What Makes a Quality Backlink?
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High quality backlinks and linking building are a major facet of the SEO industry, but there is often a great deal of misunderstanding when it comes to judging the quality of backlinks and how they relate to search engine rankings.
Besides, what exactly makes a quality backlink? Not all backlinks are the same or provide the same SEO function. For example, which types of links are more useful than others at improving rankings?
This guide to what makes a quality backlink will walk you through a simple-to-understand framework that we use to determine backlink quality (based on years of experience building 1,000’s of links in almost every niche). We’ll also briefly cover some metrics that intersect with backlinks to impact their quality, some different types of backlinks, and a few related concepts.
Our goal is to clear up some common misconceptions when it comes to link evaluation and share with you our conceptual process of choosing quality backlinks while touching on relevant considerations.
There are a few important factors to consider when making a general determination about whether a link has the potential to be a high quality backlink. We have combined these attributes into an analytical package that we facetiously call “The Holy Trinity”.
The Holy Trinity refers to three link attributes that search engines measure: relevance, authority, and power (we’ll be discussing each further).
The more of each link attribute a backlink has (e.g. Authority), the higher the overall quality of the link. However, it’s a little more complicated than that.
First of all, external links don’t necessarily need to have high amounts of all three ranking factors. For example, a link can be high on relevance but low on authority and power and still be a quality backlink.
Likewise, a link can be high on authority but low on relevance and power – but this link can still provide tremendous benefit for your rankings in the Google search results.
You can think of these things on a sliding scale – the less of one attribute the backlink has, the more of the other factors you want it to have.
In a perfect world, all of your links would have high amounts of all three factors. Better yet, all links would be high quality backlinks. But that just isn’t possible (or natural). Natural sites get backlinks with wide discrepancies in the Holy Trinity spectrum, and most of these links play active roles in helping the sites to rank in search engines. A site that only gets links with high relevance, power, and authority will be seen as unnatural and could be asking for trouble. That would be like a money manager only getting extraordinary alpha returns on his portfolios every year. It raises questions.
Second of all, when you want to build high quality backlinks, there are more factors to consider other than the Holy Trinity spectrum of link attributes (which we’ll also be getting to). However, the Holy Trinity is a simple and reliable analytical framework to simplify your link building decisions and help you make quick judgments.
Before you get excited about how apparently simple it is to assess backlink quality, let me reiterate to you how other factors typically come into play that shouldn’t be ignored.
Before we jump into these other factors, let’s first go a little deeper into the Holy Trinity of relevance, authority, and power.
We’ve got a whole article on backlink relevance along with a video walkthrough for those that really want to get into it, but we’ll go ahead and summarize it here as well.
A link is relevant for your website if the on-page factors are related to whatever it is linking to, and relevance can be checked with a tool like Ahrefs.
In other words, if there are keywords or related keywords in the linking page’s domain, URL, SEO title, meta description, h tags, content, and anchor text which are the same as or related to what it’s linking to, it becomes more relevant for what it’s linking to.
For example, if a page that is well optimized for plumbing links to a local plumber’s website, this is a very relevant backlink for that website.
Keep in mind what we said before – if a backlink is low on relevance, you’ll want it to have more authority or power. If it’s high on relevance, you might not care how much authority or power it has.
The second link attribute of the Holy Trinity that makes a high quality backlink is its authority. A little less clear than relevance, authority is generally determined by the overall strength of a domain’s backlink profile (i.e. its composition of referring domains) and other obscure factors like Trust.
Note: Referring domains are external websites having backlinks pointing to a target site. The term is often used synonymously with “backlinks”.
An example of extremely authoritative outgoing links are those coming from a widely respected and trusted news source such as CNN.
Indeed, some of the most valuable links one can acquire are editorial backlinks from giant news publication sites. You can see that CNN has a massive amount of referring domains and you can bet a good proportion of them are authoritative in their own right.
This is why CNN is viewed as a very reliable source of high quality content by Google (and the search engine results page reflects that view in CNN’s favor).
You can use an SEO tool for backlinks analysis, such as Ahrefs, to apply a relevant metric in your assessment of a domain’s authority. Specifically, an Ahrefs metric called Domain Rating (DR). In the picture above, you can see that CNN has a very high DR (and also an insane amount of backlinks). You can check authority with other services like Moz’s DA, Majestic’s CF/TF, and so on.
Although none of these provide a perfect picture of websites’ authority, we generally stick with Ahrefs’ DR to make judgments as it seems more accurate and more difficult for SEOs to manipulate.
Just like the previous section, a high authority link that’s low on power and relevance can be great for you just as a backlink that’s low on authority but higher on relevance and power can be. Remember to think about the Holy Trinity on a sliding scale.
Power is the most straightforward of the three backlink quality factors that comprise the Holy Trinity. Simply put, a backlink’s power is determined by the amount and quality of the incoming links its hosting page is receiving. In other words, the power of individual backlinks on individual web pages is related to the strength of each page’s backlink profile.
Power is noted by URL Rating (UR) on Ahrefs and by PA (Page Authority) on Moz.
To further illustrate. If an article (i.e. individual linking page) having 300 backlinks (its link profile) points to your target with a single backlink, you can pretty much expect the backlink to be considerably powerful (especially if the linking page’s backlink profile is made up of quality links).
Moreover, a backlink that’s low on power, but high on authority/relevance, can still be a quality backlink. Just make sure you’re not getting only low power links, low authority links, or low relevance links. Remember, link diversity is a primary factor affecting the strength/quality of a site’s backlink profile.
This is why natural sites should aim to get a healthy mix of low/high for all three Holy Trinity metrics – and so should you.
Note: any new link placed on the linking page will dilute the power of the other links on the same page. In other words, the more links an individual page hosts, the less link juice is sent out to targets from each backlink.
Traffic and Rankings
Two related link building metrics we need to address are traffic and rankings.
The concepts of Traffic and Rankings are self-explanatory (in terms of SEO) so we won’t discuss them in great detail. You can pull these metrics up for any website using a tool like Ahrefs or Google Analytics. You just need to understand how they fit into an assessment of what makes a high quality/good backlink.
So, if a linking page has a good amount of Traffic or it ranks well for a lot of keywords, then you can safely assume that the linking page may be quite beneficial to the backlink in question. That being said, these two metrics don’t seem to be quite as important as power, relevance, and authority.
A good example of a backlink that usually doesn’t have any traffic or search results rankings would be a PBN link. And we all know how much work PBN links can do for a site’s ranking potential when used intelligently.
If you have the choice between two links with equal metrics, and one of them has a decent amount of traffic/rankings while the other doesn’t – the one with decent metrics is probably more suitable for your SEO strategy! But don’t write off a backlink just because it’s low on these metrics. Competition is changing in the SERPs all the time. The website might take off one day and become quite popular.
Different Links for Different Jobs
Besides the idea of different types of links being useful due to the concept of link diversity, most outgoing links also have unique purposes in the hands of a skilled SEO with a sound SEO strategy.
Broadly speaking, you can categorize most backlinks as either pillow links or pushing links. Both types are highly useful. Pushing links are high quality backlinks that are harder to acquire (and more expensive) than pillow links. On the other hand, pillow links are typically free and easy to build yourself.
But that does not mean pillow links are low quality backlinks. Not at all. We consider pillow links to be quality links in their own right, and some of the most important links any website can have (especially at the beginning of a link building campaign). Pillow links are essential tools to utilize when building links to make a website stand the test of time.
Pillow links include links such as web 2.0s (user-generated content), citations, blog post comments, social profiles, press releases, and so on. These links don’t usually provide the raw pushing power of other link types, but they are great for diversifying your link profile. They are also useful for establishing the presence of your website with search engines, adding relevance, and creating buzz/brand awareness.
For example, citations are a very natural type of pillow link that builds trust and adds location relevance. These links won’t push you to the top positions, but they are still very important.
Pushing links are links such as niche edits, guest posts, authority links, and PBN links. These are the powerful ranking tools that do most of the pushing for other websites trying to improve their SERP positions. Each type of high quality backlink is slightly different and extremely useful.
Moreover, both pushing links and pulling links are used extensively in SEO strategies aiming to boost rankings and organic traffic.
For a more detailed explanation of backlink types and their uses, check out our article on backlink diversity.
Anchor text, or the clickable text of the link itself, is another important component of backlinks which we’ve already discussed briefly in the relevance section.
In the past, search engine optimization tactics tended to overuse keywords within anchor text to jump straight to the top positions. Now, this type of manipulative keyword stuffing will land your website in some serious trouble.
Having said that, you still want to deploy exact match anchors, but a link can still be a high-quality backlink if it has non-keyword anchors such as URL, branded, or generic variations.
Just like you need to diversify your backlink profile, you also need to diversify your anchor text profile. A link with keyword-rich anchor text might do more pushing, but you can’t solely use keyword anchors and expect to succeed in the modern era of search engine optimization.
A contextual link is a backlink that exists within a paragraph of information. In other words, it’s surrounded by contextual content (which attributes topical relevance to the link). All of the links you see in this article with the orange text are contextual.
Contextual links are more sought after than non-contextual links because they help to build relevance. But like we discussed before, high quality links don’t necessarily have to be highly relevant to be useful/valuable.
Links such as sidebar links and footer links can still pass tons of juice if they are on authoritative, powerful pages.
You don’t want mostly footer and sidebar links as that would be very unnatural, but that doesn’t mean they are low-quality links.
Indexation and Crawlers
In general, you want your links to be on pages that are indexed by Google. You can check for indexation by using the “site:” search operator.
If you just got a guest post link from a new article, it might take some time for Google to index it (based on the size/authority of the linking site). You will want to make sure that all of your pushing links eventually get indexed.
Some types of pillow links might take forever to index or not index at all. We usually don’t worry too much about pillow links not indexing. There is evidence that shows that Google still knows about such a link even though it isn’t visible in the search engine index. Other search engines may behave differently.
Aside from Google’s index, many SEOs place too much weight on a backlink’s quality by how quickly/if it shows up in Ahrefs or similar tools.
You have to remember that Ahrefs is an imperfect crawler and it takes serious time to crawl the entire internet. It might take Ahrefs a lot longer to add a link to its index than Google, and sometimes it won’t even add it at all. Remember that Google’s algorithm (and its search engine crawlers) are the most important entities that evaluate backlinks – not Ahrefs, Moz, website owners, Internet marketing gurus, or anyone else.
See our Ahrefs guide for more information on how we like to use this powerful tool for analyzing sites and searching for link building opportunities.
Unless you are a veteran SEO that understands the risks involved, you probably don’t want to mess around with spammy links or spammy sites.
That being said, there is a lot of misunderstanding on this topic. Here are some different things that some SEOs consider spam:
Visually Outdated/Untrustworthy-Looking Sites – Google web crawlers and other search engine bots do not know what “trustworthy” looks like in an aesthetic sense (or what good design looks like). Disregard these factors when determining the quality of a backlink.
High Amounts of Outbound Links from the Linking Page – This can actually matter, however the number of outbound links a linking page can safely have without completely diminishing the value of your link is not known. Got a link on a page with 500 outbound links? Probably not too good. That sounds like something spammy websites would do (especially if they are all pointing to a specific page).
Auto-Generated Links – Stay away from these unless you’re a black-hat pro. Getting tons of links with keyword-rich anchors with slight variations in anchors/URLs/etc can be highly damaging to rankings and link profiles.
Spun Content – Links from spun or extremely low quality content are not a good thing. You won’t always have problems, but it definitely increases the chances of being penalized by Google’s algorithm.
Think you’ve got some spammy links from a shady website that you want to get rid of? You might want to consider a disavow. However, use this as a last case scenario and only if you are sure the links in questions are actually spam and that they are actually having a negative impact on your site’s rank.
White-Hat, Gray-Hat, Black-Hat
Contrary to what white-hat purists may scream at the top of their lungs from the moment they wake up every day, Google does not know the difference between a white-hat link and a black-hat link if you are following industry best practices and safe link building techniques.
Of course, there is more room for user error when building gray-hat and black-hat links, and the inexperienced or uninformed can land themselves in trouble in the form of penalties – algorithmic or manual.
But in the hands of a skilled SEO, that “hat” of a backlink has zero effect on its quality.
In a perfect world, high quality links would always be more expensive and low-quality links would be cheaper. In the real world, this isn’t so much the case.
While you can generally safely assume that dirt-cheap backlinks are too good to be true, it doesn’t always work the same way in the other direction.
Higher prices do not always mean higher quality when you are buying links.
This is because link vendors do not always have control over the pricing for the site your link is placed on. Prices for a high quality backlink, such as Guest Post, are set by the site owners. When purchasing backlinks for link building, you will have to make your own judgment on if the link is worth it for you.
We’ve talked a lot about what makes a high quality backlink. Probably too much! Perhaps we are obsessed with quality backlinks. That being said, we hope this theoretical SEO guide has given you a useful framework for assessing the specific factors and metrics associated with backlink quality and how to determine which types of backlinks will help your own website perform better in the search engine results.
Hey I'm Chris, one of the founders here at SirLinksalot. I'm into building internet money machines (affiliate websites) and specialize in building backlinks. Find out more about me and my link building team.
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