Aug 2019

You know that backlinks are a critical factor in determining if and how high your website ranks on Google. 

But just how do you acquire quality backlinks that get your website ranking for keywords relevant to your business?

In this article, you’ll learn how backlinks influence your website's search rankings, how to acquire high-quality backlinks, and the toxic types of backlinking strategies you should avoid for optimal site health.

What are backlinks?

what are backlinks

Backlinks are links to your website, published on other websites. These can be either as hyperlinks, images or just plain text links. Based on the information we have available on Google's SERP algorithms, backlinks go a long way in determining a website or webpage's authority and relevance. 

Why do backlinks matter?

Backlinks are a measure of a website's real-life authority on the subject matter it addresses and are a major factor search engine algorithms consider when ranking crawled pages.

Unlike factors like number of keywords you use in your content (which can be easily manipulated), backlinks are important ranking criteria because the higher the quality of content, reputable and established sites will be drawn to link to the content on the site more often. This indicates to Google that the content is definitely read-worthy and authoritative enough to show searchers.

backlink signal seo

Types of backlinks

Specifically, there are two types of backlinks: nofollow and dofollow links.

Search engines can crawl and factor dofollow links into their ranking criteria, but the nofollow tag is a request for search engines to ignore indexing a link. 

Dofollow links go a long way in determining a page's search ranking, and as a result, are valued higher than nofollow links. On the other hand, nofollow links help build a trusty look on a website, and so should not be totally ignored.

Pro tip: Not sure how to determine if a link is dofollow or nofollow? Navigate to View > Page Source and do a search for nofollow. If it doesn’t appear around the link in question, it’s a dofollow!

Does backlinking work? 

Yes, backlinking still works in 2019 and shows no signs of slowing down.

Despite the myriad of recent Google algorithm updates, a study by First Page Sage, confirms that backlinks still constitute the number 1 ranking factor. With a 28% relevance score, they weigh higher than variables such as high-quality content, mobile friendliness and site speed.  

How to set your website up for backlinking success

Before executing your backlinking strategy, it's important to note some pertinent basics that'll serve as the foundation of any search engine optimization campaign.

1. Equip your site with high-quality content.

Google's algorithm is designed to rank useful information higher in SERPs so users can get what they're looking for in less time. The intent is to discourage keyword-stuffed pages that don’t offer value to users.

With that in mind, it's important to note that only relevant, high quality content can keep readers who land on your site, as well as survive the ups and downs of Google's algorithm changes.

One of the (many) ways Google ensures what you're trying to rank for is actually relevant to readers is by tracking page bounce rates. Say a user lands on your ranking page, and within seconds realizes that there's really no useful information and bounces. Google recognizes this very brief visit. Once it happens over and over again, it points out that your page doesn't serve relevant info and gradually, keeps getting outranked by relevant information pages that engage potential customers.

And again, once you've gotten your site ranking higher, quality content keeps users on your site and increases the chances of converting them.

That said, it’s not enough or even possible to get higher SERPs if there’s nothing valuable or helpful on your website.

2. Prioritize backlinks from higher domain authority sites.

One key factor to consider before and during any backlinking campaign is the domain authority of the sites you’re getting backlinks from.

First, what is domain authority?

Rated on a 1 – 100 scale, domain authority is the measure of the real-life authority a website has acquired and influences how search engines regard content from it. It’s simply a scale of how important and reliable a website is. Domain authority is one of the major signals search engines measure to rank pages.

Domain authority is also a major determiner of the quality of backlinks you can acquire from a website.

It’s important to understand that backlinks from high - medium DA sites will have a more significant impact on your search rankings than a bunch of low DA links.

Before pursuing acquiring links from a website, take some time to analyze their domain authority using any SEO tool set (Moz, Ahrefs, The Hoth, SEMrush) to determine if it’s worth the effort. There are also several free tools you can find with a simple Google search.

Anything in the 40-60 (medium) to 70-99 (high) DA range is okay, but note that it takes more effort to get higher quality links.

3. Ensure your site is optimized for UX and conversion

There are a factors to be considered as well as few website functions that need to be optimized before pursuing backlinking. These  include:

Page Load Speed

A two-second page load delay increases your bounce rate by over 100%, and with readers leaving your site quickly, it sends a signal to Google that your site isn't delivering content that's worth your readers' time, ultimately getting your site outranked by faster loading sites.

Better user experience is the only guarantee that you’ll be able to convert the search traffic that backlinking brings you.

page speed

Use CDNs to deliver content faster

Content Delivery Networks host your content on servers across the world, reducing the time it takes pages to load.

Capture Leads with Forms

As a nod towards a well-grounded lead generation strategy, forms can help close as much as 21.5% of the leads landing on your ranking pages. Carefully consider the form questions you’re asking customers to enter. Typically, the more fields, the lower the conversion rate. 

Call-to-Actions (CTAs)

CTAs help push your readers along the buyer’s journey and answer the question: “What next?”. 

A few pointers to nail your CTAs would be to:

  • Leverage urgency to prompt conversions.
  • Speak to your prospects’ needs personally. E.g. become a better you, sleep better, etc.
  • Promise an exciting result.
  • Offer a free incentive.

Great calls-to-action remind readers the ‘why’ they ever began reading in the first place, making it easier to convert them. And in the end, conversions are the primary reason for building backlinks.

4. Be patient

SEO specialists agree that on the average, it may take as much as 3-6 months to rank for high value keywords, even with a well-rounded SEO strategy.

Your competitors are also likely driving an SEO strategy which you’ll be contending with for the top positions. 

Backlinking Methods to Use

  1. Invest in high-value, link-worthy content

In the end, the idea behind backlinking on the internet boils down to one thing: making relevant information easy to find.

Established websites with a solid profile won't give a moment's thought to linking to your website if there's no link-worthy content.

And judging by the over 1.7 billion websites on the internet, you're up against serious competition.

Whether it's definitive guide blog posts, detailed infographics, or studies, quality content provides a basis for an organic backlinking strategy and makes it justifiable for quality sites to link to yours.

2. Find niche and relevant directories

Google doesn’t score backlinks from directories the same way it scores backlinks from other websites, knowing how easy it is to acquire several of them. And the rule of thumb for backlinking says that the easier it is to acquire a backlink, the less it'll be worth. That said, if acquiring a bunch of backlinks is actually too easy, it could eventually get your site penalized by Google.

What matters here is the hedge of authority that the links from higher quality directories confer on your website, boosting your SERP profile and giving your site a better chance of getting boosts from other high-quality links you acquire.

So, yes, getting listed on random directories will do little to help a website, but niche-relevant directory listings act as an authority signal that gives your website an edge over the competition.

For the perfect example, here’s what our listing on the HubSpot Agency Directory looks like:

hubspot partner

Apart from the stellar qualifications, HubSpot linking to us signals to Google the quality of content we have to offer readers like you.

A few of the types of the directories to explore for your business include:

  • Local business directories like Manta, Yelp, and Hotfrog
  • Service provider directories that list partners, freelancers and agencies in a particular service niche . Some examples include HubSpot’s agency directory for marketing consultants and agencies, and the Facebook Agencies directory.

Pro Tip: Here are a few search strings you can use to zero in on relevant directories:

  • (Niche) + directories (e.g. Marketing agency directory, SaaS directory, Startup directory)
  • (Niche) + listings (e.g. Startup listings, Marketing agency listings)

3. Leave relevant blog comments

Not all blog comments are created equal. A comment on a hairstyle blog, linking to your café website could pass along the wrong signal to Google.

But if you regularly comment on high-value websites in your niche, that will send the signal that you're genuinely engaging in helpful conversations that point towards your website, boosting your site's authority in the long run.

4. Personalized outreach

In the end, backlinks don’t build themselves; they’re inserted by actual humans and it's imperative that to acquire better backlinks, you have to engage with the people who do.

To unlock more opportunities to have your pages linked to, it’s essential that you begin building long term win-win relationships with webmasters, site owners, and relevant staff of the websites you’ve identified as high-value in your niche.

Instead of just sending out cold emails with a request to be linked to, it’s more reasonable to invest in quality content and then leverage your connections to get your resources linked to.

This particular technique only works if you’ve been keeping in touch with your target contacts, which could range from emails appreciating their work, a heads-up on a resource you genuinely think would be useful to them, or simply sharing and commenting on their content.

In the long run, building long-term relationships with staff on authority site teams opens up more opportunities to acquire more organic backlinks with less effort.

Some examples of websites that might make sense for a personalized outreach request include:

  • Round up blogs
  • Resource pages
  • Product/service companies that complement yours (for example, an interior decorator might reach out to a local furniture store for a backlink)
  • Your suppliers (ask if you can provide a testimonial for their website!)
  • Ask an influencer in your industry if you could interview him/her to publish on their blog

5. Engage on relevant forums

Internet forums are great avenues to acquire fresh industry knowledge while gaining a few backlinks.


Internet forums are designed to help members rub minds together. As such, it’s okay to link to your site — as long as you’re sharing helpful information. As you engage on forums, follow these best practices:

  • Be helpful
  • Keep your profile updated with relevant info and qualifications that confirm your subject-matter authority.
  • Share only high-value answers with the link to your site. This helps build relevance and conveys your subject matter authority to readers.

In the end, the links you share on industry-specific forums will generate a decent amount of traffic, but that aside, your website will gradually record an increase in search authority from the backlinks you’ve published.

6. Leverage the skyscraper technique

The Skyscraper technique for acquiring backlinks involves content marketing, leveraging your existing audience and reaching out to prospects for linking opportunities.

Content research: The skyscraper technique revolves around creating content that outperforms what your competitors already have out there and leveraging it to acquire backlinks and outrank them. 

To do this, you have to thoroughly research the search results for your target keywords, analyze the ranking pages and make a note of whatever content they’re offering readers. BuzzSumo, social media, and Google Keyword Planner are ideal tools to help discover trending content ideas with potential to attract backlinks.

Build a distribution pipeline: When your content is relevant to your buyer persona, brands or businesses in the same niche will be open to promoting your content — IF they consider it valuable. A Google search can help pinpoint these brands to take note for further outreach. To be exact, target the websites linking to the content you’re trying to outrank, as there’s a better chance they’ll be willing to reference an improved version of whatever content they’re linking to.

Creating better content: With all the knowledge you have gleaned from existing ranking content, you can write the best piece on the subject matter available, creating a resource that offers more value than whatever you’re trying to outrank.

Leverage your network: Once your article is ready, promote it to your social media channels, your email list, and any content distribution networks such as Quuu and Revue. That way, you can create initial momentum for your content.

Direct outreach; promote your content to relevant sites: With the list of relevant brands and sites you collected during step 2, reach out to these sites linking to the content already ranking high for the keywords you’re targeting and offer them to link to your content as a better alternative. Again, this is where warm personal relationships with contacts come in handy.

Rinse and repeat: With the traffic you’ve generated from your email list, social channels and outreach promotions, Google’s crawlers will pick up the signals and over time, gradually begin offering you better rankings.

And from a baclinking angle, you’d have succeeded in acquiring several high quality links, improved your rankings, and as well, created future opportunities to get linked to by more websites.

7. The Skyscraper technique 2.0 

Coined by Backlinko, Skyscraper 2.0 is an improvement to the Skyscraper technique, with an emphasis on user intent.

Google wants searchers to find results that solve their problems and answer their questions. To achieve this, articles that appear to address user's intent get ranked higher and as a result, get more backlinks.

For example, the underlying intent of someone searching “iPhone X vs. Samsung Galaxy 10” is likely that they’re looking to purchase a new smartphone.

So now, the focus of your content should be on helping the user choose the right smartphone.

The Skyscraper 2.0 technique can help get your website ranking higher and increases the chances of your resources being linked to by simply creating better content that offers improved user experience.

A few areas that Skyscraper 2.0 focuses on includes:

  • A table of contents to make your article (or whatever content type) easier to read.
  • Brief, straightforward introduction — you don’t want to bore readers.
  • Title keyword optimization. Make sure your title includes the keywords you’re targeting.

It’s also necessary to point out that the Skyscraper 2.0 technique won’t explicitly drive backlinks, but rather makes your content relevant enough to be linked to - because only good content gets linked to.

Blackhat Backlinking: 3 Methods to Avoid

Blackhat backlinking strategies have been floating around for years, with the intent to acquire undeserved search rankings. But with each update to Google's algorithm, it's actually harder and riskier for a business  to survive on blackhat backlinking strategies since a single algorithm update could ruin your site.

Here are three blackhat backlinking tactics to steer clear of to avoid trouble with Google.

  1. Paid backlinking

It happens: businesses actually buy links from link vendors. But not only is it unhealthy for a long-term backlinking strategy, Google frowns on paid link scheming.

Google policies make it clear that not only will you get penalized for acquiring paid links, but that the insights derived from your case will be factored into further algorithmic updates to ensure any similar paid scheme you embark on gets flagged and penalized.

Penalties for paid backlinking could range from decreased visibility in search results to having your entire site de-indexed.

2. Blog comment spamming

Chucking in links to your site in the comments section of unrelated authority sites may seem like a fabulous idea to get a high volume of quality links… except they're not.

Blog comment spamming will almost certainly get your links disavowed, sending negative signals that will eventually hurt your website’s profile.

3. Backlinks from irrelevant sites

Another fundamental authority signal Google's algorithm tracks is the authority profile of the websites linking to yours.

Assuming a website is dedicated to golf content and gets a backlink from Golf Canada, the Royal Canadian Golf Association, Google's algorithm takes note of the authority of the RCGA website and as a result, the receiving website gets a considerable authority boost, judging by the authority profile of the RCGA.

Again, should the website in question get a backlink from a cookware site, like say, Wayfair, that link will end up passing little or no PageRank juice because of the irrelevance of the link.

According to Google Webmaster guidelines, unrelated backlinks could signal a link scheme and will eventually attract manual penalties from Google.

google backlinking rules

The keywords specified in this penalty notification are “unnatural or irrelevant”, signifying that not all links appear to serve useful content to searchers. It’s safe to say that a few loosely related links may not affect your site, but if you notice any substantial increase in unnatural, unrelated links, it’s best to get them removed as soon as possible.

Not all links are good links. Like the image below shows, the more niche-relevant a website linking to yours is, the higher the authority it signals, and the less relevant sites linking to yours are, that could serve as a pointer for lower quality content, making it easier for your site to be outranked on SERPs.

backlinking relevancy

In the end, it's obvious that generating quality backlinks from authority sites requires much more time than the average business owner or marketer has to spare. 

As complicated as they come, it's going to be extremely demanding managing a long-term, productive backlinking strategy alongside your daytime business. And you know what? The harder backlinks are to get, the better they'll do for your site.

Here at Horseshoe + Co, we help forward-thinking businesses build and execute smart backlinking strategies that get them seen on Google.

Reach out today to see how we can help you start generating new business from organic search leads.