They enrich the king. They give the king power and wealth.
How, exactly, are links as valuable as currency? By showing search engines like Google which websites and webpages should rank well. And which ones shouldn’t.
In other words:
You have to build backlinks if you want to rank. That’s especially true if you’re in a competitive field like law, insurance, medical, weight loss, real estate, etc etc…
This guide will give you everything you need to know about backlinks as a beginner.
By the end, you’ll fully understand the topic and some actionable link-building strategies to try.
Let’s dive in.
Let’s start with a story.
Early in my SEO career, I ranked a personal injury law firm in New York City.
It was a real feather in my cap. (Or jewel in my crown, if we’re sticking with the king analogy.)
And it got me hooked on SEO.
There’s nothing like ranking a firm in one of the most competitive industries (personal injury law) in one of the biggest cities in the world.
How did I do it?
Well, I did create great content. I did all of that awesome on-page SEO stuff. I’m not knocking that at all.
But what really moved the needle wasn’t the content. Think about it:
There are thousands of law firms in New York City. Almost all of them have websites.
And on those websites, most of them are publishing content: blog posts, practice area pages and more.
It was the links I built. That’s what moved the needle.
Many of the law firms in NYC were paying someone to build backlinks, too. But building links is WAY harder than creating content.
Anyone can sit down and write something. (That’s not to say what they write will be good, of course. But they can write something.)
But few people have the patience — the grit, frankly — to build high-powered backlinks in competitive industries.
All the while trying to walk the narrow path Google has left for safe link building.
That early experience told me everything I needed to know:
Content is great. Links make it greater. That’s because links make the content rank. And that’s what moves the needle for businesses doing SEO.
Now let’s back up a bit. What the heck is link building?
It’s pretty simple, actually:
Link building is the art of getting other websites to link to your website.
Of course, within that simple definition, you will find hundreds of considerations, factors and techniques.
In fact, SEO professionals are innovating in the link building space every day. This is a science that changes constantly.
But that’s link building in a nutshell: Getting links on other websites that point to your website.
What’s the big deal? Links are just links, right?
Yes, they’re just links. And links are just how Google crawls the vast reaches of the internet.
Google’s bots follow links because that’s how the internet works. Remember — we used to call it the web.
There was a reason for that: It was a web of links.
The interconnected nature of all of the files that make up the world’s websites is what makes the internet so dang impressive. And powerful.
OK, great: Google relies on links to do its thing. That tells us something important:
Links play a critical role in SEO.
See, Google sees links like “votes” for a particular website. If a website (or even an individual webpage) has a ton of backlinks pointing to it, it deserves to rank well in search results.
It’s the same way a politician who gets a ton of votes deserves to win in a democracy.
And if you think about it, it makes sense. If that many website owners saw a reason to link to the same site, that site must be important.
It’s not a perfect correlation. But in general, more backlinks means better performance in search engines.
There are lots of factors in between those two lines on the graph, of course. (And we’ll cover each in this guide.)
I’ve been pretty pro-backlink so far in this guide. Don’t expect that to end any time soon.
However, I do want to give a quick caveat:
Backlinks are critical to SEO success in any competitive niche. But they aren’t everything.
If you have terrible content. Or awful on-page signals. Or a crazy slow website.
Those backlinks don’t mean a thing. Remember:
Google is all about serving its users. The happier Google users are with Google, the more they use it. And that means Google gets more revenue from advertisers.
And Google isn’t serving users well if it serves up terrible websites just because they have impressive backlinks.
Google wants to rank the best content. Backlinks are a signal that a piece of content might be better than competing content.
But they’re far from the only signal.
So, how does link building fit into your SEO strategy? We’ll get really granular later in this guide, but for now, the answer is this:
Link building has to be a significant, ongoing part of your SEO strategy. You can’t just do it once and be done. It’s a constant grind.
It’s a lot of work, and it yields a lot of results. Until Google completely changes how it does things, that’s not likely to change.
All backlinks aren’t created equal. Here’s a thought exercise to illustrate that concept:
Imagine you’re approached by two websites:
1. The New York Times
They each offer to link back to your website. But you can only choose one. Which one do you choose?
You chose No. 1. (Please say you chose No. 1.) That’s because you know in your bones a universal SEO truth: Great backlinks come from great websites.
And search engines respond to good backlinks. Not just backlinks in general.
But domain quality is just one factor that determines the quality of a backlink. Here are the other factors to consider when assessing link quality:
Anchor text is the text used with a link. It looks like this.
Anchor text is a HUGE factor in determining link quality. That’s because Google reads the anchor text associated with each link.
It uses that anchor text to understand the relationship between the two sites. And what the linking site thinks about the site it’s linking to (yours).
There are several types of anchor text:
These are all important. Anchor text that contains your target keywords is a big deal. But you need a healthy mix of types of anchor text in order to rank well.
What you DON’T want is anchor text that makes no sense at all or sounds spammy. It needs to be relevant.
Speaking of relevance, the actual relevance of the website linking back to yours matters, too.
Let’s say you’re trying to get backlinks for your criminal defense law firm’s website. You get two links:
Which is the better link? The answer is obvious. And the reason is relevance.
I’m not making this up as I go. I’ve seen relevance make a HUGE difference in backlinking campaigns countless times.
Also: Google talks pretty openly about how important relevance is to its algorithm.
Authoritative content is good content. At least, that’s how Google sees it.
So, backlinks from sites Google views as having more authority tend to be more valuable.
But what is authority in this context? You can look at it a couple of different ways:
PageRank is a very old version of Google’s algorithm. The patent was deprecated a few years ago. (But there’s still lots of evidence to suggest that Google still uses this concept.)
Here’s what you need to know about PageRank:
It assumed that websites with more links pointing at them had more authority.
There was a time in the old days when you could actually SEE the PageRank of your website. That was awesome. But alas, those days are over.
Still, you CAN measure how many backlinks pretty much any website has with common SEO tools. That includes websites that might link back to your own site.
It’s not official or perfect, but this is a decent way to assess the basic authority of any website that already has or might link back to yours.
It started with Moz, but pretty much every major SEO tool has developed its own metric for measuring the authority of a web domain.
Moz calls it Domain Authority (DA). Ahrefs calls it Domain Rating (DR). And so on.
These metrics take into account referring domains and various other factors.
Remember: These are made up metrics. No one at Google HQ is talking about these metrics like they’re a real thing.
However: These metrics do provide a simple way to understand just how authoritative a website might be.
In general, you should want a backlink from a high-DR site more than you want one from a low-DR site.
That’s just common sense.
But it would be a mistake to completely skip over relevant backlink opportunities just because of a domain authority metric.
This isn’t the only metric that matters, and it’s certainly not something Google is officially taking into account.
Links are just pieces of HTML code. On the front end of a website, you don’t see that. But on the back end, there’s code.
In its most basic form, the code looks like this:
<a href=”http://www.website.com”>Anchor text</a>
But it can look a lot of different ways. Certain modifiers — called attributes — can tell Google more about each link. (But the way they look to the user doesn’t change at all.)
A standard link with no additional attributes is called a “follow” link. This is the kind of link that has always passed link juice from one site to another.
But then you have “no-follow” links.
Back in the day, Google was pretty clear: Links with the no-follow attribute did not confer authority from one site to another.
In other words, no-follow links didn’t count as votes for your website. That made SEO folks care very little about getting no-follow links.
But then, in 2019, Google announced (or admitted) that no-follow links actually might have an effect on rankings.
I’ve known that no-follow links actually matter for a long time. I’ve seen the MASSIVE rankings effects of getting a backlink from Wikipedia, which no-follows all links to other sites.
(And I know many smart SEOs who would pretty much commit a felony to get a Wikipedia link if they could.)
It’s never been a bad thing to get no-follow links. But follow links are guaranteed to pass link juice to your website. Meanwhile, no-follow links MIGHT pass link juice.
Should you avoid getting no-follow links? Absolutely not.
If you can get a no-follow link, do it. But you’ll also need to go after follow links.
Your website has a ton of different pages and posts. Which ones should get the backlinks?
Naturally, your homepage will rack up a lot of the incoming backlinks (usually with branded anchor text).
Some of your blog posts will, too. Particularly if they’re highly relevant and useful.
But what about your money pages — the ones that sell your services or products? Those are the ones you want to rank the highest, after all.
Those, unfortunately, are much harder to get backlinks for. That’s because website owners want to link to content that’s useful to readers without costing them anything.
That’s usually going to mean your blog posts about informational topics are easiest to build links to.
When you DO get an opportunity to get a link to your money page, go for it. That’s one of the most valuable backlinks you can get.
But don’t despair if you’re struggling to get backlinks for the money pages. You can direct some of that incoming link juice to your money pages with internal linking.
I go into MUCH more detail in this internal linking guide. But here’s the gist:
If you have a blog post that’s getting a lot of backlinks, edit that blog post. More specifically, add an internal link that goes from that blog post to your money page.
That way, you direct some of the incoming link juice to where it really counts.
One of the most commonly overlooked measures of backlink quality is where the link appears on the page.
If you get a backlink that appears in the introduction of an article on another website, that’s a better link than one that appears several thousand words into a different article.
Because Google has said (in a patent filing) that the likelihood that a link will get clicked influences how much link juice that link passes to the destination site.
And links that appear in more prominent places are more likely to get clicked.
So, if you have control over where a backlink will appear, make sure you choose a prominent place.
(In most cases, you won’t have that level of control. But if you do, take your shot.)
Link building is a lot of work. People — whole companies, even — spend 60-plus hours every week building backlinks.
It’s a grind. And there are a bunch of ways to go about it.
Here’s a quick look at each type of backlink building:
When you buy backlinks, you pay someone to add a link to your site on their site.
This is how you place guest posts on high-quality websites or get your website added via niche edits.
For websites that are building their business or just starting out, buying backlinks is a great equalizer.
You may not have brand recognition yet. You may be tiny compared to the big dogs. But you can get links that move the needle.
You just have to invest in them and watch the ROI roll in.
Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.
Many website owners will be more than happy to link to a helpful resource on your website. They just don’t know your site exists at the moment.
When you ask them to place the link, you show them that you exist. And that linking to you can actually improve their content.
Of course, this is a link building method that’s hard to scale. Mounting a large outreach campaign to ask thousands of website owners to link to you takes a lot of planning and masterful execution.
And even then, many website owners have become aware of the value of backlinks in SEO. So, they’ll either say no or ask you to pay up.
Some websites allow you to add links yourself:
Here’s a law firm directory that offers paid profile listings that include a valuable backlink to the law firm website:
These are a great opportunity to get a baseline of backlinks.
But don’t make the mistake of stopping there: This is only Step 1.
See: Google is pretty smart. It’s well-aware that you’re going in and adding these links yourself.
It’s a little bit like running for political office and voting for yourself. It doesn’t mean as much as a vote from someone who isn’t you. And you can only vote for yourself once.
In other words:
Absolutely DO take advantage of websites that allow you to add your own links. But don’t stop there.
These links get you to the starting line, but the race really begins there.
Creating incredible content can lead to natural backlinks. That’s when website owners are linking to you without any encouragement from you.
Creating link-worthy content requires a considerable investment, of course. But these natural backlinks can become incredibly valuable over time.
What kind of content is linkable, though? To start, it needs to be original. And comprehensive. And helpful.
Here are some examples:
There are more examples, but as you can see, each of these types of content takes time and often money to create.
And then you have to actually get the word out about the wonderful content you’ve created. That means promoting it on social media, through SEO and maybe buying ad space to promote it.
Still, creating linkable content is an essential part of many link building strategies.
Which type of link building gives you the most impact for the least effort? There’s no question:
Why? Because you can predict the number of links you will obtain based on your budget. There’s a guarantee involved. And you know the metrics of the sites you’re buying backlinks from.
Does that mean the other methods aren’t worthwhile?
No — they’re critically important parts of a well-rounded link building strategy. But buying backlinks brings the most bang for your buck.
Everybody and their brother’s brother wants to sell you on their new method for building backlinks.
Let me tell you this right now:
Link building is awesome. But it’s hard work.
Anyone who tells you that they have some foolproof strategy for getting thousands of links with low effort is lying. Plain and simple.
Here are the ways to build links that actually work:
Writing guest posts allows you to write a blog post for another website, insert links to your website into the text and publish the post. That’s a backlink.
People have been saying guest posts are dead for years.
They’re different than they once were, sure. But dead? Don’t be ridiculous.
Guest posts work. That is, they work when you do them right.
How do you do them right? If I had to boil it down to two words, I’d say this:
When you’re pitching publications in your niche to write a guest post for them, you need to make a valuable offer.
Speak to their pain points: Every publication and blog struggles with what to write about. They want to keep their readers interested and engaged so they keep coming back.
Make their editorial calendar a little easier to manage. Add value by offering to write a fantastic guest post about a topic they haven’t covered (or haven’t covered in a particular way).
You also need to prove yourself.
Think about it: If you’re an attorney, you’re among hundreds of others in your area and thousands in the country.
Why should Forbes want to publish your guest post? They don’t know you.
How do you fix that? You work your way up. Start with smaller — but still valuable — publications.
For the attorney example, the local bar association magazine’s website is a great starting point.
Then leverage that. When you pitch a statewide attorneys’ publication, show that you’ve already been published.
Work your way up until you’re getting major guest posts published. Along the way, you’ll be building incredibly valuable and relevant backlinks.
Your competitors (at least a good number of them) are already building backlinks. Some have been for years.
You may just be getting started. That’s OK. You can piggyback off the work they’ve already done.
More specifically, you can find out where your competitors are getting their links from. And then you can get those same links.
The easiest way to do that is with an SEO tool like Ahrefs or Semrush. Both will show you the backlinks pointing to your competitor’s domain. All you have to do is plug the domain into the tool.
Here’s the hard part:
You have to go through each link. Look at the referring domain. Is it relevant and worth pursuing? Does it have decent domain authority and traffic?
If so, add it to your list. Do this for a few of your top competitors, and you’ll have a long list of backlink opportunities before you know it.
Then, all you have to do is make your pitch. Some sites will be pay to play — so get the wallet ready. Others will accept guest posts. And others will just link to you if you ask nicely.
The whole task of link building is a lot easier when you have content people actually want to link to.
That’s why it’s worth your while to consider creating content with “linking intent.”
What’s that, exactly?
Linking intent refers to the search query someone might use to find the content. Picture a journalist or blogger doing research for an article.
They’re looking for a source to cite in their own article.
In other words, they intend to link to what they find. They have linking intent.
It’s your job to create something those people want to link to. Original research and data studies work really well for this.
Other ideas include:
This is one of those link building strategies that doesn’t offer any guarantees. But it’s also pretty passive.
You create the content and promote it (through SEO, social media and potential other channels). Then, you wait for the links to come in.
Again, no guarantees. But this strategy can add powerful links to your backlink profile over the long term. You just have to have patience and a long time horizon.
The more people who see the content on your website, the more likely it is that one of them will decide to link to it on their own website.
SEO is a fantastic tool for content promotion. But you run into a chicken and egg problem here:
If you don’t have backlinks, your content probably won’t rank that well. And if your content doesn’t rank well, it’s not getting promoted in search engines enough to get backlinks.
So, what do you do?
You supplement SEO with other, more active forms of content promotion.
For example, you could buy pay-per-click (PPC) ads to show your content in the “ads” portion of the search engine results page (SERP) in Google.
That would instantly put your content in front of more people. And the more people who see it, the more likely it is you’ll get a link.
You could also push content on social media. If you’ve got a big following, sharing your content can be incredibly valuable.
Same goes for your email list. If you have people who have their own websites — like bloggers and journalists — on your email list, send your content to them via email.
It can only help your backlinking efforts.
Finally, you can find online communities of people who actually want content like yours. And then you can share that content with them.
Reddit and Quora are GREAT resources for this. There’s a subreddit (Reddit group) or Quora question for basically everything.
That means your content will find a good fit on these platforms. And that increases the likelihood that someone on these platforms will want to link to it.
Another great link building strategy, but remember: There are no guarantees here. So, definitely do promote your content — after all, what could it hurt? — but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re done with link building.
If you’re not signed up for Help a Reporter Out (HARO), stop what you’re doing and sign up. Right now.
This is a crazy valuable — and free — tool for link building. Here’s how it works:
You’ve just built a backlink. And because HARO only allows people who are writing for top websites to submit calls for pitches, it’s likely to be an extremely valuable backlink.
Keep this in mind, though:
You don’t control whether the journalist links back to you. In fact, it’s against the rules to demand it. However, most HARO interactions do result in a link.
Also be prepared to be interviewed for further contributions. Sometimes, the emailed quotes just aren’t enough. Especially for major publications.
All of these websites can get you access to potentially valuable backlinks. But the central problem with this strategy is about time:
Namely, you don’t have enough time to max this out as a link source.
You have to monitor the pitch call emails multiple times per day. Then, you have to write up thoughtful contributions. And then you have to do interviews.
It adds up fast. And if you’re like most business owners, you don’t have that kind of time.
So, think of this as a great occasional source of backlinks — a snack rather than a full meal.
Business directories are one of the most accessible sources of backlinks. If you’re not maxing these out, you’re missing an important step in your link building strategy.
Because they’re often VERY topically relevant. For example, in the legal space, there are tons of attorney and law firm directories.
Each of these sites has high domain authority and is highly relevant to legal topics. That means getting a link from them is more than worthwhile.
The thing is:
Directories know they’re valuable to businesses like yours. That’s why some of them charge an arm, leg and a few other body parts to put a link to your site in your directory listing.
In most cases, these links are worth the cost — particularly because the more popular directories can have the added benefit of actually funneling clients or customers directly to you.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to go for ONLY directories in your particular industry.
Another great source of directories is your local area. Google “[Your city] + business directory” and see what you find.
You’ll get lots of (often low-cost) directory options full of local businesses. The big benefit here is that you’re getting local authority with these backlinks — you’re telling Google to rank you well in your area in particular.
Again, directories are enormously important sources of backlinks. But they can’t be your only source of links for two key reasons:
So, go for directories. But make sure you’re putting other link building strategies to good use, too.
You’ve probably figured this out by now:
Content creation is a big part of SEO. Some would argue that links are bigger, but you DO have to have great content.
There are lots of ways to create great content. But one of the best ways is to involve other people — subject matter experts, when possible.
So, part of creating the content for your website should involve speaking to and interviewing these subject matter experts.
Hidden in that process is a hidden link building strategy:
When you include these people in your content, you’re sharply increasing the likelihood that those people will link to your content.
People like getting recognized for their contributions in their field. If you “feature” someone in a blog post on your website, they’ll want to tell people about that.
How do they tell people? They add a link to that blog post (which is on your site) somewhere on THEIR website.
You know what that is: That’s a backlink. And a free one, at that.
Among link building strategies, this one is one of the hardest to scale. So, you won’t want to rely on this as the core of your link building strategy.
However, if you build subject matter expert interviews and quotations into your content creation process, you’ll start to see links trickle in.
And every link counts.
Content is great. It may even be king. But is it the only thing that matters for SEO?
No way. Google’s algorithm was built on links. That’s never going to change.
What I’m saying is this: Backlinks matter.
The only people who say they don’t matter are those who don’t know how to get them. Or can’t afford to buy them.
I’ve been doing this long enough to know that for a rock-solid fact. And that’s why I can say this with confidence:
If you’re not getting backlinks, you’re wasting time (and money) on SEO.
The best time to start was years ago. But starting right now is a lot better than waiting for another second.
Further reading: Want Higher Domain Authority? Here’s Everything You Need to Know.
Learn more about our Link Building Service.