18. November, 2020

How Do Backlinks Work? – A Beginner’s SEO Guide to Backlinks

GET THE FREE "ULTIMATE SEO GLOSSARY" E-BOOK >>

Author avatar
Martin Petrov
Marketing @ Morningscore.io

Figuring out how backlinks work has become somewhat of a challenge in the world of SEO experts, gurus, and other “mythical creatures”. Because of that, in this article you are going to learn everything about how backlinks work, what they are, and which ones you should look for. And all of this without all the fancy marketing & SEO jargon (I promise 😉).

As you’ve probably experienced, the more you learn about backlinks and link building, the more questions you have. So let’s take this just one step at a time. Here’s what we’ll look at today:

Firstly, we need to briefly define what backlinks are. From there, we can look at how they behave and how they are created. Next on the list is differentiating between the different types of links – and which ones you can benefit from. Lastly, you’ll learn how many of them you need to rank.

Exciting, right? Let’s go.

What Exactly Are Backlinks?

A backlink is also known as a hyperlink or inbound link. In SEO, backlinks are the incoming links that refer from other pages on the web to your own web pages. Google treats these backlinks as a “stamp of approval” between two websites. The more backlinks a page has, the more likely it is to rank at the top in Google. Conversely, the higher a page ranks, the easier it is to earn backlinks for it.

A backlink consists of:

  1. The URL that is linked and you will be directed to once you click. This can be another both web page or any other online resource (e.g. a PDF file)
  2. The text you click on which is called “anchor text”. If the link is created on an image, the “alternative text” of the image is used as the anchor text.

To see exactly what backlinks look like, let’s look at a concrete example.

Example Of A Backlink

In this example, we’ll look at one of the backlinks our website has from outgrow.co. I found this link using our Link Tool but you could also use any other backlink tool.

what are backlinks example

Here’s what a backlink looks like on the page itself.

example of a backlink on a page

And here’s what it looks like in the code of the page:

example of a backlink in the code

Now you can see that in the example above, the anchor text is “Ecommerce SEO”. This is a perfectly acceptable word as it’s very relevant to exactly what’s on the page that follows when you click the link.

But if backlinks are so simple and present everywhere, why are they valuable? To answer this, we need to see exactly how they work.

How Do Backlinks Work?

Backlinks between websites work like trust signals for search engines like Google, Bing & Yahoo. They are similar to citations in books or scientific research. A linking website passes value to the website it links to (i.e. it “cites” or “refers to”) known as PageRank.

Backlinks are like peer-reviews for web pages. If a book is being cited many times by different relevant and authoritative sources, it is a sign that it contains valuable information. Similarly, many relevant and authoritative links pointing towards a web page means that this web page contains valuable content.

The more relevant links from authoritative websites you have, the more valuable your website is in Google’s eyes. But a system where you can get such valuable links on your own wouldn’t work.

However, other webmasters having influence over your authority is a good system. It often very well prevents scammers (also known as Black Hat SEOs) from ranking high in the search engine result page. In fact, Google has confirmed that if you link to other valuable pages, your rankings benefit from that, too.

But how exactly is this system good? Why would someone link to another web page or resource? Consider this: Valuable pages help the reader solve their problems faster, easier, and better. And webmasters want their pages to be valuable. So by linking to good sources:

  • Webmasters help their readers by citing valuable sources
  • They also leverage the trust of the source they are refer to
  • Offer their “stamp of approval” to the source they find valuable
  • And therefore, the page they link to benefits as well

So, links from other websites are called backlinks. But looking at your own website, you quickly notice something. You have links on almost all of your pages. They point from one to another of your own pages (e.g. in the content of the page or the navigation menu at the top). So are those still backlinks?

Well, not quite. We call them “internal links” – because they only link your inner pages together. They still pass value between your own pages – but not as much as backlinks do.

Links are a standard element when building a website. They are everywhere. However, backlinks are specifically called ‘backlinks’ because they link back to your site from other websites.

In other words, while both internal links and backlinks are structurally the same, they differ in the target website / web page they link to. And because backlinks are pointed from other websites towards your website, they are also known as “inbound links”

“But wait a minute! If there are inbound links, are there also outbound links?” So glad you asked! Allow me to explain.

What’s The Difference Between Inbound & Outbound Links?

Inbound links are all links created on other websites that point to your site. On the other hand, outbound links are links which you have created on your website and point to other websites. An inbound link for your website is an outbound link for the site that links to you.

And here is an example of that very same difference visualized:

whats the difference between outbound vs inbound links

As you can see in the example above, the backlink created on webpage “A” points out towards webpage “B”.

For web page “A”, that link is an outbound link – because it goes out of their website.

For webpage “B”, however, that link is an inbound link – since it’s coming in from another website.

Inbound Link Example:

Here’s a real example of an inbound link that we at Morningscore have gotten:

As you will see below, the website shortpixel.com is referencing us on their page. They have linked to one of our resources called “Push vs Pull Marketing” through their content. This immediately makes the link from their website “inbound” to us.

inbound link example and definiton

Outbound Link Example:

Similarly, looking at the same example, that very same link is an outbound link for the website. When they link to a page that is not part of their website (domain), the link immediately becomes / is considered outbound.

As you can see, the difference between inbound and outbound links is technically the point of view. It matters whose perspective we’re taking. Looking at the relationship between two websites, the linking site has an outbound link and the linked site has an inbound link.

The bottom line is, having both inbound and outbound links on a website is normal. As we explained, having both is beneficial. But the links that you’re really interested in are inbound links – since that means other websites are linking to you and passing their PageRank value onto your website.

But with so many types of links and talks about “value”, is there really any benefit to having backlinks? Let’s explore!

How Exactly Do Backlinks Help Your Website’s SEO?

The primary reason is that backlinks tell search engines your website contains valuable content. Therefore, search engines are more likely to rank your website higher – as it sees it as the authority on a given subject. Backlinks help you gain authority in Google’s eyes.

But Google doesn’t just count how many backlinks you have. Instead, it also judges whether the sites linking to you are of high or low quality. Therefore, there are two most important factors to look out for when getting links:

  • Is it coming from a website with relevant content?
  • Is it coming from an authoritative website?

For now, just be mindful of the fact that it is essential to avoid spammy and very irrelevant links. That being said, you are likely going to get a bad link at one point or another. But worry not – we’ll look at how to protect yourself from those a little later.

To understand why search engines put such a big focus on backlinks, and why it should make up most of your effort in search engine marketing, imagine a university library. There are many scientific books, but if there are fifty on the same topic, how would you classify which one is the most relevant? Hint: citations.

That’s right – the book that gets cited by others as a good source is the one that gains the most authority. This very concept of website measurements was introduced by Google’s founders – Larry Page and Sergey Brin in a scientific paper called “The PageRank Citation Ranking: Bringing Order to the Web”. It’s a complex scientific paper for most, so for now I’d recommend a simplified post that I wrote on the subject called “How Does Google Rank Websites”.

Citations, however, also come with relevance. If a book is getting cited many times by other irrelevant (think e.g. car engines vs pet supplies), we need to see the context, the “why” to properly judge whether there’s an actual reason for that.

And this is exactly our goal. By understanding all of this, you will learn learn what links you should focus on. But before we get there, you need to know what types of backlinks there are. Let’s explore that below.

What Are The Types Of Backlinks?

There are two types of backlinks – dofollow and nofollow. They give different signals to Google. Dofollow links pass value, and Google understands them as a directive to “recommend this website”. Nofollow links usually don’t pass value, and Google treats them as a suggestion to “not recommend this website”.

Both dofollow and nofollow links play an important role in how the internet works. Often, you want to link to a website because you found something interesting there. This way, you’re telling Google you like what you see, and therefore, this website should get pushed up in the search results. In some instances, however, you want to showcase and/or reference a website without specifically recommending it – in which case nofollow links come in valuable.

Let’s explore each of them in detail below:

After you familiarize yourself with the types of backlinks available, we’ll look at which links are best for you – and which you should avoid. And right now:

What Are Dofollow Backlinks?

Technically, dofollow backlinks aren’t a thing because they are simply the default links which pass value between pages. In contrast, nofollow links require an attribute to be added to the page code. To create a dofollow link, you don’t need to change the link or add any additional attributes. Dofollow links simply do not have the nofollow attribute.

Because dofollow links are standard and you don’t have to make any specific changes to use them, this makes it easy for you to create them. Similarly, it’s easy for other webmasters to do the same when linking to your content.

How Do Dofollow Links Work?

Dofollow backlinks (also known as “follow”) are the “original” type of links that pass value (also known as link juice) between web pages. Google uses these links to increase the PageRank value to the linked page. In general, dofollow links are the best type of link you can get.

To understand why dofollow links work this way, imagine that while writing an article for your customers you find a great source. It could be supplementary material, a review of your product, a case study or anything else, even one of your own pages. In this case, you want to add a dofollow link because it tells search engines that you recommend the website you’re pointing to.

Naturally, Google wants to know what the purpose behind you linking to another source is. That’s because it’s in their best interest to satisfy not only you as a business but also the / your end customer. This way they will return and use the search engine again. Otherwise who will be using the platform, right?

A dofollow link is a way of Google determining whether the page you’re linking to deserves value – and therefore deserves to rank higher. If many authoritative websites create contextual links to a specific resource, Google will judge that website as relevant and valuable. It will then prioritize it in search rankings. Therefore, your ultimate goal is to get more dofollow links.

But what do they look like? Let’s look at an example!

DoFollow Backlink Example:

Here’s an example of a dofollow link we got from the website databox.com. The dofollow link placed on their website is pointing towards one of our pages and looks like this:

<a href=”https://morningscore.io/youtube-seo/”>Morningscore</a>

Here’s a screenshot of what it looks like on the page and in the code.

dofollow backlink definition and example

This link goes towards one of our specific pages where the content is very relevant. In this case, databox found our contribution and the resource linked as valuable, which is why they decided that the link deserves to be a dofollow. And as you can see in the example above, the keyword linked is our brand – which additionally tells Google that it’s a relevant result.

What Are Nofollow Backlinks?

With the nofollow attribute (sometimes incorrectly called a “nofollow tag”), things are slightly different. They require you make a specific change in the HTML code where the link is placed, and can therefore be a bit harder to create. To create a nofollow link, you need to add the rel=”nofollow” attribute to the <a> tag in a link.

They were introduced in 2005 by Google to combat content spam. This means that they were created with the intent to link to a website but NOT pass PageRank value to it. Because of that, nofollow links didn’t help you rank higher in Google – at least for a long time. In the past, Google used to treat nofollow links as a “directive”. That is, if a nofollow tag was added to a link, that link would pass little to no value as Google would strictly follow its meaning.

However, this changed in 2019 when Google decided to potentially let some nofollow links pass value based on whether they were contextually relevant and well placed. They now treat the nofollow attribute as a “suggestion” or a “hint”’ – and nowadays some links potentially contribute to your PageRank.

How Do Nofollow Links Work?

When the Google crawlers (also known as spiders or bots) visit a page, they scan the code. If they find a link that has the nofollow attribute next to it, they decide how to treat that website. Usually, the decision is to not give PageRank value to the linked page.

To understand that better, imagine you are a publisher writing a news article for a big media outlet. Often, it happens so that you have to link to smaller pages that you don’t necessarily trust or recommend. Say, you’re covering something negative that a specific company did. In these cases, using the nofollow attribute is an excellent option because it tells Google that you point to a website but do NOT necessarily recommend or trust it.

NoFollow Backlink Example:

Now, here’s an example of what a nofollow looks like where chron.com has decided to use our article as a source in their post.

<a href=”https://morningscore.io/push-vs-pull-marketing-case-study/” rel=”nofollow”>Morning Score: Push vs Pull Marketing</a>

The difference here comes from the rel=”nofollow” attribute. It tells search engines not to count this link in terms of ranking so they won’t pass the value (link juice).

And here’s a screenshot of what the nofollow link looks like on the page and in the code.

nofollow backlink definition and example

When you compare the link from the example to a dofollow link, you can quickly see where the difference is. The additional attribute dictates that they are nofollow.

And although the link is placed contextually, is relevant, and the page linked is on the exact same subject, some webmasters chose to nofollow links.

For some links there is a specific purpose to add a nofollow tag – for example, affiliate links. However, in many other websites, this is done by default in the way the website is set up. This is because some websites often link to many other websites (like Chron in the example above). In this case, webmasters are wary of destroying their own reputation with Google by linking to websites that are not trusted. Any of the websites they link to can get acquired by someone else and the content can be changed to spam. This could hurt Chron as well since in Google’s eyes they would be recommending irrelevant and spammy websites.

On the other hand, some webmasters are afraid of “leaking” their PageRank to other websites. In theory, a leaking PageRank means you’re linking to too many websites through dofollow links. Therefore, your own websites cannot rank high because you “don’t keep enough of the value to yourself”. However, from my research, I couldn’t find any trustworthy sources from recent years. I wasn’t able to explicitly confirm (or deny) whether the “PageRank leak” is real. Therefore, for now it’s safe to treat it as one of the many myths in SEO.

Are Nofollow Links Good For SEO? Are They Worth Anything?

Yes, Nofollow links are good for SEO and you need them. That’s because they help you diversify your link profile and they help your backlink profile look natural. Nofollow links are natural to the internet and have a purpose. It is normal to have nofollow links.

Additionally, since Google changed how it treats nofollow links, they now pass more value than before. As long as the links are contextually relevant and well placed, they can even be considered as dofollow links by Google. However, links that appear on thin pages which are not relevant to what you do are still considered nofollow and likely pass no value at all.

Can You Rank #1 In Google Only With Nofollow Links?

Yes, ranking #1 in Google is possible if you only have nofollow links. Google counts nofollow links and they still pass some value. This can happen for search queries that have little or no competition. However, in the vast majority of cases, this is not likely to happen, since the search competition is constantly increasing. 

Image that you and your competitor are optimizing for the same keyword or phrase. All things equal, if the websites that appear in the result page are not stronger than you, you can outrank your competitor with only nofollow links.

But being realistic about it, this is probably not going to happen in your case. That’s because SEO is a very widespread practice nowadays and many businesses are using it to generate sales.

Because of that, naturally, the competition for keywords and topics increases. Therefore, many of the websites that rank #1 currently do so with the help of strong dofollow backlinks. For that reason, only having a few nofollow links might not be enough for you to rank at the top of page one in Google.

That being said, not all links (dofollow or nofollow) are equal. Some give you more value than others. So let’s see which ones you should aim for – since they will get you to the top.

Which Backlinks Are Best For You?

The best type of backlinks for you are dofollow links coming from authoritative websites from pages on relevant topics where your link appears naturally and contextually. They pass the most value and help you improve your search engine rankings.

To give you a better idea, in no specific order, the best type of backlink is one which:

  • comes from a website on a relevant topic like yours
  • comes from an authoritative site in the industry (gets relevant traffic from Google)
  • the specific page that links to you is relevant to your page it links to
  • has other backlinks pointing to the page that links to you
  • has a good amount of content on the page
  • the link is a dofollow link and passes full value
  • is well linked contextually (i.e. in the right paragraph & the user knows where they will end up when they click on the link)
  • mentions some sort of your target keyword or brand name
  • your link is as high up as possible in the content of the page (potentially at the top)
  • potentially drives traffic to your website

which backlinks are best for you example

Below, I’ve broken down an example of a good link. After that, you will find which links can harm your SEO. To better determine whether a link is good or bad for you, we made a comparison table in our backlink analysis post which you can apply when analyzing each of your backlinks. I suggest that you open and use that table every time you’re analyzing your links until you get used to doing it yourself without the need for guidance.

Example Of Good Backlinks

Here’s a great backlink example from our own site and the breakdown for what makes it so good. Remember that this is just an example and there are a few variables (listed above) which you need to consider when analyzing your backlink profile.

We’ve gotten a link from Hubspot.com since one of our marketers contributed to an article they wrote.

example of good backlinks

Hubspot itself is a very authoritative site. They rank for tons of articles in the same industry like us, and therefore the link is more relevant in Google’s eyes:

example of good backlinks authoritative link

The link itself is placed very contextually and the user knows what to expect when they click on it. The anchor text is our brand name, which is perfectly fine.

example of good backlink contextual link

The page itself is not “thin” and has almost 3000 words of content on it (btw, I used this tool to check the word count on the page).

example of good backlinks onpage content

There are high-quality, contextual websites linking to Hubspot’s article itself:

example of good backlinks referring domains

.. And there’s many of them:

example of good backlinks many backlinks

The link is also dofollow which means it passes full value:

example of good backlinks high pagerank value

How can this link be improved?

You can see that this link goes directly to our front page. This is quite normal and the majority of the links you get will point towards the home page. However, ultimately, you want to have “deep links” which point to other pages than your front page.

Your front page is important because it lifts the authority of your whole website. But when the competition on specific keywords is tough, you’ll also need links pointing directly to the exact page / resource you want to rank for.

As you can see, this example showcases a good backlink. It’s important to remember that you rarely get “perfect case scenarios” with your links. And in any case that is not the point of link building. You want a natural and diversified profile with some good links like the one above.

Example Of A Good Backlink Profile

Good backlink profiles consist of many high-quality links. They are naturally diversified with dofollow and nofollow links. In a good link profile, you will never see a certain link pattern which tries to trick Google. To improve your backlink profile, you need more contextual links from high-authority websites.

To learn more about what makes a good (natural) backlink profile, read this section in our guide on effective backlink analysis.

Now let’s look at a great example of what a good backlink profile is. To give you a better and more realistic idea, we’ll examine an example of a random mid-sized company’s link profile. The website is bloomandwild.com – a flower delivery service in the UK.

Here’s how the distribution of their backlinks looks like:

example of good backlink profile link distribution

As you can see, about half of their links are not authoritative ones. That’s absolutely normal – and most websites have such links. Looking at natural link profiles, you can’t only get the best websites to link to you. Having many links from not authoritative websites is normal.

On the other hand, however, the other half of their link profile is made up from authoritative websites. As you can see, the higher quality the referring domain is, the fewer of them there are. So it’s normal to see such a distribution.

So why is this link profile strong? That’s because a quarter of their full link profile is made from very strong and authoritative links.

Additionally, let’s take a look at their anchor text distribution. That’s because Google also uses the anchor text in determining whether the link is spammy or not. If you have a large distribution of anchor texts containing your target keywords, you should be wary.

example of good backlink profile anchor text distribution

As you can see in the example above, they have a great anchor text distribution. The anchor texts containing their target keywords are just around 7%. That’s a great spot to be in – not too many and not too few either. As is the case with most good and natural link profiles, the majority of their anchor texts are made of their brand name. The second highest number in the image is their generic anchor texts. Sitting at around 20%, it is a great number – and completely normal and natural.

Lastly, their naked URL anchor texts are at around 4%. This is a very reasonable number – as not too many websites use naked URLs to link to websites.

And now it’s time to examine what bad backlinks look like and how you can avoid them.

Which Backlinks Are Least Important For You?

The backlinks that are of least importance for your website are spammy links (usually in another language than your website’s language) with thin and/or duplicate content on the page. They are usually mass-created with some software and do not contribute positively to your rankings. Instead, Google sees them as bad links and will penalize you for them.

Some other types of bad backlinks are:

  • Any link you purchase (Google is strongly against buying links)
  • Private Blog Network links (usually bought, also known as PBNs)
  • Links from coupon websites (usually automatically generated)
  • Thin profile page links (manually generated, also known as pillow links)
  • Irrelevant links (not contextual, irrelevant websites with thing and/or bad content)
  • Links with bad keywords in them (“forbidden” topics that usually not safe for work)
  • Spammy links in other languages (not as harsh as the others unless it’s low quality)

Unfortunately, spammy, low-quality, bad backlinks are unavoidable. Almost every growing website gets one at some point. Fortunately, Google is able to detect many of those links using their Penguin algorithm. Often, they simply remove them as a factor from their index and you do not get penalized. This means that they do the “ link profile maintenance” for you and do not directly penalize you if you get just 1 bad link.

However, if Google’s algorithm detects that you are still earning bad backlinks after some time – and if it’s able to determine whether you’re doing that on purpose – you can get penalized. Your website gets marked as suspicious and the Google review team (consisting of thousands of human reviewers) can take action against it. This is otherwise known as a ”Manual Action”.

Can I Use An Automated Backlink Tool?

No, automatic backlink tools will increase your spam score, destroy your authority with Google, and impact your website’s rankings negatively. Do not use any tools or services that claim to build tons of backlinks in an instant for free (or any price for that matter).

This way, in the short-term, you might boost your rankings and everything might seem great. But that’s a side effect of not having enough links in the first place. In other words, any backlinks will “work” at this point.

However, in the long term, your website will lose authority in Google’s eyes, and your rankings will suffer. That’s because as with everything, Google needs to adjust first. SEO takes time to work on purpose – Google wants to avoid quick scams and therefore your need to slowly and gradually build authority with it.

Is 1 Bad Backlink Going To Hurt My Website?

No, just 1 bad backlink is not going to cause a Manual Action in Google and is not going to lower your rankings. Generally, you need to acquire many more bad links over a long period to cause a Manual Action and hurt your keyword rankings.

Most websites don’t have to worry about being penalized by the algorithm. That’s because to get a manual action you often need to “work for it”. Google has access to tons of data, and has seen millions if not billions of scenarios of bad websites and backlinks.  Most well maintained websites are safe, and unless you continuously try to manipulate the algorithm, you shouldn’t worry about this.

How Many Bad Backlinks Are Too Many Then?

To determine how many bad backlinks are too many for your site, you need to examine your whole link profile. There, you need to see what percentage of your total links are bad backlinks. If more than 25-30% of your total links are spammy and generally low-quality, this can be dangerous. If you suspect your website is having problems in Google, you need to disavow the bad backlinks.

Unfortunately, there’s no specific formula on calculating how many bad backlinks can hurt your website. That’s because Google uses AI in their algorithm which determines this, no one can say with certainty how many bad links can hurt your specific website.

But there’s an easy way to determine whether a link is bad and can hurt you. Let’s see what they look like.

Example Of Bad Backlinks

Let’s look at another example from our own website. As I mentioned above, no one is “safe” from bad backlinks, and it’s likely you will get a few at some point. This has also already happened to us – and I’m happy to break it down for you.

We’ve gotten a link from a “free coupons website”. By the looks of it, I’m certain that this link was created automatically since there are tons of these websites which scrape the internet and create pages dynamically.

example of bad backlinks

As you can see, the link is not placed contextually. In fact, there’s barely any content on the page. The content is thin and likely duplicate by being scraped from another website. It’s also absolutely not relevant to the subject (“coupon codes” vs “marketing strategies”)

Here, you can see that this website is not authoritative in any way. It doesn’t get any relevant traffic from search engines – and therefore Google doesn’t see it as an authority on any particular topic.

example of bad backlinks low pagerank value

Additionally, this link nofollow. Of course, usually I’d prefer a dofollow link, but in this case, I’m actually happy about that. The last thing I want is spammy and irrelevant dofollow links that can potentially hurt our site.

example of bad backlinks irrelevant and thin content

On top of that, there are no links pointing to this link either – which means the PageRank value for this specific page is very low, too.

And to conclude the breakdown, the website itself is also not relevant to us in any way – they are a free coupons website, and we’re an SEO tool. This paints the full picture – and the bottom line is that this link is practically worthless.

Example Of A Bad Backlink Profile

Bad backlink profiles usually have many more bad and low-quality links than good and authoritative links. Their backlinks look unnatural, and they focus more on the quantity than the quality of the links. Additionally, their anchor text distributions are bad as they focus on having many target keywords in them. Here’s a concrete example of a bad backlink profile.

For the purposes of this example, I’ve chosen a random website. However, I will not reveal exactly which website that is with the intent of not “exposing” anyone in particular.

Firstly, let’s examine the distribution of their links. As you can see, compared to the “good backlink profile” example from above, this link profile looks much worse. More than two thirds of their link profile is made of bad links. Additionally, the strongest links are a lot fewer as a percentage of the total pie.

example of bad backlink profile link distribution

But this doesn’t give us the full picture. A website can still perfectly rank high with a link profile that looks like that if you don’t have all the details. Because of that, we need to examine their anchor text distribution.

example of bad backlinks anchor text distribution

Now, look at this. The anchor texts that contain one of their target keywords are over 27%. That’s close to one third of ALL of their anchor texts. Dangerous game. In contrast, their naked URL anchor texts are almost blown out of proportions – they are more than a third of all anchors.

Empty anchor texts are also quite high – which is an indicator of many low-quality spammy links. That’s because real websites who intend to link to them are going to use some sort of text in the anchor text.

Last but not least, look at just how few of their total anchor texts are branded. Keep in mind, this is a known brand in their industry. I intentionally aimed to find a comparable example – and not just any random website. Considering their size and resources, this is an indicator of bad link building practices, and therefore makes their backlink profile bad.

Good backlinks, bad backlinks. By now you might be wondering “Can I just skip all of this and rank WITHOUT any of them??”. The answer is a bit tricky. So let’s explore it below.

Do You Actually Need Backlinks To Rank?

No, you don’t necessarily need backlinks “to rank”. For example, ranking on page 5 in Google is still considered a rank, and for that you do not need backlinks. Backlinks help you rank higher – but Google does not need backlinks to index your website and give it a rank.

So, yes, in both theory and practice, you can rank in Google without any backlinks. It’s a reasonable possibility – and many low-competition search queries show websites which have no backlinks.

However, it is important to point out that the vast majority of websites need backlinks in order to rank close to the top at some point. That’s because they encounter competition on their search queries as more companies are doing SEO.

If you invent a brand new word for a product (think absolutely unseen) and it’s only featured on your website, you will rank at the top for it. That’s because Google would index your website and see that you’re the most relevant result for that very query.

In fact, when SEOs test different theories, they use exactly this method. To prove or disprove SEO tactics, they create a new website (or a few) which is optimized around a completely brand new, random, and unseen before keyword. As it has been proven over and over again, all websites get indexed – and therefore “get a rank” without the need for backlinks.

But if it’s “that easy”, why are businesses obsessed with building links? Let’s see below.

What Do Backlinks Do For Your Website Then?

You need backlinks to rank at the top of page one in Google. Most websites need backlinks because the keywords and phrases they want to rank for are very competitive. The website that has the most, the strongest and most relevant backlinks is seen as the most authoritative and wins in Google.

Backlinks are an important part of ranking at the top – but not the only factor. With enough of them, you can get a spot on page one of Google for competitive queries. That is, links will get you the necessary exposure in front of your target audience.

From there, however, you’re very much judged on how good your content is. And if you have great content, backlinks allow you to show your users that content. That’s because Google also takes into consideration user signals.

But then is it possible to rank #1 with just backlinks? Yes and no. Let me elaborate.

Regardless of how many backlinks you have, if users visit your page, bounce back to the search result almost immediately and then find a competitor, you will likely not keep your rankings for long.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s first see how you can get to the top position – namely, how many backlinks do you need to get there.

How Many Backlinks Do I Need To Rank #1?

To rank first, you need more backlinks than the average of all links your competitors have. Here, you also need to exclude outliers – the 2 websites with most and fewest links. The links you get must also be higher-quality and more relevant to your niche than your competitors’ links.

There isn’t a specific, concrete number of how many backlinks are required for Google’s PageRank algorithm. The more and better backlinks you get, the higher your PageRank score will be – and therefore, the higher you will rank compared to your competitors.

But this might sound confusing and not specific enough if you’re new. To help with that, let’s break down an example. With this, you can calculate how many backlinks you need to improve your PageRank so that you can outrank your competitors.

Backlink Formula Example:

Simply said, to rank at the top of Google, you usually need more backlinks than the average of your competitors. Now, there are 10 websites appearing on any regular search result page (also known as a SERP). Using an SEO tool (e.g. Morningscore), we need to see how many backlinks each of them has.

If you’re not sure how to check how many backlinks a website has, read on as I’ve explained it below. Focus on understanding the example first, and then I’ll show you how to do it yourself.

Example Metrics:

Website 1 = 24 backlinks
Website 2 = 13 backlinks
Website 3 = 47 backlinks (outlier)
Website 4 = 18 backlinks
Website 5 = 15 backlinks
Website 6 = 22 backlinks
Website 7 = 8 backlinks
Website 8 = 0 backlinks (outlier)
Website 9 = 14 backlinks
Website 10 = 6 backlinks

Breakdown: As we established, you also need to remove the outliers in this step – I’ve crossed them off in the example above to make it easy to see. The reason we do that is because often you’ll see a website with a disproportionate amount of links compared to the rest. That can be either too many or too few. For this reason, it’s a lot more accurate to remove the highest and lowest results.

Next up, we need to calculate the average number of links. To do that, we sum up the total amount of backlinks. In our example, this adds up to 120 links in total.

Now we simply divide that number by the number of websites – in this case 8. The result is 15 links. This means that on average, the web pages ranking for this keyword have 15 backlinks pointing to them.

So how many backlinks would you need to rank in this case? The answer is 15. And this is how you can calculate roughly how many links you need.

💡 Important: Beware now, as this is a very sensitive question for many SEOs. They earn money selling you backlink services. Therefore, you’re likely to hear contradicting opinions. I’m not in the business of selling links – and have therefore done my best to be as objective as possible.

Regardless of what you hear and from who, the truth is that earning backlinks is about both quality and quantity. Of course, first comes quality – but from experience it’s often quantity that limits websites. The reality is, you will not rank #1 if you do not have either factors.

That’s because having tons of bad links will only ruin your website’s “reputation” (i.e. authority) in Google. On the other hand, although very strong and relevant, having only 3 links, will likely not be nearly enough to get you to the top either.

How Many Backlinks Is It Good To Have?

You should aim for having backlinks from at least 100 unique referring domains which come from relevant websites. When you reach that point, you’ll be ready to compete for many keywords. Anything above that will help you rank for more competitive keywords.

All in all, there is no rule as to how many links are good enough. Things are not as simple because there are many variables that come into play. But as a starting point, set 100 links to be your goal.

Keep in mind also that your competitors are growing together with you, so by the time you reach 100 links, the competition might be even harder.

Remember, the goal of SEO is not to have many backlinks, tons of traffic, or any other similar metric. If you rank #1 with just a few good links, you don’t need tons of more links to that page. The end goal is and always has been to pull in potential customers from which you can generate sales.

Sure, your intermediate goal might be to boost any of those metrics. But at the end of the day, the motivation to improve the business’ actual bottom line is what drives these inputs.

Can You Have Too Many Backlinks?

No, you can never have too many backlinks as a whole. There are tons of websites which have many links. They rank perfectly fine and aren’t getting penalized. Additionally, new websites are created constantly. This means there is no cap on how many backlinks you can have.

However, you can have too many new backlinks. This is because Google knows and monitors how many links you have at any point in time. Seeing that you’re suddenly growing your links in an unnatural way will certainly provoke an action by them. This could be both the algorithm penalizing you automatically. Alternatively, you can also get hit by a Manual Action by the manual review team at Google.

So getting many links in a very short amount of time is dangerous. What is the safe range then? Let’s see!

How Many Backlinks Should You Create Per Day?

For the most optimal, safest, and fastest results, you want your backlink graph to “look like a staircase” or “a hockey stick”. That is, there must not be any unordinary and unnatural spikes – and your link building trend should increase at a steady pace. You should absolutely avoid building tons of links at once which will make your link graph look “spiked”.

Progressive and slow link building is natural, and is not seen as spam by Google. If Google doesn’t see your link profile as unnatural and engineered, you’re going to rank higher for your keywords. However, if Google notices that you’re trying to game the algorithm, you’re going to get a penalty. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but certainly eventually.

While there is no specific rule of how many links to build every day, your goal should be to ultimately double your total backlinks per year depending on where you start. However, this is not always achievable and really depends on how much you invest into link building.

For example, a realistic link graph looks something like this. If you start with 80 backlinks and look at a 5-year span of your backlinks, it would look something like this:

how many backlinks should you create per day

As you can see, from January 2016 to January 2020, they haven’t doubled the links year-over-year – but they’ve still earned 5 times as many links.

How To Find How Many Backlinks I Have To My Website?

To find how many backlinks your website has, you need to use a backlink checker tool. This could be a free tool like Google Search Console or a paid one like Morningscore. Keep in mind that Search Console requires upfront setup and will not show you exactly where your link is coming from.

Here, I’ll show you an example of how I check the links for our website in 3 quick steps. You can follow the steps and get the same for your website.

Step #1 – So to get the links to your website, I first log in Morningscore.

how to find how many backlinks i have to my website seo tool

You can see that I’ve already entered my website (you get prompted to do so upon registering). However, compared to Search Console, there’s no setup required since the tool pulls your data that is available online.

Step #2 – From there, I click on the “Tools” button in the navigation menu.

how to check links to my site link building tool

This takes me down to the different tools in the platform. There are a few tools here, but what we need is the “Links” tool.

Step #3 – I click on “Links” and scroll down to “All Links”.

how to see links to site full link profile

Here, I’m offered a table with all incoming backlinks to my website.

I can see when I have gotten that link and how authoritative the domain is through the “Value” metric on the right.

how to see your website links list of backlinks

Now, when I click any of the links, I get to see even more data about the backlink itself. I can also export that data and get a spreadsheet I can slice and dice it however I find suitable. It’s very quick and easy to get an aggregate of all the metrics I need.

In comparison, Search Console can show you that data – but there are no easy ways to aggregate it in a simple overview. But before we conclude what is better for you, let’s see how you can do that in Search Console.

And here’s how I would check my links in Google Search Console.

Step #1 – Log in Google Search Console (you need to set this up beforehand)

how to find how many backlinks i have to my website google search console

As you can see, I’ve already set it up and have my website ready. This process can take a little while depending on how you chose to authenticate your website on the platform.

Step #2 – In the left-hand bar, I scroll down to the “Legacy tools and reports” section and click “Links”.

how to check links to my site links legacy tool

Once that report is loaded, I can see my links. In the “External links” table I can see how many other websites link to me. Remember that Google doesn’t show you absolutely all domains that link to you – because it’s not in their interest to do so.

In the “Internal links” table, I can see which of my pages I’ve linked to the most. As you can see, our platform is interlinked the most. This is because the link to it is in the header navigation menu on every page on our site.

Next, I can also see which of my pages get the most links. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat difficult to see an aggregate of which links point to which pages in Search Console. You have to do it page-by-page – which is what I’ll show you in the step below.

Lastly, I’m also offered the anchor text distribution that Google has noticed about my website. You can find this under the “Top linking text” table.

Step #3 – The last step is to actually explore the “Top linked pages” & “Top linking sites” tables. For now, I’ll focus on “Top linked pages”. I click on the “More >” button in either of them.

how to see links to site top linked pages

This takes me to a new page with all my pages that have backlinks sorted by how many links they have according to Google. At the bottom of this page, you can select how many rows of data you want to see at a time.

Step #4 – I click on any of the links in the table.

how to see your website links search console top sites linking to page

Here, I’m taken to yet another page – which shows me all the domains that link to one of my specific pages.

Step #5 – Lastly, I select one of the pages itself – and this shows me all the URLs from that website that link to my specific page.

how can i see my backlinks search console top linking pages

Here, I can click and open the website itself and inspect how the link looks like on the actual page.

Bottom Line: Google Search Console is a great free tool which gives you access to important data. Compared to a professional paid SEO platform, however, it requires “clicking around” much more to get to the data you need.

How To Find The Backlinks Of Any Other Website?

You cannot find how many backlinks other websites have using a free tool like Google Search Console because you don’t have access to the other website’s data. Instead, to check how many backlinks any other website than yours has, you’ll need to use a paid SEO tool.

Many paid link checker tools have a free trial in which you can scan your competitors’ websites – and so does our Morningscore.

You can check the backlinks to any other website (e.g. competitors) similarly to how you’d check your own links in an SEO tool. Here’ how you’d do that in Morningscore.

Step #1 – Once again, head to the Link tool and scroll down to the “All Links” section.

Step #2 – Here, on the right-hand side, click on the dropdown menu where your website name appears.

how to find the backlinks of any website seo tool example

Step #3 – From the dropdown, select one of your competitors.

how to check backlinks for another website link checker tool full link profile

Now you’re able to see the exact overview that you could for your website. Here, you can find all your competitors’ referring domains and see more information about their specific backlinks.

How To Get Backlinks To Your Website?

The most efficient way for getting backlinks to your site as a beginner is to use one of the following strategies: Guest Blogging, Competitor Link Building, Business Partnerships, and Business Directories.

Let me explain all of them, which is also where I’ll show you how they work and which ones are the most valuable for you. You can (and should) focus on these links in the beginning in that order. Consider this your mini link building plan. There are many different tactics you can try, but on the strategic level, you should get links in this order:

1. Business Directories

First and foremost, the easiest way to tell Google your website is alive and kicking is by featuring your website in some business directories. If you’re a local business, try to find as many relevant business catalogues on both local and national level.

If you’re operating globally, this could be in the form of global registries – e.g. software companies registries. If you’re a designer, those could be design portfolio websites. And so on.

Also, remember to register each of your relevant branches in their relevant catalogue. If you operate in both the US & Canada, the two branches (or departments) need unique registrations in both US & Canadian directories respectively.

💡 Note: By the way, whoever tells you business directories don’t work is simply reciting what they’ve read here and there. Business directories will not get you at the top for any keyword, but as I’ve mentioned above, they are a way of “reviving” your website in Google’s eyes. Some of the most respected SEO tools out there offer business directories and aggregators as a service.

2. Business Partners

The idea here is that you ask your partners to place a contextual link on their website. Now, this doesn’t have to be a blatant, spammy, self-servicing deed. Instead, it can be built in way better. For example, next time they’re sharing news on their site, you could contribute with some input that provides value and “earn” your link in an honest way.

The reason getting links from your business partners works so good is because you’re simply leveraging what you’ve already built. The trust you’ve built with these people allows you to easily get your website mentioned.

3. Competitor Links

The next step would be to copy some of the links your competitors are building. Essentially, you research and find the places where they are getting shared. You either reach out to those very same places or simply borrow their approach – and find other relevant websites which you can reach out to.

Of course, here it’s important to consider how many resources they’ve spent on the links they get.  For example, if they are getting mentioned on large news websites because they recently appeared in a block at the morning news show, you likely can’t “just copy” that.

However, if they are collaborating with writers from different websites who you can find on LinkedIn, that’s something worth exploring further.

4. Digital PR

Next up, there’s a way to combine traditional PR and valuable online content to generate backlinks. The idea behind Digital PR is to have unique and unseen content before.

However, the tricky part is that you need to do your research upfront. Namely, you need to determine whether the unique content you’re producing is one which your target audience is likely to share and link to.

If you’re a local business, for example, a great way to get exposure is by compiling and sharing a resource relevant to other local businesses. That could be e.g. the best places to visit in your area, the best company in your niche in other areas, etc.

The idea here is, because you’re a 3rd party reviewing the companies in a very valuable manner for the end users, you’re likely to benefit from it with exposure and links.

On the other hand, if you’re a global business (e.g. a software company in the marketing space), you could do studies about your target audience.

Now, don’t get me wrong. You don’t really need to conduct surveys all the time. In fact, you could easily compile first-hand, original research simply by using websites that give you access to some data. For example, this could be Glassdoor or LinkedIn.

5. Guest Blogging

Last but not least on the list is creating guest blog posts for other websites and media in your industry. If you’ve ever searched for this question before, you’ll see most websites rank this tactic as the number one approach in getting links. Not me, however.

The reason this step is last on my list is because it can be quite resource-demanding. You need to produce unique, relevant content for each website you’re getting featured in.

You could probably do this step already by reaching out to someone from your network who runs or has access to a relevant blog. But, if you want to do this at scale, you’ll need to get creative and reach out to many more webmasters.

Much has been written on guest posting, so I won’t dwell into it here. At some point in the future I might release in a blog post the unique approach I use to get my guest outreach email answered. For now, it’s only available in our email sequences available when downloading many of the resources from us.

Many types of links, many questions, many possibilities. Only one thing is certain. Backlinks are not what they used to be. As a final stage in our little journey, let’s look at a brief history of backlinks, together with where the trend is headed.

Do Backlinks Still Matter For SEO?

Yes, backlinks are still a critical factor for SEO and they are still one of the most important factors for ranking. That’s because they help search engines like Google improve the relevance and quality of the results that appear for the different search queries.

But to fully understand why they are a ranking factor and whether they still matter, we have to look at the recent history of search engines.

While Google nowadays is much smarter and more than 210 factors determine your website rankings, it wasn’t always like this. In the beginning, search engines used to rank websites mainly on the keyword count in their content. The algorithms were not as smart as they are today, and the purpose and meaning of the content could not be analyzed as good.

Why Are Backlinks A Ranking Factor?

Website owners realized that, and many implemented a practice that is known as “keyword stuffing.” This showed to be a dysfunctional system for search engines, content creators, and the end-user.

It didn’t matter whether the content was good, if the website was authoritative or what it was about. If a certain phrase or word matched exactly, that result would show up when a user searched.

Besides the obvious tricking of the system, many irrelevant searches also used to show up. For example, someone sharing their personal experience might contain keywords that are otherwise suitable and important for someone else’s business. And that’s how backlinks became a factor.

It has since stuck and played a major role in rankings, however, not without some drastic changes.

The Introduction Of The Nofollow Tag

However, things online are a little more complicated, and black-hat SEOs suddenly realized they could trick the search engines. Someone somewhere figured that if the number of backlinks was of the highest importance, they could use software that generates a ton of them automatically, regardless of relevancy.

Many incorporated backlink generators, which resulted in a manipulation of the search engine result page (SERP). One common practice was to write spam comments to achieve a high number of backlinks.

And this is where Google realized something’s wrong. With the introduction of the NoFollow tag, Google took control of rankings and helped bloggers and businesses by eliminating most of the spam. The introduction of this new tag, combined with the Google Penguin update targeting low-quality links, changed the way we look at links forever.

How Will Backlinks Work in The Future?

In the future backlinks will remain a strong factor for ranking higher in Google. However, as time passes, we notice that their effect gets lower. In fact, Bing has already stated that they will reduce the effect of backlinks in their ranking algorithm. Whether and when this will happen with Google is still a question. However, it’s safe to assume that the change will be represented in Google at some point as well.

In fact, Google already uses many other factors to rank their content. What’s interesting here is that the weight for each of these factors is adjusted by Google’s algorithm for every query – and therefore we can already say that having backlinks is a “less important” factor nowadays.

As the trend continues, backlinks will maintain their value for quite a while, and likely forever.  This, however, does not mean there won’t be any changes to them. Google’s algorithm is a sophisticated system that tries to provide the best results. And as a business owner or marketer, being aware of such changes gives you an advantage over competitors.

With that, it’s time to conclude this guide. Since you’re now familiar with links, go ahead and check out our long-tail keywords guide. Also, make sure you peek at our SEO glossary, it’s the best way of preventing headaches while dealing with SEO jargon.

Last but not least, remember to keep an eye out for updates. The two best places you can do that are SearchEngineJournal & SearchEngineLand.

GET A 14-DAY FREE TRIAL

Just enter your site in the field and you're good to go!