Do links help you rank better on Google?

If you’re running an SEO campaign, one of the worst things you could do is to forget the importance of links. Being linked by other websites can be one of the biggest factors for ranking as seen by Google. So, yes, the number of links to your website will have an effect on whether or not your page ranks in Google’s search listings. But it is much more complicated than this as there are other factors that influence this.

We’ll get to those later. But for now, let’s raise some of the important and commonly asked questions when it comes to links in SEO. First, what is a link in the search engine industry? Does it matter how many other websites have links to your website? Does it matter how good those sites are? Can having no external links make it more difficult for your site to rank? What does “domain authority” mean, and is it a contributing factor?

What are external links?

An external link, often referred to as a link, is when another website outside of your own links to yours. It’s as simple as that, but the impact can be huge. The link acts as a sort of editorial vote from another website. It is saying to Google that they trust your website and the information on it, so please give credit to it. But this only works when this link is coded, or tagged up, as a “dofollow”, not a “nofollow” link.

What do the terms “dofollow” and “nofollow” mean? If you’ve ever seen a website linking to yours, but noticed in the source code that it includes “rel=nofollow”, we’re afraid this means you won’t be getting as much benefit from this external link, as a “rel=dofollow” link. For example, any website can add a link to yours. But the “follow” question refers to whether or not that site wants Google to pass any link juice to yours or not.

What is link juice?

Link juice, otherwise known as link equity, is used in the SEO industry an awful lot. It is associated with authority, which is often referred to as “Domain Authority”. We will get on to that later in this article. First, we need to understand what “link juice” is. Link juice refers to how much authority a given website has, in the eyes of Google. So, how does link juice work, and can you pass link juice to another website?

If a particular website is really trusted, is a big brand name or a trusted authority source, it is likely to have a strong level of link juice. That means that if this important website then includes a “dofollow” link to an external website, Google essentially passes some of its link juice to the linked website. This, in turn, can boost the reputation of that linked website, because Google recognises that the better site is giving the linked site its editorial vote.

What does domain authority mean?

Domain Authority is connected to the concept of link juice. It’s not actually a term coined by Google. It’s a term, along with the checker tool (https://moz.com/domain-analysis), created by Moz (https://moz.com/learn/seo/domain-authority). But because Moz is such a powerful name in the SEO industry, Google pays a high level of attention to it. So you should too. It refers to the score level of how authoritative your website is. That score is between 1 and 100, and the higher the score, the better.

Moz calculates your Domain Authority by quickly carrying out a large link analysis of your website. It assesses the strength of your own internal linking and then looks at your external links. When it does this, it reviews the quantity and quality of those links and then makes a judgement as to what Domain Authority score your site should get. When Google sees this, it factors it in when it’s algorithms are deciding where to rank you.

What is a good Domain Authority score?

You don’t need 100 out of 100 to rank in position 1. You need to compare yourself to your competitors to get a grasp on the level you need to be scoring in order to outrank your close competition. You can do this by using the Moz tool (https://moz.com/domain-analysis) mentioned above and entering a competitor’s domain name, and then your own. It will give you the score and you can get a glimpse of how near or far you are to your competition.

For example, if you’ve always struggled to rank a given page but your Domain Authority is less than that of your competitors, this might be why, and you can conclude that you need to work on your links in your SEO strategy. To rank, a good score can be one that simply beats your competition. But if your competitors have a low Domain Authority of say 3 and yours is 4, and they still outrank you, there are probably other factors at play.

Is Domain Authority different to Page Authority?

It can get technical, but yes, these two terms are often used in conjunction with each other, but they are actually different. We know that Domain Authority refers to the overall strength of one domain, e.g. www.domainname.com. The difference is that Page Authority refers to one particular page on that domain, e.g. www.domainname.com/thispage. Which is more important? Sources say (https://www.advancedwebranking.com/blog/domain-authority-vs-page-authority/) that as a general takeaway you want to put more effort into your Domain Authority.

Why? Improving a particular page’s authority will work towards that page ranking better. But if you work on improving the entire domain, your whole website will reap the benefits. This is not to say you should ignore Page Authority. But dedicating time and effort into boosting your Domain Authority is likely to help you rank better, and it certainly won’t damage your Page Authority either. So it’s a win to look after your Domain Authority.

How many external links do you need to rank well?

This is a common question in SEO. The answer is that it really depends on the quality. This is why you need to check your backlink profile and carry out regular backlink analysis, and do this thoroughly. It can be time-consuming, but if you spot that you’ve got no backlinks, or far fewer than your ranking competitors, this could be a determining reason for why any of your pages are really struggling to rank over time.

So, how many links should you have? It’s often quality over quantity, but naturally, you’ll still want lots of good websites to pass their link juice to you. Look at your competitors and check how many they have. Let’s say you have 500 backlinks that have, say, a domain authority of 5/100. But your competitors have 350 backlinks, with a domain authority of 50/100, this is why Google favours them as being more reliable because they have higher quality, trusted votes.

How to carry out backlink analysis

There are many sources out there that can guide you on this (https://www.webfx.com/internet-marketing/what-is-a-backlink-analysis.html), but it can be tricky if you’re new to this because there is a lot to keep in mind. For example, one of the factors that can often be forgotten in this process is considering the number of referring domains. This means how many external domains are linking, and referring, to you. Let’s consider an example. Say you’ve got 500 external links, but they’re all from one domain.

The number of links is good, but Google will also note that only one other domain is giving you their vote. You need to grow the number of referring domains so that a larger number of domains link to you. In fact, one study by Ahrefs (https://ahrefs.com/blog/search-traffic-study/) states that over 90% of pages without any referring domains do not receive any organic traffic. Look at the number of backlinks you’ve got and see where you need to invest your time.

What to do if you’re being linked to by poor Domain Authority websites?

Let’s imagine you’ve got a page that won’t rank. You’ve done your backlink analysis and you’ve found that you’ve got a good score of say, 50, but 20 of the thousands of links you’ve earned, have a very poor Domain Authority. Suppose their score was 1 or 2. This happens more often than you think. The answer is to use a very clever tool called the Disavow Tool by Google (https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main). This is Google’s trick to allow you to communicate with it.

You will need to collate some domains, and upload then to the Disavow Tool in a .txt file. When Google crawls your pages before it ranks, this file of domains acts as a list that tells Google “these domains are poor quality and not trust-worthy, so don’t pass any poor link juice to me”. Google should ‘disavow’, or disconnect, their link to you. So when you lose the poor domain, it should theoretically give you a better Domain Authority, and you rank higher.

What makes a good backlink, or a bad one?

There are several factors that make a link good or bad. These include relevance, trust, popularity and value. The big mistake when trying to understand the importance of links for SEO is to assume all links are good. When doing a backlink analysis, check your links are coming from relevant domains, and not from websites that have nothing to do with your industry. If they’re irrelevant, they could be damaging your ranking performance, so it is important to check this.

The next factor to check is whether you can trust your backlinks. You can do this by looking at the brand of the website and by estimating whether the look of the website is good quality or not. Spam sites tend to look like spam. However, for a more rigorous assessment, you can download another tool, the Moz Toolbar (https://moz.com/products/pro/seo-toolbar), which provides instant metrics to give you an indication of whether you can, or can’t, trust a link.

How to identify high value from poor value sites

Often, sites can have a really high Domain Authority score, or at least an averagely good one. If this is a genuine score, this is a great external link for you to have and will help you rank higher. But, if you’ve noticed that there’s been a drop in your organic traffic and you’ve got a new high Domain Authority link it is advisable (https://www.upbuild.io/blog/moz-spam-score/) to run a check on the Moz Toolbar. This will tell you the Domain Authority of that site.

But it will also tell you the level of spam that the site holds. It’s a good idea to run this check on your own site too, to get an idea of the spam level you want to avoid. The lower the spam level, irrespective of the Domain Authority score, the better. If you’ve got one spam backlink, this could be incredibly damaging to your site’s performance. So, best practice is to use the Moz Toolbar and check regularly.

Mistakes to avoid

An easy mistake to make in backlink analysis is not manually reading the domain’s name, or visiting the actual domain. Good backlinks are the ones that are truly relevant to the page and domain they are linking to. You would be surprised to see the impact of a spammy link on your SEO and overall performance. Have a look at your referring domains, and don’t forget to run the Moz Toolbar on them. If there is a medium to high spam level, disavow.

Remember that you do not need to be aware of a link for it to exist. That means new poor quality and spam links crop up all the time, and you might innocently not know. There are many types of “bad links” that you might not have heard of, and they can all affect your ranking. Before you know it, you’ll start to see signs that something is having a detrimental impact on your website’s performance.

Types of bad links

From press release links to links on ancient forums, there are tons of link types that could be harming your performance. They might look decent and good enough to not appear to be a “faulty” link, but don’t let this deceive you. Check your links to make sure your SEO is not being damaged without you knowing. Finding, and disavowing, links from foreign websites, inappropriate sites, private networks, sneaky blog comments and more could really lift your rankings.

You might also have come across “link building programmes” that claim to be useful and are supposedly good at building up your backlink profile. But don’t listen to them, because these can quite often be very poor quality. Schemes like Scrapebox (http://www.scrapebox.com/) can sometimes turn out to be a spammy link building scheme, that will actually damage your SEO, not build it up. This is the same for any cheap link building services, but we’ll get to that later.

Links impact SEO

One case study from Reboot (https://www.searchenginejournal.com/study-shows-outgoing-links-have-positive-effects-on-seo/157431/) found that those pages that were linked to from external websites performed better than those pages on the site that had zero external links. That implies that there is a direct correlation between best practice links in SEO and your SEO performance. This case study was completed before 2020 but there has also been significant growth since then that has highlighted the impact that links can have on SEO.

In fact, SEO pro Neil Patel (https://neilpatel.com/blog/backlinks-effectiveness-page-location/) talks about the connection between Google as a search engine and the types of pages that rank, in terms of the quality and quantity of their external links. He finds that over 90% of pages ranking in positions 1-50 had at least 1 external link that pointed to their domain. He also discovered that over 70% of those same pages had at least 1 external link pointing to that exact page.

Don’t build links with black hat SEO

Black hat SEO is the non-guaranteed way of SEO (https://www.wordstream.com/black-hat-seo). It’s a method that completely avoids the best practice, by-the-book way of SEO. It is full of cheap, low-quality tricks that are highly risky for your website. Our top advice is to avoid this and stick to best practice white hat SEO. But how can you spot black hat SEO when it comes to links? One black hat method for building links is through cloaking.

Cloaking occurs when the content is presented to the user differently to how it’s displayed to the search engine. Essentially, it’s a way to cheat. Another black hat method is building links through hidden text. That means another website has added in text, which the user’s eye is blind to, but that text actually contains the link to that website. It is poor practice and one of these links could be penalised by Google, which would have a negative impact on your SEO.

How can you build links the white hat SEO way?

One of the most effective ways to build links is through fixing broken links. There are lots of ways to do this. For example, if you assess your broken backlink profile and identify that you have at least one backlink that goes to a broken page, or a redirected page, this is an opportunity for fixing links. Contact that referring domain, politely tell them it’s broken, and give the correct link. They think you’re being helpful, and you’ll reap the quality link benefits.

Another way to build links the white hat way is by pulling a report from a tool that tells you what backlinks your competitors have got, but you haven’t. Ahrefs can help you do this (https://ahrefs.com/blog/get-competitors-backlinks/) in a very efficient way. Or you can do this on SurferSEO, which another SEO pro, Matthew Woodward, recommends (https://www.matthewwoodward.co.uk/seo/reviews/surfer-seo/). Find the opportunities where you and your competitors have common backlinks, and go after them yourself. If they link to your competitor, they might link to you.

Create good content that’s worth a link for SEO

You can adopt the skyscraper approach. You need to create content that is so valuable and share-worthy that people want to link to it. This can be more time consuming, but the impact on your performance can be gigantic. One link-building study reported by Backlinko (https://backlinko.com/skyscraper-technique) involved a high-value piece of content being published on a given date. The number of referring domains shot up just days after, and so did the organic traffic levels.

How does the skyscraper approach work? Research the topic, and the keyword/s you want to rank for. Look at existing content including content with the most shares on social media. Then, simply re-vamp it and make it better. Add updated information, more demonstration videos or more explanatory content. Make sure it’s more valuable for the user. Publish it following best practice SEO and share it on your social channels. The idea is that people will want to share it, and link to it.

You can white-hat steal your competitor’s backlinks

Assess your competitor’s quality backlinks. Wherever your competitor has created a piece of epic content, and has a link from it, this is another opportunity for gaining a brilliant backlink. Repeat the skyscraper approach. Then, contact the referring domain with your improved content, that’s genuinely better than their current link’s content, and ask them to replace that link with yours. They’ll want to link their audience to good content, so they might be tempted to switch, and you’ll get a good link.

Remember, it’s not just about reaping the advantage of the link juice. It’s the referral traffic too that you will theoretically get. As soon as you gain a new link from any website, you have the potential to be receiving all of the traffic that that website gets, should the user click your link. It’s not just about the benefit of the link juice that we talked about earlier. You’ll also get an increase in traffic, which is the perfect bonus.

How can you monitor when you might have been hit with a black hat link?

Best practice is to use backlink analysis tools on a regular basis, throughout every month if you can. As soon as these bad links crop up, you have the know-how to be able to deal with them, so that you keep your ranking where you want it to be for your keywords. But another, less obvious, way is by using the free tools available through Google Analytics (https://analytics.google.com/analytics/web/). Make sure you’re on the right view, and head to Traffic and Channels.

Then, watch how your “Organic Traffic” has been performing over the last year or so to build a realistic picture of how much traffic you get in a normal month or every 3 months and so on. Once you’ve done this, look for any sudden drops in traffic that look out of place or completely unexplained? Investigate this, because it could well be that a new, terribly low-quality website has added a link to your website.

Tips and tricks for spotting poor quality links

There are more ways to find those bad links, as well as the ones we’ve discussed using the Ahrefs and Moz tools. So, once you’ve found a dodgy looking domain, you can investigate things further. Look at their sitemap to see how regularly and recently they upload new content. If they rarely update content, this is poor practice and could be a negative sign. If they do update their site, look at what they publish and see if it’s good quality and relevant.

You might need a web expert to assist with the sitemap investigation. Another method is to look at the rest of its links out to other websites, and check if they’re “nofollow” or “dofollow”. It would be very suspicious if all of their backlinks were “nofollow” ones, because any genuine website wanting to rank should be following best practice “dofollow” guidelines to reap link juice. So, having only “nofollow” links would be a red flag you should listen to.