Chances are, if you've done ANY research at all about SEO, you've heard about backlinks. But what exactly is a backlink? Are there more than one kind of backlink? Are all backlinks valued equally? Do they serve the same function? Let's get into it.
A backlink is, in essence, a hyperlink (
<a href="https://[YOURDOMAIN].[TLD]/>[ANCHOR TEXT AND/OR IMAGE]</a> ) that is found on any external website and points back to any page on YOUR website in any way. They're important for SEO because they tell search engines that your website is authoritative and trustworthy. The more high-quality backlinks you have, the higher your website will rank in search results. Generally, speaking.
First, let's look at why backlinks are so important, regardless of type. No. Wait, back up a bit. Let's explain a search engine's index first.
How Search Engines Use Hyperlinks to Index the Internet
Pretend that the Internet is one giant HDD (Hard Disk Drive). It's got platters with data all over them and tiny needles that go out to read that data while it spins, like an old timey (or new timey, even) record player. How does it know exactly where on which platter to go for a given piece of information? The index, which is basically a spreadsheet saying, "X is on Y platter at Z location." The file you read may be broken up into chunks and the first chunk of data will tell the HDD where it needs to go to get the rest of the data.
Going even further back, have you ever read the physical version of an encyclopedia? You know, those big, heavy books about everything under the Sun that you needed to use before Wikipedia existed? Well, if you were looking for a particular item to read about, you would first look for it in the Index to find which Volume it is in and which Page(s) within that Volume it is on. The Article you read might have a reference to another Article (which might be in another Volume) or a reference to an outside source, such as a scientific research paper.
Why am I going on about obsolete technologies? Because that's pretty similar to how the Internet works! The index is basically a huge (HUUUUUGE) spreadsheet with BILLIONS of IP Addresses (websites) in it. Each and every one of those billions of websites have hundreds or thousands of keywords associated with them.
Search engines use robots called crawlers to index the internet. When a search engine crawls a domain, DNS tells it which IP address to find it at. The IP gets queried, the code gets parsed, and hey! A hyperlink! The search engine sends out a query to the hyperlinked domain/IP and crawls that, too. They continue this process until they've crawled all of the websites that they can find. If it keeps going back to the same site from all of those other sites, the site that gets referred to most becomes the most "authoritative" on whatever subject(s) are being covered by those referring domains. Once a website has been crawled, it's added to the search engine's index.
Why Backlinks are Important, Regardless of Type
When a website links to another website, it's like giving it a vote of confidence. "That site over there? They agree with me. They're an authority on this subject." Search engines see backlinks as a signal that a website is authoritative and trustworthy. The more backlinks a site has, the higher that site will rank in search results. For the most part.
Both good and bad backlinks will affect your Domain Authority and PageRank (if it even still exists as a metric). Yes, there ARE bad backlinks out there. We'll get to that in a little bit.
What Types of Backlinks Exist?
I'll try to break down the different types of backlinks you can acquire. I'll list them in order of best to worst and explain it as best as I can. Then I'll go into how you can acquire them. By the way: "White Hat" is good. "Gray Hat" is mostly bad but not always the worst idea. "Black Hat" is bad. Not illegal... just typically something that breaks the guidelines of everyone's favorite search engine. Breaking those guidelines may result in a Manual Action taken against your domain. You don't want that.
- High-Quality / High-Authority: Backlinks from a VERY authoritative website. We're talking like google.com, mayoclinic.org, state.gov, forbes.com, etc.
- WHITE HAT: You can get backlinks from these sites by having some amazing content and spending lots of time and money finding and courting those involved in publishing on them and try to get them to link to you as a reference for one of their articles. These backlinks are very rare to acquire organically, you have to work very hard to get them.
- GRAY/BLACK HAT: Or you can just pay someone who already has a relationship with someone there to try to place your backlink on that site.
- Medium-Quality / Medium-Authority: Backlinks from fairly authoritative websites such as pinterest.com, gitlab.com, flickr.com, some mommyblogs etc.
- WHITE HAT: You can get some of these by creating user profiles, posting content that links to your site, or by participating in discussions hosted on these sites and either linking to your site (ONLY WHEN RELEVANT) or by having your link in your profile on that site. Backlinks from these kinds of domains do happen organically once in a while. If you're a big, popular brand, you might get them fairly often.
- GRAY HAT: You can hire people to go out and totally spam these kinds of sites with backlinks to your domain. They'll probably find a hundred or so more sites than you would ever find on your own.
- Low-Quality / Low-Authority: Backlinks from newer sites/domains or sites that just aren't very useful or informative. Unknown "news" sites, random blogs, etc. Like this one you're on right now!
- WHITE HAT: Make a user account and comment on the blog posts... but only do it in a way that makes sense. Don't just spam your link on every post. Contribute to the discussion and if your site is relevant, link it once every 7-10 comments you make. Something like that. Usually, you can have your URL in your user profile as well. You might develop some backlinks from these kinds of domains without any involvement at all. It just happens.
- BLACK HAT: Again, you can hire people or even just write a bot that will crawl the web for random blogs that don't require much to sign up and make a comment. Spamming your link all over them. Don't do this.
- Spam Links: Spam sites just crawl the web much like a search engine and link to all sorts of websites. It's horrible. If you get too many of these, it could cause you some problems. These are the real reason you'd even want any Low- or Medium-Quality backlinks. Just because they're easy to get and they can outweigh the negative effects of spam links.
- WHITE HAT: You don't want these links, but you'll get them anyway.
- BLACK HAT: You can actually target competitor sites with tons of terrible spammy backlinks, in the hopes of bringing down their rankings. I don't recommend doing this.
Now, even within these types of backlinks, there are subcategories. We're not going to go into them because it's really quite redundant. However, there is one other type of backlink I want you to be wary of:
Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
A PBN is a group of websites, usually random topic blogs, that all link to each other and farm backlinks to increase their own authority. These are usually owned by SEOs/Agencies and are used to create "High-Quality Backlinks" for their clients. Make no mistake about it, this is a Black Hat technique. This violates Google's guidelines and if discovered could cause a Manual Action against all domains in the network AND the domains they backlink to. There is no way to make a White Hat PBN unless you own multiple legitimate somewhat-related media companies.
Most of the time, PBNs go undiscovered. SEOs have gotten very smart about diversifying their IP blocks, platforms, and architectures to make all the sites in the PBN seem like they really are unrelated and not at all owned by the same person. I'll give you an example:
- Let's say I have a domain I registered with Hover years ago and never used, I set that up on a DigitalOcean droplet and put up a blog using Ghost.org. Spoiler alert: That's actually how THIS site is set up!
- I also register a new domain today but don't use my name or my business information for registration and I register it on name.com, I set that up on Microsoft Azure hosting.
- Then I put in a bid on a domain that used to have a blog on it, it went through GoDaddy's domain broker service so I just host it on GoDaddy's site builder.
a. But uhhh... don't use GoDaddy, please, this is just an example. Trust me on this one.
- Then I register a long-abandoned domain that used to be very authoritative via CloudFlare, and I host a WordPress website on it with Amazon AWS.
Now I've got 4 domains, all seemingly unrelated, only one of them under my name, all on different hosting services under different IP blocks, and I create content (or have AI create content...) on all of them about various topics and buy a bunch of backlinks for all of them. That's a pretty well-hidden PBN.
I don't do this, but there are many SEOs out there that do. Probably most of them, honestly. If anyone ever promises you great backlinks that will stay up forever and they can get them for cheap... it's a PBN. If you actually care about your brand, image, and building up your authority... just don't. You may never know just how much good you've done for yourself by walking away but it's better than experiencing the wrath of Google first-hand.
But Why are PBNs So Bad?
If the PBN never gets found out, it's probably fine, great even. But if Google catches on and penalizes the PBN, you could be penalized as well and essentially be removed from the index entirely. It's very difficult to come back from a Manual Action. I recommend avoiding it. It's high-risk, high-reward. To me, the risk is not worth it for me or my clients. I bill myself as a purely White Hat SEO and I will keep it that way.
You? Eh, do whatever you want. I'm not your father.
There's one more facet of backlinks I want to cover here and it's SUPER important. ANY kind of backlink can have one (or sometimes two) of these attributes:
- DoFollow: This is actually the default type of backlink. If no attribute is assigned, it is a DoFollow. These are the best types of backlinks to get. This tells the crawler that the link is relevant and that it should follow the link to learn more about the linked domain.
- NoFollow: Officially functional as of 2005, this is the not the worst kind of link to get... They still matter, but they matter much less than a DoFollow. NoFollow tells the crawler NOT to follow the link; it's just linked for... reasons! Use this when linking to a competitor, if you ever need to do that.
- Sponsored: This attribute tells crawlers that you paid for that backlink in some way, but not necessarily in a Black Hat way. Not the worst thing in the world, but not the best. In a sense, sponsoring content means it's important to you and your brand. So there's that. You should actively seek out some of these, but not too many.
- UGC: User-Generated Content. This tells crawlers that the link is from some rando, not the site owner or blog author(s). Most blog comment links have this attribute automatically applied to them. They can count for something, but not very much. Give it even less importance as you would a NoFollow. These actually ARE the worst types of backlinks to get. They have a high probability of increasing your domain's Spam Score.
Some White Hat SEO takeaway points for you:
- Create high-quality content. Other websites will be more likely to link to your website if you have high-quality content that they find valuable. This can just happen on its own without you doing any outreach at all! Organic backlinks are the best.
- Promote your content. Share your content on social media, submit it to directories, and reach out to other websites to see if they're interested in linking to it. It can be scary to post your content on social media and subjecting yourself to everyone's criticism but it's worth it! Get discovered.
- Guest blogging. Guest blogging is a great way to get backlinks from high-quality websites. Write guest posts for other websites in your industry and make sure to include a link back to your website in your author bio. It might seem like a waste of time to write content for another site but trust me, it beats paying for it!
- Claim your business profiles! If you are just starting out with your website (or neglected to do this), make sure you get your Citations, even if Local SEO doesn't really matter to you. Citations can be good backlinks! Not always, but either way, they do contribute to your overall trustworthiness. Google My Business, Bing Business, Yelp, etc. Get them all. Make sure they have backlinks to your site and all the information is correct and keep it up-to-date. Confused by this? Go read my post, "What is a Citation, Anyway?"
- Don't be afraid to schmooze. Networking is a great way to find opportunities to get backlinks. Make some friends with websites and they might even just offer it up. Who knows?
- Don't be afraid to ask for links. If you see a website that you think would be a good fit for your audience, reach out to them and see if they're interested in linking to your content. And...
- Don't be afraid to trade links. If you have a good relationship with another website owner, you can trade links with them. This is a great way to get backlinks and not feel like a jerk about trying to get one.
Some Things to Consider When Hiring an SEO
- Be wary of any SEO that promises high-quality backlinks in a short amount of time, a low cost, and/or guarantees they are permanent. Each of these are a red flag that they are using a PBN.
- If you're a fly-by-night company, sure, use the sketchy Black Hat SEO.
- If you're an established, trusted brand, stick to White Hat SEO techniques.
- Always ask for referrals or case studies before hiring an SEO.
- Check out the SEO on LinkedIn, see what kind of stuff they post, see who they hang around with.
- Ask your SEO if they are using any Gray or Black Hat techniques. Tell them your preferences, how aggressive you want to be, etc.
- If an SEO is telling you that backlinks are the ONLY thing that matters... Run! Quickly! They're just lazy and want to make easy money off of you by reselling links or just selling PBN links. Or they're clueless.
- If an SEO tells you that backlinks are not important... Run! Quickly! They are also lazy and just don't want to have to bother with getting your backlinks. Or they're clueless.
Come Back Soon!
I know this was a longer-than-usual article, but this is a very important topic. I didn't even cover 1/3 of what I really wanted to. Expect more posts about backlinks in the near future.