Backlinks are one of the main pillars of search engine optimization and we’ve covered this topic from different angles: from assessing link quality to understanding warnings on links that aren’t worth the effort.
The main goal of these materials is to help you get a grasp of how to create a safe and effective backlink profile. We were lucky enough to get an expert with first-hand knowledge on the topic to answer our questions.
Kaspar Szymanski is a leading SEO expert and co-founder of SearchBrothers agency. He has previously worked as a Search Quality Strategist in Googleand is one of the best people to ask how to develop the right link building strategy.
Let’s see what insights Kaspar has kindly decided to share with us 🙂
The true purpose of backlinks
To start off, how would you assess the role of backlinks in SEO, in general? Compared to on-page SEO, for example.
Backlinks are of tremendous importance for SEO, in fact, they always have been. Having said that, their role is often misunderstood. Backlinks serve two primary purposes as far as SEO is concerned: they help search engines find and crawl content and they drive converting traffic, directly contributing to the commercial success of a website. Fili, an ex-Google engineer and leading SEO expert, has published an article outlining why and how a link should be built, which is a great read for anyone interested in future forward-oriented SEO strategies.
You are stressing the role of backlinks for acquiring traffic. Does it mean that getting several backlinks from the same domain is worth the effort as long as they drive traffic?
Yes, if several backlinks bare the potential to drive relevant, converting traffic, it is absolutely worth the effort even if traffic is not an SEO or ranking factor for Google.
So, it means for Google it doesn’t matter how many users came to a website via a particular link?
Yes, traffic, conversions or any on-page user activity are not factored into Google calculations. Links are instead evaluated on the basis of age, distribution but also content quality, to name just a few of the most obvious and relevant factors.
Which links are more valuable than others
Talking about link values, are homepage links considered to be more important?
Generally speaking, yes, they are. However, of course, it depends on the website and every website is different. The value, trust or PageRank a homepage link passes to other sites is site individual. At the same time, there are no ways of confidently assessing that value with any degree of accuracy without high-level access to Google’s internal tools. Google does not disclose that information either. Hence attempts to gauge this or that link’s “exact value” are questionable at best.
Is there any difference in value between links added to existing content and links found in fresh pieces of content?
There’s no advantage in adding links to existing pages already indexed by Google. Also, it is important to remember that if links are added to existing landing pages, these pages need to be recrawled before Google notices any changes. In a nutshell, the age of content surrounding a link isn’t a factor that needs to be considered.
What is your general opinion on the importance/non-importance of social media links?
Social media links have no direct impact on SEO signals. Social media channels can over time help to boost a brand and grow brand recognition, which in the long run helps to drive up user signals in Google organic search results such as CTR. However, social media links can even if they do not help rankings, drive relevant and converting traffic to important landing pages.
What about new link attributes like UGC and sponsored? Do you recommend your clients to use them?
Whether the link is nofollowed, UGC or sponsored is of no consequence. Any link that drives conversions is a good link. Keep in mind that only Google uses the new link attributes, so to stay compliant with other search engines it is important to utilize both nofollow and one of the new link attributes if you decide to use these. It is however absolutely unnecessary to suddenly update all your nofollow links just because these new link attributes have been introduced.
How Google assesses links
Okay, we’ve sorted out the most popular but specific issues. What about the process in general? Can you explain how Google evaluates links? Does it take into account every backlink linking out to a domain or does it assess them page by page?
Google tries to be as granular as possible in their approach. This can be seen in manual penalties aka manual spam actions which at times are limited to individual patterns. This is why backlink audits should be conducted on a data sample as large and fresh as possible. Which also means that large websites with substantial backlink profiles can not rely on the samples provided via GSC only and need to utilize third-party data sources. Only Google, of course, has the entire backlink data sample available and that is what they likely take into account. However, they may in the process take a disavow file into account. It is important to remember that they are not obliged to do so and that the disavow file serves only as a suggestion, not a directive.
While evaluating linking patterns a large number of factors play an important role. Most importantly where backlinks originate from and whether these sites publish on-topic, quality content. Anchor text distribution is equally relevant. Sites predominantly linked with highly commercial anchor texts are often more likely to have actively built these links, which is a Google Webmaster Guideline violation and grounds for a penalty to be applied. It is also important to remember that past link building activities, which may include outdated ideas such as PageRank passing directory links or press release links, are taken into account by Google as long as the links exist. This is why regular backlink audits are vital for the health and visibility of a website in Google Search results.
On the importance of backlink audits
What does auditing your backlink profile mean? What are we looking for in the audit? How often should an audit be run?
A backlink audit requires a representative data sample, best collected over an extended period of time, several weeks at the very least. In the process, a multitude of data sources needs to be tapped into, in order to record both fresh as well as historical records. Once a critical volume of data was collected it has to be sorted and deduplicated. And subsequently analyzed. The latter part of the process includes considerations such as anchor text distribution, content quality, where else linking pages link to and where do they point links to on the website that is in the focus of the investigation.
That analysis can be aided by tools but mustn’t rely only on tools since none of them are capable of truly understanding context and intention. The final result of a backlink audit is a disavow file, ready for submission to Google Search Console. Its formatting is best checked prior to submission using free of charge tool, geared specifically just for that purpose: https://disavow.tools/
How frequently the process needs to be repeated depends on the volume of backlinks and how fast it is growing. However, most websites are best served with an annual audit.
Is there any point in analyzing competitor backlinks? What do we need to look out for specifically?
Yes, it can be a worthwhile effort to investigate competitors’ backlinks, especially if there are suspected of violating Google Webmaster Guidelines. If that’s confirmed a compelling, replicable spam report submitted to Google to curtail spamming. A competitor spam report is, however, no substitute for an SEO audit of your own website and does not help to improve one’s own website rankings. At best, a spam report on a competitor is a temporary measure that can be considered supplemental to an SEO strategy primarily focused on improving on- and off-page signals of one’s own website.
How to make sure your backlink profile is safe
What does the “manual action” process entail? What’s the exact procedure from the moment Google spots that something’s off on a website to the point that it issues actions?
In a nutshell, it comes down to Google getting leads, e.g. through spam report, then investigates, identifies violations, isolates affected patterns and penalizes according to their guidelines. It can be a complex process and only highly trained and experienced Google Search employees are in a position to take action against sites with egregious Google Webmaster Guidelines violations.
How we can spot the risk of manual actions?
The risk can be identified when conducting a backlink audit, which should be done as part of due diligence at least once every twelve months. Whether a particular website is currently under penalty can be verified with a very high level of certainty when checking GSC for “manual actions”
So, how would you define the main principle of building a safe backlink profile?
With a consequent focus on conversions, rather than perceived values like PageRank or utterly imaginary ones like trust rank, conducting link building is safe and does not constitute a Google Webmaster Guidelines violation.
The future of backlinks for SEO
Finally, in your opinion, is anything going to change in the near future in the way search engines treat links? And we’d love to have your prediction on how search engines are going to work with links in 3-5 years?
It has been frequently predicted that links are bound to lose their prominent role in search for many years. Personally, I do not believe this is what’s going to happen anytime soon. Links are the very fabric of the world wide web. It’s links that connect everything. And it’s links that help search engines find new content and refresh already known landing pages.
Google and other search engines will continue to rely on links for that purpose in the future to come. Their importance will change over time. Other factors such as page performance already are equally important for crawling, indexing, and ranking. There certainly will be other and new factors included in the algorithms. But lastly, links will remain a fundamental factor that is at the very beginning of every SEO success story.