Backlinks aka link building are a commonly misused SEO tactic that has been exploited by bad sites, earning a bad reputation. Learn how to use them well.

SEO Basics: What Is Link Building and How Do You Use Backlinks the Right Way?

Wed May 28, 2014

Backlinks are a commonly misused SEO tactic and have earned a bad reputation after being exploited by spammy websites. If you’ve ever searched for something on Google and clicked through to a result that was just a wall of links, without the relevant content you were hoping to find. This is of course extremely frustrating, but it came to be this way for a reason, and is also heavily penalized by Google nowadays.

In this post, we’ll look at what backlinks are, why they are important for SEO, and how to use them properly so as not to get into trouble with the world’s largest search engine.

What Are Backlinks?

Backlinks are simply links that point someone back to a specific page on your website.

External backlinks come from domains other than yours, and can include directory websites, social media sites, and ideally, other websites that found your content worth linking.

Internal backlinks are links on your website that link to other content. They could link back to a page on your products or services from your blog, or within a blog post to another relevant blog post, with the goal of making it quick and easy to get to relevant content within your website.

Why Are Backlinks Important for SEO?

Placing well in search results requires relevance and credibility, or authority. While well-optimized page content and accurate, keyword-inclusive meta titles and descriptions will provide the initial signals that your page is relevant, the rest is earned based on user click-through, whether they stay on your pages and how long, and lastly, whether any of them choose to link back to your page from their websites.

Like click-throughs, Google was able to use a large number of linking domains (websites) to a piece of content as a proxy for measuring credibility and relevance. The assumption was that if a lot of sites are linking to a page, it must contain high-value content. Unfortunately, spammy websites that used link building to build up false credibility were able to game search engines into ranking their pages well, often ahead of truly high quality results.

What Is the Wrong Way to Use Backlinks? 

Having more links on your page than content is now a red flag, and will not be rewarded by Google. Their proprietary algorithm undergoes many iterations throughout each year, and the most recent Panda update further drove home the point that Google does not want to be gamed, and that good content is the only right way to earn good rankings.

 To ensure your website doesn’t look like a link spammer, avoid doing the following:

  • Too many “gateway” pages with more links than content, specifically designed to aggregate links

  • Too many internal backlinks created for the sake of linking rather than adding value and pointing out good content

  • Lots of linking from small number of domains, or using a limited group of poor-quality, low-authority websites specifically for link building campaigns

  • Linking to poor quality content on other websites

How Should Backlinks Be Used?

Just like keywords, titles, and page content, backlinks should be there to help the reader. Putting what you think search engines want first can put you on a path towards gaming the rules, and ultimately in peril of being punished by a future update.

Include only backlinks that add value to your page, and use them sparingly like keyword phrases, with one for every 150-200 words or so. There is no quota to be met. Link to relevant articles on your website or others, or to a specific product page when and if it’s appropriate. Select anchor (link) text that would be a relevant search term for the page you’re linking to boost ranking for the target page, and to make it more obvious to the reader what to expect from the linked content.

Guest blogging and writing articles for external websites is still a great strategy for creating valuable backlinks, as long as the sites are of high quality and also encourage you to link judiciously.

Backlinks are like guideposts or signage on the highway. Their purpose is to help drivers quickly decide where to go next or get assurance they’re moving in the right direction, not to highlight every possible route and location. Ask yourself what your reader wants to know more about and whether you can supply that information, then link only to the best you have to offer. 

Karo Kilfeather, content marketing manager at Percussion Software
Karo Kilfeather
Content Marketing Manager | Percussion Software

Karo was born in Poland, and learned to speak English by watching "Saved by the Bell" reruns during her first summer in the U.S., which has left her unable to go through life without occasionally breaking the fourth wall. As Percussion's content marketing manager, she oversees and creates content that drives website traffic, engages followers, and helps fill the marketing and sales funnel. She writes about content management, content marketing, SEO, social media and web design, and how to make it all less complicated.