Backlinks (also known as inbound or incoming links) are the backbone of a successful off-page SEO strategy. 

If your first reaction to that sentence is “backWHATnow?” you’re in the right place. 

Let’s start with a quick definition. The term “backlink” is SEO-nerd shorthand for when a web page links back to your page. Having backlinks from reputable sites shows Google that your site is an authority in its field, and it has been proven to boost your ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs). One study found that the top search results in Google had 3.8 times more backlinks than those in the No. 2 through No. 10 positions. 

Still a little shaky on how backlinks fit into your overall SEO strategy? Keep reading. We’ve got you. 

What Are the Benefits of Backlinks for SEO?

Great question, glad you asked. Here are just a few ways backlinks benefit your business: 

1. They make you look good. Remember when your mom said you’d be judged by the company you keep? Little did she know she was telling you how to increase your domain authority (SEO-speak for street cred). High-quality backlinks from reputable and industry-relevant sites reflect positively on you, your content and your business. This drives you up in the Google rankings. (Dang, that woman is never wrong.)

2. They improve your organic rankings. No one factor impacts off-page SEO more than quality backlinks. A Backlinko study found that top-ranking pages had more referring domains than those that ranked lower. 

3. They broaden your reach. Quality backlinks offer visibility on other sites that can attract audiences who are interested in your content. This naturally increases awareness and affinity for your brand while bumping up your engagement and traffic. 

4. They build on themselves. There’s a clear correlation between a site’s Google page position and how many new backlinks it acquires (and how quickly). That means, when your content is No. 1 in search results, it gets an additional 5%–14.5% more backlinks from new sites each month.

The Good, the Bad and the Spammy

Just like hot internet takes, there are good backlinks and bad backlinks. 

Good backlinks show Google that you are legit and generally add value to the internet. In the SEO world this is called “domain authority.” If your site is associated with a whole slate of reputable sites, Google knows your site and content can be trusted. Broadly, we can divide good backlinks into three categories.   

1. Listings and directories. Directories are the low hanging fruit of the backlink universe and include broad-reaching sites like BBB.org and yellowpages.com, as well as more industry-specific directories. 

Directory listings don’t pack quite the same SEO punch as other good backlinks, but the right listings can still drive meaningful traffic and build trust in your site. In 2020, Moz survey respondents ranked Google My Business (since renamed Google Business Profile) first among all factors in generating local-specific search results. 

2. Backlinks you build. Building anything takes time and a solid strategy — backlinks are no exception. A good way to start is to reach out to sites that post content relevant to your industry and ask them to feature one of your articles. 

You can also build backlinks by reclaiming lost links and converting unlinked mentions into links

3. Natural links. These are considered the gold standard of backlinks because the Google ranking gods look more favorably on them. Natural backlinks are earned, not built. 

The best way to start earning is to produce top-notch, evergreen content that adds value to your niche market. Visual content (infographics) is particularly linkable as are ”why” posts and “what” posts

Beware the Bad Backlinks

Word to the wise: not all backlinks are created equal. If links to your content appear on a bunch of toxic sites, they make you toxic by association. Here are two real stinkers to avoid: 

1. Low-quality paid links. Google’s Webmaster Guidelines are clear about how they feel about buying links: 

“Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.”

While not all paid links violate Google’s guidelines, you should be on high alert and always consider the source when paying for links. 

2. Anything spammy. Apologies to Hormel Foods, the Austin, Minn.-based creator of SPAM meat in a can, but any site that smells even a little bit spammy is to be avoided like — well, canned meat. These include sites that deal in hidden links, comment section spamming and link stuffing. 

Toxic link practices like these work against you. If Google catches you trying to game the backlink system, they may issue you a manual penalty (the SEO equivalent of a yellow card in soccer). More likely, though, Google’s algorithm will pick up on unnatural links and your site will fall prey to an algorithmic filter and you can be flagged by Google as a spammy site even if you’re not. 

You may not even know if you’ve got toxic backlinks floating out there on the world wide web. That’s why it’s important to regularly audit your backlinks using tools such as Ahrefs.com and LinkResearchTools.com to ensure your links are all on the up and up. 
Backlinks can be a great way to boost SEO rankings and help your content make it to the top of the SERPs, but they’re just one part of a comprehensive SEO strategy. If you have more questions about backlinks or on-page vs. off-page SEO — or if you’d just like a pro to take the lead — your friendly, neighborhood SEO marketing agency (wink, wink) is here to help.