Link building has been a critical part of search engine optimization since day one. A quality backlink profile for a website is one of the biggest factors involved with a website’s rankings on a search engine. Think of backlinks like one website recommending another. The more recommended something is, the better it must be, right?
In the beginning, it really didn’t matter where or who you got a backlink from, it was purely a numbers game.
Early SEO professionals loved this, as they could easily acquire hundreds, even thousands, of backlinks without too much effort or time involved.
So, what happened?
As search engines started improving their algorithms to ensure the user could find the best websites for what they were searching for, they realized they had to rethink how backlinks affected rankings. Websites that lacked quality, as well as useful information, could easily rank highly by using link schemes. For example, going on multiple unrelated forum websites and posting keyword-stuffed comments and linking to your site could result in high rankings despite offering no value.
There had been plenty of algorithm updates in the 2000s that were slowly improving how links affected one’s rankings, differentiating quality backlinks from spam links. But, the big kicker was the Google Penguin update in 2012. Today, let’s see how backlinks evolved over time.
The Penguin update completely changed link building in the SEO world. The fundamental changes to Google’s algorithm were that they would penalize keyword stuffing and link schemes. We’ll be focusing on the link aspect of this update, but to learn more about why you should avoid keyword stuffing and best practices to optimize your homepage for SEO, read more here.
Google started analyzing the authority of domains, which is affected by a variety of different factors, one of which includes the number of irrelevant outbound links a site has. Once a site is deemed as spam or is caught participating in a link scheme, all of the websites which have a hyperlink on that domain are at risk of being penalized. (Check out SEJ’s The Complete List of Google Penalties & How to Recover for more information on Google penalties.)
As a result, websites that have been relying on link schemes to achieve high rankings started to tank. Some of the worst offenders were even deindexed overnight, meaning your website no longer ranked at all for any search queries. Thankfully, however, there was a way to remedy the situation – either by requesting the site owners to remove your link on their website (preferred) or by disavowing these backlinks. While there’s no guarantee your rankings would bounce back, you could have lessened the damage of the penalties received from the spam backlinks. While a new iteration of the update, Penguin 4.0, changed things around back in 2016 by devaluing these links rather than giving penalties, there’s still evidence that these links continue to have a negative impact (check out Michael Cottam’s article on this here). These are still recommended practices today if your website has unnatural links pointing towards it.
After this update, many websites started to use “Nofollow” links more frequently to help avoid hurting their own website when linking to questionable ones.
While Nofollow links had been around for a few years already, they quickly became much more prevalent after the Penguin update. Essentially, when a backlink has a Nofollow tag, Googlebot won’t register it as a link when it scans, meaning it won’t pass on any link juice. So, if you have a website that would have plenty of seemingly weak links, you’d want to use a Nofollow tag to ensure you don’t end up getting penalized.
Does this mean all websites should automatically attach a Nofollow tag to every link? Absolutely not. Google wants you to link out to other websites with outbound links, and doing so will actually help your own website’s SEO as well. But, these backlinks should be relevant to the page they’re found on. You also don’t want to overload a single page with too many outbound links either, as this could be seen as spammy.
A good way to tell if you have too many links, or even not enough, is to think of the user experience. Will they find valuable information on the linked webpage? Does it flow with the rest of the content on the page? Is it visually pleasing or overbearing? These are questions you should always ask when adding a backlink, both inbound and outbound.
Sponsored links and user-generated content links
In September of 2019, two new link attributions were created so search engines could better understand the nature behind the backlink in question; sponsored and user-generated content (UGC) links. These attributions help define their intent on the webpage and are meant to replace the nofollow tag where appropriate.
The sponsored link tag helps differentiate a link with 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 staff (such as comment sections on forum pages).
While both of these new tags won’t pass along link juice, and are essentially sub-categories of a nofollow backlink, they are the preferred tag to use when applicable. Plus, you are being more transparent with your website’s backlinks which search engines will appreciate. Because of this, it is possible that they may play a bigger role than we currently realize in SEO, but we’ll need to do some more investigating on the effect they have before making a definitive assumption.
How to get quality links
With black hat SEO tactics being 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 genuine and acquire backlinks through means that can provide helpful information to the websites you’re trying to get a backlink from as well as their users. There are plenty of ways one can do this (check out this article on how you can use guest blogging to earn quality backlinks). One great way to get backlinks is by using public relations (PR) strategies.
If you can get yourself, your company, or your website mentioned in a media outlet, that opens the door to get a backlink. Connecting with journalists and bloggers who are working on an article related to your area of expertise presents a great way to get a backlink on a reputable site. Not only that, but if you manage to get a backlink in the article, odds are the webpage will be filled with related keywords to your business, which will result in an even more impactful backlink. Use your industry knowledge to provide insight that the writer can use. You will usually be credited as a source, or even be quoted, in the published article and likely get a backlink to your website in your accreditation.
In conclusion, Google wants the best websites that can provide insight to its users to rank highly for their specific search queries. Building backlinks from domains/pages related to your field is one of the best ways to show Google that your website is an authority in your industry. It’s time-consuming and difficult at times, yes, but benefits from your efforts make it worth it. Plus, isn’t it nice that brand mentions in popular news outlets like Forbes count as backlinks too? You can learn the value of solid digital PR efforts here. And if you need legitimate backlinks to strengthen your site, don’t hesitate to reach out.