What are incoming links and why do they matter for SEO?

Incoming links, sometimes called backlinks (links that point back to your website), are so named because they are links that are incoming, that is “pointing”, to your website. For example, if I have a website and I link from it to your website, then you have an incoming link from my website to yours. The link on my website, going to yours, would be called an outgoing link. Easy enough?

Now, why are incoming links important? Ask yourself this question–if you build a website, and nobody links to it, does it really exist? “Yes,” you say, “of course my website still exists even if nobody links to it.” This is true, your website does exist, but as far as Google is concerned, it barely exists. The logic Google is using is to say “If nobody is linking to this website, can it really be that important? After all, if this website was important, or a lot of people were reading it, wouldn’t a lot of other websites link to it?” In other words, the more incoming links your website has, the more important Google thinks it is, and the more important Google thinks your website is, the better Google is going to rank your website.

“Great!” you say, “I’m going to go out and get all my friends to link to my website, and I’m going to go out and post on all sorts of forums and put links back to my website, and I’m going to comment on everyone’s blog and include a link back to my website, and I’m going to set up an account on every single DeclareMedia directory and get thousands of links back to my website and I’m going to get #1 rankings and rule the world!” Hold on buster, it’s not that easy.

You see, everybody else already thought of that tactic 10 years ago. Google doesn’t just look at the number of incoming links you have, it also looks at various other factors.

Relevance. If you own a PR firm in New York, and get an incoming link from a website about web design firms in California, then that’s not a highly relevant incoming link. What you want are incoming links from websites that have something to do with public relations in New York. Not that a link from a website about web design firms in California is bad, per se, after all, maybe it’s a link from an article about how you helped a web design firm get some good PR. However, while a perfectly legitimate link, it’s simply not as relevant as a link from a website, the entire focus of which, is on PR in New York.

Quality. There’s a difference between getting a link from the homepage of CNN.com, and a link from the 25th page of an obscure forum thread. While that’s a fairly easy difference to distinguish, it gets harder when you’re comparing the websites actually available to you. How can you judge whether a site is high quality or not? It’s not always cut and dry, but here are some basic questions to ask:

1. Is the site reputable, well-known, famous, etc.?

2. Is the site well-designed, or does it look like a mess?

3. Does the site seem useful? That is, would you use it? Do you think other people would?

4. Has the site been updated recently? Or does it say “Copyright 2001″ on it and have news events from 2006?

These aren’t the only questions you might ask, but they’ll eliminate 95% of the sites that aren’t worth getting an incoming link from. And there are exceptions to these rules. There are poorly designed, trashy looking sites that are actually very reputable and from which it would be very good to get an incoming link. These are just basic guidelines.

Link text. The text of your link matters. A link that says “Website” doesn’t tell Google much. A link that says “Utah Web Design Firm” tells Google that when someone clicks on that link, they are most likely going to be taken to the website of a web design firm in Utah. You want incoming links that contain the keywords you are trying to rank well for.

There are other factors related to incoming links that we could go into if we wanted to get nitpicky, but these are a few of the most important.

Now, chances are you’re not going to find links that are perfect. You’re almost always going to have to settle for links that are not quite as relevant as you’d like, that aren’t from websites whose quality is as high as you would like, and sometimes you have control over link text and sometimes you don’t. These are goals to shoot for, not rules that must be met or else all is lost.

How do you get started? Well, there are tools out there, but one of the easiest ways to get started is to simply type in the keyword you want your own website to rank well for. Then see what websites come up, and while there’s a good chance most of those websites are going to be your competitors (and obviously they don’t want to link to your website), you might find websites in those search results that rank well for the keyword you yourself are targeting, and where it’s possible you can get a link somehow.

Link building is the most onerous part of SEO, but it also yields some of the best long-term results. If you do a good job at it, you can establish a lasting advantage your competitors will struggle to overcome.

  • http://www.heatingandairin.com Bob

    I run a heat and air business, used to be easy to get found by your customers, just put something in the yellow pages. Unfortunately times have changed and people just aren’t using the yellow pages much any more. Thank you for this article it’s helpful for those of us trying to keep up with changes.