What is link building and why is it important for SEO?

Links can be thought of as like votes for your website. They are analysed by search engines to determine the relevance, authority and popularity of your web pages. In general, the more links to a page, the better the chance of that page ranking well. However, it is not all about volume as some links are more valuable than others.

Number and quality of links

Search engines reward websites that have plenty of inbound links from ‘high quality’ websites. A high quality website itself tends to have lots of inbound links and exists on a ‘trusted’ domain (such as those ending in .gov or .ac.uk).

Links from other websites still make a contribution, but less so. Links from websites considered ‘poor’ quality can actually have a negative effect on rankings. A website that has a modest number of links from high quality websites will generally outperform a site which has many more links from weaker websites.

Not all links are used by search engines in the ranking process. In most cases links from social media, article comments and forums are ‘no follow’ links, which means that they are discounted. However they are still useful in that they generate referral traffic.

The value that a link contains is diluted by the presence of other links on a page so in general, it is better to receive a link from a page with a few links on it rather than many. Getting links from any large commercial, academic, intergovernmental and government partners that you work with will help to improve your domain authority and search rankings as a result.

You can find out how many inbound links and linking domains your website has through Google Search Console.

Paid services

Tools such as Moz can also provide a list of the highest value links. Using multiple data sets can support link building work as it helps to build a more comprehensive picture. Moz also provides a calculation of the ‘authority’ of a series of domains including yours, based on the number and type of inbound links to the websites it can find. It predicts that in general, websites with a higher domain authority are likely to rank higher than websites with a lower domain authority on search engines. Moz also provides an estimate for what it calls ‘page authority’. This figure takes combines the overall domain authority with page specific factors (e.g. the number and quality of links into a given page rather than the domain).

Text links

The best inbound links are plain text as they include visible ‘anchor’ text which accompanies the link on a page. Search engines examine the anchor text to help them understand the content of the target page. Pages with an abundance of inbound links that use a similar keyword within the anchor text are likely to rank better for that keyword.

Not all links should not have exactly the same keyword combinations within the anchor text. The link profile of the site should look ‘natural’ otherwise it may be penalised by search engines.

Where it is under your control, it is helpful to specify the anchor text that a referrer uses in their link. Where possible try to include terms from your keyword set.

Image links

Inbound links from images also make a contribution, but are less valuable. They can be optimised by ensuring that an ‘alt’ attribute included to describe the image using target keywords. The alt attribute helps users when an image does not load and is also used by screen readers to aid users with visual impairments. It is also understood to be used by search engines in determining rankings.

Where it is under your control, try to encourage a referrer to use an alt attribute in any image links.

Deep links

Rather than exclusively pointing to your home page, it is important that inbound links also point to pages deeper within your website as these are often more relevant for some keywords. Having a keyword in the anchor text of a link that points to it’s target ‘cornerstone’ page is the ideal scenario.

For the majority of organisations, the home page will naturally receive the most inbound links but the more the more that the large gap between this and other pages can be addressed the better. Where it is under your control, try to encourage a referrer to link to the most relevant page on the website rather than the home page only.

Local popularity

An inbound link from a website that is considered an authority on a particular topic is more important (for a target keyword related to that topic) than a link from a site with no topic association. This concept is called ‘local popularity’. When prioritising who to target for any link building activity, factor the idea of local popularity into your thinking.

Increasing over time

Search engines place more emphasis on newer links as they see this as a measure of relevance. To enjoy consistent rankings, a website should show a consistent growth in inbound links over time. There are likely to be peaks and troughs but a general upward trend is important, particular for organisations operating in a competitive environment.

Reciprocal links

An inbound link from a page on another website that you in turn link back to (an approach often used in ‘useful links’ pages), will be devalued. Where two sites are linking to each other, they should avoid linking to reciprocal pages.

Organic link building

Organic links occur ‘naturally’. By definition, it is not possible to directly influence their acquisition, but they are generally occur as a consequence of a well-structured website that contains lots of useful and engaging content, a strong brand and visible online activity.

Encouraged link building

Encouraged links are created by others as a consequence of specific actions taken by you and usually form the bulk of link building activity.

Link requests to known partners

Existing relationships should be capitalised on at every opportunity and warm contacts should be approached for inbound links. It is important to take a methodical approach in which a list of partners is created, the current linking situation is reviewed and opportunities to attract new or improve existing links are identified and prioritised (based on their optimisation potential).

Moz have a free Open Site Explorer tool that you can use to check the domain authority of the websites for various partners. You can check whether a partner is already linking to you through Google Search Console and if so, which page they are linking to and the anchor text they are using.

It is worth making contact with organisations that are not currently linking to you to request a link. The process of making the initial approach and keeping track of the progress for each of the opportunities needs to be carefully managed on an ongoing basis. It is important to make it as easy as possible for partners to create well optimised links, so clear guidance should be given (based on advice above) which potentially could include suggested anchor text.

News and media coverage

Your work may occasionally earns you the attention of the press, bloggers and news media which has the potential to drive inbound links. It is important that you capitalise on this opportunity, and this can be done in the following ways:

  • Keep your eyes open for any coverage of your organisation.
  • Set up a Google Alert to monitor news published online for mentions of your name.
  • Carry out a similar search on already published news items, prioritising those that have been published most recently.

In all, where mentions occur, check to see if they are accompanied by a link to your site. Where they are not, you could contact the publisher to request a link.

Content development & promotion

Developing content to encourage inbound links in to your website can be very effective. Content should be engaging and valuable enough for people to share and link to it. Types of content that tend to deliver links include white papers, research, infographics and campaigns.

Social media

Developing a strong social media presence has many benefits. Although links and shares from social media don’t help rankings in the traditional sense (the social media sites restrict the outbound link value), more personalised results are starting to appear based on the type of content that is shared within a users social circle. Going forward, those with large social network circles who share regularly are likely to see their content promoted in search results.

Artificial link building

Artificial link building involves attempting to gain links by adding them directly to sites or by sending requests to cold contacts. One way to vastly increase the volume of inbound links is to buy them. It is strongly advised that this type of link building is not adopted. Buying links is frowned upon by all major search engines and could result in your site being removed from their indexes. Many websites offer visitors the opportunity to create links through guest book signings, forum signatures, blog comments, or user profiles. In general, search engines devalue these links and have been known to penalise websites that pursue these links aggressively.

What next?

As you go about the process of building links into your website, you should also think about how well your website is currently optimised for search engines choosing an appropriate keyword set, optimising your website content and ensuring you have got all of the technical issues covered. If you would like to talk to us about digital strategy, a new website or any of our other services such as brand design, get in touch at simon@thebureaulondon.com. Or find out more at our website.