What Makes a High Quality Backlink?

Link Building May 26th, 2021

SEOs understand that backlinks play an important role in increasing your brand’s organic visibility. Although generating backlinks is vital to your SEO strategy, not all backlinks are created equal. Queue this helpful guide we created to help you determine what makes a good link.

There are a few key factors that make a quality backlink, we will break them down in-depth in this article. At a high-level, here are the factor that make a backlink good:

  1. Relevance
  2. Trustworthy and/or authority
  3. Number of incoming links
  4. Natural placement and inclusion
  5. Earned or secured naturally
  6. Variety
  7. Domain Saturation
  8. Link attributes
  9. Number of outgoing links
  10. Quality of other outbound links
  11. Reciprocality
  12. Previous page or site-wide penalties
  13. Anchor text
  14. Indexability

Keep reading to find out what you should be looking for regarding each of the factors that make a good link.

What are the best backlinks?

Relevance


We are leading with relevance as our first backlink quality factor, as it is one of the most influential considerations. Relevance refers to the context of the page or website that is linking back to you. Relevance is extremely important for your backlink quality because it sends a signal to the algorithm that the backlink makes sense, adds value to the page and that because it’s relevant to your business, you are qualified to discuss whatever the subject of the page or website may be about. Google’s algorithm has increasingly shifted towards prioritizing brands who are experts in their space for a given search engine results page (SERP). This shift became even more prevalent when Google implemented E-A-T signals into the algorithm.

As the relevant number of backlinks to your website increases, Google’s ability to determine what verticals you are an expert in, increases accordingly. For example, if you are the most knowledgeable pest management company out there, you are likely to create the best content around pest management strategies as well. If your business is creating the best pest management content and you are clearly the best authority on the subject, it’s a natural assumption that other companies in the pest management space will turn to you as a resource. There’s a good chance that in turning to you as an authority in the space, they will also end up linking back to your website. Google then uses these relevant backlinks pointing to your website as an indication that other companies in the industry trust you as a source for all things related to pest management.

Trustworthiness and Authority


Backlink quality considerations around trustworthiness and authority are directly related to the website that is linking to your website. Essentially what we are looking at here is how trustworthy or authoritative does Google view the site who is providing a link back to your website.

If the website linking back to your website has a lot of relevant backlinks pointing to their website, they’ll have increased trust and authority in Google’s eyes to “share” or “pass along” to your website. These are a number of third party tools like Moz DA, Ahrefs DR and Semrush Authority Score that attempt to recreate how trustworthy we think Google thinks a website is. It’s important to note that these tools are third party metrics and may not accurately reflect how trustworthy a site truly is.

Google uses this trust and authority to determine the quality of a backlink because they have already established trust with the website that is linking to your website. Google’s algorithm assumes that since they already trust a certain site, if that certain site is linking back to you, then your site is likely trustworthy as well.

Number of Incoming Links

In addition to the quality of backlinks pointing back to a specific website, the number of backlinks pointing back to a specific website also influences how trustworthy or authoritative a website is. The greater the backlink profile of a website linking to you, the more authority they’ll be able to pass along to your website.

Important Note: Google progressively works towards prioritizing quality above all else in their algorithm. While having a significant number of incoming backlinks is important for both the websites that link back to you as well as your own website, it does not supersede quality. If you build a large number of low quality backlinks to your website, it will hurt your rankings. The bottom line here is quality over quantity.

Natural Placement and Inclusion


Following up on our last note from the above section, Google works hard to try and prevent SEO’s and link builders from manipulating the algorithm. Back in the day, SEOs would stuff backlinks into the footer as a way to “hide” external links on their page without having it disrupt the user experience. Google caught on to this practice and has since de-valued footer backlinks. As a result, Google considers link placement when assessing backlink quality.

Any link placement that appears unnatural or forced will likely be ignored by Google’s crawlers. If a site linking back to you is engaging in blackhat SEO practices, there is a chance that your site could be hit with a penalty which will have a significantly negative impact on your organic profile. Jump to our section on “Previous page or site-wide penalties” for further information on Google penalties.

 

Earned or Secured Naturally

 


Similarly to having a link with natural inclusion and placement, the link should have been earned organically or occurred without any outreach at all. Of course, if we never built backlink and only waited for backlinks to occur naturally, we wouldn’t be able to grow a website’s organic rankings but we think you get the idea. The biggest takeaway here is not paying for backlinks. Purchasing backlinks is a big no-no in Google’s eyes. If you are caught paying for backlinks, your site could be hit with a penalty which (like we said) will have a negative impact on your rankings and will result in losing significant traffic.

 

All backlinks pointing to your should have been earned via best outreach practices or secured through organic placements. Follow this guiding principle and you’ll be set.

Variety


 

When considering variety as a quality factor for your backlinks, we are looking at the backlink profile as a whole versus an individual link placement. This consideration brings the last two factors full circle. This is because if you are securing backlinks through organic and earned placements, your backlink profile should naturally have a significant amount of variety.

 

If your backlink profile consists of placements to the exact same set of pages, with perfectly optimized anchor text, it’s going to flag Google’s algorithm that your website is likely engaging in bad SEO practices.

Domain Saturation


How good is a piece of chocolate? How about two pieces of chocolate? Three? 10? 100? What I’m getting at is the Law of Diminishing Returns, and it most certainly applies to link building. The search engines love to see a highly diversified backlink profile, consisting of inbound links from a large number of unique domains. All things considered equal, a backlink profile consisting of 10 links from 10 unique websites would be much more impactful than 50 links from only 3 unique domains. This is not to say that you should pass up a link opportunity from Huffington Post because you already have a link from Huffington Post, but it is important to build a backlink profile that is diverse in linking root domains.

Link Attributes


In an effort to assign further value to earned or organic backlinks, Google rolled out two additional link attributes in September 2019. Google created these new link attributes in an effort to help webmasters indicate the nature of a link. There are now three link attributes available to webmasters, nofollow, UGC (user-generated content), and sponsored. The nofollow attribute is used when webmasters cannot confirm the trustworthiness or authority of the third party site they are linking to. To the best of our knowledge, this type of link attribute does not pass along any authority to the page being linked to. There is some speculation that nofollow link attributes may pass along a small amount of authority but there is no conclusive research on the subject at the moment. The user-generated content link attribute is used to indicate links that were placed through a user generating content. This can apply to the comments section of your website or featured articles from guest contributors. The sponsored link attribute is used to indicate backlinks that were paid for. Similarly to the nofollow link attribute, Google will not pass authority to any sponsored links.

A good rule of thumb: any links utilizing a link attribute will not be as valuable because it indicates to Google’s algorithm that the link placement was not earned or gained organically.

 

Number of Outgoing Links


The number of outgoing links refers to the number of outgoing links on the page that is linking back to your website. If the page linking to you has thousands of outgoing links, there’s an indication the site may not be particularly scrupulous regarding who they link to. If that’s the case, it will diminish the value your page receives from the site linking back to you as Google will likely view this site as less trustworthy and authoritative than a site who is very particular regarding who they link to.

Quality of Other Outbound Links


In addition to the quantity of outgoing links, the quality of those links is also important. If the site linking back to you is linking to low-quality or spammy sites, it sends the same signals to Google’s algorithm as if they were linking to thousands of different sites: that they don’t thoroughly vet the websites they link to and don’t follow Google’s guidelines on best external linking practices.

Helpful Tip: If the website is using nofollow tags on potentially low quality external links, this should help to add a layer of protection in terms of the value you’ll get from the link. The reason being that Google can see that the site is aware that these sites may be low-quality and in turn, are protecting themselves but using the nofollow attribute.

 

Reciprocality


Once word got out in the late 2000’s that links were the magic ticket to getting your website rankings, it was a mad dash for webmasters to acquire as many links as possible. A popular technique that emerged from this rush is known as Reciprocal Linking, or more simply put – if you link to my website then I’ll link to yours. Oftentimes the linking websites were not related and provided very little value to the other’s audience, placing the only value on the link acquisition for SEO purposes. In addition to the issues with relevancy and authority which we’ve already covered, Google was quick to identify these link patterns taking place and severely discounted the equity of reciprocal links. When working on a link building campaign, the most valuable links will come from websites in which you have not already linked out to.

Previous Page or Site-Wide Penalties


If a site has been penalized by Google, it means they have been engaging in unsafe SEO practices. If a website has been engaging in unsafe (also known as blackhat) SEO, it could be dangerous to receive a backlink from that website. This is because it could potentially implicate that your site has also been engaging in unsafe SEO strategies and could lead to a penalty against your own website.

Although there is some risk, it is unlikely that your site would be penalized just by association but there’s a good chance that Google is ignoring any links from the site that’s been penalized. If you are really concerned about receiving backlinks from sites that have been penalized you can check for any ranking keyword or traffic changes during the last year that resulted in a 50%+ decline. This data should provide a strong indication as to whether or not the site may have been penalized.

 

Anchor text


There are both positive and negative considerations to keep in mind around anchor text and backlink quality. If the anchor text appears to be manipulated or structured in a way that is overly optimized, Google may think the backlink is being added solely as an SEO play and could ignore the backlink all together. Organically optimized anchor text can add value though. Like all things we’ve discussed so far, does the optimized anchor text make sense? Are you meeting all of the other quality criteria? If so, having optimized anchor text will likely help with the quality of your backlink profile, just don’t overdo it!

In simple terms: Use anchor text that is natural and makes sense and you should be good to go. (Yep, it’s really that simple.)

Indexability


For a backlink to count, the page has to exist for Google’s crawlers. If a page isn’t indexed, it essentially means that it doesn’t exist to Google. If Google doesn’t know that the page exists, there is no way for the page to pass along any link equity or authority.

Indexing a page is the process of making sure it exists in Google’s database. Some pages are purposely assigned a no-index tag because the webmaster does not want Google to know the page exists. Sometimes a page isn’t indexed because the site isn’t maintaining their technical SEO and needs to conduct an indexation audit to ensure all the correct pages are being indexed. Either way, when it comes to linking, you’ll want to ensure the page is indexed and exists in the eyes of Google.

 

Last Thoughts

Link building has become increasingly difficult over the years as Google has found ways to crack down on manipulative or spammy practices. We only expect link building to become increasingly more difficult as the market is even further saturated. Understanding potential implications and creating a strategy for success are more important than ever. Despite these challenges, the reality remains that backlinks are still one of the most important ranking signals. If you need support with your whitehat link building strategy, don’t hesitate to give us a shout!

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