What is a backlink?

By Strategically AI. Reviewed by Rebecca Hey.
Updated December 2, 2023
16 minute read
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What is a backlink?

Backlink building is an essential part of any successful SEO strategy.

In this beginner-friendly guide, we've outlined everything you need to know about backlinks, including the definition of a backlink, why backlinks are important, and how to build backlinks in three easy steps.

Key takeaways:

  • A backlink is an inbound link that points to a web page or blog post on your website from another website.
  • Google and other search engines see backlinks as votes of confidence, and websites with lots of high-quality links rank higher than those with fewer or poorer-quality links.
  • To build backlinks for your website, you should establish what you'd like to link to, identify your link building opportunities, and track your progress as you go.

What are backlinks?

Backlinks, also known as inbound links, are links to your site that point from other websites.

As an example, let's say a writer is producing an article titled "How to get more backlinks for free".

They come across an article you've written that defines backlinks and gives a detailed overview of how backlinks are gained.

In a section of their article titled "What are backlinks?" they link to your article for further reading. This link will be hyperlinked within a piece of text, rather than showing up in full URL format.

Backlinks can be naturally accumulated or deliberately built. Many website owners have a backlink strategy that involves sourcing link building opportunities, since the number of backlinks to a website is a Google ranking factor.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be an SEO expert to build or earn backlinks through smart strategies online. You just need enough time to implement these strategies - and that's why many business owners choose to outsource their backlink building to an expert in the industry.

The good news is that there are now plenty of professional link-building businesses that offer high-quality backlink building using methods including HARO, blogger outreach, and strategic content marketing.

Why are backlinks important?

Backlinks are important because they help you to establish authority, which is essential if you want to boost your search engine rankings and increase your organic traffic.

How do backlinks benefit your SEO? The main reason is that each link to your website is a vote of confidence from other websites. The better the quality and the greater the quantity of backlinks your website has, the more of an authority it is perceived to be, and the more value it is perceived to provide.

Authority and value are big ranking factors, so websites with a lot of high-quality backlinks have a better chance of ranking highly for various keywords and search terms.

Backlinking should also boost your referral traffic, increasing your website visitors. If your backlinks are placed on popular websites, visitors to these websites may click on these links to visit the linked web pages and blog posts, giving them more relevant information on a specific topic.

Being featured in locations all over the internet will also drive awareness to your brand, exposing new audiences to your product or service. When you earn backlinks on authoritative websites, you'll be able to tap into their audiences - many of whom may be influenced by your brand.

Additionally, building backlinks will improve your visibility and make it easier for your website to be found online. Search engines view pages that they've already crawled when looking for new content. So, when you start to build your backlink profile, your content should be more discoverable to search engines.

Of course, backlinks aren't the be-all-and-end-all to achieving SEO success. There are other factors that affect your SEO, too, including page speed and on-page SEO.

Backlinks vs internal links vs outbound links

Backlinks, internal links, and outbound links all play an important role in SEO - but they're not to be confused with one another.

Below, we've shared a short overview of each link type, so you can easily compare their differences.

  • Backlinks are links that point to your website from other websites. The number of backlinks to your website correlates to your perceived authority because having lots of backlinks tells Google that your site provides lots of value and you're a trustworthy source.
  • Internal links are links that lead to other pages on your website. These links help Google to crawl your website and understand its structure. They also help you link your content and offer opportunities for further reading, keeping visitors on your website longer.
  • Outbound links are links on your website that point to other websites. You can use outbound links to point users to pages that provide additional context, providing further value should they need it. Using outbound links also has SEO benefits because it helps search engines like Google determine the quality and usefulness of your content, and you can demonstrate expertise by linking to authoritative sources.

A big difference between backlinks and internal/outbound links is that you have control over your internal and outbound link usage, while you can't control which backlinks point to your site.

With internal and outbound links, you can choose which links to place on your web pages and blog articles, and where you place these links.

With backlinks, you can pay for links to be placed on certain websites (although this isn't recommended if you want to stay on Google's good side), and you can also use link building strategies to build links on news websites and blogs in your industry. However, you can't control which external sources find your website and link to your content, so you'll probably end up with a mix of low-quality and high-quality backlinks as your website grows.

Which backlinks are considered valuable?

Not all backlinks are equal, and not all are considered valuable to build.

If your goal is to boost your rankings and increase your organic search engine traffic (which we assume it is), you need to focus on creating opportunities to build or earn high-quality backlinks.

When it comes to backlinking, quality is more important than quantity. That means just one high-quality backlink is more influential than hundreds of spammy or poor-quality backlinks.

There are different ways to secure high-quality backlinks, which we'll mention later in this guide.

For now, let's look in more detail at which types of backlinks are valuable, and why quality backlinks are considered valuable for SEO.

When your website has been linked to by popular, authoritative sources, it tells Google that you're endorsed by websites that are already trusted. The higher the website's authority, the more authority it can pass to your own website via backlinks.

Winning or building backlinks on high-authority referring domains means gives you the best chance of boosting your search traffic.

A high-quality link should include your target keyword in the link's anchor text (the piece of text in which the hyperlink is placed within the article or webpage content).

The anchor text shouldn't be exact-match, since Google has a filter called Google Penguin that detects black-hat link building methods and filters out websites that are suspected to use these techniques.

Another feature of a high-quality backlink is that it's placed on a website that's related to your own. Google puts a lot more weight on backlinks from sites that are semantically relevant, so you're likely to get better results if you secure links from other sources in your niche.

With that said, multiple links to your site start to lose their value, so it's best to focus on building or acquiring links from numerous different sources.

Finally, a high-quality backlink is only counted as a link if it's "dofollow". Dofollow links pass page rank signals, while a nofollow links are ignored by Google. So, only dofollow links are considered valuable.

How to build backlinks (3 easy steps)

Now you know the basics of what a backlink is and what makes a high-quality backlink, let's look at how you can build links for your website.

We recommend following these 3 steps:

Step 1: Establish what you'd like to link to

To start, you need to establish which pages on your website you want to build or generate links for.

Our advice is to focus on creating linkable content that has the highest likelihood of being naturally linked to, which will reduce your own link-building efforts.

For example, you could conduct a study on customers in your niche or industry, then showcase the results in a datasheet online, discussing any trends in your findings.

Or, you could create a calculator to provide quick answers to a common search query amongst your customers, or an infographic that displays important data in an easily digestible format.

Other potential linkable assets on your websites include informative blog posts, guides, videos, or landing pages for products and services.

Try to think about what people will see value in, and what writers for other websites will be likely to link to.

Also consider which web pages you specifically want to drive traffic to through links. That means, when you build links via strategies like guest posting and blogger outreach, you can direct audiences to the location that's most likely to result in a conversion for you.

For instance, when it makes sense to, you can build links to your product or service pages, so potential customers are presented with your offering with no need to navigate any further through your website.

Step 2: Identify your link building opportunities

Now you've established the content you want to focus on building links to, you need to identify your link building opportunities.

We recommend solely focusing on white-hat link building strategies. White-hat links are more time-consuming to build, and are often more expensive. But they're also the most respected links that give you the highest chances of boosting your authority without the risk of a Google penalty.

White-hat backlinking involves using strategies that are Google-approved, meaning they don't manipulate the algorithm, they're not spammy, and they don't result in a manual action.

These links are the safest links to build because they're future-proof - they help to boost your rankings without the potential for destroying all your hard work if the Google algorithm becomes suspicious of your intentions.

Some of the different methods to consider using in a white hat link building strategy are listed below. We recommend considering several methods and making a list of the methods you think are best suited to your business model or industry.

Blogger outreach

Blogger outreach is when you reach out to influential bloggers in your niche and request that they write an article with a backlink to your website.

This is a white hat method of link building because it shouldn't violate Google's guidelines, as long as the blogger provides high-quality content that's relevant to your industry and tailored to their target audience.

An extra bonus of blogger outreach is that, aside from building high-quality backlinks, it'll also increase exposure to your brand by getting your name out in front of the blogger's audience, who are likely already interested in your product or niche.

To build backlinks using this method, search online to find bloggers that you think are a good fit for promoting your brand or product/service, then craft a winning outreach email and reach out to these bloggers with your request.

Guest posting

Guest posting is similar to blogger outreach, but it involves contacting popular blogs and websites and asking the owner to publish an article you've written, rather than asking the owner to write the article themselves.

Again, be strategic with your guest posts. Only reach out to quality websites in your industry, and be wary of websites with poor-quality, spammy-looking content that charge a fee for guest posts.

Essentially, you want to avoid websites that will allow anyone to submit a guest post - for a price. Instead, you want to look for websites that are pickier about the guest posts they accept, and focus primarily on quality and relevancy (even if there's a posting fee).

You probably already have an idea of a couple of dream websites in your industry that you'd love to write a guest post for. You can find more potential sites by searching your target keyword on Google and browsing the websites that show up. Websites that exist with the sole purpose of providing value (such as news sites), rather than selling a product or a service, are the most likely to accept guest posts.

Again, compile a list of websites that you want to contact with your proposal, then draft an email outlining your proposition.

Guest posting is competitive, so make sure your email is tailored to the website you're contacting, get straight to the point, and make it clear that you'll be writing a high-quality piece of content that will add additional value to the pre-existing website content.

Broken link building

Broken link building is less popular than it used to be, but it's still a good way to build links to your site.

The aim of this method is to identify broken links on popular websites in your niche, then reach out to the author and offer to replace the link with a link to your own website.

Dead or broken links are web pages that have been deleted, moved, or reorganized, meaning that they no longer exist. You'll see a 401 error page if you click on a broken link.

Tools like Ahrefs and Backlinko make it easy to see which web pages have broken links. Look at websites within your industry, and make sure your replacement link makes contextual sense when used in place of the original link.

It's best to find broken links first, then look through your web content and decide whether you have anything suitable to offer to link to instead. This could even include crafting content that fits the bill, uploading it to your website, waiting for it to be indexed, then contacting the site owner with your proposition.

The reality is, the site owner might come back to you stating that they'll take your link - but they expect payment.

In this case, you'll need to consider whether the website's authority and quality, and the potential rewards you can expect from placing a link on this site, are worth the payment for the link.

Even if your broken link building efforts don't get you very far, you'll have made your name known to the top dogs in your industry, and you might have also created some valuable content for your website in the process.

Responding to HARO requests

Another Google-friendly way to build backlinks is by responding to journalism requests as an expert source.

There are a few different websites that journalists use to find quotes for their articles. The most popular site is HARO, or Help A Reporter Out, which is free to join and use.

Log into HARO at least once a week and take the time to write up thoughtful responses to the requests available. Make sure to only respond to a request if you fit the description of the expert the journalist is looking for, and follow the request instructions closely to increase your likelihood of being selected for the article.

Keep in mind that most journalist requests receive tens of responses, so there's no guarantee that your response will be chosen for publication. But if it is, you'll receive credit in the article with a link back to your website.

Many news websites are high-domain authority sites, meaning you can build a high-quality link for free simply by being featured.

Like blogger outreach, HARO is a great way to build high-quality links and increase your brand exposure by getting your name out to an interested audience.

Step 3: Track your link-building progress

It's difficult to see how far you've come and how close you are to reaching your link building goals if you don't track your progress.

You might notice a rise or dip in your organic traffic, but there's no way to know for certain whether your backlink strategy is responsible for this unless you track your link building progress.

If you're just getting started, we recommend using Google Search Console as a free tool to you keep track of your latest referring domains and backlinks. This tool gives you access to all the important data you should know right off the bat, including who is linking you.

However, Search Console doesn't give any indication of link quality, and its reports are limited to 1,000 backlinks, so it's not the best solution if you're looking for a more comprehensive analysis of your backlink profile.

A few other tools you can use to provide additional detail about your website links are:

  • Moz Link Explorer
  • BuzzSumo
  • Majestic SEO
  • Ahrefs
  • Semrush Backlinks Gap tool

Many of these tools offer free trials, so you can get a feel for the tool before you commit to a monthly spend.

There are a few things that you should monitor to track your link-building progress, including:

  • The total number of incoming links to your website
  • The type of link (follow/nofollow, text, image, sponsored, etc.)
  • The quality of the referring domains (many tools assign these websites a domain authority score)

It's a good idea to compare your own quality and number of backlinks compared to your competitors' backlinks, which will help you to identify where you could further improve your own strategy.

Some tools even allow you to see which of your competitors' content has the most backlinks, so you can replicate a similar web page or blog post on your own website, and some tell you which high-domain authority websites have linked to your competitors, so you can focus on creating backlinks on these sites.

Final word

Establishing a high-quality backlink strategy is one of the best ways to become an authority in your niche and climb the search engine results pages.

The search engine algorithm continues to adapt, and link quality is now much more favored over quantity. Not all backlinks are worth creating - and some could even put your website at risk of a penalty, which will hinder your SEO progress.

We hope this guide has given you all the information you were looking for to get started with link building for your own site.

If you don't have the time to generate backlinks or you're not sure you have the expertise to give it your best shot, consider outsourcing the job to a professional link-building company that uses non-spammy white hat methods to build high-quality links for your website.

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Rebecca Hey
Founder of Strategically.co, we’ve created over 10 million words of impactful content, driving organic traffic growth for more than 300 businesses.
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