Inbound Links And SEO: The Final Piece to The SEO Puzzle

Inbound Links and SEO_ The final piece to the SEO puzzle

I recently wrote a guide to On-Page Search Engine Optimisation. However great, well optimised content alone is not enough to rank well in search results.

As well the relevance of your content to a particular query, search engine algorithms also place a great deal of importance on the trustworthiness and authority of your content.

From the perspective of search engines like Google, you need to be seen as a trusted source, which is where links come in. With sufficient links from other trusted websites, your site will be seen as trustworthy as well and search engines will rank your content higher in search results for relevant queries, where other ranking factors are held equal.

Link Equity / PageRank

According to Google’s own documentation on How Search Works:

We look for sites that many users seem to value for similar queries. For example, if other prominent websites link to the page (what is known as PageRank), that has proven to be a good sign that the information is well trusted.

As indicated by this quote, not all links are created equal – there are many different factors which contribute to the level of PageRank / equity that is passed on to your site from a link including:

  • The linking site’s popularity
  • How related the linking site’s topic is to the site being linked to
  • The “freshness” of the link
  • The anchor text used on the linking site
  • The trustworthiness of the linking site
  • The number of other links on the linking page
  • Authority of the linking domain and page
  • Whether the link is “Followed” or “No Followed”

What are No Followed Links?

It is possible to add a“nofollow” attribute to a link that tells Google not to pass any PageRank / equity to the target URL.

<a href="http://www.SiteABC.com" rel="nofollow">Site ABC</a>

“nofollow” attributes are added to links automatically or manually quite commonly for in a variety of contexts including :

  • Blog comments (to deter link spammers from trying to take advantage of the host site’s link profile)
  • Forum posts (to deter link spammers from trying to take advantage of the host site’s link profile)
  • Editable Wiki pages (e.g. Wikipedia)
  • Guest post signatures
  • Advertising banners and sponsored posts (The idea here is that you shouldn’t benefit in the organic results by buying advertisements that include links on other websites)

So No Followed Links are Pointless?

Not necessarily. No Followed links from the right website can still be incredibly valuable for SEO indirectly. As an SEO when it comes to link building, it can be really easy to get caught up in the metrics like number of followed links. But remember, the purpose of links is not only to drive PageRank / equity… in fact realistically that’s not the main purpose at all. Other key benefits of links, even if they are no-followed are:

  • They can drive traffic. That traffic can result in sales / conversions. This seems blindingly obvious – but, as I said, it can be easy to get caught up in link metrics and ignore the fact that actually your objective is to drive relevant traffic that converts – no follow links can often do this in a far more straightforward manner than followed links.
  • They can build brand awareness. Would you rather 20 followed links from obscure blogs with an average readership of 100 per month, or 1 no followed link from the top article on the Irish Times? (Hint: The Irish Times gets approx 20 million visits per month according to SEMrush Traffic Analytics)
  • The domino effect. In the preferred option from the choice above (which is the Irish Times link, obviously), we can assume that if the Irish Times are linking to a page on your site, that the content on that page is of value to quite a large audience. So by appearing in the Irish Times you may open open the floodgates to a whole host of new links from other sites to the same piece of content – and many of thesea re likely to be followed instead of no-followed.

Spreading The Love Equity

When a page (single URL) receives a lot of followed links from trusted, highly authoritative websites, this in turn boosts that pages own link equity, i.e. it’s trustworthiness and authority in the eyes of search engines.

If you’re site is logically structured and you’ve got a comprehensive internal linking strategy, the benefits are far greater than simply a boost for that one page. PageRank / equity is shared throughout your site with other pages through internal links. Here is a very simplified view of how PageRank works, courtesy of aHrefs:

Inbound Links And SEO - How PageRank Works

The main implications of how PageRank works in relation to internal links are:

  • You should ensure that your site is logically structured with clusters of related content all linked together through a well thought out internal linking strategy
  • You should ensure that you avoid “orphan pages” I.e. pages with no internal links from anywhere else on the site

How to Measure Page and Site Link Equity

Back in the day you could actually check your official PageRank scores for each of your web pages via Google Search Console, Google Directory, an official Google Toolbar and a number of other places.

However since 2016 Google have completely disabled external access to PageRank values – probably due to the massive black hat link building industry that had evolved with the sole purpose of manipulating PageRank page scores via unnatural, shady means.

Whilst there is no exact replica of PageRank available to us nowadays due to the fact that Google’s own exact formula for calculating it is not public knowledge, there are a number of metrics that aim to replicate it to some degree e.g. aHrefs URL Rating (UR) or MOZ’s Page Authority metrics.

Both of these metrics are based to some degree on the original PageRank formula and aim to rate URLs based on the strength of their link profile (I.e. the quantity and quality of inbound links to that page).

How to improve your link profile

So we know that, generally speaking, a site with a large amount of high quality links spread across different pages will generally rank better than a site with a lower amount of lower quality links. But how do we actually go about improving our link profile (I.e. building high quality links to our site)?

In my opinion, this is arguably the most difficult part of SEO because it is not an exact science – there is no surefire way to build x amount of high quality inbound links in x amount of time. However, you can generally break link building approaches into 4 distinct categories:

  • Natural Link Building
  • Blogging and Social
  • Manual Link Building
  • Digital PR

Natural Link Building

Natural links are links that your site attracts organically – i.e. an external sites links to your content of their own accord without explicitly being asked by you. For example, if you run a small café and a blogger links to your site from a blog post. Generally speaking, the more high quality content you have on your site in relation to your product / service offering, the more likely you are to attract links naturally.

Blogging and Social

A high quality blogging strategy can also attract links from other websites if your content is unique, high quality and novel. Combined with social sharing to a relevant audience, this can be a cost effective way of turbo-boosting your link profile. Make sure you do some research into the kind of content that works for other established sites in your niche and keep on top of the latest hot topics in your niche to ensure that your not wasting time writing about topics that have little to no chance of attracting links. This method is still pretty imprecise, but it’s a little more focused than just waiting for links to naturally happen.

Manual Link Building

There are ways to be more pro-active about improving your link profile without breaking the bank. For example adding links to online directories, setting up a Google My Business page, contributing to online communities and taking advantage of your existing network (e.g. links from partner sites to relevant content or links from testimonials or case studies on other relevant sites).

Digital PR

Depending on your market and/or niche, waiting for links to build naturally can be a slow process, even with really good content and a great product or services. Manual link building like the ways I’ve mentioned above can help but opportunities for inbound links through your network can be inherently limited by your niche and the size of your network. It can be tempting to turn to “black-hat” link building methods.

Black Hat link building methods are risky and not something I would recommend because sooner or later, even if you see a short term gain, Google’s algorithm will outsmart you and your site may be banned or penalized.

A far better option, when done properly, is Digital PR. There are countless definitions of Digital PR to be found out there on Google – but from my perspective what I’m talking about is essentially very similar to traditional PR but with the added objective of attracting links to your website. An effective digital PR strategy should serve the dual purposes of:

  1. Building brand awareness for your company
  2. Building your websites link profile through inbound links from high quality websites

Often Overlooked

Surprisingly, in many hyper competitive markets, where there are a large number of players offering a fairly standardised set of products or services, link building is consistently overlooked.

In these types of markets, particularly when a group of websites are similarly technically sound and content is pretty homogeneous, link profile is an obvious source of competitive advantage that can be the difference between consistently ranking at the bottom of the pile and ranking above your peer group for highly competitive search queries.

Easier Said Than Done

I’m acutely aware that understanding the importance of a high quality link profile is a much easier task than actually building your sites link profile. As I’ve mentioned previously, I believe that more often than not, building your sites link profile is the most difficult of the three core pillars of SEO (the other two being technical SEO and content).

The first step is understanding where you stand in relation to your close competitors, and in relation to the leaders in your industry. Then its about putting in place a strategy to informed by what has worked well and what has not worked well for your competitors combined with a little bit of creativity. And finally, making sure that you are committed to sticking to the strategy in the medium to long term – like most things in SEO, high quality link profiles are rarely built up over night.

If you would like to get an idea of where you stand in relation to your competitors in terms of your link profile, feel free to get in touch to discuss an competitive audit.

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