Well, here we go again! Thanks for taking the time to read another of our Back to Basics series where we take complicated things and try to simplify them - or is it the other way around? ;-).
Anyway, in this one we’re going to tackle the subject of link-building. Primarily, we’re going to look at external link building. If you missed any of the previous Back to Basics posts, then we’ve linked them all below.
In the constantly evolving SEO landscape and the ever-changing algorithms, link building is still very much a key component so it’s important for you to understand it to be able to make the most from it for your own website.
So without further ado, let’s take a walk through link building and answer the first burning question which is…..
WHAT IS LINK BUILDING?
Before we get to that, given this is a Back to Basics post, let’s make sure everyone understands what a link is and some of the history behind them.
Whenever you’re on a website and click a piece of highlighted text, a button or an image that takes you to another web page, that’s a link.
If it takes you to another page on the same site, it’s called an internal link. If it takes you to a completely different website entirely, it’s an external link.
Those links are encoded with properties that all the other text that doesn’t do anything is lacking. In this context, one of these links is only the start. Links or even link building isn’t a new phenomenon, it has been the case since the early- to mid-1990s.
Back then, before Google was even a ‘thing’, Yahoo and Alta Vista were the kings of search (if those names are new to you, feel free to Google them ;-).
Search results were determined exclusively by a website’s content. In other words, did the words you typed into their search bar appear on a web page? If it was, it was given as a search result. If not, it wasn’t. It was pretty much that simple.
In the late 1990s / early 2000s, things changed when Google stepped up and revolutionised the industry. They built on this seemingly simple premise and introduced their PageRank Algorithm, invented by Larry Page, one of Google’s founders.
This changed the game by not only looking at the content on a page but how many people linked TO that page. The more sites that link to a particular site, the more reputable the site is seen to be, at least in the eyes of the search engines. It seems like a small change, but it revolutionised search.
One other key change happened in 2013 when Google released their ‘Penguin’ update (that really was its name) which introduced a quality aspect to link building. It stopped being simply about the number of links (which was being easily abused by unscrupulous companies) and instead gave more weight to the quality of the links.
Fast forward to today and whilst the algorithm has undergone countless updates and become much more sophisticated, links are still a key component. Arguably, they are as important today as they have ever been. So, back to the original question….
Link building, simply put, is the practice of creating a number of these virtual connections (sometimes known as inbound links, backlinks or hyperlinks) from external websites back to your website with the aim of improving its visibility (or ranking) with search engines.
The more of these links you can create, the more your online reputation is enhanced by our search engine overlords, increasing the likelihood that they’ll deliver your website to users in their search results.
Think of links like recommendations. If one reputable website links to yours, then your standing is increased, albeit only slightly. If 500 or 5000 other reputable websites do the same, then you’re clearly onto something and your virtual reputation is increased so much more and your visibility in search increases accordingly.
WHAT ABOUT INTERNAL LINKS?
Internal links, as the name suggests, are links that exist on a website that only connect to other pages on the same website, rather than sending you to a completely different site.
Internal links exist to help visitors to your website easily find, and be connected to, more content that you think they will find useful.
Because they are on the same website, they will all start with the same root domain; in our case https://www.cubesquared.digital/blog could connect to https://www.cubesquared.digital/our-projects to help visitors who read this blog on SEO and who might want help with their own SEO efforts by looking at the SEO projects we've worked on with other clients. Only the last part of that link, after the '/' is different as it’s on the same website, i.e. www.cubesquared.digital
In the early days of SEO we touched on earlier, that difference didn’t really matter that much. A link was a link; but now because search engine algorithms differentiate between internal and external links, it matters a great deal.
Now to your visitors, it might just be a piece of highlighted or underscored text for them to click on, but there’s some actual computer code that underpins it and makes these links happen. It’s called anchor text.
Whilst the search engines have gradually minimised its importance, anchor text still plays a part, but is only one small piece of the larger puzzle that search engines use to rank your page and the quality of the links that get you there.
You might be now thinking that all you have to do is just plaster your sites with internal links going here, there and everywhere on every page and all over the footer and headers. Right? Wrong! Don’t do that.
As tempting as it might be, there’s a fine line to tread between getting the placement of internal links right and completely sabotaging your own site by doing it drastically wrong.
For links to be useful to you, there are a number of factors search engines use to assess them.
1. The location on the page.
As with external links, the location of the link matters. Typically, links will be included in the navigation and footer, but these are also problematic. Your site can be penalised by search engines (particularly Google) for manipulating links.
For example, if we linked to the Projects page mentioned earlier and added anchor text into every link and at the foot of every single page, then that would actually work against us. Remember, it’s quality, not quantity.
2. The target of the link.
Obviously, the target of the link should be working and correctly assigned. In other words, visitors end up on the page they are supposed to. This isn’t as simple as it might sound. If you ever get the dreaded 404 Error Page on a website, that’s a link that’s gone astray.
3. The importance of the page you’re linking to.
This is a key indicator. If, for example, you have a particular page on your site that has ‘authority’, i.e. a number of external links already point to it like a landing page, then it gains a degree of importance. You can then leverage this opportunity to link from here to other relevant pages that are useful to visitors and need attention.
4. Its relevance.
Make sure the sites linked are relevant. As described earlier, linking to our Testimonials page from another page talking about clients obviously makes sense. Linking to it from a page about the job vacancies we have, not so much. One page isn’t relevant to another.
5. The first link.
If you’re using anchor text to link to a page from a number of different internal sources, Google will only look at the first one. So, if your first anchor text is a box that says ‘Find Out More’ then that’s the one it will use, regardless of the others.
6. Type of link; i.e. the code used to create the link.
Links, whether internal or external, are like votes in an election. In the case of external links, when other independent sites link to you, to use that analogy, it’s like those other sites voting for you. If they do, it’s a good sign you’re doing something right and the search engines will notice. On the flip side, internal links are a bit like voting for yourself. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but carries a little less weight in terms of SEO.
HOW ARE LINKS EVALUATED BY SEARCH ENGINES?
Search engines value links for two main reasons. The first being a way for them to discover new websites. If websites they do know about link to another site they don't, then that offers them a chance to crawl that site for new content, add it to the index and then offer it as result in search queries.
The other reason is to gauge how well that page should rank in those results. The algorithms Google, and all the other search engines for that matter, use are a closely guarded secret, much like the KFC recipe, but they do provide guidelines for anyone to read and analyse. These help companies, like us, understand the process and work it into client’s websites. They tell us what sites need to exhibit to be ranked, without giving away any of the deep dive technical details.
Google uses an acronym (E.A.T.) within it’s own practices. E.A.T. stands for Expert, Authoritative and Trustworthy. If your site displays these attributes, then it is ranked higher than those that don’t. Also as E.A.T. is becoming more and more important in terms of ranking websites, you ignore it at your peril.
Other search engines tend to look at links with another viewpoint, often referred to as H. H. N. In other words, are the links Helpful, Honest and Natural, to put it even more simply, are those links connected and relevant to the content.
For your site to achieve its full search potential it absolutely needs those three things, whatever you want to call them, but it also needs other sites displaying those same three criteria to link to you too. Like anything in life, that’s easier said than done.
HOW DO YOU BUILD THOSE LINKS?
Now we’re getting to the crux of the matter, although this question could quite easily be a post on its own, but this is a ‘Back to Basics’ post after all. Throughout this section, and for this whole post for that matter, it’s important to keep in mind that not all links are created equally.
Don’t forget about what Google’s Penguin update brought about. It’s now all about the quality of the link, not just the number of them.
Also, those links also don’t have to be purely individual words or sentences, links can come in the way of graphics and images, lists, research materials and industry data. All of which you can create on your own website.
For the vast majority of websites, yours, ours and pretty much everyone else, getting a link from a hugely reputable website is almost impossible. The BBC or the Financial Times aren’t going to link to your site because you asked nicely, although wouldn’t it be lovely if they did.
Instead, you might be thinking that your friend has a blog, which is reputable, so they’ll link to your business website meaning it’s job done right?. Well, yes………. and no.
Yes, it’s a link that you’ve built so it will carry ‘some’ (albeit very small) weight, but the algorithm also looks at page authority. So unless your friend’s blog has a HUGE readership and is well-respected in its field, it probably won’t make any discernible difference.
The other issue with links from personal blogs is that they are often ignored by search engines because they can be too easily spammed, either by being links that have been paid for, they’re simply not relevant or they exist purely to publish guest blogs linked to other sites. That might not the case with your friends blog, but it will often be tainted in the same way. So it will be a link, but not a high quality one and that’s what it’s about remember; HIGH. QUALITY. LINKS.
For all the technicalities of SEO, when it comes to link building, there are some steps you can take to help your site get noticed and to encourage those links naturally.
Like anything related to SEO, it’s a long process and there’s no overnight, quick fix, despite what those spam emails clogging up your junk folder might promise. The good news is that it’s still in your hands.
The fact is that people love great content, they love reading it, looking at it and they also love sharing it. If you create great content, people will want to share it and that’s where those all-important links will come from. They will want to share that great content on their own website or blog and with their own network, whether that’s family, friends, work colleagues, business contacts or their own audience. That doesn’t mean you have to write reams of text, as we said earlier, there is more than one way to link a site or build those connections.
Engaging Visuals - use graphs, infographics and diagrams or other visual aids to help you articulate your post. These are great for creating links and are really simple to link to. A graph, illustration or diagram offers something text doesn’t; instant visual appeal. People look at these kind of graphics and get it straight-away, so that immediacy helps you. If it was pages of text, people may not want to include that on their own post, but linking to an illustration makes much more sense. Encourage this sharing but also request that they credit you with the link. Most people will do this because, well, it’s the right thing to do.
Lists - When it comes to creating links, text is often the go-to area, but it has to be presented in the right way. List posts, as they’re known, are the most linked to posts so embrace them. List posts, if you’re wondering, are those posts which include titles like ‘The 10 Most ……..’, ‘5 Ways to ….….’, ‘How To [something] in 6 Easy Steps’, before listing whatever it is in a list. You get the idea. People like them because they pack a lot of information in bite-size, easily manageable chunks making them very sharable.
Informational Guides - This covers those posts that go really in-depth on a particular subject, often headlined as ‘The Ultimate Guide to….’ or ‘Everything You Need To Know About ….’. These posts become the go-to place for those interested in whatever topic it’s discussing. They work in terms of creating links because they have a wealth of information all in one place so can replace multiple separate links if their audience can find it all in one place.
Research / Data - It’s worth mentioning here that we’re talking about original research or data, not something that has been used previously. If your business / organisation carries out research that generates data, then publishing on your website is a great way to generate links and demonstrates your authority in the particular field.
Social Media - Links from social media, whether that’s Facebook and LinkedIn shares or Twitter’s likes and retweets, but also includes YouTube and Pinterest, can all contain links to your site. Whilst these won’t directly help your SEO (they are far too easily manipulated), including links to your site on social media can help people find your content. The more they find that they like, the more they might share it.
Find Partners - This is a way of finding people who share your values, work in the same, or related, sectors to you or even just loyal customers of yours to act as link partners; think of them as ‘Friends with SEO Benefits’. ;-) Reach out to clients, friendly businesses in your area, suppliers and other businesses you know to create links from them to you, and if relevant, vice-versa. You could always offer small discounts or design a virtual badge they could use on social media to symbolise this relationship. This can also stretch to well-respected bloggers who work in the same field; send them products for review with the proviso that there’s a link back to your website for anyone wanting to buy one (assuming it’s a positive one!). This can also extend to sponsoring events or things in the local community (assuming there isn’t a pandemic going on). Those will usually have websites and those can include links back to yours.
THE FINAL WORD
For all their simplicity, building links can be a tough ask for most websites. Most businesses tend to look outward when trying to find those all-important connections and that can be a bewildering place when everyone is trying to do the same thing, but you should be looking at your own website first and foremost.
Creating amazing, original content that connects and engages with people is going to generate those links by itself. It’s a long process, but pretty much everything to do with SEO is, but that’s also why it’s worth investing the time and effort to get it right.
It can be tempting to dip your toe into the world of ‘black hat’ marketing; the nefarious world of bad practice, unscrupulous companies and paid-for links, but avoid that at all costs.
If you take nothing away else away from this post, it’s the same thing we’ve been talking about since you started reading; honesty, trustworthiness and professional integrity will always see you rising above the rest and then people will want to be connected to what you’re creating.
We hope we have helped you understand what link building is all about. Remember, this is just a simplified guide, but you now understand the concepts behind it. Is there any advice you think we’ve missed? Do you have any of your own tips that you think our audience could benefit from? Let us know in the comments below.
We’d love to connect with you on social media, so all the links for those platforms are below, as are those all-important ‘Share’ buttons. If you know someone who might benefit from this or any of our other posts, please click one of the buttons below. Original blog photo by Tamanna Rumee on Unsplash