How backlinks can help or harm your website

The perils and opportunities of link building and backlinks

In this article we will discuss the perils and the opportunities backlinks offer:

  • How backlinks can increase your organic traffic
  • How backlinks affect your search engine rankings
  • Why backlinks and link building play an important role in your SEO strategy

As always in life, there is a "right way" and a "wrong way" to do things. And this is true also when it comes to link building for SEO and backlinks. In this article we focus our attention on links and how you can evaluate a backlink and describe how to evaluate the quality of link building and backlinks.

The benefits of backlinks are well known to SEO professionals. The right backlink can help boost your organic rankings in the search engines. However, artificially inflating your backlink profile with a low-level link building scheme, can harm your organic online visibility. Purchasing links will harm your website once the search engines identify the backlinks related to artificial, non-natural strategies.

Visualisation showing good and bad backlinks

How Backlinks and link building can help your rankings

Seeking online visibility has become difficult. SEO is labour intensive and very challenging. Because significant organic traffic will come only from very high rankings in the search engines, top placement is essential in most cases. Highly competitive niches, for instance recipe websites, need outstanding search engine rankings (top three organic placements) for YMYL (Your Money Your Life) queries.

You need to rank within the top 15 organic positions to generate at least some organic search engine traffic
Graph showing growth

Every SEO is aware of this. SEO professionals, sometimes pushed by Clients, will fight with all their might, capabilities and intelligence to achieve top rankings in search engines: this is an incredibly complex and challenging line of work.

Another thing SEOs know is how difficult it can be to achieve a top 5 position. The amount of effort to achieve top rankings grows exponentially as you approach top organic placement. Backlinks become an essential part of your SEO strategy; link building is a must.

The benefits of quality backlinks are well known to SEO professionals.

First of all, let's look at the benefits. You will hear much talk about backlinks and link building in SEO forums and online in general. Be prepared for all kinds of narrations and stories from SEOs. You'll find contradicting stories on SEO. An SEO is often exposed to bizarre situations never seen or heard of before. But that's part of Search Engine Optimisation: more an art than a science.

Now back to the benefits of backlinks. The two most important benefits are:

  • an increase in authority;
  • better traffic from the backlink (so-called referral traffic - that is traffic coming from another website).

Backlinks can increase your authority

There's a saying that goes: "It's amazing how one word from the right person can make you feel better in a second." Well, backlinks work in a very similar way. The right backlinks can change the destiny of a website and the organisation behind it. Unfortunately, website owners, corporate management and similar professionals who are not familiar with SEO and SEO strategies, fail to understand this crucial, yet basic concept. It's not a matter of HOW MANY backlinks you can acquire but WHICH backlinks you gain to establish a competitive advantage. Quality backlinks and link building will make a difference: Quality has nothing to do with quantity.

How do you measure the quality of a backlink?

We measure the quality of backlinks with a metric called Trust Flow, a trademark of Majestic. This metric is a score based a logarithmic scale with values ranging from 0 to 100.

Majestic collated many trusted seed sites based on a manual review of the web. Sites closely linked to a trusted seed site can see higher scores, whereas websites that may have some questionable links would see a much lower score. In practice, a website with a high value of Trust Flow is a clear signal of authority. The analogy with what happens to us every day is direct. For example, a doctor is an authority in medicine.

We will take a physician's word any day when it comes to our physical fitness. We carefully listen to his advice when it comes to our well being. Similarly, we'll listen to a trusted SEO with experience in organic placement if we're seeking opportunities to improve our search engine rankings.

Trust embodies the intrinsic value of influence, both offline and online.

Authority is a direct consequence of context

Context is a crucial factor in determining authority. Context is the capability to influence a discussion or rankings in the search engines. The right backlinks, in a specific context, will have more or less impact depending on how relevant they are on a specific topic.

Going back to the previous example, our physician will have a strong influence on our behaviour when it comes to our health but is far less influential when it comes to football. Similarly, search engines will evaluate your backlinks to understand just how relevant they are in the context of your business or activity.

Because context is such a critical factor in evaluating the quality of backlinks, Majestic have also created Topical Trust Flow, another proprietary trademark providing website categorisation. This metric allows users to see in which industry or market segment a website is influential and is also a score, based on a log-based scale between 0-100. For example, these are the top-level categories of the relative influence of the BBC website:

Topical Trust Flow of Backlinks in a backlink profile

The closer Topical Trust Flow of a backlink is to the website, the stronger the relationship and affinity between sites. In other words, the intrinsic value of a backlink increases when the backlink is coming from a website which is also relevant for similar topics.

Effective link building strategies will identify backlinks coming from an authoritative website with similar topical characterisation.

In summary, we measure the quality of backlinks with Trust Flow. Backlinks can be even more valuable if there is an affinity in Topical Trust Flow, that is having a similar topical characterisation. Link building, capable of sourcing high-quality backlinks, will increase trust and consequently website authority. The right link building will source backlinks capable of boosting significantly organic rankings in the search engines.

Quality backlinks will attract the best referral traffic

A backlink at the right place at the right time will generate conversions and sales. A backlink can be an authentic piece of digital art. Contextual backlinks are not only powerful because they boost your authority but also because they can generate some of the best referral traffic the Internet has to offer.

How many times di you find yourself engaged in reading an article and found a contextual backlink leading you to a website that left you in utter delight? Unfortunately, it doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it's a win-win situation:

  • the website granting the backlink is winning your trust by introducing you to another resource offering relevant content and information;
  • the website receiving the backlink will enjoy the benefits of a new extremely engaged user with an on-topic focus. This scenario is what we all wish for when a user lands on any of our digital properties. Signing up for a newsletter, requesting information and ultimately purchasing products is what most websites are all about!

This is the power of quality link building and why quality contextual backlinks will attract the best referral traffic.

Editorial links enjoy high click-through rates and engagement, with higher-than-average content consumption as well as higher conversion rates.

In most cases, a quality editorial backlink by itself can justify the effort involved in the link building process because of this win-win situation we just described. Editorial links are the most rewarding and the most challenging SEO strategy you can employ to increase your search engine rankings.

Summarizing the benefits of backlinks

In short, we have identified the benefits of building quality backlinks - they are:

  • Quality backlinks will increase the authority of a website. Authority plays a central role in ranking organically on any search engine.
  • Authority is always topical: we all have a limited amount of knowledge and so do websites. A backlink connecting two websites with the same theme focus is the most valuable.
  • An editorial backlink is the most powerful.
  • The most effective links are between websites with a similar Topical Trust Flow.

How Backlinks can harm your rankings

The wrong approach to link building can destroy search engine rankings and organic placement

So far, we have reviewed the benefits of backlinks and backlink building. But that's not the whole story. Because this takes time and can prove to be difficult, some choose to challenge fate and take shortcuts.

In the second part of this article, we're going to address the issues and implications of artificial link building. We're going to discuss how purchasing a backlink can harm your search engine rankings, should decide in favour of these shortcuts. There are things you need to know to make an educated decision if you are under pressure or the circumstances are tempting. We have heard from SEO professionals who have found themselves in very uncomfortable and extremely critical situations. Clients and management often press SEO professionals for short term results, and they give up on their strategy. It turns out that website owners are lured into cheap SEO schemes only to discover the damage done by unscrupulous link building schemes.

So let's look at some hard facts every SEO faces, almost on a daily basis:

  • Management and Clients alike don't understand SEO. They don't understand - they want results, and they want them fast.
  • Clients and managers don't care for technical explanations - as we just said, they want results.
  • Clients and managers often ask for the impossible.
  • "Other" SEOs (the competition) claim they can rank the website in just a few days!
  • Link building is a slow process. It can take weeks if not months.
  • There is always a shortage of resources. The budget and human resources are significant drivers

In a nutshell, clients often ask SEOs to deliver backlinks in a short time with a fraction of the budget required for the activity. And that's when "other" options come into play. That's when SEOs stop building links and they buy them instead.

Why purchasing backlinks can harm your search engine rankings and hinder your organic placement

Purchasing backlinks with the intent to manipulate PageRank or a site's rankings in the search engines is against webmaster guidelines. Search engines make it very clear that artificial link building (buying or selling backlinks that pass PageRank) can negatively impact a site's organic search engine rankings. Search engines consider manipulative, the act of exchanging money for backlinks, or posts that contain backlinks; exchanging goods or services for backlinks is also in contrast with search engine general guidelines. For example, sending someone a "free" product in exchange for backlinks is a misconduct and also considered an attempt to manipulate organic placement and search engine rankings.

The search engines warn webmasters about excessive link exchange. For example, pages created exclusively for the sake of cross-linking: in other words, avoid the "you link to my website, and I'll link back to yours" strategy.

Another link building strategy that search engines frown upon is an intense use of guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text backlinks. Article marketing, using services or automated programs to create backlinks to a website are activities that search engines identify as in open contrast with their guidelines.

So it's quite clear that buying links for link building purposes is like playing with fire. You'll hear much talk about "secret" or "stealth" blog networks, where "it's safe" to buy links. Should you believe it? People will invent any story to convince you to part with your money. They'll show you impressive figures and miraculous overnight positioning, even for competitive terms, thanks to their backlinks and their "advanced" link building strategies. Don't be tricked by the impressive numbers and staggering results of most low-cost proposals: it's not true - at least it's not in most cases. Search Engines are actively seeking these so-called PBNs (private blog networks). Search engines do have a snitch page where anyone can report link schemes, PBNs, or websites that sell links. Buying backlinks is a dangerous and unpredictable business.

Things might work well for an indefinite period, but they can change fast. Search engine ranking algorithms change quickly, and so do organic rankings. Especially when based on questionable strategies such as artificial link building

If you have a long-term outlook, resist temptation and avoid buying backlinks. Nobody can guarantee you'll fly under the search engine radar forever.

Cheap link building is bad news

So far we have described what can typically happen if you use link building to inflate your backlink profile artificially. It's pretty clear where we stand regarding this practice.

You might fall prey to such shortcuts pressed by management and the temptation to build your backlink profile in a tight timeframe with links that are not so expensive.

Beware! These are the worst kind of links.

An experienced SEO can identify a blog, part of a PBN, almost immediately.

Typically, these websites are faceless and built with WordPress. Link building schemes use websites which are part of a PBN built on a budget. The majority of websites in a PBN use free and standard templates, without a contact page.

At best, websites part of a PBN have a contact page with a simple form but no email, no address, no names, no phone number.

It's clearly an unnatural situation. And if that isn't enough, the final signal will be an abundance of highly optimised anchor text in links. Standard faceless websites, hosting articles on all sorts of topics with highly optimised anchor text are signals search engines can easily recognise. Once recognised, it will be a matter of time before the search engines neutralise the PBN. In a worst-case scenario, your website could fall victim of the search engine SPAM team. And all your good SEO will be history.

SEOs, experienced in recovering websites from penalties, will tell you how complex recovering from a SPAM penalty can be. The operation requires an incredible amount of time and energy and is therefore very expensive.

SPAM penalties from bad link building are serious business

It happens all of a sudden. Your rankings are gone from one moment to the next. You disappear from the Search Engine Results Pages. For example, Google, in the Google Search Console, will notify you to inform they have inflicted a penalty.

To get your rankings back, you need to remove the cause of the SPAM penalty and submit a request for submission.

Unfortunately, when the search engines inflict a SPAM penalty, they will not tell you WHAT THEY have found that violates their guidelines. You, or your SEO Team, are required to identify and remove the cause. It's up to you to submit a request for re-inclusion and declare the corrective actions to have the penalty lifted.

Any SEO who has performed backlink profile reclamation can tell you how time-consuming this can be.

An SEO with experience in SPAM penalties can easily spend weeks to have a penalty lifted. Search engine spam teams take their time in replying to requests - they are in no hurry to review your case, so you better prepare a good one for them to consider when it's your turn.

If they are not satisfied with your reply, you'll get another notification that you still need to remove the "things" that caused the penalty in the first place. In other words, the SPAM penalty still stands. Oh, and don't count on any help from a search engine to identify the violation you have committed - they are not going to tell you.

This is definitely something to think about and carefully evaluate before engaging in buying backlinks for link building purposes.

Visualisation showing spam backlinks

Conclusions: What you need to know about backlinks for a successful link building campaign

Here are the key takeaways:

  • Quality link building will boost your rankings in the search engines and provide some of the best referral traffic your website will experience.
  • SEO strategies that privilege research for high-quality backlinks require a significant investment to research websites and find the right prospects (authoritative and theme focused).
  • Buying backlinks is easy and fast, but comes at a price you'll pay when the link scheme is discovered and neutralised.
  • At best, the backlinks you purchased will loose their propelling power.
  • In the most severe cases, your website may suffer a SPAM penalty.
  • Recovery from spam penalties can be, and often is, extremely stressful and time-consuming.