Pre-requisite SEO Knowledge

What are links?

Links are created when one web page links to another web page. The page can be on the same website (in this case, an internal link) or the link can lead a user to another website completely (external outbound link).

Generally speaking, links exist for three reasons:

  1. Links help users navigate between pages on the Internet.
  2. Links can be used to provide further information.
  3. Links can be used to provide supporting information for an argument.

What role do links have in SEO?

As Google continues to gain a foothold in our daily lives, links have increased in importance. This is because search engines use links to discover new pages (via crawling). Without links, it would be difficult for search engines to discover the ever increasing number of new web pages that are being created every single day.

Some people liken links as votes of confidence and integrity that can pass visitors and ‘link equity’ fro the originating page to the destination web page.

Everyone has their own opinion on links. Some swear by them while others love telling people that you don’t need to have a link building strategy for your business. This is what makes SEO so challenging for a newbie – it’s difficult to separate fact from anecdotal evidence. As someone who has had to learn SEO from ground up, my advice to you is to test everything yourself. What someone says is gospel may not be applicable to your situation. Therefore, the onus is on you to find your own truth.

Why is link building important to SEO?

Broadly speaking, there are three pillars of SEO.

  1. On-page SEO
  2. Technical SEO
  3. Off-page SEO

When done in combination, technical SEO moves the spider, content moves the user, and links move the SERPs.

Links are valuable assets for competitive searches. That is, when comparing two web pages with similar domain age, optimized technical SEO, and conversion-driven copywriting, the page with more authoritative backlinks tends to rank higher in the SERPs.

Is link building against Google’s Quality Guidelines?

The following excerpt from Google’s Webmaster Guidelines gets inaccurately quoted a lot in the SEO community.

“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”

When you read through the entire document, Google provides more examples of specific link building practices that it frowns upon. I recommend that the time to read the Quality Guidelines at least once – you can find them here.

From the same document:

The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.”

I’ve bolded the section that tells us that pretty much states that link building is not against Google’s Quality Guidelines.

In short, building links a certain way is completely within Google’s playbook and we should focus on creating value for users instead of prioritizing links themselves. And this is exactly what HARO offers.

Similarly, Authority Hacker did a great podcast episode (#168) that I urge you to tune into.

Are Bad Links Bad?

Is there such a thing as a good link?

According to many SEO professionals, there is (although individual definitions vary greatly). And if there are good links then by logic there should be bad links too right?

What’s a bad link anyway?

Are all blogspot subdomain links bad?
No. Not always.

Are links on pages that don’t get indexed or sit on a site that has been de-indexed bad?
Yes. Any link placement on a de-indexed page or a non-indexable page is a complete waste of time.

Most websites will attract a bunch of links across time. Some will be natural; linking to data, insights or resources unique to the website. And some will be junk links. For example, let’s use Ahrefs to take a look at the backlink profile of thewirecutter.com.

I think we can all agree that this is an authoritative website (and that’s even before putting it through Site Explorer). And judging by the screenshot below, this domain is not struggling in the links department.

In just the past 7 days alone, thewirecutter.com has received more than 2,000 inbound links.

According to Ahrefs, thewirecutter.com has in excess of 23,000 referring domains resulting in 1,700,000 backlinks. This is a terrifying number of backlinks.

thewirecutter.com has a significant number of junk referring domains and spammy looking web2.0 backlinks

As you can see from the above screenshot, there are literally thousands of junk-looking referring domains and tens of thousands of low quality inbound links. Does this stop thewirecutter.com from making money?

No.

And judging by the graph shown below, one can conclude that organic traffic is in an upward trend (as is visibility for an increasing number of keyword).

an ahrefs graph showing year on year growth of organic traffic for thewirecutter.com

But before we jump into any conclusions, we should acknowledge that the number of low quality referring domains that thewirecutter.com has is a fraction of its total backlink profile. I’m of the personal opinion that Google doesn’t place too much weight to this type of natural type of ‘unnatural’ link acquisition so long as the majority of the referring domains are of high quality.

Bad links do exist and many webmasters have discovered that poor link building practices has lead to them being served with manual penalties from Google.

How do we know this?

In 2013, PSD2HTML (a company that converts PSD to HTML) received a manual penalty and from their analytics they could see a clear 80 percent loss of organic traffic. Upon submitting reconsideration requests, Google showed exact examples of links that they saw as being manipulative and/or unnatural.

After an exhaustive link analysis and disavow process, the manual penalty was removed.

This case study is just one example of many that prove that Google does hand out manual penalties for suspicious link building practices.

The sad reality is that the majority of people who hire a third-party for their link building have no idea what type of work is being done for them. Nine out of 10 business owners believe that they have never paid for a link but in reality, their SEO agency or freelancer has.

If you have ever paid a publishing/admin free for a guest post – by definition that is a paid link.

If you have ever paid for a niche edit – you know.

As freelance SEOs or agency owners, the onus is on us to educate our clients and to make them fully aware of their exposure. Some link building strategies are more aggressive than others and some are downright risky (e.g., buying PBN link from someone who will offer them to anyone).

As long as our clients understand what we are doing (and why) – I think it is fair game. But we as an industry need to be upfront with our clients in the first place. For example, outside of HARO Liaison, I have a very small number of private SEO clients. On top of HARO outreach, I will periodically buy links through a trusted vendor. My clients are aware of this and the reason behind niche edits. And should their rankings tank, I will do whatever is necessary to recover.

Bad links exist because the consequences of said links have not been disclosed. The links themselves and their content may not actually be bad. For example, blog comments continue to be a link acquisition strategy. Some vendors will supply hundreds if not thousands of blog comment links. The words that are used to construct each blog comment may be fine but it’s the nature of these links, where the blog comments come from, and their potential downsides that gives most SEOs the hives.

Instead Of Good Versus Bad Links: Reframe Your Pespective

Here’s my personal take: there are good links and there are certainly links you want to avoid. When it comes to creating your own link building strategy, it is important to know what type of links you will need to achieve the goals you seek.

In all honesty, I don’t believe in good links or bad links.

Links are links – some are beyond your control so focus on variables that you can control.

Therefore, instead of looking at backlinks through the lens of good vs bad, I like to think of link building in two buckets:

  1. worthwhile, and
  2. not worthwhile.

At HARO Liaison, we answer journalist queries with the hope of earning an inbound link from an authoritative website. We can usually tell if the referring domain is going to be worthwhile by just looking at the name of the publishing site. However, some journalist queries are marked as ‘anonymous’ and in these instances, we have to take the gamble that the link is going to come from a high-DR referring domain.

If we do not recognize the publisher, we will do a quick Ahrefs lookup to see if it is a good fit for our clients.

The first thing we look at is its Domain Rating (DR).

Domain Rating is a metric that shows the link popularity of a website compared to all other websites in the world on a scale from 0 to 100.

Tim Soulo, CMO at Ahrefs

From the above statement, you can see that search traffic, website quality or legitimacy are not factors Ahrefs uses to arrive at their Domain Rating.

For what it’s worth, I do not rely on DR as it is a proprietary metric that Google ignores. Domain Rating can be easily manipulated and just because a referring domain has a high DR does not make it an authoritative or trusted website. But given that it is a common form of measurement within the SEO community, we use DR as a quick comparison benchmark of perceived value.

In terms of our business model, the higher the DR, the more we can charge for it (as it is more desirable and more difficult to get).

Secondly, with only a few exceptions, the majority of websites that you can get a backlink from via HARO tend to be well-established brands and media publications. This is because HARO restricts publications with Alexa rankings in excess of 1 million. That is, only the top one million websites in the world can do HARO requests.

What Makes A Link Worthwhile?

Now that we’ve successfully moved away from the concepts of good links versus bad links, let’s focus on what matters to SEO: quality.

This is my mantra to what makes a backlink worthwhile:

  • A worthwhile link is one that is difficult to get.
  • Therefore, not worthwhile links are those that anyone can easily get with limited time and resources.

What if I were to tell you that some PBN links are worthwhile? And what if I were to tell you that many high DR websites are not worthwhile links?

Getting a homepage link from a high quality Private Blog Network is extremely difficult. This is because the good stuff is never available to the public. PBNs are either purpose-built for a set number of clients or they are built and sold to the masses. Which do you think will be more effective? Which of the two will be riskier?

PS – if someone offers you a PBN link – run away.

Effective PBNs are costly to build and even if you can find a someone who has a number of these, you’re going to have to pay a significant premium for a homepage link from their PBN(s). More often than not, the good stuff is hard to find.

This is what makes them worthwhile – because the barrier to entry is so high.

Now, I’m not advocating PBN links but I am trying to dispel the misconception of PBNs.

On the other hand, you will come across many high DR guest post websites on link marketplaces such as NO BS. In my opinion, many of these websites are no better than publicly available PBNs. All you have to do is pay a fee and you’ll get a link.

Hint: take a look at the amount of outgoing links these guest post farms have. Then take a look at what their top ranking keywords are. I won’t spoil it for you but I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusion once you take a peek behind the curtain for yourself.

But what about social fortress links?

Every legitimate business and brand should have claim their social profiles – less so for SEO but more for establishing that your business is legit.

Social fortress links, geo-relevant directory listings, and NAP citations should be the first 10 links that any new business should acquire.

So What Makes A Good Link Good?

It depends.

Your answer to this question will depend on what your goals are. Are you a brand new business that needs to build out a backlink graph? Are you a business that has done some ‘spammy’ tactics and need to recover from a loss of visibility? Are you a business that is operating in a competitive vertical?

Depending on what circumstance you are in, a worthwhile link for you will differ others.

For example, as a brand new business with zero backlinks, you should invest some time in building out your social fortress. This includes creating a Facebook Business Page, a LinkedIn Company page, creating a Twitter account, and some citation profiles. Most legitimate businesses have these so it makes sense for you to get these as a starting point. If you have a physical location, spend $20 on getting a verified Foursquare listing and start the process of verifying your business with Google My Business.

For a business that has a lot of junk links (usually from a bad SEO vendor or bad SEO advice) your goals will be different again. You may wish to consider disavowing the bad links (this is not something to consider lightly) and at the same time, use a variety of link building strategies to balance out your link graph. For example, you may get some niche edits, pay for some placements on guest post farms, and do some HARO.

And if you’re operating within a competitive vertical, I suggest that you take a deep dive into looking at what link building strategies your competitors are doing and replicate from their success. The Link Intersect tool from Ahrefs makes this job easier.

Domain Rating, PageRank, Authority Score and all metrics aside, a good link is one that helps you achieve your goals. Whether it is to give you referral traffic that converts into sales or to get maximum visibility for high-converting keywords – you need to know why you’re building links in the first place.

Everything you do in business has to have a measure-able return don’t you agree?

What Makes A Good Link Great?

A great link is one that hits the trifecta. That is:

  1. It brings in relevant referral traffic.
  2. It passes significant link equity to your target URL.
  3. It comes from a trusted source.

Good luck finding these unicorns (they exist but they’re rare and take significant resources to acquire).

So Where Does HARO Fit In All This?

Make no mistake. I’m here to sell you our done-for-you HARO outreach. This is why I’ve put together a resource guide on how you can leverage HARO for your SEO.

As much as I would like to sell you on HARO link building, HARO should not be your only link building strategy. This is because the type of backlinks you can achieve by offering journalists with value is limited.

The links will rarely bring you significant amounts of relevant referral traffic.

The links will rarely pass significant link juice to your site (given the high number of outgoing likes major publications link out to).

But, at the very least, you can rest assured that links from HARO will come from a source that Google trusts.

In Closing

Organic search traffic is something we all desire. And in order achieve this visibility in the SERPs, we know that backlinks play a critical role.

But what links will help move the needle for you? What links do you need to move up in the SERPs? And how many?

It depends.

But at least you know now what you must do.

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