 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

5, 6, 11. “90.63% of Content Gets No Traffic From Google. And How to Be in the Other 9.37% [New Research for 2020]“. Ahrefs. 31 March 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

8. “How Many New Backlinks Do Top-ranking Pages Get Over Time [New Data by Ahrefs]“. Ahrefs. 3 April 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

12. “We Analyzed 912 Million Blog Posts. Here’s What We Learned About Content Marketing“. Backlinko. 19 February 2019. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

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