What Are Backlinks & Why They Matter for SEO

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What Are Backlinks?

Backlinks are links on one website that point to another website. They’re also known as inbound or external links.

Search engines like Google view backlinks as votes of confidence. Essentially, you vouch for another site when you link to it.

That’s why pages with lots of backlinks often rank higher on Google. Especially if the backlinks are from trusted, authoritative sources.

Here’s what backlinks look like in action:

backlinks blog example

World Wildlife Fund links to BigOven and other companies from their blog post.

And because the World Wildlife Fund is a global authority, these smaller organizations could benefit from earning that backlink—or vote of confidence.

Now that we’ve gotten the backlink definition out of the way, let’s dive into why backlinks are so crucial for SEO.

Why Are Backlinks Important for SEO?

Backlinks can:

  • Improve rankings
  • Boost your credibility
  • Help Google find new pages
  • Send referral traffic to your site

Let’s get into the details.

They Can Improve Rankings

Google considers backlinks one of the most important signals for ranking content.

Because Google views external links as votes of popularity for a website or webpage, there is a strong correlation between sites with lots of quality backlinks and higher rankings.

You can have tons of backlinks from spammy, low-quality websites. But they probably won’t be as impactful as a few backlinks from authoritative sites that are relevant to your business.

importance of quality backlinks

Think about it this way: If your website is about food, would you trust a link from your co-worker’s recreational pizza blog more than a link from the Culinary Institute of America?

Probably not.

Let’s take Semrush for example.

Adobe, the multinational software company, links to Semrush from their website.

backlinks authority example

Adobe has a high Authority Score (AS). That’s Semrush’s metric for measuring a domain or webpage’s overall quality.

And getting links from authoritative sites boosts the trustworthiness and credibility of your own site. 

Using the Backlink Analytics tool, you can check the Authority Score of any website that links to you.

The referring domain, adobe.com, has an Authority Score of 91:

backlinks authority score details

Pro tip: Also pay attention to your referring domains—the number of domains that link to you. Having varied backlinks from many different sites shows that you’re trustworthy. 

So backlinks are great for SEO. And backlinks are also beneficial when key publications in your industry link to you and acknowledge you.

Think of it as word of mouth. You’re probably more likely to trust a business that several of your trusted friends have recommended to you.

In short, getting backlinks for SEO purposes is great. But they also build your credibility within your niche.

Google Finds New Pages Through Links

Backlinks also help Google find your content more easily.

When Google follows a backlink to a new page, it crawls the page to discover all the links on it.

So you should use an internal linking strategy. Meaning pages on your own site link to each other. This means Google can follow a backlink to your site and continue to follow internal links to new pages once it gets to your site.

This is a key way Google understands your site’s structure.

Google crawls your site, then indexes those pages. Which makes your pages more likely to appear in search results.

crawling graphic

They Send Referral Traffic to Your Page

Referral traffic is traffic from people who visit your site via another website, without searching for you on Google. They were “referred” by another source—like backlinks.

Benefits of referral traffic include: 

  • Increased brand recognition
  • Introduction to new audiences
  • Opportunities for new qualified leads
  • Improved authority from backlinks

New referral traffic can bring interested users to your site. Which could lead to new customers.

To check your referral traffic, head to Google Analytics.

Go to “Acquisition” > “All Traffic” > “Referrals” in the left-side navigation.

google analytics navigation

You’ll see your referral traffic over time. And you’ll see a table listing all external sources sending users to your site.

google analytics referral traffic

Types of Backlinks

There are several different types of SEO backlinks. And understanding the different kinds can help you craft a link building strategy.

Follow Links

Follow links are hyperlinks without any additional attributes—standard hyperlinks, in other words. A follow link tells Google to pass trust and authority to the site being linked to.

Note: There is no “follow” link attribute because any link is considered “dofollow” unless an attribute is added. 

A follow backlink looks like this in HTML code:

<a href="https://www.domain.com/">this is a follow link</a>

Nofollow Links

If you link to a site, you are essentially vouching for it (and using a follow link by default). But in some cases, you may not want to do that.

For example, you may need to link to a competitor’s page for context but don’t want to necessarily pass them any authority.

Or say you want to link to a site as an example in your content.

Nofollow links use the rel=”nofollow” attribute to inform Google and other search engines that they shouldn’t pass authority. A nofollow backlink looks like this in HTML:

<a href="https://www.domain.com/" rel="nofollow">this is a nofollow link</a>

Keep in mind that Google treats the nofollow attribute as a hint, though. So Google will ultimately decide whether or not to pass authority through that link.

Sponsored or Paid Links

If money, a product, or a service has been provided in exchange for a link, the rel=“sponsored” link attribute should be added.

Like this:

<a href="https://www.domain.com/" rel="sponsored">this is a sponsored link</a>

This attribute helps Google identify promotional links.

UGC Links

User-generated content (UGC) links let Google know which links were created by users or customers.

This allows webmasters to specify that they don’t editorially endorse specific links on their sites. Examples include links in forum posts and blog post comments.

UGC backlinks look like this:

<a href="https://www.domain.com/" rel="ugc">this is a UGC link</a>

Editorially Placed Links

Editorially placed links are links you earned naturally, without asking. 

Let’s say a website links to your blog post about backlinks because they think it’s a good resource. This would be an editorially placed link.

Google values these links because they’re meant to enhance a user’s experience rather than manipulate search engine algorithms.

Link Schemes

Link schemes (or link spam) refer to links intended to “manipulate rankings in Google Search results.”

Some examples include:

  • Exchanging money, goods, or services for links
  • Link exchanges (i.e., “link to me and I’ll link to you”)
  • Using automated programs that create links to your site

Participating in link schemes may result in a Google penalty. Which can negatively impact your rankings.

If you have participated in a link scheme in the past, you should disavow potentially harmful backlinks. This means asking Google to ignore certain links to your site.

Important note: Google recommends that you only disavow links if you have paid for links or participated in a link scheme of any kind. Google is good at ignoring spammy links you can’t control. Otherwise, you can harm your site’s performance.

disavow links google recommendation

Pro tip: You can use Backlink Audit to make a list of links you wish to disavow. Then, you can upload the disavow file to Google’s disavow tool when you’re ready to make your request.

For a full explanation, read our guide to disavowing links.

How to Check Any Website’s Backlinks

Checking sites for backlinks can be helpful whether you’re planning a link building campaign or performing competitor research.

First, we’ll show you how to get insights about your own site’s backlink profile from tools like Google Search Console (GSC). 

But you can’t get information about other sites’ backlinks that way. So, we’ll cover how to do that with Semrush.

Using Google Search Console to Understand Your Link Profile

Start by heading to GSC. Log in. 

Find “Links” on the left-hand sidebar toward the bottom of the screen.

google search console links

Under the “External links”column, you’ll see an overview of your site’s backlink profile.

google search console backlink profile

These reports include:

  • Top linked pages: the pages on your site with the most backlinks
  • Top linking sites: the sites that link to you the most
  • Top linking text: the most common link anchor text used in your backlinks

Click “More” underneath any of these snippets to view the full report.

google search console external links details

You can also export your site’s external links as a CSV file. Click the “Export External Links” button at the top-right of the screen.

google search console export external links

How to Analyze Backlinks

Semrush’s Backlink Analytics tool can give you additional insights on your own site’s backlinks. It can also tell you about your competitors’ backlinks.

Start by choosing the website (or a specific URL) you want to review. Paste it into the search bar and click “Analyze.”

backlink analytics tool

The primary metrics Backlink Analytics tracks are:

  • Authority Score: measure of overall domain quality
  • Referring domains: total number of referring domains pointing to your site
  • Backlinks: total number of backlinks pointing to your site
  • Monthly visits: number of unique visits to a root domain for the last month
  • Keywords: number of keywords bringing users to a root domain 
  • Outbound domains: total number of domains the analyzed domain or URL points to
backlink analytics dashboard

You can click on the blue number underneath each metric to view the full report.

And you can compare up to five sites at a time. Just add their root domains:

competitor backlinks

Scroll down to see how the sites compare to one another in terms of “Backlink Types,” “Link Attributes,” “Categories of Referring Domains,” and more.

backlink analytics dashboard details

You can also export data to a PDF by clicking “Export to PDF” in the top-right corner. This is helpful if you want to further analyze backlinks or send competitor research to a client.

backlink analytics tool export links

Whether you want to analyze your own backlinks or see how your competitors are doing, the Backlink Analytics tool is a great place to start.

How to Get Backlinks to Your Site

From writing a guest post to building a digital PR campaign, there are many ways to maximize your link building efforts.

For a full overview of how to build backlinks, read our guide to link building

For now, let’s review a few impactful link building strategies to get started:

how to get backlinks to your site

Create Great Content 

One of the best ways to earn backlinks is to create content people naturally want to link to.

This content can be informational, thought-provoking, funny, etc. As long as people want to link to it.

For example, you publish a case study or a blog post that teaches people how to do something. There’s a chance that others in your field could use your content as a reference. 

Here’s an example of a blog post we published that got a lot of backlinks.

blog high authority backlinks

The blog post lists the best SEO tools with short descriptions of each.

We can see this post’s backlinks by going to the Backlink Analytics tool in Semrush and analyzing the content’s URL.

blog backlink analytics tool

Click the “Backlinks” tab to view which websites are linking to your content.

blog backlink analytics tool navigation

And scroll down to find the list of backlinks.

blog backlinks list

You can also review information like Authority Score, anchor text used, and when the backlink was last detected.

To create great content, though, you need to make sure that it’s optimized for search engines.

Think about it. Most people looking for references and resources start with a simple Google search. So appearing at the top of the search results will only improve your chances of getting backlinks.

Here are a few best practices to follow:

  • Perform keyword research for each piece of content
  • Include your chosen keywords in your H1, headings, and body of the page
  • Comprehensively cover the topic at hand
  • Use short paragraphs and sentences for better readability
  • Link to related pages on your site

You can use a tool like Semrush’s SEO Writing Assistant to check your work as you write. It grades your content’s readability, SEO, originality, and tone of voice.

seo writing assistant

To learn more, read our guide to creating SEO-friendly content.

Use HARO to Respond to Journalists’ Requests 

Help a Reporter Out (HARO) is another great—and mutually beneficial—way to start link building.

HARO connects journalists with sources. And if a journalist uses your content as a source, there’s a good chance they’ll also provide a link.

Start by signing up for a subscription. HARO is free, but there are additional paid options with more features.

Once you sign up, you’ll receive emails three times a day, Monday through Friday.

HARO emails may look something like this:

haro email example

Look out for source requests that are relevant to your industry. 

When you find one, respond with a pitch email. Be thorough in your email. Include answers to the journalist’s questions, links to any of your relevant pages you think they could use (and possibly link to), and your contact information.

The best part about this link-building tactic is that journalists across all niches need legitimate quotes and sources. 

So if you respond to requests and provide helpful information, this can be a really powerful way to gain authoritative backlinks. Meaning you could build your site’s credibility and rank higher in Google’s search results. 

It’s a win-win.

Write (Strategic) Guest Posts

It can be beneficial to partner with other businesses for guest posts on each others’ blogs. 

Typically, sites exchanging guest posts will provide one useful link to each other in their respective posts. In addition to gaining a backlink, you can gain valuable exposure.

However: Make sure the partnership makes sense. 

Aboveboard guest post examples include joint research and case studies. Both have a clear purpose and can be useful resources for readers.

Here’s an example:

If you have a personal finance site specializing in credit cards, you may want to partner with a personal finance site that specializes in saving for retirement. 

But a company that sells automobiles probably shouldn’t spend time and resources writing a guest post for a company that sells clothing.

This can come across as spammy and untrustworthy.

Here are a few best practices to follow:

  • Find a site that is relevant to your niche
  • Ensure posts are about unique topics
  • Include case studies and original data

And what to avoid:

  • Don’t send the same guest post to multiple sites
  • Don’t stuff links to your site in the post (or Google may detect link spam and penalize you)
  • Don’t accept random guest post requests just for backlinks

Also keep in mind that Google has recommended using nofollow links in guest posts for years. This makes it clear that it’s not a paid link.

So if you’re writing a post just to spam links to your site, this tactic is probably going to backfire on you.

Instead, focus on creating high-quality content for your industry. If people use the finished product as a resource and share it on social channels, you could potentially get a lot of brand exposure.

Read our guide to guest blogging for more information on best practices.

guest blogging guide

Publish Research and Pitch It to the Press

This step is similar to the above. But you’re going to take things one step further and pitch your content to the press.

This is known as digital PR.

If you want to pitch a specific piece of press, we recommend using a PR tool like Prowly instead of waiting for the right request to come along in HARO.

Prowly’s Media Pitching Tool will suggest options based on your press release, provide contacts within its database, and allow you to import your own contact list.

prowly tool
prowly search results

Analyze Your Competitors’ Backlink Profiles

It’s also possible to target backlinks your competitors have already earned.

So, if you create a great piece of content that’s better than theirs, you can try to convince site owners that they should link to your site instead of your competitor’s.

Here’s how to find these opportunities:

Head to the Backlink Gap tool.

Add your domain and up to four competitor domains. Then click “Find prospects.” 

backlink gap tool

You’ll then see a list of prospects. The “Best” opportunities will show by default. But you can also filter to see “Weak,” “Strong,” “Shared,” “Unique,” or “All” opportunities.

backlink gap tool filters

The default “Best” filter is the best place to start. These are backlinks that your competitors have that you do not.

If there are many results to sift through, you can also filter by Authority Score to view sites only with high-authority domains.

backlink gap tool authority score

When you find a site you think would be a good match, select the check box next to it. Then click the “Start outreach” button.

backlink gap tool outreach

This will allow you to save prospects directly to the Link Building Tool.

The Link Building Tool provides contact information for target websites and allows you to connect your email. That way, you can reach out directly to backlink prospects and keep track of your progress.

prospects link building tool

Start by navigating to the “In Progress” tab of the Link Building results page.

link building tool in progress

As you scroll down, you’ll see a list of your backlink prospects. Click on the blue “Contact” button to create an email for that particular prospect.

link building backlink outreach
backlink outreach email template

We recommend personalizing the email template. Let the site owner know what you liked about their page and why you think it would be beneficial to link to yours.

Once you start the outreach process, you can monitor your progress and see when you earn backlinks.

earned backlinks

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