What Is Link Building & Why Is It Important?

  • September 16, 2016
  • SEO
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Whether you’re brand new to link building or have been doing it for a while, we’re sure you’ll find something useful in this guide. The landscape of SEO and link building is always changing, and today, the importance of building high-quality links has never been higher. The need to understand and implement high-quality campaigns is essential if you’re going to compete and thrive online, and that isn’t going to change any time soon. This guide is designed to get you going quickly and in the right direction. There is a lot to take in, but we’ve broken everything up into easy-to-digest chapters and have included lots of examples along the way. We hope you enjoy The Beginner’s Guide to Link Building!

Definition of link building

Link building is the process of acquiring hyperlinks from other websites to your own. A hyperlink (usually just called a link) is a way for users to navigate between pages on the internet. Search engines use links to crawl the web; they will crawl the links between the individual pages on your website, and they will crawl the links between entire websites. There are many techniques for building links, and while they vary in difficulty, SEOs tend to agree that link building is one of the hardest parts of their jobs. Many SEOs spend the majority of their time trying to do it well. For that reason, if you can master the art of building high-quality links, it can truly put you ahead of both other SEOs and your competition.

 

Why is link building important for SEO?

The anatomy of a hyperlink

In order to understand the importance of link building, it’s important to first understand the basics of how a link is created, how the search engines see links, and what they can interpret from them.

  1. Start of link tag: Called an anchor tag (hence the “a”), this opens the link tag and tells search engines that a link to something else is about to follow.
  2. Link referral location: The “href” stands for “hyperlink referral,” and the text inside the quotation marks indicates the URL to which the link is pointing. This doesn’t always have to be a web page; it could be the address of an image or a file to download. Occasionally, you’ll see something other than a URL, beginning with a # sign. These are local links, which take you to a different section of the page you’re already on.
  3. Visible/anchor text of link: This is the little bit of text that users see on the page, and on which they need to click if they want to open the link. The text is usually formatted in some way to make it stand out from the text that surrounds it, often with blue color and/or underlining, signaling to users that it is a clickable link.
  4. Closure of link tag: This signals the end of the link tag to the search engines.

What links mean for search engines

There are two fundamental ways that the search engines use links:

  1. To discover new web pages
  2. To help determine how well a page should rank in their results

Once search engines have crawled pages on the web, they can extract the content of those pages and add it to their indexes. In this way, they can decide if they feel a page is of sufficient quality to be ranked well for relevant keywords (Google created a short videoto explain that process). When they are deciding this, the search engines do not just look at the content of the page; they also look at the number of links pointing to that page from external websites and the quality of those external websites. Generally speaking, the more high-quality websites that link to you, the more likely you are to rank well in search results.

Links as a ranking factor are what allowed Google to start to dominate the search engine market back in the late 1990s. One of Google’s founders, Larry Page, invented PageRank, which Google used to measure the quality of a page based in part on the number of links pointing to it. This metric was then used as part of the overall ranking algorithm and became a strong signal because it was a very good way of determining the quality of a page.

It was so effective because it was based upon the idea that a link could be seen as a vote of confidence about a page, i.e., it wouldn’t get links if it didn’t deserve to. The theory is that when someone links to another website, they are effectively saying it is a good resource. Otherwise, they wouldn’t link to it, much in the same way that you wouldn’t send a friend to a bad restaurant.

However, SEOs soon discovered how to manipulate PageRank and search results for chosen keywords. Google started actively trying to find ways to discover websites which were manipulating search results, and began rolling out regular updates which were specifically aimed at filtering out websites that didn’t deserve to rank.

This has also led to Google starting to discount a number of link building techniques that were previously deemed fine, for example, submitting your website to web directories and getting a link in return. This was a technique that Google actually recommended at one point, but it became abused and overused by SEOs, so Google stopped passing as much value from that sort of links.

More recently, Google has actively penalized the rankings of websites who have attempted such overuse of these techniques—often referred to as over-optimisation—in their link building. Google’s regular Penguin updates are one such example. Knowing which link building techniques to avoid and stay within Google’s guidelines is an important subject that we’ll discuss later in this guide.

We don’t know the full algorithm that Google uses to determine its search results—that’s the company’s “secret sauce.” Despite that fact, the general consensus among the SEO community (according to the 2013 Moz search ranking factors survey) is that links still play a big role in that algorithm. They represent the largest two slices of the pie chart below.

Weighting of thematic clusters of ranking factors in Google

  Domain-Level, Keyword-Agnostic Features
(e.g. quantity of links to the domain, trust/quality of links to the domain, domain-level PageRank, etc.)

 Page-Level Link Features
(e.g. PageRank, TrustRank, quantity of link links, anchor text distribution, quality of link sources, etc.)

  Page-Level KW & Content Features
(e.g. TF*IDF, topic-modeling scores, on content, content quantity/relevance, etc.)

  Page-Level, Keyword-Agnostic Features
(e.g. content length, readability, uniquness, load speed, etc.)

  Domain-Level Brand Features
(e.g. offline usage of brand/domain name, mentions of brand/domain in news/media/press, entity association, etc.)

  User, Usage, & Traffic Query Data
(e.g. traffic/usage signals from browsers/toolbars/clickstream, quantity/diversity/CTR of wueries, etc.)

  Social Metrics
(e.g. quantity/quality of tweeted links, Facebook shares, Google +1s, etc.)

  Domain-Level Keyword Usage
(e.g. exact match keyword domains, partial-keyword matches, etc.)

  Domain-Level, Keyword-Agnostic Features
(e.g. domain name length, extension, domain HTTP response time, etc.)

It is generally accepted that if all other factors are equal, the volume and quality of links pointing to a page will make the difference between rankings. Having said that, with recent moves from Google, including the release of Penguin updates and its push of Google+, there is speculation that the impact of links is being reduced and replaced with social signals such as tweets or +1s.

For now, though, there is little doubt that if you get high-quality links to your website, it will help you rank better and get more traffic (we’ll talk more about what makes a “good-quality” link in Chapter 2). We’ve mentioned “high-quality” a few times, now, and there’s a good reason: The focus on quality is increasing as Google becomes ever more sophisticated at filtering out low-quality links. This directly impacts SEOs, as they need to make sure the link building techniques they choose focus primarily on that quality.

What you need to know about nofollow

There is an attribute that can sometimes be applied to links called the “nofollow” attribute. If added, you will not notice any difference if you’re a user. But, if you look at the code of the link, it will look slightly different:

<a href="http://www.example.com" rel="nofollow">Example</a>

Note the addition of rel=”nofollow”. This tells Google not to pass any PageRank across this link to the target URL. Effectively, you’re telling Google not to trust this link and to discount it from consideration. Therefore, it should not help the target URL to rank any better.

The main reason a site might use nofollow relates to scenarios in which that site lacks total control over the links that are added to its pages. In other words, they don’t want to show Google a vote of confidence when they don’t know whether or not they actually are confident. This is more common than you’d expect; here are a few examples:

  • Blog comments
  • Forum posts
  • Guest book comments
  • Editable Wiki pages (e.g. Wikipedia)
  • Yahoo! Answers
  • Guest post signatures

Users can freely add links to each of these places, and because of their size, it isn’t really practical to moderate every single one of those links. So, in order to deter link spammers from taking advantage of a site’s PageRank, the site will often choose to apply the nofollow attribute to all links posted by other users.

Another use for the nofollow attribute is for advertisers to use on links that have been paid for. So, if you buy an advertising banner on a website which links to you, Google says that the nofollow attribute should be added so that they know not to pass any PageRank across that link. The idea here is that you shouldn’t benefit in the organic results by buying advertisements that include links on other websites.

More recently, Google has expanded this concept to included optimized links in press releases, article directories, and advertorials. These are all examples where the use of nofollow is entirely appropriate.

In terms of your work, you should know that links that have the nofollow attribute applied will probably not help your organic search rankings as directly as followed links. That isn’t to say they’re not worthwhile. After all, typical users don’t notice whether a link is nofollowed or not, and may actually click through and visit your website even if it is. That is, after all, the point of buying advertisements online. That being said, for the purposes of link building, you want most of your links to be followed and therefore counted by Google.

How can link building benefit my business?

As we’ve discussed, links are a very important signal that the search engines use to determine rankings. So, we know that increasing the number of high-quality links pointing at your website can significantly increase your chances of ranking well.

There are other benefits to link building, though, that may be less immediately obvious yet still worthy of consideration.

Building relationships

Link building can often involve outreach to other relevant websites and blogs in your industry. This outreach frequently relates to the promotion of something that you’ve just created, such as a piece of content or an infographic. A common goal of outreach is to get a link, but there is much more to it than just this: Outreach can help you build long-term relationships with key influencers in your industry, and these relationships can mean that your business becomes highly regarded and trusted. This in itself is valuable, even if we forget link building for a moment, because we are creating genuine evangelists and and advocates for our business.

Sending referral traffic

We’ve talked about the impact of links on your rankings, but what about the impact of links on referral traffic? A good link from a highly-visited website can lead to an increase in traffic, too. If it is a relevant website, chances are that the traffic is also relevant and may lead to an increase in sales, as well. Again, in this situation the value of a link isn’t just about SEO—it’s about customers. A great example of this in action was this guest post written by Michael Ellsberg on Tim Ferriss’ blog. He also wrote a case study on Forbes explaining just how valuable this guest post was to him. “There’s a big difference between being exposed to a large audience,” he says, “and being exposed to a comparatively smaller (but still large) audience which is ridiculously passionate.” In other words, the avid followers of a single blog were far more likely to take the advice of the blogger than (for example) viewers were to pay attention to the anchor on CNN, even if the latter group outnumbered the former.

Brand building

Good link building can help build your brand and establish you as an authority in your niche. There are some link building techniques, such as content creation, which can show people the expertise of your company, and this can go a long way toward building your brand. For example, if you create a piece of content based upon industry data and publish it, you have a chance of becoming well known for it in your industry. When you do outreach and try to get links to the content, you are showing your expertise and asking other people in your industry to help spread the word and show others the same.

An important note on link building vs link “earning”

Or, the importance of having webpages worth linking to.

Before building links, you need something of value to build links to. Often it’s the homepage of your website. More often than not, though, you build links to specialized resources such as a blog post, tool, research study or graphic. Sometimes these assets exist long before you begin your link building campaign. Other times, you create these resources specifically with the goal of building links in mind.

This introduces the concepts of link earning and “deserving to rank.” All link building campaigns must start with something worth linking to. It’s very difficult to build links to low-value webpages, but when you begin with something truly valuable that people find useful or share-worthy, link building is a much easier endeavor.

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