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What are backlinks and why are they important?

When SEOs talk about backlinks they simply mean links that come into a website. Of course, it doesn’t end at simple.

Backlinks or incoming links are extremely important in SEO. They lend your site credibility and help build authority. In the old days of search (10 or so years ago) every link to a website was counted as a vote – a vote of confidence if you like. Search engines used these votes to not only find sites but also grant them status. The more links the higher the status and the higher the ranking. It was taken for granted that sites would only choose to link to other relevant sites. But this system was open to manipulation.

And it was manipulated. So search engines started to be picky about links. Google in particular has cracked down on the manner in which links are gained. And it’s very good at judging links.

Google can tell if you’ve been buying links (a big no-no and deemed to be dodgy long before Google came down on it like a tonne of bricks) or trading them in link farms. It will penalise you if you pick up a lot of links very quickly, which usually indicates large-scale buying and trading. Instead it likes a slow and steady increase that occurs naturally. That is, thanks to the production of quality content and natural link building techniques, including link bait, blogging, guest blogging, social networking and interaction on forums.

All things being equal, links are not

All of this cracking down has resulted in an increased focus on the quality and not quantity of links. SEOs still want to get as many links as possible, but now they have to exercise caution while on the hunt.

There are two factors that stand out when determining link quality:

1)     Relevance: links should ideally come from sites that are relevant to yours. Someone who specialises in plumbing might be willing to link to your site about yo-yos, but Google will only give it a passing nod of recognition. Your yo-yo site would do better to get links from string companies, toy stores or extreme sports sites (at a stretch).

2)     Trust & Authority: the more credibility and respect the linking site has the better. Trust and authority are tricky to define; they have to do with links (of course), the age of the site, its PageRank and its ranking on Google. If your yo-yo site can get a link from Toys-R-Us or ESPN you’re doing well.

Checking backlinks

You need to keep an eye on your backlinks not just so you know who’s linking to your content, but also so you can see which anchor text is being used.

Anchor text is the text people use in their links to you. Ideally you want them to use relevant keywords or, at least, your website’s name, but you don’t have much control over what people use, especially if someone is spontaneously referencing you in a blog.

If you’re doing some good old fashioned link building it’s also a good idea to run potential candidates through a backlink checker to see who is linking to them. If they have some suspicious links pointing to their site you might want to reconsider the value of their links.

There are number of free backlink checkers. Try Yahoo Site Explorer, Open Site Explorer or Majestic Site Explorer.  A lot of sites have a bare-bones free option with additional details available on various structured pay plans. The quality of the information delivered also varies.

Heed Lisa Parmley’s warning, however, and don’t get obsessed with checking your backlinks. Using a clutch of backlink checkers will only deliver conflicting and confusing information. Find one or two that work for you and conduct checks on a regular basis to compare progress.

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