That links are pivotal in order to rank on Google it is kind of an open secret, something that everyone knows and often minimize, mostly because the methodology to gain references could escalate in discouraged or straight irregular practices, forcing the hand of the search engine algorithm. Nevertheless, to know what the link building is is fundamental for whoever wants to make his own SEO online strategy more efficient, so today we are going to try and supply a quick and condensed guide to this activity.

What is the link building

From a strictly grammatical point of view, link building is the construction of a series of connections between one site and all the others: we have already repeated on several occasions that links are the actual core of the Internet (not casually called Net or Web, with a symbolic reference to the threads of a spiderweb or a weave, exactly represented by links), and to the search engines daily navigating the massive virtual metropolis they can be considered as reserved lanes.

What we should keep in mind is that Google appreciates links, if anything it actually needs them in order to properly work and provide users the answers they are looking for when launching a query; on webmaster guides, Googlers themselves write that “links usually are editorial votes given by deliberate choice, and more useful your contents are, more will be the probabilities that another user would find them suitable for his readers and consequently insert a link to them”.

Through sophisticated analysis systems, Google’s engines can find out how and in which way Web pages are connected, assessing quantity and quality of these links within used ranking parameters.

Google evaluates backlinks’ quality

The word “quality” is the one really making a difference compared to the past: up until the update named Penguin, it was pretty frequent that in order to increase a site’s popularity and ranking to aim at the increase of the number of inbound links connecting to those resources. No proper attention to the actual content of the linked pages, nor the ones containing those connections, nor analysis of the hosting site: key was, indeed, only the number of people/sites referring to that specific page, apparently at least. In 2012 Google required a drastic change, with the Penguin update specifically created to defeat spam activities, the unfair link purchasings or exchanges between networks that had as only goal to give a distorted nudge to the ranking (the famous “doping”, according to a striking definition of our Ivano Di Biasi), deeming every attempt and link “only created to manipulate a site’s PageRank or ranking among Google’s search results” as a violation of Google’s instructions for webmasters.

The evolutions both of Google and SEO

In the last few years, then, Google algorithm’s updates further refined the machine, allowing the search engine to indeed focus on the quality of the links, assessed based on several factors. The useful news for SEOs is that the RankBrain (the name given to that part of the Hummingbird algorithm that “gives credit to the web pages based on links coming from other web pages”, as we were saying a few times ago) keeps on working and representing an important ranking factor, to which no one could not pay any attention given the fact that it remains one of the best way to determine the quality of a webpage.

How to do link building

Cleared any so-called theoretical matter, let’s try and deepen practical matters too, because the link building is a strictly technical SEO activity, maybe the main off-page ranking optimization strategy (even if it also is important to focus on contents and the right management of on-page elements, because to push a poorly developed page would not bring any benefit). In extreme summary, this expression identifies the strategic activity intended to increase the number of inbound links toward a web site, that in this way gain more authority in the eyes of the search engine. Other than quantity, Google is able to evaluate sourcing, quality, nature, relevance, importance and several other signals concerning the site that sends it, that then determine its weight on a ranking perspective, as well as still important is the difference between follow and nofollow links.

The importance of the backlink analysis

Another pivotal element to keep into account for an effective link building strategy is the reliability of the site from which the hypertextual reference comes: “real” sites, that have a good trust and a clean history (or background check) still are an indicator of value to Google, while at the contrary sites only built in order to host guestposts and push other’s enhancement or those networks pulling blatant exchanges can be negatively evaluated, leading to possible penalties. This means that the linked site not only improves its rank on search engines, but could also witness a decline or not acquire any benefit. On practical terms, in order to recognize the quality of a site or a link there are several SEO Tools, including (obviously) SEOZoom, that has different tools for backlink analysis (that analyzes lots of factors, from sites to unused anchors) and in particular the Zoom Authority, the quickest parameter to understand a web site’s reliability and how much Google appreciates it.

SEO Link building, main strategies

There are a whole lot of modalities to use to do link building: a valid strategy is to create optimized articles for one or more specific keywords that could represent a possible insight in regards of the topic we are covering both in the text and on the hosting site. In a comprehensive link building strategy, then, it could be useful to vary the frequency of follow and nofollow links, giving life to a natural backlink profile that could help the development of referral traffic towards the site, as useful as could be to rely on quotes, a.k.a references that could also not contain any link, especially if coming from sources considered influential by Google, given the fact that they can increased the perceived reliability of the site. Another methodology that could be effective, mainly for specific typology of online sites, is using thematical forums relevant to the topics covered on the site or to the products offered on the eCommerce in order to link it at the appropriate time.

How to naturally obtain backlinks

As previously written in the article about the 10 SEO mistakes to never commit, is always good not to overdo with bad practices that, as effective as they can look in the short/average period of time, they nontheless risk to expose themselves to possible penalties: the safest strategy from this point of view still is the so-called link earning, meaning the free gaining of quotes and links one could naturally obtain thanks to, for instance, quality contents echoed (again naturally and without any forcing) by other sites as source of info or useful insight. To Google, is very important that every link is organic, so to say naturally inserted by the editorial staff or recommended by the site’s owner in a page,  without any intervention or manipulative goal by the linked site; as we can always read on Big G’s official documents, “the best way to encourage the inclusion on other sites of quality links relevant to your own is to create unique and peculiar contents, able to naturally acquire popularity on the Internet community”.

It is quite clear, anyway, that the link building strategies performed by the most efficient and capable experts will succeed in avoiding the perception of the difference between link building and link earning, creating planned campaigns that seem natural at first glance (even to the search engines’ sentinels).

Link building’s risks

Search engines’ systems try to differentiate and discard the influence of paid links among organic search results in order to detect possible inbound or outbound link manipulations: a fairly impossible task, to which they nevertheless devote a lot of time and resources. Whenever they are able to discover sites purchasing links or partecipating in “link schemes” (the most common is the double-ended exchange with no added value, like a simple agreement, called “Link Neighborhood” often directly marked as spam), or to “article marketing campaigns or wide scale guests’ publishing with anchor text links full of keywords” (according to Google’s quality regulations), they could decide to proceed with penalty systems that will strike a page’s ranking or, worse, the entire site’s one. That is the reason why we say that the link building is an art form, one of the most challenging task of the SEO work, because we need to create a strategy that surely requires creativity, intuition, resolution and quick execution, but also expertise and a fair share of budget.

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How to assess a backlink

Once defined the big picture of the link building, let’s now try to focus our attention on other practical aspect, starting from how to assess a link’s value and if, consequently, the received backlink can offer some kind of advantage in terms of ranking improvement on search engines (always reminding you all that the disavow of a link is an intervention to only use as very last resource). In this context, what we previously said about ranking factors still applies: impossible to truly define them all, because the exact functioning is only known by the algorithm itself, but there still are some parameters and signals that must be taken into account.

What does quality link mean

The quality of an inbound link is assessed by putting together several parameters: first of all, the site’s popularity, prominence and authority (that has a strong specific weight), geographic and content’s relevance (an in-topic site perfectly in line with the subject to link offers an added value to search engines compared to a generic or straight off-topic – the worst scenario – site), site trust (what we were previously naming a background check: to acquire links from high trusted sites represent a proper boost to the ranking improvement, given the fact that these site are the ones regarded as the safest and most reliable), age of the links (freshness is an added value) and social spreading (a factor still fairly ambiguous, so to say, because it is not clear yet how search engines currently interpret social connections and interactions within their algorithms).

The important elements of a link

Alongside these broader aspects, then, there are other more specific parameters regarding the actual linked content: lots of expert are convinced that even the exact position of the link within the page has a specific value (therefore, a reference placed on top of the page, in a prominent position, should bring more benefits compared to a link placed to the bottom of it), but the subjet is pretty debated. More united are the voices on the anchor text, the fragment of the page actually linked towards another resource (the one generally highlighted by the underline or a different color whenever visiting a page): this is deemed as one of the strongest signals for ranking, but the abuse perpetrated in the past led to a sort of penalty (or high risk of penalty) for all those pages that use an anchor text link with a perfect match for the keyword one is trying to rank for, mostly on sensitive and controlled fields such as finance or health.