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How Links Live on in Search Engine Rankings (infographic)

SEO experts agree that while there are a large number of ranking signals for modern search engines, links are not dead. SEMRush lists different link signals as 4 of the top 8 ranking factors in search results. A study by Backlinka found that the average #1 Google Search has 3.8x more backlinks and 3.2x more referring domains than #2 - #10. By MOZ’s account, links account for 28 percent of Google’s ranking factors in local organic search, more than any other singular factor.

Despite the importance of link signals to the visibility of a website, not every business is taking advantage of them. 94 percent of all web content lacks a single external backlink. Which means a large chunk of web pages are like islands; isolated from the rest of the web. Your business needs to take action to be sure it isn’t part of that archipelago. If you find that it is, don’t worry: you still have time to build inroads to the main continent.

As you build your connections, proceed with caution. As any SEO expert could tell you, not every link signal is a good one. Quality matters. Google penalizes websites who use doorway pages meant to funnel users to a different page than they clicked, hidden links tucked away in places users won’t see, thin affiliates that use content from another site without adding value, or other dishonest tricks. Deception of this sort seeks to increase a site’s ranking in a search result without also increasing its quality or relevance to a user’s search. Search engines never want spam to have a positive influence on rankings. Some ranking decisions are also made based on reputation; spam leads to more spam. Working with spam can bring down a good site’s reputation; connecting poor-quality links together creates a “bad neighborhood” in the virtual world, tanking the reputation of every site caught in the chain. If you set up shop in a rough part of town, don’t be surprised when potential customers are scared to walk in.

Instead of resorting to trickery, look for ways to increase your website’s link signals’ quality as well as number. These ways don’t all have to include putting links on your site; some of them relate to the content of your web content as well. For example, domain age works in a website’s favor; it shows that the website has stood the test of time. Content that answers questions is valuable: posts discussing the “what” or “why” of things get 26 percent more links than videos and how-tos. Longform content gets more shares than short articles do.

As for improvement methods tied more directly to links, a few are listed here: the more likely a link is to be clicked by a user, the more value it has, so locate the best links in the body of your content instead of the footer. Consider what words people would use to search for your website: high ranking sites require quadruple the number of referring domains for popular keywords as they do for less common ones. Follow links always rank above nofollow links because the former vouches for the linked site’s authority.

Something controversial I'll add here about the follow vs nofollow link attribute - many in the SEO community basically say that nofollow is a worthless link. A point to consider beyond this attribute is that a site can pass a lot of traffic, real visitors, and can also be syndicated and reblogged to other sites - these other sites may have a followed link version after all. It’s possible, given the direction of Google looking for some of the newer link attributes as UGC (user generated content) that SEO’s will have to factor in the nofollow attribute differently in the future. Right now, it’s been shown that many webmasters aren’t bothering with the newer link attribute tags, so it’s possible that Google will expand the importance of the nofollow attribute one of these days.

When it comes to trying to get links, one should have in mind that there are actual people reading articles and at the end of the day, and it should be interesting, useful, and answer questions that people are searching for. Also, generally speaking, the harder it is to get a link, the more valuable it is likely to be. One metric that I often have open on my Chrome browser is the Moz plugin - this quickly shows you the Domain Authority (DA) that the website has. It’s a logarithmic scale from 0 (nobody linking to it or a brand new site) all the way up to 100 (think Google). For instance, DigitalInformationWorld is a respectable DA65, making it a very valuable link for any website to consider. Domain authority alone isn’t a silver bullet singular metric to consider - many in the industry also analyze a site’s health and overall link profile using SEO tools such as SEMrush, ahrefs, and Majestic. Another site that can be useful in your decision making is SimilarWeb - a wealth of information that shows estimated monthly traffic and also has great comparison tools of other websites.

Another few signals that I like to look out for are if the site shows up in Google News - this way people are more likely to come across it and for other news sites to pick it up. Many people use Google News as a starting page of how they navigate their searches of the day. Also important is social media activity linking to the site, as many have observed the role of how quickly that Google indexes Twitter updates.

These are just places to get started. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to maintain a high quality website and provide external backlinks to websites of equal or better quality. So long as your page and the external backlinks it attracts have good Expertise, Authority, and Trust (E-A-T), you will be able to climb in search rankings.

Infographics - while some thought are dead (but hey, when you read an article, it’s usually clickbait when people say that xyz is dead, right? :) happen to be a great way to build links too - such as the one below:


H/T: Brian Wallace.

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