What is a Backlink [And Why Do They Matter]?

The full breakdown of what a backlink is. Read about backlinks and why they're the most effective way to boost your digital marketing ROI.


We get it. You’re hearing all of these digital marketers talk about backlinks, but you’re still not sure what a “backlink” even is. What’s a backlink? And why do they even matter?

Here, we’ll give you the overview of what backlinks are and why generating backlinks might be the single most effective way to boost your digital marketing ROI.

We’ll get into some examples and even define all the phrases that you hear marketers throwing around every day that relate to backlinks.

If that wasn’t enough, we’ll delve into a few of our favorite ways to generate some of these backlinks.

What Is a Backlink?

A backlink is a hyperlink pointing to a page on your site.

Put in layman’s terms:

A backlink is a scenario where one page on the internet references a page on your website and includes a clickable link to access that page.

For example, this clickable text is a backlink to my personal website.

“Backlink” is an umbrella term that includes a whole bunch of other search engine optimization terminology. Here’s the quick summary of some of those other jargony-phrases that you’ll see thrown around:

  • Internal link/Incoming link – a link from one part of your website to another (this is also called a backlink. That being said, “backlinks” usually refer to links from other websites). You’ll also see people refer to this as internal linking, inlinks, or interlinking.
  • Inbound link – a link from one website to a page on your website (these are the types of backlinks that everyone is after)
  • Referral link – a link to a webpage (this could come from an email, a Microsoft Word doc, etc).
  • Outbound link/External link – a link to a page on a different website (i.e. a link to another website). If you link to mynewwebsite.com, you would refer to that link as an external link. The good people at mynewwebsite.com would refer to that as an inbound link for their site.
  • Anchor link – a link on one page to a different section of that page (you’ll sometimes see this in long articles as a way for readers to jump from one section to the next)

Fair warning: we’re about to get super granular on the history of backlinks. Don’t worry, we won’t be offended if you skip this part and go down to “What’s the best way to get backlinks?

^ just click that anchor link if you want to skip this next section.

Why Do Backlinks Matter?

Short answer: because Google says so. And Google brings the average website 50% of their total online traffic.

Back in 1996, Larry Page and Sergey Brin created the idea of PageRank – a hierarchical system designed to evaluate the best resources on the internet in terms of their link profile. In other words, website A would rank higher than website B if A has 10 more links pointing to it than B.

PageRank became one of the most important search engine ranking factors in Google’s algorithm. In other words, the number of website links that a website has become one of the most important ranking factors.

So what happened once Google became more popular?

Website owners started to buy thousands of backlinks. Overnight, new websites would start ranking at the top of Google search results for valuable search terms.

Since that time, Google and the other popular search engines have started to crack down on practices like this (often referred to as black hat SEO) with Penguin algorithm updates. These updates penalize sites that buy backlinks or acquire thousands of low-quality backlinks.

So do backlinks still matter today?

Short answer: yes.

Today, the number of linking websites that a site has still matters a lot (as of 2020, it is strongly correlated with high search rankings). But the quality of linking sites matters much more than the quantity.

Think of it this way: 1 link from a high-quality website like the New York Times is worth more than a link from 50 blogs that you’ve never heard of.

In short, the best way to rank higher on Google for the terms that your customers are actively searching for is to get high-quality backlinks.

Which brings us to our next section…

What’s the Best Way to Get Backlinks?

So right about now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Yeah, so that’s cool and all, but how do you go about getting backlinks?”

The most effective link building campaigns start with writing kickass content. When shared with the right people, helpful blog posts will start to gain backlinks and rank higher and higher in search engine results pages (SERPs).

That being said, the best way to kickstart this natural link growth is to do active link building.

With that in mind, here are a few of our favorite ways to build backlinks in 2021:

1. Conduct targeted link outreach

After publishing a blog article. Find 3-4 phrases that describe your article. Search Google for those phrases and start a conversation with the authors of the top articles that appear in search results.

Compliment them on their article. Offer suggestions for things to add. Inform them of outdated/inaccurate content.

During the conversation, share your article with them and encourage them to link back to your article.

2. Steal your competitors’ backlinks

Sign up for a trial of Ahrefs. Download a list of the webpages that are linking to your 5 largest competitors.

Analyze those backlinks. Find links that come from relevant web directory listings (sites that your customers would visit that allow you to post a link to your site). Submit your site to be listed in those directories. Next, find expert advice roundups that discuss “The X ways to be better at Y”. Reach out to the author of those posts and ask if you can share a tip as well. If they include your tip, they’ll include a link back to your site as well.

3. Search for resource pages

Search online for local businesses that have a resource page. Ask those sites if they would consider adding your site to the page.

Resource page link building

Search for the following on Google. What you’ll find are businesses in your area that have a resource page.

Reach out to the owners and ask if they would add your site to their resource page since you’re in the same area.

This is just the start of our link building strategies. We recently shared 5 more innovative link building techniques designed to help you build your link profile.

Related: The 7 Most Common Content Marketing Mistakes that Cost Businesses Thousands

Other Common Backlink Questions:

When you say that websites got penalized for buying backlinks, what do you mean?

Google is constantly rolling out new updates to its algorithm that identify black hat SEO tactics (buying backlinks, keyword stuffing, etc.). Once these tactics are uncovered, Google “penalizes” those sites by eliminating that site’s most valuable search rankings.

In other words, a site that ranks first in Google for “Denver pizza shop” might drop to page 5 of Google if they are caught buying backlinks. Now scale this out for every other variant that the site ranks for:

  • 3rd for “Denver pepperoni pizza”
  • 2nd for “best pizza in Denver”
  • etc.

Now you start to get the idea. Overnight, that site may drop from 20,000 organic visitors per month to 500.

Rather than trying to game the system, focus on white hat link building – methods to get links that don’t violate Google’s guidelines.

Ok, so can I just comment on a bunch of blogs? Most blogs allow me to add a link to my website.

You can. That being said, links that come from blog comments are (almost) always nofollow links. In other words, they won’t have much of an impact on your search rankings.

What you want for your site is a healthy mix of nofollow and dofollow links.

What’s the difference between a dofollow and nofollow backlink?

In the early days of SEO, blog commenting was one of the most effective ways to get high-quality links. Google caught on as more and more bloggers started abusing the system.

In response, Google suggested the creation of nofollow attributes. Today, nofollow attributes signify that the provided link should not influence a page’s authority.

Nofollow links from reputable blogs still carry a ton of value in terms of website visitors that they can drive. However, nofollow links will not directly improve your website authority.

How do I measure the value of one backlink compared to another?

The best way to compare the value of multiple backlinks is by looking at page authority and domain authority.

  • Page authority (or URL rating) is a third-party metric that is meant to calculate PageRank (i.e a third-party metric that tries to calculate the “authority” of an individual webpage).
  • Domain authority (or domain rating) is a third-party metric that attempts to measure the “authority” of a given website.

Both of these are third-party metrics that serve to compare the value of one link to another. MozAhrefs, and dozens of other SEO tools run their own statistical analysis in an effort to calculate these metrics.

Both of these metrics work on a scale of 0 to 100. 0 serves as an indicator that a website has no reputable backlinks pointing to it. 100 is the highest grouping of websites (sites like Facebook that have tens of billions of other sites linking to them).

What if I have a bunch of links from the same website? Wouldn’t it be easier to get a lot of links from a small handful of sites?

It would be. However, Google puts much more weight in the first link that you get from a website than the second, third, and beyond. Put in jargony terms, Google places a ton of value on your total count of root domain backlinks – the total number of unique websites that link back to you.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s never bad to get multiple links from the same website. However, the value that comes out of each additional link is significantly less than the first link that you get from that site.

What if I build up a dozen websites and have them all link to each other?

Google caught onto that trick as well. This is referred to as a private blog network (PBN).

If Google discovers that your site is part of a PBN, you’re going to be slapped with a Google penalty and see your traffic plummet.

PBN Backlink Penalty

And yes, we’ve helped sites recover from SEO penalties.

Is the authority of a site that links to me all that matters in link building?

Nope. Google also looks at the relevancy of that link.

Google looks at the contents of the linking page to see what type of sites are referencing you. At scale, having links from 20 restaurant review sites in Denver might show Google that you are a Denver-based restaurant.

Google also looks at anchor text – the clickable text that referral links are included in. Google uses this to try and get a signal about what your webpage is about.

Backlinks are essential if you care about being found online. Need help scaling your online presence? Tell us a little about yourself and we’ll help you decide which content marketing service is right for you.

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What is a Backlink [And Why Do They Matter]?