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What A Great Link Is, And Why You Should Care

November 03, 2015

One of the most important ranking factors in all of SEO is a website’s link profile. Google analyzes all links coming into a website, and makes algorithmic determinations based on them about how authoritative and valuable your website content is. Great link profiles indicate great content, and thus highly rankable content. A poor link profile, on the other hand, tells Google your content has low value. It’s the quality, not the quantity of links that matters most — although it always helps to have more high-quality links.

Characteristics of Great Links

What are great links? Here are a few of the most important characteristics:

  • Great links are relevant. The linking website has a thematic connection to the website being linked.
  • Great links are authoritative. The linking website should be a trusted source of information, a website in Google’s good graces.
  • Great links are diverse. Google looks for a “natural” link profile — links from websites that differ in popularity, status, domain type, etc. For example, if every link to your website comes from high PageRank websites, Google concludes those links were “artificially” manufactured by an SEO campaign, rather than being “earned” by the inherent quality of your content. (We’ll come back to this point in a minute.)
  • Great links have varied anchor text. Another indication of “natural” links is varied anchor text (the words used in the hyperlink back to your website). In the old days, anchor text was always packed with keywords; today, this practice conveys SEO manipulation to Google.
  • Great links point to strategically important website pages. Google likes to see links coming to multiple pages of a website, but it is particularly important for great links to point to website pages important for lead generation, such as product and service pages — these are the pages you want to be most visible to potential customers searching on Google.

The Danger of Bad Links

Great links help your SEO visibility: no question about it. However, the flip side is something every company should worry about. A bad link profile can not only cause Google to discount or ignore your website content, it could result in penalties with the possibility of removing your website from Google altogether — a potentially devastating situation for any company tapping organic search for lead generation. Bad link profiles can result from a number of issues:

  • Links that were once good but are now bad due to the linking company falling out of favor with Google.
  • Links that were once good but are now bad due to the use of outdated anchor text techniques.
  • Companies that hired incompetent or unscrupulous SEO agencies in the past that created bad links (e.g., links from bad, “link farm” websites, irrelevant websites, spammy blog comments).
  • Links that are now broken — i.e., no longer work — which develop over time as linking websites change or cease to exist.

These links can be cleaned up through an SEO subspecialty known as link reclamation, and is an important component of most SEO campaigns.

Are Great Links Born or Made?

As mentioned earlier in the discussion of great link characteristics, Google prizes natural links. In Google’s words:

    “Keep in mind that our algorithms can distinguish natural links from unnatural links. Natural links to your site develop as part of the dynamic nature of the Web when other sites find your content valuable and think it would be helpful for their visitors. Unnatural links to your site are placed there specifically to make your site look more popular to search engines. Some of these types of links (such as link schemes and doorway pages) are covered in our Webmaster Guidelines.

    “Only natural links are useful for the indexing and ranking of your site.” — Google Search Console Help

With that in mind, must a company rely on nature to take its course with regard to creating great links? No. The fact is, only uber popular websites like Wikipedia and eBay can rely on people naturally linking to them with no encouragement or direction. For the vast majority of companies, marketing efforts are needed to get great content noticed and linked to — in other words, to get linking websites to give the content the recognition it deserves.

The Mechanics of Building Great Link Profiles are Demanding and Complex

Far from being an activity companies can leave to chance, creating a strong link profile requires particularly expert handling in order to do more good than harm. It is definitely not a DIY activity! Consider:

  • The SEO agency engaged in a link profile campaign must be fully aware of scores of best practices that change unpredictably and often.
  • The agency and client must collaborate to create great website content: i.e., content that is authoritative, relevant and useful to prospects and customers.
  • The agency and client must collaborate to create off-site articles written to the same high standards.
  • The agency must carefully target potential publishing websites for off-site content, to make sure they are diverse and meet all the other criteria for making their links valuable. In particular, the publisher must be willing to link to the client website; otherwise, it becomes a digital PR exercise rather than SEO.
  • The agency must reach out to qualified publishers and generate interest in the client’s article. This can take hours and hours.
  • Once a publishing relationship is formed, the agency must work diligently to build the relationship.
  • The agency must continually review the client’s link profile to clean up problems. Keep in mind that links erode over time (think websites that cease to exist), so this job is never done — and never easy.
  • In addition to off-site article link cultivation, the agency must pursue a great number of non-content link development initiatives, including directory listings, infographic and image marketing, and much more. These additional activities are very important because they really ramp up the diversity of the overall link profile.

Wrap Up: Strategic Link Profiles Win

Hopefully this review has brought you to the conclusion that your website’s link profile must be built with the same care that goes into building a jet aircraft.

If a company pursues link building haphazardly or not at all, it will crash and burn — while competitors with a strategic plan soar. Over time, the gap in organic rankings will grow larger and larger, giving competitors a greater and greater share of available organic online leads.

All other things being equal, Google will display content from great link profile websites ahead of content from websites with inferior link profiles. Because link profiles are such an important ranking factor, even when all other things are not equal, the link profile remains a very significant separator.

It takes time and skill to create and market great content, along with the many other tasks related to link profiles, but the payoff in lead generation makes it pay, as we have seen time and again.

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