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.
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.
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.
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 “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 “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 “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.
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).
You can also look at the Majestic SEO Trust Flow metric as a way of gauging site strength.
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 “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.” “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 “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 “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 “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 “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.
And this example, DR 24 blog, Retailbound.com has 80 referring domains.
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 “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 “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:
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.
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.
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:
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):
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.”
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?
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”.
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 [ + ]
|1, 6, 9.||↑||“We Analyzed 11.8 Million Google Search Results. Here’s What We Learned About SEO“. Backlinko. 28 April 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.|
|2, 8.||↑||“Ranking Factors SEMrush Study 2.0“. SEMRush. 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.|
|3.||↑||“SEO Data Science: A Study of 112K Personal Injury Law Firms“. Rankings.io. 5 May 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.|
|4, 5, 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.|
|7.||↑||“How Many New Backlinks Do Top-ranking Pages Get Over Time [New Data by Ahrefs]“. Ahrefs. 3 April 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2020.|
|11.||↑||“We Analyzed 912 Million Blog Posts. Here’s What We Learned About Content Marketing“. Backlinko. 19 February 2019. Retrieved 25 May 2020.|