Backlinks are ultimately the core of an SEO campaign. So, what are backlinks, and why are they so important?
Backlinks are links from other websites to your website. If your website is listed in an online directory, and there is a clickable link to your website in that directory, you have a backlink from that directory. Any clickable link from another website to your website is a backlink.
Why are backlinks so important? Search engines see links to your website as a vote (of sorts.) Search engines do not just look at the content of a webpage when they are determining its relevance and value, they also look at how a website relates to the web community at large. Therefore, when Google ranks your web page, they look at not only your page, but the other pages that link to your webpage. They consider the number of pages that link to your webpage, and the popularity, authority, and ranking of those other pages.
When people first become aware of this concept, they often immediately go out and try to get as many backlinks as possible, figuring that they can increase their page rank simply having hundreds or thousands of backlinks. However, not all backlinks are created equal. Some are very, very valuable. Some are marginally valuable. Some have no value at all, and some can actually hurt your ranking. Let’s examine this concept in some detail.
We stated earlier that a link to your webpage is like a vote. The reality of these votes is that they are very skewed, and in some cases, one backlink or “vote” from a very reputable site might be worth thousands of votes from other sites. Therefore, it’s important to remember that search engines consider the ranking, authority, and subject matter of the sites that link to yours when determining your page rank.
Let’s give a clear example. If you are running a political campaign, and you had a website devoted to your campaign that you wanted to crawl up in the search engine rankings, you would, of course, want to start getting backlinks from other websites to your website. Specifically, you would want backlinks from websites with a high ranking, that are full of content that is related to your website. Under these circumstances, what would be some of the best websites to have backlinks from? Well, the website for The White House or the site for CNN would be two ideal sites to have backlinks from. Why? Because these websites are trusted, they have content that is related to your website, they have been around a long time, and they have a lot of high quality backlinks pointing to their websites.
When we consider this, we realize that when we begin an SEO campain, we are not just looking for backlinks, we are looking for high-quality, relevant backlinks. The question that we are then faced with is: How do we get backlinks from relevant, high-quality websites?
We’ll give you some specific tips on how to achieve these higher quality links, but before we do, let’s talk about things we definitely do not want to do, and discuss how we go about laying down a basic foundation of links to our website, by using a basic set of tools that are available to everyone (blogs, free directories, and social networking sites.)
Link Exchanges: Do not use link exchange programs. This does not mean that you should never exchange a link with a site (i.e., you put a link to my site on your site, and I’ll do the same for you.) This exchanging of links is a practice we refer to as “reciprocal linking.” Again, reciprocal linking is not, in and of itself a bad idea, but avoid commercial link exchange programs at all costs. Here are the specifics and the background on this:
As people began to realize the power of backlinks, commercial services began to crop up that allowed websites to exchange links with each other by the thousands. These services usually charge a service fee of some sort. You submit your website, and you would be given hundreds of links to choose from. You would include a link to another website somewhere on your website, and the program would verify that the link was indeed there, and then send the verification to the other party, who would then put a link to your website on theirs. At this point you would receive a verification that your link was in place. You could build thousands of backlinks to your site in this manner. Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? Well, for a while it was. Then Google started to figure out what was going on and fight back when it released its new search index: Caffeine. Google started to penalize websites for having backlinks from websites with unrelated content. In addition, many SEO consultants believe that many link market sites, directories, and other “link-scheme” sites were flagged as “bad neighborhoods” on the web. The specifics of how these link scheme sites, and the sites that participate in them are ranked, indexed, or viewed by search engines are difficult to determine, but one thing is clear: Don’t bother with any kind of link scheme program. Your site will be penalized.
Now, is there way around this? Perhaps. The one thing we are sure of is that links from unrelated sites will hurt your site. What about using link schemes to link only to sites that relate to yours? The answer is: it may work. At least for now. But, in general, as a long term SEO philosophy, I would suggest avoiding these schemes altogether. There are better and more reliable ways to keep your site in good standing over the long term. Remember that Google employs some of the brightest, most educated people on the planet. If they haven’t figured out a way to catch the people who are trying to work the system yet, they will. Why risk it?
However, actual reciprocal links can still be a good idea. If two sites are in the same market, and they agree to help each other out by linking back and forth to each other, will they be penalized? Probably not. The rule of thumb here is always to think about what it is search engines are trying to deliver: Useful content to the end user. Anything that is excessive, or that is designed strictly for search engines, is probably a bad idea, over the long haul. Sure, go ahead, link back and forth with sites in your community, if it makes sense to. But don’t go overboard trying to create a bunch of useless links just for the purpose of gaining backlinks.
Free Directories: There are literally thousands of free directories out there that allow you to put in a short blurb about your business, and allow you to include a link to your website. We’re not talking about the big players that everyone knows and uses like Yelp or Yellow Pages. We’re talking about directories that seem to have come into existence strictly to pander to the desire of link-builders. In addition, there are multiple services that will submit your link to hundreds or thousands of these directories for a fairly small fee. There is considerable debate on the value of having hundreds or thousands of links from these types of directories, and the jury is out on whether having your website listed in this manner will hurt your site. However, if we think about the general goal of search engines like Google, it is not hard to imagine that while this type of mass submitting may not be damaging, it probably isn’t worth much. While it sounds good (a $100 fee for hundreds of backlinks to your site,) it’s clearly a case of too good to be true. (And there are plenty of posts from people who, after making a submission of this type, are complaining that their website ranking dropped.) Better to stick to the directories that have a high page rank, and to perform the submissions manually. Here’s a good list to start with:
If you do want to pay for someone to put links on websites, one of the most reputable sources is Angela’s Backlinks: angelasbacklinks.com. They have a reputation for finding decent places to place your links. Sometimes they get backed up and don’t take new orders, so check back periodically.
Directories and Blogs Specific to Your Industry: One of the best ways to find websites that are relevant to your website is to simply search for them by industry. I have done work for a few contractors, and in this case, I often did a manual search for directories of contractors. These searches turned up many sites that allowed free submissions, and were definitely relevant to the industry we were targeting. This hands on, manual approach gives you great insight into the web community that you are targeting, and will lead you to many sites that relate to your industry. You will find directories, blogs, and other resources that you can link to, from, and otherwise interact with.
Once you do locate the sites that are relevant to your industry, it is not a bad idea to communicate with these people directly, and offer to exchange links (create reciprocal links.) While this process may seem cumbersome (writing someone an e-mail, creating a new link on your page, convincing someone to place a link to your page on theirs,) these links will likely be far more valuable then 10 links placed in nondescript and generic business directories. I have found that if Google is indexing the web, and sees that a large number of reputable sites have links to your web page on theirs, and that their content is similar to yours, your ranking will increase. I have also found that if Google sees links to your site on a large number of sites that have nothing to do with your website, not only is it likely that you will not see an increase in ranking, but it is possible that you will be penalized. Therefore, the time invested in actually making the effort to contact someone first hand and offer to combine your efforts by linking to each other (especially in a clear way that is useful to the end user) is not time wasted. These links are very valuable.
Creating Your Own Blog: Go create a blog for your business now. While I am not going to cover the entire topic of blogs and SEO in depth in this section, I will speak about them in terms of their ability to create relevant backlinks to your site. If we think about it for a moment, the logic of this is obvious. If you create a blog for your business, and place original content on that blog that is relevant to your business, and link each of those blogs to your website, what have you created? You have created relevant backlinks to your site from another website. Blogs have a myriad of benefits. It is often easier to update content on a blog then it is on our own websites, because online blogs were designed to facilitate quick content creation. It is often possible to write and post an article on a blog, complete with links and pictures, in an hour or two. By creating a blog, we essentially create a second website for our business, and we can use this website to quickly create the kind of new, original content that search engines like.
There are many more details pertaining to blogs when we are using them for SEO. Promoting, circulating, and increasing the rank of a blog is almost as much work as promoting a website. (We say “almost” because most blogs are designed to be easily linked, shared, pinged, and commented on. They are usually a bit more SEO friendly right out of the box.) Again, while the details of blog creation and promotion is outside the scope of this article, it is safe to say the following for now:
1. Start a blog for your business, and link back and forth to your website. (Put a link to your blog on your website, and vice versa.)
2. Create original content for your blog.
3. Link to your site, but also link to other sites. Remember, the idea is that the blog be genuinely informative.
4. Put sharing buttons on your blog, so people can easily click and share the content of the blog.
5. Follow other blogs, so the people who write those blogs become aware of you. The likelihood is that they will follow you.
6. Add your blog to an RSS feed. Here’s the link to get you started creating an RSS feed: feedburner.google.com
If you are anxious to go set up and promote your blog right now, read some of the following information on blogs and SEO:
Finding Your Competitor’s Backlinks: You’re going to like this one. Go to this website: https://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/ Now, enter the url of a highly ranked competitor’s website in the “Explore URL” field at the top of the page. Once you have entered the url, and hit the “Explore URL” button, find the button at the top of the page that says, “Inlinks.” Viola! You now have a fairly comprehensive list of sites that Yahoo has found that link to the website you entered. Go to these sites and see if you can place a link to your website on these websites. If you do this a couple of times for the most highly ranked websites in your field, you will find a huge number of websites on which you can place (or attempt to place) a link to your website.
Here’s another site you can go to to get even more detailed information on your competitor’s website: www.aboutus.org. On the home page, you can enter the url of any website. A report on the website you entered will be created. Once the report is complete, go to the bottom of the new page, where it says, “Web Presence.” From there, click on the link that shows the full web presence report. Here you will find a report of backlinks to the site, but in this case, it shows you the number of links seen by Yahoo, Google, and Alexa. In most cases, Google will have the fewest links. While we can’t be entirely sure that the report is accurate, we can make some assumptions, one of which is that Google is far pickier about which links it pays attention to then the other search engines. While this is not entirely conclusive, it does seem to substantiate the growing supposition that Google does not count every single link to your page, and that its algorithm is designed to pick and choose – ultimately only choosing the most relevant backlinks as indicators of your sites importance.
There are a number of other ways to find links to your competitor’s websites, but these two seem to be entirely sufficient. If you’d like to do a quick and dirty search for every single place a website shows up on the web, just put the domain name in the search bar, surrounded by quotes, like this: “www.thenameofthewebsite.com”. This is not entirely comprehensive either, because there may be links to the site that you entered on a page that haven’t been indexed in searches yet, but it’s still a pretty good method. Be aware, of course, that the search results will return results that include links AND text, meaning, if “www.thenameofthewebsite.com” shows up on a page in plain text (not as a link) it will still show up in the search results when you use this method.
Using the above methods will give you plenty of opportunities to explore a particular sector or the internet that you probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. It certainly takes some time a patience, but you will certainly find plenty of great, relevant websites on which you may be able to place a link to your website.
Article Submission: Article submission is one of the most valuable methods for circulating content and links around the web. This is one area that is probably the least known outside of SEO circles, but it one of the main tools in the arsenal of any SEO company. Few people are aware of it, but there are hundreds (or thousands) of article sites on the web. They are similar to blog sites, and indeed, some sites are actually hybrids of the two. Generally, these article sites offer users the opportunity to submit content, with the understanding that the content, once submitted, is copyright free. When people are searching for content for their websites, they can take articles directly of these sites and use or modify them, without fear of reprisal. Therefore, the benefit for the user who is copying and re-using an article is obvious: It saves them the time of creating content. In many cases, these people probably don’t know or don’t care about the downfalls of using duplicate content. In other cases they do, and they simply re-word the content and re-arrange it for their own purposes. Or, sometimes people actually use the content in these articles for informational purposes (if, for example, they just want to read about a particular topic.) Article websites are one of the reasons we can search for information on the most picayune topics, and get hundreds of results. These article sites generate revenue for themselves by running pay per click ads…usually related to the topic of the article you happen to be reading at the time.
What are the benefits, then, for the person submitting the article?
1. You can include links along with the article – sometimes within it, sometimes below it. Suddenly you have a link to your website on what may be a highly ranked website.
2. People sometimes copy the entire article, links and all, and reuse it (along with your links.) Now you have links that are circulating around the web without your participation.
3. People sometimes forward the article.
Of course, the key here, as always, is to produce usable content that people will actually want to read, utilize, and forward. Because some of these article sites are ranked very highly, your article can end up on the first page of Google within hours. I recently took on a company that wanted to be known for “green landscape design.” (This is a new client, so their website hasn’t topped the charts yet….but it will.) I started writing articles on Green Landscape Design, and a search of “Green Landscape Design Los Angeles” will yield two first page article results, both with links to the website. As a result, we have two ways to usher potential clients to the website: 1. The backlinks in the article will, over time, push up the ranking of the site to page one. 2. Someone thinking about landscaping their home, and looking for information may find the article, look to see who wrote it, and click to the website right from there!
So you can see, filling the internet with useful articles that contain keywords and phrases that are relevant to your industry has a two-fold marketing effect. They help bolster the ranking of your website, and they are informative gateways TO your website. Again, because many of these article sites are trusted by search engines, you have a good chance of getting one of your articles ranked pretty high up in the search results in a very short period of time.
Another example: If you search for “Permeable Pavers Los Angeles,” you’ll find a number of first page hits that ultimately lead to the same company. At this time, four of the ten search results ultimately contain links to Mike Pearson Construction. The more you canvas the internet with articles about products and services related to your industry, the better chance you have of someone ultimately clicking though to you.
When it comes to actually submitting articles for search engine optimization purposes, the best method is to purchase article submitter software. I use Automatic Article Submitter: www.automaticarticlesubmitter.com. This software costs less than $100, and it come pre-loaded with a slew of article sites. In addition, it tells you the ranking of each site, so you can make an educated decision about which sites you choose to submit to. You have to set up the software, which involves registering for all the article sites (which the software makes pretty easy,) and inputting your personal information, weblinks, etc, but once that’s done, submitting 30-50 articles in a fairly short period of time becomes a fairly easy task. What’s more, the software comes with an “article spinner” which allows you to produce multiple versions of the same article, with sentence and word substitutions, thereby helping you to avoid the duplicate text problem.
Linkwheels: Linkwheels are similar to the above mentioned article submission process, except that in the case of a link wheel, you link all the articles to each other (and, of course, to your website.) In the linkwheel process, we generally submit to web 2.0 sites, such as the following:
We want to produce about 6 unique articles (we can use the article spinner from the Automatic Article Submitter for this,) and post them to 6 of the above sites. Each article should contain a link to your website, and a link to one of the sites that you have submitted to. For example, let’s say you start by posting an article on a WordPress blog. This article should contain a link to your website. Each of the next five articles that you submit should contain 1. A link to your website, and 2. A link back to the WordPress blog. Of course, you can do more interlinking than this. If you so choose, you can add more links back and forth to the various article sites, but this is the thrust of it.
Once you’ve written and submitted your article, what do you do? Well, tweet it! Post it to a social bookmarking site like Digg, Stumble Upon, Del.icio.us, or Reddit! Who knows where it will go from there?
At this point, you should have a decent grasp of the general techniques used by Search Engine Optimization consultants. In general, we want attain as many high quality backlinks to our website as we can, by placing ads in directories, commenting on and interacting with blogs, and communicating with site owners in our field to see if we can exchange links. We also want to create as much original, useful content (that links back to our website) as we can, and distribute this to as many sources as possible. If we are assiduous about this process, our website will certainly crawl its way to the coveted first page of Google, Yahoo, Bing, and the other major search engines.