Do Backlinks Matter in 2020? Here’s The Data-Driven Truth

Backlinks

If you’re new to the SEO world, you likely don’t know that backlinks are an obsession.

Now the question is why?

It’s because backlinks are a huge ranking factor for SEO performance in Google.

But, some people don’t believe they’re essential (despite overwhelming evidence).

In this guide, I’m going to show you data that proves the importance of backlinks.

But, first:

What Are Backlinks?

A “backlink” occurs when another website links to yours. Some people refer to them as “external backlinks” or “inbound links.” Search engines like Google consider backlinks to be “votes” for a page.

how backlinks work

In many studies, the quantity of backlinks a page has correlated with higher organic search engine rankings—more on this in a second.

Why Backlinks Are Important for SEO

There have been many studies conducted on the importance of backlinks. But, these studies support what’s already available to the public. If you want your head to explode, read about Google’s PageRank algorithm.

PageRank Example

Here’s an explanation of PageRank in Layman’s terms:

Backlinks can improve or decrease your SEO performance on Google. Links can improve your SEO performance if they come from high-quality sources. And vice versa.

If you’d like to geek out about PageRank and Google’s various algorithms, then Bill Slawski is your man.

It’s easy to conclude that backlinks are essential based on PageRank alone.

But, as of September 24, 2019, PageRank and all associated patents have expired.

What’s Google scheming up? Don’t know and don’t care.

All that matters in the world of SEO is what works and what doesn’t work.

So how do you figure that out? You have to test and analyze Google’s search results daily.

The good news is that many studies have done that already.

Check it out:

PROOF That Backlinks Matter for SEO

Most SEO companies know that backlinks are critical based on their experience. But it helps to have additional data to support our experience.

That’s the purpose of the following section. I’ve gathered data from several in-depth SEO studies so you can reference whenever you need to.

Let’s dive in:

1. Powerful Websites = Better SEO Performance

Look through most Google SERPs and you’ll see one thing in common:

Google loves authority websites.

“Authority” in this case is defined as having many backlinks from quality sources. And there is overwhelming data to support this idea.

Backlinko studied 11.8 million Google search results and found that:

“A site’s overall link authority (as measured by Ahrefs Domain Rating) strongly correlates with higher rankings.” – Backlinko [1]We Analyzed 11.8 Million Google Search Results. Here’s What We Learned About SEO“. Backlinko. 28 April 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

SEMRush conducted a 2.0 version of their ranking factors study and found that:

“The more backlinks a domain has, the higher is its position on the SERP.” – SEMRush [2]Ranking Factors SEMrush Study 2.0“. SEMRush. 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

To solidify this point even further, Rankings.io conducted a study in the personal injury sector and found similar results. They said:

“While the number of referring domains per page appears not to influence rankings, the overall number of referring domains for the domain was a top indicator of overall domain traffic.” – Rankings.io [3]SEO Data Science: A Study of 112K Personal Injury Law Firms“. Rankings.io. 5 May 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

Let’s start by saying that “Domain Rating” is not a metric that Google uses.

It’s a third party metric created by Ahrefs.

Ahrefs DR

It’s not complete, but it’s a useful gauge for anyone doing SEO.

In short, your goal should be to increase your DR (Domain Rating).

Moz also has its metric for measuring the strength of a website.

It’s called DA (Domain Authority).

Moz DA

You can also look at the Majestic SEO Trust Flow metric as a way of gauging site strength.

Majestic Trust Flow

Your goal should be to grow these metrics. The stronger your website is, the better it will rank.

You get the point by now. The data supports the idea that you need to work super hard to get more links to your website. That is how you grow your website authority.

But you must also acquire links to the actual pages you want to rank on Google.

Here’s the data to support that:

2. Powerful Pages = Better SEO Performance

It’s possible for a page to rank without backlinks hitting it directly. That’s what happens when your site has established authority.

For example, when Forbes publishes a new article, they often rank on the first page (without any direct links).

That said, Forbes is the exception. Most websites will need direct links to SEO-driven pages.

Here are data Ahrefs to support this idea:

“The more backlinks a page has, the more organic traffic it gets from Google.” – Ahrefs [4]90.63% of Content Gets No Traffic From Google. And How to Be in the Other 9.37% [New Research for 2020]“. Ahrefs. 31 March 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

“Only one in every ~20 pages without backlinks has traffic… and the majority of these get 300 organic visits or less each month.” [5]90.63% of Content Gets No Traffic From Google. And How to Be in the Other 9.37% [New Research for 2020]“. Ahrefs. 31 March 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

This data point is easy to take out of context. Why?

Because it didn’t specify the quality of links. There are many pages online that have TONS of backlinks, but they have terrible SEO performance.

That’s because their backlinks are garbage. The key isn’t to get many backlinks.

The goal is to get many QUALITY backlinks.

Reread that ten times.

There is no nuance more critical.

Disregard link quality standards, and you will pay the price.

3. Better SEO Performance = More Backlinks

The rich get richer in SEO. Meaning, the better your SEO performance, the more backlinks you’ll acquire. I call this “The Snowball Effect.”

Backlinko’s study proved this be true:

“The #1 result in Google has an average of 3.8x more backlinks than positions #2-#10.” – Backlinko [6]We Analyzed 11.8 Million Google Search Results. Here’s What We Learned About SEO“. Backlinko. 28 April 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

Ahrefs found similar results:

“Top-ranking pages do tend to acquire more backlinks (and at a faster pace) than the pages that rank below them.” – Ahrefs [7]How Many New Backlinks Do Top-ranking Pages Get Over Time [New Data by Ahrefs]“. Ahrefs. 3 April 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

And SEMrush’s study agreed as well:

“The higher the domain’s position on the SERP, the more referring domains it has.” – SEMRush [8]Ranking Factors SEMrush Study 2.0“. SEMRush. 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

In short, once you achieve high rankings, you’ll start to get organic links. As a result, your page strengthens and will often solidify your positions.

Keep in mind that the exception to this rule is with competitive keywords.

Here’s the truth:

Having more backlinks isn’t enough to maintain rankings for competitive SERPs.

You also have to keep your page updated and fresh.

For example, a powerful page with stale content likely won’t maintain rankings.

In short, don’t get complacent once you start ranking.

You have to battle to keep those rankings. That means consistent link growth and fresh content.

4. Your Website Needs Vote (Backlink) Diversity

“The number of domains linking to a page correlated with rankings.” – Backlinko [9]We Analyzed 11.8 Million Google Search Results. Here’s What We Learned About SEO“. Backlinko. 28 April 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

You should aim to get links from many different quality websites in your industry. If we equate backlinks to votes, this makes perfect sense.

Many votes (backlinks) from different sources are more valuable than many votes from one source.

It’s hard to measure, but there are likely diminishing returns from getting links from the same website.

Now would it hurt to get several links from The Washington Post? No way.

Let’s say you had the choice between two links from The Washington Post or one link from fifteen different DR 20 blogs in your industry.

What would you pick?

Here’s a comparison:

The Washington Post has 730,000 referring domains.

washington post referring domains

And this example, DR 24 blog, Retailbound.com has 80 referring domains.

DR20 blog

So let’s assume that most websites around 20 DR have ~100 referring domains. That means that 15 DR 20 websites equate to 1,500 referring domains total.

730,000 vs 1,500.

Let’s assume there is a 50% reduction of strength for the second link from The Washington Post. That’s still the strength of 365,000 domains.

Keep reducing it further, and it will continue to crush 15 links from DR 20 websites.

I barely passed Algebra II, but the math is clear here:

Getting several links from one authoritative website is better than getting a bunch of weak links.

That said, it’s not always that simple, and that’s by design!

Getting links from The Washington Post is difficult, so you don’t need to worry about getting too many.

5. Most Pages Don’t Get (Deserve) Backlinks

“66.31% of pages don’t have even a single backlink.” – Ahrefs [10]90.63% of Content Gets No Traffic From Google. And How to Be in the Other 9.37% [New Research for 2020]“. Ahrefs. 31 March 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

“94% of all blog posts have zero external links.” – Backlinko [11]We Analyzed 912 Million Blog Posts. Here’s What We Learned About Content Marketing“. Backlinko. 19 February 2019. Retrieved 25 May 2020.

Most pages aren’t worth linking to, so this makes perfect sense. Also, most websites aren’t trying to get links.

The whole “build it, and they will come” mentality doesn’t work well with SEO.

You need to build and then spend 80% of your time promoting. It gets easier over time.

That said, every SEO campaign requires a massive promotional push in the beginning.

The key is to create things that are worth promoting.

Now that you (hopefully) believe that backlinks are important for SEO performance, let me explain what quality links look like:

What Do “Quality” Backlinks Look Like? Here are 7 Indicators to Look for:

I’ve mentioned “quality” backlinks throughout this article, but what does that mean?

Here are seven indicators you should use to prioritize your link opportunities:

1. Relevance

You should spend most of your link building time trying to get links on websites in your industry. I recommend using a model I created called The Relevancy Pyramid.

The Relevancy Pyramid can help you prioritize your link opportunities based on relevance.

Relevancy Pyramid

The model is simple:

There are fewer opportunities that are 100% relevant to your website. You should focus on these first.

Then, once you’ve tapped those out, move down the pyramid where there will be more opportunities with less relevance.

Now there are two exceptions to this prioritization strategy.

First, it’s ALWAYS okay to get links from super authority websites like the New York Times, Washington Post, or .edu/.gov sites.

Second, The Relevancy Model changes if you’re working in local SERPs.

I recommend focusing on geo-targeted opportunities first. Then move onto topically relevant opportunities on the national level.

Local Relevancy Pyramid

Now, of course, it’s not all about relevance. If that were the case, you could create hundreds of relevant websites yourself and link to your site.

That doesn’t work because it would be missing all the other factors that make a backlink powerful.

Bringing me to quality standard #2:

2. Traffic

You need to get links from websites that are relevant and have traffic.

Think about it:

If Google is sending organic search traffic to a site, what does that say?

It means that it’s likely a quality website. In general, websites that are popular in organic search are valuable link opportunities.

You can use SEMRush to see if a website is getting organic search traffic (and to see the “value” of that traffic):

traffic cost

3. Authority

If a website is getting organic search traffic, it likely has authority. You can use Ahrefs’ DR to prioritize link opportunities based on their site authority.

The stronger a website is, the harder it will be to get the link.

That makes those links even more valuable, so it’s worth the effort.

4. Link Quality

It is possible to manipulate third party metrics like Ahrefs’ DR or Moz’s DA.

So that’s why you need to analyze the link profile of all your opportunities manually.

I like to run the website through Ahrefs and filter their links by “DoFollow.”

DR

I then sort them so that the strongest links with the highest DR are at the top.

In short, you want to see that the site is getting links from high-quality sources.

Use the same criteria from above.

5. Editorial Standards

Why are diamonds valuable?

Because they’re difficult to get. That’s how you need to approach your link building. The harder it is to land a backlink, the more valuable it is.

The opposite is true, as well:

The easier a backlink is to get, the less valuable it is.

Focus on getting links on websites that have high editorial standards.

6. Outbound Link Quality

Websites with strong editorial guidelines will likely only link out to quality resources. You want your link to “live” around other quality outbound links.

Examine every prospective website and ask:

  • How are they linking out?
  • Are the outbound links relevant?
  • Are the outbound links going to respected, trusted sites?
  • Do the outbound links look natural, or do they look like paid links?

7. Indexation

Nothing is more important than making sure you get links on indexed websites. If the site isn’t indexed in Google, then your links will be worthless.

Go to Google and search “site:example.com”.

site search

If they don’t show up, avoid the website.

TLDR: Backlinks Matter for SEO

Shocking development, I know. Here are the two big takeaways:

  • You need to acquire quality backlinks to your website as a whole so you can grow its authority.
  • You need to acquire quality backlinks to specific SEO-driven pages you’re trying to rank.

Need some link building help? Watch this:

References   [ + ]

Nathan Gotch
Nathan Gotch

Nathan Gotch is the founder and CSO (Chief Search Officer) at Gotch SEO. Since 2012, Nathan has achieved SEO success across countless verticals including health, technology, law, and many more. He’s also grown Gotch SEO’s training division, Gotch SEO Academy, past 1,000 students.

Join the Conversation

  1. The article was a nice .Thanks for sharing knowledge about the link building techniques.Can you tell me any free tool that will give a back links of my competitors.

  2. Hi Nathan!!

    Thanks for this simple & strong content to explain SEO Backlinks. For sure, the same would be shared with the SEO Analysts to refer to better understand digital marketing easily. Thanks for the Effort!!!
    Dinesh Shakhty from Syntricon Technologies.

  3. I notice that you mention being penalised by Google for overtly non-White Hat links; do Google still penalise now? I was under some kind of impression that Penguin was part of the overall algorithm and any negative effect from scamming the links would be negated by their removal.
    But then again I have been convinced for years that there is an element of ‘Trust Rank’ in a site’s overall ranking, and that if you transgress their rules, even then putting things right, you will go down in Google’s little Black Book and remain there for some time.
    Excellent and informative post as ever Nathan.

  4. Hi Nathan,
    Excellent post, comprehensive and knowledgeable, Nathan I have a question, I have to target a country for my client, and his physical office location is in the other country, can I do the citation for that client? If yes then what will be the best citation campaign strategy?

  5. Good stuff as usual! Any opinion on doing it yourself vs paying for a service? I’ve been seeing a ton of ads lately for white hat link building and some seem to have a good reputation.

  6. Hi Nathan,

    Awesome content as always! I really like some of the more unique points you raise in here about focusing so much on the user experience and actually answering people’s problems. It’s all common sense but amazing how much we can forget all this when we get distracted on just focusing on data and metrics.

    Cheers David

    1. Thanks David! Totally agree. It’s sometimes challenging to step back and look at the big picture when you’re in the weeds everyday

  7. Hi Nathan,

    Excellent post. I checked the backlink profile on this post through Ahrefs and was happy to see you had a diverse range of backlinks based on the types you recommended in this article. I’m glad to follow people putting their theories into practice.

    Question — how do you feel about backlinks from sites like Forbes, Business Insider, etc when it has become known that people pay for links to those platforms. Are they worth going after if you’re doing it in a legitimate way?

    Thanks for the post, sharing on social media and linked to through my company’s blog.

  8. Great stuff Nathan – liking the last couple of blog posts. Would like to see you update your 2.0 article from 2015 when you get a chance…
    Happy Holidays.

  9. Hi Nathan, great post!

    I have a quick question about guest posting. There are a few sites that I’m aware of with very high DA (like activerain, buzzfeed, amazon, etc) that accept ‘community guest posts’ with Dofollow backlinks. These have no editorial guidelines but the editors pick posts to get features, meaning anyone can post there easily.

    Given that some of these could potentially be highly relevant to whatever niche you’re promoting, and have high DA, are they worth getting? Assuming you embed the links in a useful, informative, and relevant article?

    Based on what you said about editorial guidelines, my concern would be that they’d do more harm than good, but wanted to know your opinion on this?

    Thanks,

    Matt

  10. yes, exactly every backlink was not good. Based on the site PA and DA the link has a particular value. Thank you, Nathan, for sharing this valuable information.I am new to your article. but, now I want to know more about your words.

  11. Hi,
    Your blog is awesome. I love to read your post. I appreciate you to continue your hard work. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  12. Backlinks are a huge topic to learn, this was quite the detailed guideline! I’m so impressed, thanks a lot Nathan! I never knew not every backlink we get is good for your Domain Authority!!

  13. Great post. I used to be checking continuously this blog and I am inspired! Extremely helpful information particularly the ultimate part 🙂 I take care of such info much. I was seeking this certain information for a long time. Thank you and best of luck

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