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Backlinks – what they are and how they work

Search engine optimization  is, putting it mildly, complicated. There are countless different factors that Google, Bing, and others take into account to determine which website or page to serve up for any given keyword, including your location, how quickly your page loads, and how the sites are coded. That being the case, one of the biggest and most important elements of a site are backlinks.

What are backlinks?

Backlinks are, as the name pretty strongly implies, links back to your site. Each time someone decides to put a link on their website / blog / etc. that goes to your site, it’s indexed by search engines, which, at least in theory, gives a boost to your overall credibility.

Why do search engines put stock in backlinks?

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re asking twenty people from the same town where their favorite pizza place is and ten of them all say the same place. It’s a safe bet that anywhere that’s mentioned that consistently is going to be worth checking out.

Now take that example and spread it across the entire web – if there’s a page on your site, or your site itself is useful for people, they’ll most likely be linking to it, either within their own web content or on social media posts. To companies like Google, that’s a great indicator of a site’s relevance: they can assume that a site or a page are going to be useful to direct people to if it’s already linked to by other sites.

It sounds pretty simple, but that’s not all there is to it.

What information are search engines able to glean from backlinks?

Let’s take a look at what a link consists of by taking a look at the code for it – a link to our site might look like this on your browser, but the code itself looks like <a href=”https://watermelonwebworks.com>this</a>.

From how this is configured, we can see that there are two main parts – the web address and the content of what’s being linked. That means that search engines are looking both at where a link’s going, but also what it’s saying – for instance, a link that just says ‘this’ might be giving a vote of confidence for our website, but a link that says ‘Portland Web Development’ is giving a search engine a better sense of not just where a link is going, but what the context is for it. While getting a backlink is primarily a desirable thing for your site, having a link with a relevant keyword for your site is even better.

Are all backlinks good?

In short: no. If we wind the clock back a few years, backlinks, regardless of the source, were unambiguously great for SEO. So good, in fact, that it was widely exploited by disreputable agencies that would generate thousands upon thousands of fake websites for the express purpose of providing manufactured links for the clients. This created a two-fold problem for search engines – it was too difficult to distinguish between legitimate backlinks and phony ones and it also meant the web became inundated with phony blogs and websites with no purpose other than to provide links to other sites.

Faced with this issue, Google did a massive overhaul of their search algorithm to determine the quality of the site providing a link, and penalizing websites if they had too many suspicious backlinks. That meant for the first time that having too many links back to your site became a liability, rather than a benefit, and controversially, that website owners were responsible for other people linking to their sites. This caused many a headache for website owners and web developers alike, but once the smoke cleared, it improved the quality of search results for sites and effectively torpedoed an industry that had sprung up around artificially inflating websites’ standings online. The result of this is that it’s now standard practice to check reports on backlinks for websites and to ‘disavow’ anything that looks suspect or originating from questionable sources.

So how do I build backlinks?

The easiest way to build backlinks is to make a good site with valuable content – people like to share content they find appealing. If you’re looking to promote your site a bit further than that, there are a number of ways to encourage links to your site, including guest blogging for other sites, or simply asking website administrators (nicely) to link to you. Several non-profit organizations provide links to their donors, which means you can get a backlink and help a worthy cause at the same time.

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