Understanding SEO: Understanding Backlinks

Chapter 4: On-Page Optimization Chapter 6: Getting Links

Understanding Backlinks

There are two types of links: internal links and backlinks. Internal links point to other pages within the same website. Backlinks are incoming links from external websites. Backlinks have far more authority as a ranking factor than internal links. If your site targets a set of keywords that have an unusually low threshold of competition, you can get it to high ranks with relatively few backlinks with strategic internal linking.

Link Nets

Suppose you have page on “cheap tire and wheel packages.” In addition to making sure that the keyword appears in the title tag (“Where to Find Cheap Tire and Wheel Packages”), one of the headers (“Finding Cheap Tire and Wheel Packages Online”) and a couple of times in the article text, it’s a good idea to reinforce it with links from additional pages: e.g., two to five topically related pages to link to the page using your primary keyword. This structure of having one page with a primary keyword and several pages supporting it with links is called a link net.

In the above example, the “Where to Find Cheap Tire and Wheel Packages” post would get links from pages like “Should You Buy Cheap Tires Online?” and “Safe but Cheap Motorcycle Tires,” Each of these articles would contain a link to the primary keyword post, using the primary keyword as the anchor text—the text used in the hyperlink.

The HTML Structure of Links

A link is just an HTML tag. Specifically, it’s an anchor (<a>) with an href attribute. To link to a web page, you would use the following code: <a href=“http://www.url.com/”>Anchor Text </a>. As you can see, the page being linked to is the URL defined in the href attribute, and the anchor text is what the reader sees and clicks on to get to the page. Unless the referring page contains code that overrides the browser’s default, links will have blue underlined text, just like the search results in Google.

WordPress, Moveable Type, Blogger and other content management systems make link formatting easy with their visual editors. You simply highlight the word or phrase you want hyperlinked, then click on the Add Hyperlink button (usually illustrated with a chain-link icon), then type or paste in the appropriate URL.

Why Backlinks Matter

The ranking of any page is primarily determined by the quantity and quality of backlinks. In theory, links form a meritocracy as the online equivalent of word-of-mouth advertising. Great content gets more mentions from other websites than average content. In this context, a “mention” is a link to the content.

Some links matter more than others. A link from an authority site (an A-list blog or the website of a national news magazine) can literally be worth dozens or hundreds of links from less respected sites due to   combination of higher PageRank, keyword authority and backlink count. As you might expect, it’s harder  to influence authority sites to link to yours unless your site has a high enough profile of its own. You need to have content worth linking to. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean that getting links from lowprofile sites is worthless. You just need to find keywords whose competitiveness is low enough for the building of weaker backlinks to have a compounding effect.

PageRank

PageRank is the measure of authority Google assigns to a web page, based on an algorithm developed by Stanford grad student and Google co-founder Larry Page. Pages on the web are crawled, and their contents are indexed by a taxonomy of keywords. Some pages are considered more relevant for certain keywords than others, partially based on word frequency, but chiefly based on referring links from other pages.

A page with links from 100 pages would have a higher PageRank than a page with links from only 10 pages—but only if all the linking pages had equal PageRank. Some of those link pages will, themselves, have more links than others; and some of the links to the linking pages will also have their own backlinks.

Let’s take the page that only has links from 10 pages. If some of those 10 pages have multiple links from still other pages, the original page with “only” 10 links could be assigned more PageRank than a page with 100 links from pages which have zero links from other pages. Those 100 pages would be considered less authoritative than a small group of pages that have actually received links.

Actual PageRank vs. Toolbar PageRank

When people talk about PageRank, they’re usually talking about its visible artifact: what’s sometimes called “toolbar PageRank.” Actual PageRank is a score from 0 to 100, and changes from moment to moment as links are published and new pages are indexed and de-indexed, all of which happens behind the scenes.

The PageRank that most people are familiar with is a score of 0 to 10, which gets updated on irregular intervals ranging from a few weeks to a few months. One of the first utilities that allowed users to look at the PageRank of a page was the Google Toolbar, which is no longer being developed. But there are many browser extensions that can be used for measure PageRank, such as SearchStatus for Firefox and plainly titled PageRank for Chrome.

If you install one of these extensions, the PageRank (PR) of the current page you’re on will be displayed as a small green bar graph. As you move from one page to another, you’ll see the PR change accordingly. This graphically illustrates a previously mentioned point that’s worth reiterating. PageRank measures pages, not sites. When people refer to a so-called “PageRank 7 site,” they’re actually talking about the site’s home page, which has received the majority of the site’s links. You can test this yourself using the extensions: go to any site’s home page, then go to some post in the site’s archives, then go to the site’s About or Contact page. The home page will almost always have the highest PR.

This is one reason why getting links from “high PR sites” is somewhat overrated. A blog article that posts a link to your site from its PR 7 home page will soon fall into the archive and settle in as a PR 0, 1 or 2 page. Those are still good links, but they don’t have the same “link juice” as links from PR 7 pages.

In addition to gaining some PageRank from backlinks, pages lose a little PageRank with each link they give to another website. This makes some webmasters unwilling to link out to other sites. However, sites that never link out to other sites look suspicious to Google, and the amount of link juice lost from an individual link is negligible. The problem comes when you have dozens of links on a page: long blogrolls, crowded headers and footers, social link buttons, and non-essential links. Some writers will add a link to Wikipedia every time they use an uncommon word. This is not only bad SEO, but it’s bad user experience that disrupts the flow of text.

Anchor Text Variation

Too many links with the same anchor text is like excessive keyword density: it looks spammy to search engines, just as it would to humans. Most links on the Internet are poorly chosen, and most people publishing content aren’t savvy about keywords. If you had a web page with 100 backlinks, and every last one of those backlinks had the anchor text “cheap tires,” it would seem highly unusual to say the least. A natural backlink profile would have a wider diversity of anchor text. If you use a link building network, a good rule of thumb is to use your primary keyword no more  than 50% of the time, and use the remainder for long tails and an occasional link to the home page.

Natural vs. Manufactured Links

The best link you could possibly hope for is from a high-PR page on an authority site in your niche, using the exact anchor text of your keyword. Anytime you can build a profile of natural backlinks from relatively authoritative sites and peers in your niche, you’ll develop the keyword authority you need to rank well in the SERPs.

Links can be acquired “naturally,” through a combination of outreach and premium content, or they can be manufactured through more systematic means. Ideally, you could just publish premium content and expect to attract quality links naturally, but there are a few limitations with this approach.

The first is talent. Even experts in a topic may not have the ability to write content compelling enough to attract the right links. The second is control. You can’t control the number of sites that link to you’re, and more importantly, you can’t control how or where they link. The choice of anchor text and relevant pages is entirely up to the linker. Many bloggers write without keywords in mind, and their links will often point to a site’s home page instead of a specific post, or they’ll use arbitrary anchor text, such as “what Fred wrote last week” for a post on where to buy cheap tires.

There are also some niches that are inherently devoid of the social traction needed to attract links. Tires are less  provocative subject matter than gadgets and celebrity gossip. Ecommerce sites are only linkbait when they’re running 80%-off promotional offers.

Key Points on Internal Links and Backlinks

It’s been suggested that SEO can be reduced to backlinks. That’s not quite true, since Google needs to crawl pages for keywords to ensure that a page linked on the basis of anchor text is, in fact, congruent with that anchor text. In many cases, the anchor text in the backlink has no keyword relevancy in itself (“Fred wrote a post”), so on-page factors do matter. But links have greater weight in the long run, so you’ll need to pay careful attention to certain linking practices:

  • Internal links between pages within your site should be forged with the relevant anchor text whenever possible. Internal links aren’t as important as backlinks, but once your site starts getting link juice flowing in from other sites, the keyword authority you develop can help you rank for less competitive keywords with few or no backlinks. You can supplement a post on your main keyword with several smaller posts on long tail variations with links pointing back to the post representing your primary keyword. This support structure is called a link net.
  • The quantity and quality of links matter, “quality” being measured by PageRank and other signals used to classify authority sites. For instance, a link from WebMD might be worth dozens or even hundreds of links from more nondescript health sites.
  • Since the “toolbar” PageRank that gets published is being updated more irregularly and less frequently than in years past, it’s unwise to avoid getting links from certain sites 59 Understanding Backlinks based on PageRank. What appears to be a PR 0 page may actually be a PR 3 page whose current PR status hasn’t
  • been made available to PageRank metering tools yet. It’s always better to get a link from a site than not to get one.
  • A backlink profile with an unrealistically high percentage of identical anchor text is a red flag to Google. Links that occur naturally almost always have some degree of anchor text variation. If you use a link building network, which will be discussed in the next chapter, you’ll definitely want to throttle the percentage of anchor text that contains your exact keyword

The link building practice we will advocate in the next chapter will use a small amount of outreach for “base links,” and a much larger proportion using established link building networks.

Chapter 4: On-Page Optimization Chapter 6: Getting Links

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