How important are backlinks for SEO?

This week Ask an SEO the questions come from Deepinder in Toronto who asked:

“1. I’ve worked on multiple projects. I’ve seen websites with 1,000 backlinks beat websites with 100,000 backlinks. And the same 1,000 backlinks site beaten by a content curation/stealing website (copy paste content with a backlink to the source).
So how important are backlinks as ranking factors?

2. Are 1,000 to 3,000 backlinks from a site considered spam? Because I’ve seen good companies do it.

I would like to start by answering the second question first.

Is getting thousands of links from a single site considered spam?

It is situational whether it will be spam or not.

The main determining factor is whether the links are considered natural or paid or a deliberate attempt to try to get backlinks.

Natural links include:

  • Businesses that link to their other brands in their own footers or main navigation to navigate between stores.
  • If you are an authority and a blogger has a list of resources and further reading in their sidebar.
  • When you produce a ton of photo content and the website uses your work in many posts.
  • When you do something interesting and media companies, bloggers, and publications mention, source, or feature you for it.

Unnatural:

  • Provide databases and feeds to sell products on other sites linked to your site.
  • Getting bloggers or publishers to create a store without “sponsored” or “nofollow” attributes on their links.
  • Banner ads – collection of sites, categories, etc., as these are paid placements.
  • Widgets, feeds and badges with keyword rich backlinks.
  • Widgets, feeds and badges that are clearly marketing ploys and not something exclusive or real.
  • If the site is part of a PBN (private blogging network), whether you paid or earned the links.
  • Use purses and other gadgets.
  • Leave comments on blogs, forums or community websites.
  • Keyword-rich links to category pages or products that you don’t manufacture.
  • Anything not clearly earned by merit.

These are just a few examples.

So yes and no.

Sometimes they are considered spam and other times they may not be.

It depends on the links, your relationship with the website and whether they are natural or not.

Now let’s go to your first question.

Are backlinks important for SEO?

Yes, backlinks are 100% important for SEO. But it’s not a numbers game.

I have a client that ranks and beats national brands without a lot of links.

They even rank above their industry’s governing body for that governing body’s own branding terms.

The quality of links they acquired helped, but they started ranking based on site structure, quality of content, how the page displays, and site structure before we only got the first links.

Funnily enough, they also got a backlink from this governing body because of the content we created. (Talk about a major victory!)

Backlinks are just one of the signals used by a search engine.

The purpose of a search engine is to show a searcher the most relevant answer, formatted in the best possible way and in the fastest and most accessible way.

It can be a paragraph or list of text, video, images or mixed media. This is just as important, if not more so, than backlinks.

Why a site with fewer backlinks outranks a site with more

To answer the question of why a site with fewer links will outrank a site with a ton, or how to get your website with a few links to outrank one with a few hundred thousand, you need to look at what a link is.

Before we had smartphones, schemes, and concepts like EAT, search engines needed a way to determine the trustworthiness of a website and a specific page within that website.

Backlinks were one of those trust factors, especially PageRank with Google.

Now that PageRank no longer exists (at least as we knew it then), we have other ways to help build our website’s trust and authority.

If your website and the particular page respond to these trust and authority signals, you may now be able to compete with the website and web pages that have more links.

  • You can build trust by having your content created or approved by vetted and credible people in the niche.
    • Just because someone is your CEO doesn’t mean they’re credible or established. It’s one of the hardest pills for a leader to swallow.
  • Source content from the author and relevant sources using links and diagrams.
  • Have a strong internal linking structure that provides more explanation for concepts or resources mentioned in your content.
  • Make sure your website is secure.
  • Provide a better explanation of the concept, formulate an easier way to buy, or have better formatting that’s easier to digest.

You can also:

  • Be as ADA compliant as possible (the more people who can access your content, the better the experience for everyone, giving search engines a reason to show your page rather than another one).
  • Get lightning-fast load times so users on mobile devices and slow connections can access your content.
  • Properly structure your content using:
  • Add the appropriate schema to define what is on the page and in each section.
  • Use proper site structure and make sure your most important pages are referenced when it’s natural.
  • Check your Core Web Vitals now that search engines like Google are doubling down, including Cumulative Layout Change (CLS).

Yes, quality backlinks will help you rank more easily than merit alone, but there are things you can do while you start acquiring links so you can beat a website or webpage that has 10X or 100X the number of links you make.


Editorit is Remark: Ask a SEO is a weekly SEO advice column written by some of the best in the business SEO experts, who have been handpicked by Search Engine Journal. You have a question about SEO? Fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!


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