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The Definitive Guide to Links for SEO

When it comes to search marketing, your website is just one of many candidates campaigning for a seat at the top of the SERPs. In this general election, users across the web “vote” by linking to a page en route to deciding who gets elected to these valuable offices. If you provide high-quality, valuable, highly-related content, then you can be sure that more and more people will link to you and tell their circles. This is what really drives search engine results.

Domain and page-level links are the two most important factors in a website’s ranking according to internet marketing giant, MOZ. And with the continuing updates of Google’s algorithm devised to penalize bad links and promote good ones, understanding links for SEO is more important than ever.

But what makes a link? What is so important about them? And are all links created equal or not? If you want to dominate the search rankings, then you need to know how to focus on quality links, and phase out the bad ones. Let’s get started:

First, why are links so important for SEO?

Good question! Links are the juice that drives the engine of Google’s search algorithm, and as we said before, they are like votes in an election. The more links your site has from credible sources in a certain niche, the more favorably Google views you. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If people within a certain niche, say internet marketing, keep linking to this article in droves, then Google would see that as a clear sign that this article is helpful, expert-in-nature, and engaging(it definitely is).

On the contrary, if people are avoiding an article like the plague, then Google sees that as a cue that it can’t possibly be helpful to you or related to your search. Also, links on your pages to other pages within your website is a sign that it’s user-friendly, another important metric.

The more links you have, both external(to other sites) and internal(throughout your site), the better.

Why are links more important than ever?

Google has placed a high value on links for search engine optimization since the very beginning, but in 2016 understanding what makes a quality link is more important than ever. This is because user experience has become the key goal for Google. Whereas old SEO was more science, modern SEO is more art. In this neverending quest to bring a great user experience, Google rolled out its Penguin update. Penguin was designed to penalize websites that tried to artificially manipulate their rank by spamming link quantity and not focusing on quality.

If a site had a million links to nothing of use, then it was duly penalized and banished to the depths of the SERP, never to be heard from again. Since Google is a merciful ruler, though, they allow you a chance to get back into their good graces and fix your links. Then, when they refresh the update, your penalty is removed. You can give yourself a quick fix by removing:

  • Links to irrelevant material
  • Boring links that nobody cares about
  • Links that are bereft of any use to human beings
  • Links to spammy websites like gambling or pornography
  • Anything that tries to give a hard sell

The good news is that these won’t be hard to spot, and you can quickly get rid of them; however, you need to be aware that simply removing them won’t get you back into the good graces of Google. You also need to replace them with high-quality links.

Your first order of business should be to cut ties with all of the horrid links on your web page. They aren’t doing you any good.

So what makes a link good for SEO?

Since links are more art than they are science, what constitutes a good link is often difficult to quantify. We do know, however, that they are vital to organic traffic(which drives 51% of visits to websites). Webmasters, bloggers, and others interested in search engine optimization often make the mistake of trying to get links from the outset. Links from other web-goers should not be an active pursuit; they should be a byproduct of generating and sharing high-quality, engaging content. Think of it like Field of Dreams: if you write it, they will come. But as far as the links that you provide to other sources(external), there are criteria that you should know.

Just because we can’t tell you exactly what makes a great link, doesn’t mean that there isn’t an agreement on the factors that make a link beneficial to your SEO. Link quality is mostly determined by 3 factors:

  • Relevancy
  • Value and
  • Authority

In order to fully understand valuable linking strategies, we need to delve a little deeper.

Relevancy

Relevancy is the most important factor for your external links. Not only are they vital to your SEO success, having toxic external links could be deemed manipulative, and incur a penalty from almighty Google.

Imagine this scenario in the real world: you go to the doctor because of excruciating stomach pain, and they refer to someone who can help. How would you feel if they sent you to a chiropractor? That’s how your visitors feel when you link them to somewhere that doesn’t fit. What’s more, if your doctor sends you to the worst, most disreputable stomach doctor in town, you’d also feel cheated.

This brings us to the point. Your links should not only point out to relevant web pages, they should point to relevant web pages that are popular. Google determines popularity by links and equates that with value. The more value, the better. Which brings us to:

Value

Search algorithms are becoming more sophisticated by the day, and where they once were geared toward finding the most relevant pages by using concrete keywords and links, they are more focused now on finding real value to humans. Whenever you go to link somewhere, ask yourself this question:

“Would I personally want to visit this site, and what could it do for me?”

Actually, ask yourself several questions:

  • If this were me, would I be happy to end up on this site?
  • How does this site help me achieve my end goal(entertainment, education, etc)
  • Does this link take me where I think it’s taking me?
  • Could this site open new doors to opportunities for me?

A great link provides cubed value(value to the power of 3). In order:

  • It provides something valuable to the user
  • It boosts your SEO
  • It boosts the visited site’s popularity and SEO

Don’t rush the decision to link. That’s where most people make their mistakes. When linking, don’t just take the first result on Google or the first site that comes to mind. Check multiple sites, read the comments to check engagement, see what their social sharing community is like, read some of their articles, or check their advertisements. The good news is that spammy, valueless sites are easy to spot. All you have to do is put in the extra effort.

Authority

In this dystopian future world where all internet traffic is dominated by authority, it’s important for you to understand the importance of the trust that Google puts into a page. When you type in “doggy daycare” into Google, the algorithm returns the most trusted and reputable dog watchers in your area(at least it tries to). The way it does this is by using Pagerank.

Pagerank is a system that analyzes the links and vested authority in a page, and then gives it a score that plays into the algorithm. Nobody(including Google) really knows how it works as a whole, but what we do know is that authoritative links from popular pages pass link karma to each other. It’s the equivalent of a professional circle that keeps scratching each other’s backs.

There are a few resources you could consult for a better understanding of authority:

  • Google type in the keywords you are ranking for. Also, check related terms and see which ones rank across multiple words.
  • Check links from those sites see which sites the most authoritative sites are linking to.
  • Tools there are tools you can use like ahrefs, majestic, moz, spyfu etc

Remember that SEO is a delicate mix of numerous different factors, and Pagerank or authority should not be the be all end all. Examine each site, and make sure to read through its content to double check. On top of that, use tools to examine the backlinks that a website has so you can make sure they aren’t linking out to spammy content.

If you really want to go the extra mile, then go to the people who know the industry best. Check groups on Linkedin, Google +, or other professional circles to get a feel for their reputation. Find reviews of them on the web, check their social media, or use a tool to check their social mentions. Checking the industry out will give you an insider’s point of view.

Remember the saying “you are the company that you keep”. Choose links wisely.

The tech side

Just because links for SEO have become more art than science, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a mechanical side to the business. Technical elements for links still exist. Although our first three “artistic” factors are far more important, you should still consider these technical elements of links as the tiebreaker. Some things to keep in mind are:

  • Nofollow
  • Alt attribute
  • Redirects
  • Robots.txt
  • Javascript
  • Anchor text
  • Page location

The technical elements of links and the sites that they link to still matter, but it would be wise to focus more on the human elements.

In the end, SEO linking strategies are all about user experience. If the link doesn’t satisfy a human need on the web, it is useless. When trying to build a linking campaign or determine which links are best for SEO, remember to focus on relevance, value, and authority.

The good news is that the more they have of one, the more they will have of the others. Use tools across the web, do extra research into the site and its link neighborhood, and be sure to put yourself into your visitor’s shoes. The election for the top of the Google SERP is important. Choose your vote wisely!

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