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SEO Backlinks: The What, Why, and How for 2024

Are Backlinks Required for SEO? I wish the answer to this question was simple. But here’s the truth:

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Last updated on March 6, 2024

SEO doesn’t work without backlinks. And backlinks don’t mean much without SEO.

In truth, they’re almost the same thing. Backlinks are, arguably, the MOST important SEO factor.

The right backlinks can get you far in the SEO game. And you certainly won’t get far without backlinks.

But, despite their importance, SEO backlinks are one of the most widely misunderstood SEO considerations.

Even if you think you have the basic idea about backlinks down, you’re probably missing something.

(Otherwise, why would you be here?)

Don’t worry — if you’re willing to read for a few minutes, you’re going to learn everything you need to know about backlinks for SEO.

Including what they are, why they matter, and how to get them. From an expert (me) who has been in the game (and winning) for more than 15 years.

Let’s go.

What Is an ‘SEO Backlink’?

An “SEO backlink” is just a backlink. And a backlink is a link on a website other than your own that points at your website.

People often say “SEO backlink” to denote the relationship between backlinks and SEO. People didn’t really talk about backlinks until SEO (search engine optimization) became a thing.

In code, a backlink looks basically like this:

<a href=”https://yourwebsite.com/”>Backlink</a>.

And on the webpage, the code for that link looks like this:

Backlink

Pretty simple stuff. But the industry that has risen up around backlinks is anything but simple.

There’s a developed economy here — every niche has websites competing for more and better backlinks. And those that pull ahead are rewarded with higher rankings for relevant keywords in Google.

We’ll get into all of that a bit later. But first, let’s get deep on why backlinks matter.

Why Backlinks Matter

Backlinks are mostly about SEO, but there are a few other reasons to care. I’ll summarize the most important reasons why backlinks matter below.

Links Boost Rankings

This is the SEO reason. Backlinks help your website rank higher in Google results for the keywords that matter to you.

In general, the more backlinks, the better the rankings. But also, the higher-quality the backlinks, the higher the rankings.

(We’ll do a deep dive on backlink quality below.)

Links Increase Authority

The idea of website “authority” speaks to both SEO and the positioning of your business within its niche.

Google wants to rank websites with higher authority higher. And backlinks are a key way Google measures authority.

But backlinks can also increase perceived authority in humans (not just search engine bots).

It’s a fairly simple process:

A reader on a website they trust sees a link to your website. That link acts as a trust signal — if the website that reader trusts links to your website, your website must be trustworthy.

It’s worth noting that this is much the same way Google interprets backlinks.

Links Bring Traffic

People often forget this benefit of SEO backlinks:

If you’re getting backlinks from websites that have actual traffic, you can get traffic from those backlinks.

Especially if those links are provided in a context that calls the reader to click them.

Traffic is almost never a bad thing. And when it’s funneled to your site through a backlink, it’s MUCH more likely to result in an action that’s positive for your business.

Are Backlinks Required for SEO?

I’m not here to lie to you. And I wish the answer to this question was simpler. But here’s the truth:

You CAN get SOME search engine traffic without building or buying backlinks. That’s particularly true if you’re in a not-very-competitive industry and targeting low-competition keywords.

But you will NEVER rise to the top without backlinks.

Why? Because search engines were literally built on backlinks.

I’m not kidding:

The very earliest iterations of Google used an algorithm called PageRank, which relied heavily on backlinks to understand where to rank webpages (and what to rank them for).

So, no — backlinks aren’t required to do basic SEO. You can still do keyword research, optimized content, technical SEO, on-page SEO, etc.

All that stuff is the equivalent of stacking wood and tinder. But backlinks bring the spark that ignites it all.

I’ve seen it enough times to know that analogy is about as universally true as anything gets in SEO.

Types of SEO Backlinks

Backlinks break down into two main types:

  • Follow (or “DoFollow”)
  • NoFollow

These attributes refer to tags in the link code that tell search engines how to interpret the links. Here’s what they mean:

Follow

Follow links are just normal backlinks. And they tell Google that the link does indicate a vote of confidence in the site being linked to.

In other words, the search engine should pass some SEO authority from the linking site to the linked site via the DoFollow link.

That’s why these types of backlinks are the gold standard in link building. When you get a follow link, you know you’re getting some ranking authority from Google.

NoFollow

NoFollow links, on the other hand, tell Google NOT to pass authority from the linking site to the linked site.

Or, they used to.

Yes, they’re a signal to Google that the link shouldn’t confer authority. But Google has evolved its view of NoFollow links.

Today, a NoFollow link is a “hint” about the link. But it can still influence Google’s search algorithm. Which means your SEO can improve with NoFollow links.

This is great news for SEO folks like myself. Because one of the most frustrating things in the world used to be getting a NoFollow link from a great website.

But now, we know for sure that this can help us. Before, we knew — anecdotally — that a NoFollow link from Wikipedia or The New York Times was good for SEO. But now, we have proof.

But still, Google does interpret follow and NoFollow links differently. And as you build your backlink profile, you should aim for a healthy mix of both.

Assessing Backlink Quality

The whole “follow vs. NoFollow” consideration used to be one of the main indicators of backlink quality. Not anymore.

Now, Google’s understanding of backlinks is MUCH more advanced than it used to be. So people who hope to boost their SEO need to act accordingly.

Below, I’ll walk you through the main considerations to keep in mind when assessing the quality of a backlink you have received or might pursue.

Relevance

Relevance refers to exactly what it sounds like: Is the backlink coming from a site that’s relevant to yours in some way?

If it is, that’s a good thing. If it isn’t, Google may ignore the link or, in some rare cases, penalize you for it.

Let’s do a couple of examples:

You’re building backlinks for a law firm website. And you get a backlink from a website about raising ferrets. Not relevant. And, therefore, not helpful from an SEO perspective.

But say you got a backlink from a blog about notable court rulings in your state. Now THAT would be a relevant backlink.

And it would almost certainly move the SEO needle (given that the linking site is of high quality in general).

Organic Traffic

Let me be clear about something here:

Google hasn’t explicitly said that the amount of traffic a website gets influences whether backlinks from it are good or bad.

But I have seen this play out countless times. And I’m sharing that knowledge with you here.

Here’s what you need to know:

The backlinks you get need to come from websites that get traffic from search engines (organic traffic).

It makes sense if you think about it:

If the website is getting traffic from Google, it means Google trusts that site enough to rank it. If it’s NOT getting any Google traffic, there’s probably something wrong with the site.

And that’s not a good source for a backlink for you.

Anchor Text

Anchor text is the clickable text that accompanies most links on the internet. It’s usually blue and underlined.

Like this:

Google reads anchor text. It uses anchor text to understand the relationship between the linking webpage and the linked-to webpage.

You’re probably starting to see how this could impact SEO.

If the anchor text tied to a backlink pointing to one of your webpages contains the keyword you’d like that page to rank for, you’re MUCH more likely to rank highly for that keyword.

People figured this out a long time ago. And they set about gaming the system.

Google, as it always eventually does, got wise. And started penalizing websites that were clearly gaming the anchor text system by stuffing it with keywords.

So, today, you want to have a healthy mix of anchor text types in your backlink profile. What do I mean by that?

I mean you want some keyword-heavy anchor text, but you also want some of the various other types, including the following:

  • Branded anchor text. This is anchor text that contains all or part of your brand name.
  • Exact match anchor text. This is anchor text that includes the exact keyword you’re trying to rank for.
  • Partial match anchor text. This is anchor text that includes part of the keyword you’re trying to rank for.
  • Naked URL anchor text. This is anchor text that is simply a URL.
  • Cover anchor text. This is generic anchor text, like “click here” or “learn more.”

You can’t always control the anchor text accompanying the backlinks you build or buy. But when you can, it’s important to keep the general state of your anchor text profile in mind.

Linking Website Authority

Pop quiz:

Which website would be better to get a backlink from?

  • The most highly respected website in your industry
  • A website you’ve never heard of that was just started last week

If you guessed the first option, you got it right. That’s because websites with high authority tend to pass that authority on to the sites they link to.

Authority is about more than what your colleagues and competitors think of a website, though. It’s about the backlinks that the site linking to you has, too.

But as a general rule, powerful, important, high-traffic websites tend to have a ton of backlinks. And if you’re ever unsure, you can use a tool like Ahrefs or Semrush to check how many backlinks a website has pointing to it.
SEO-Backlinks

How to Get SEO Backlinks: Buy vs. Build

SEO backlinks are crazy important. I hope I’ve made that clear by this point.

So, the next question is:

How do you get backlinks?

In the most basic terms possible, you can either build the backlinks yourself (in a process referred to as “link building”) or you can pay someone else to build them – you can buy backlinks.

SEO-backlinks

The link building tactics you or someone you pay engage in will likely be the same. The difference is whether you have the time and expertise to build backlinks for your website.

(Trust me — link building takes A LOT of time and effort, which is why the best link builders charge a premium to do it.) SEO agencies looking for white-label link building solution…<<<click the link.

Many early-stage businesses choose to build backlinks on their own at first. But this is often the first SEO task they outsource as their business grows.

Why? Because it’s hard as hell.

With that said, let’s cover a few of the most popular link building tactics:

  • Guest posts. You write an article for another website, and that article contains a link to your website. This involves pitching the website directly and/or paying to publish the post.
  • Link insertions. You convince or pay a website to insert a link to your website into an existing article on their site.
  • Digital PR. You find or create something newsworthy — such as a new study related to your industry or a hot take on a newsworthy topic — and issue a press release so journalists and bloggers cover the story (and link back to you to give you credit).
  • Media monitoring. You subscribe to websites like Help a Reporter Out (HARO), where journalists and bloggers look for expert sources to use in their articles. You volunteer to contribute to relevant articles and get a backlink in the process.
  • Linkable asset creation. You create content that is unique and noteworthy enough to naturally generate backlinks. This one is VERY slow, but steady.
  • Broken link building. You use an SEO tool like Semrush or Ahrefs to find broken links on websites you’d like to get a backlink from. You create something on your site that could replace the broken link, and then send it to the website with the broken link as an idea for a replacement.
  • Unlinked mention campaigns. You scour the internet looking for mentions of your business or brand that aren’t linked back to your website. You email the websites that have those unlinked mentions to politely ask them to include a backlink.

Boost Your Business with SEO Backlinks

Backlinks are absolutely fundamental to SEO success. That’s not up for debate.

But what is in question is HOW you plan to get SEO backlinks for your website.

If you’re interested in trying it yourself, you’ll find a ton of great resources right here on the Uppercut site. I’ve written dozens of link building guides that are 100 percent free for you to use.

And if you’re ready to start generating backlinks at scale — and really start dominating for your most valuable keywords — you’re in the right place for that, too.

Just claim your free Uppercut SEO dashboard and start ordering backlinks. It’s the simplest, most effective way to build backlinks. Period.

Get started today.

 

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