Backlinks – What are they and How do you Use them for SEO?

Links are a large part of the value attributed to a website’s content. Internal links drive viewers deeper into your content. The longer a viewer stays on a site, and the more actions they take, the more search engine authority that website gains. Likewise, backlinks are heavy-hitters in the realm of search engine optimization or SEO. But what are backlinks, how do you use them, and what are the penalties for backlinks gone bad?

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What Are Backlinks?

Backlinks, which you may also know as inlinks, incoming links, inbound links, and inward links, are links coming into a website or web page.

When you receive a backlink, it means someone else has a website, and somewhere on their site, they refer to you with a link to your site or page.

For example, you write a blog post and publish it on You have three internal links in that post, and now Activerain is sending traffic to your site when someone clicks on any one of those links. Then, Inman decides to feature your blog post on their channel. Now, you have links coming into your site from Inman.

Those links from Activerain and Inman are valuable backlinks because ActiveRain and Inman are credible authorities in the field about which you are writing.

With the changes and constant updates Google does, it can be scary to talk about SEO and backlinks. You want to use SEO efficiently. Your goal is to increase hits to your website, grow your traffic – and of course, escalate your conversions.

But how do you make sure that what you are doing will not be penalized by Google, or worse, make you drop down the search engines to where no one will find you?

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SEO Techniques for Link-Building

Here are a few tips and some information on the penalties for Black Hat SEO techniques (which you want to avoid like the plague):

  • Stick to quality content first.
  • Apply backlinks only when they can be verified/authenticated.
  • Refrain from trading backlinks when possible.

Exchanging backlinks is considered bad practice and may come with penalties. Instead, it’s best to earn the backlinks by providing quality content that adds real value to viewers visiting your website or blog.

Recent data estimates that the link popularity of a specific page accounts for 22.33% of the components of Google’s ranking algorithm. (source)

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Link building is one of the most important activities for off-site SEO and all search engine optimization in general.

What’s less understood is that not all links are created equal.

While some links will provide significant SEO benefits, others will give none at all – and could even be detrimental in the long run.

Here are some simple tips that website owners and search engine optimizers can follow to ensure that they’re building the right links to provide maximum SEO benefit.

Recognize the different types of links:

Links come in a few different flavors, and depending on which type are pointing to a website, they could provide lots of SEO benefit or absolutely none at all. That’s because not all links pass PageRank or TrustRank, the keys to SEO through backlinking.

It’s exceptionally important that anyone engaging in SEO make sure that the backlinks they obtain are the right type, and avoid the wrong type. The two kinds of backlinks to avoid are redirect links and no-follow links.

  • Redirect Links: Redirect links are special links that don’t link out directly to the intended website. Instead, they use a redirect – usually written in PHP – to first take any user who clicks the link to an intermediate page on the same website before redirecting them to the target site.
PHP is an acronym for Hypertext Preprocessor, a scripting language designed primarily for web design that can be embedded by web publishers into HTML.

Because these links don’t point directly to the URL of the target website, but instead to an intermediary page on the host website, they provide absolutely no transfer of authority or trust. Therefore, they are useless for SEO purposes.

  • No-follow Links: No-follow links are a type of link designed specifically to strip outgoing links of their ability to transfer rank or authority.

If you think of links as votes of confidence between websites, many webmasters wanted a way to allow links on sites without necessarily adding that show of trust. No-follow links were Google’s answer.

A no-follow link points directly to the target website’s URL but provides no SEO benefit whatsoever. No-follow links are useful for a few of reasons, including combating spam. But no-follow links do nothing for white-hat SEO efforts.

White hat SEO efforts are tactics that target a human audience whereas the goal of black hat SEO is to gain rank in search engines.

Obtain links only from trustworthy websites:

The entire reason links are useful for search engine optimization – particularly for Google – is that they transfer trust, authority, and relevance from one site to another.

Naturally, it follows that gaining a link from a site that isn’t considered trustworthy by the search engines won’t be useful for SEO purposes. At best, links from these types of sites will pass little to no optimization benefit. At worst, incoming links from sites that Google or other search engines consider to be spam-ridden or untrustworthy could result in penalties.

Websites that you should avoid building inbound links from include sites with content on topics like pornography, gambling, and illegal activity. Google typically restricts the effectiveness of links from these types of sites, and in some cases even penalizes websites to which these tabu sites link.

It’s also good practice to avoid link farms and places that sell backlinks. Google is adept at recognizing unnatural linking patterns. Backlinks obtained from sites with mass numbers of outgoing links will be of no value. Likewise, purchasing links from sites that Google has identified as link-sellers will provide no SEO benefit, making them a complete waste of money.

Good sites to obtain links from are websites that seem to be in good standing with Google and other search engines. The more trustworthy or authoritative a site seems to be, the better.

Naturally, websites for government agencies, universities or colleges, large foundations, or major news outlets all carry a lot of weight and are great for SEO. However, even a simple personal blog can provide a helpful link provided it hasn’t been penalized or devalued by the search engines.

Embrace Google’s disavow tool:

Google has released a new tool to allow webmasters to disavow links that they think may be lowering the quality of their link profile and hurting their SEO efforts.

Essentially, if a website owner feels that links from a particular site are hurting their status, they can use the disavow tool to instruct Google not to consider those links, thereby eliminating any of the adverse effects the links may have been causing.

There’s a truckload of reasons why webmasters might need to use the disavow tool. One of those reasons is negative SEO, in which a competitor builds bad links to a website to try to hurt its search rankings.

Negative SEO is real, but not all that common. A much more widespread use of the disavow tool will be for webmasters to go back and undo some of the bad SEO practices in which they’ve engaged in the past.

If a webmaster has ever used shady or aggressive linking tactics and found themselves being warned or penalized by Google, the disavow tool is a great place to start corrections.

Whatever the reason may be, if a bad link warning comes up in Google Webmaster Tools, or a Google penalizes a website, either manually or by the Penguin update, the disavow tool offers a relatively simple way to strip bad links out of a site’s link profile. Every search engine optimizer should be aware of and familiar with the disavow tool. If nothing else, its existence should be proof positive that Google takes link quality very seriously.

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Penguin is one of the most recent updates which is designed to punish sites that use backlink trading. It involves manually looking at a website that Google believes is exchanging backlinks and manually assesses penalties. Google accomplishes this assessment by conducting a re-calculation of value.

One of the strictest penalties or results occurring from Black Hat backlink trading is that your site could be put down to the level it was at before SEO was applied. This demotion sets you back quite a bit, so it is important to avoid this penalty by working on some key elements.


Some penalties imposed are site-wide, and others only affect a portion of your traffic. There are two main types of penalties for exploitative backlink trading: Partial match and site-wide match.

  • Partial match: If Google believes you are deliberately manipulating results to get more traffic with an overabundance of keywords, your site will be considered spammy, and you may be penalized manually and dropped down in the results.
  • Site-Wide Match Penalty: This is a serious infraction. The consequences are severe. You will get this penalty if Google believes there is evidence that you use spam techniques to create a keyword only site, where your only goal is to trick people into coming to your site, even when it is not relevant to their search. With this penalty, you can lose over 50 percent of your traffic.
  • Total Elimination: If Google believes you are employing the use of unethical tricks, they may drop your site from the searches altogether.


Google has made everyone on the web more honest. As long as you are being straightforward and creating meaningful content, you have nothing to fear. But, to avoid both automatic and manual penalties, it is important to focus on the following aspects when you plan and execute your SEO plan:

Good content: No matter what updates Google has done in the past or will do in the future, the key is still in excellent content. If you write good, solid content that adds value to your visitors’ experience, you will find that the result will be favorable. You will stay high in the searches. Use keywords strategically but sparingly.

Natural links only: It is okay to use links. Google does not discourage this, as long as it is natural. You can also trade links with others. But the key to staying on the right side of Google’s law, so to speak, is to make sure you only trade links with related businesses because these types of backlinks will be more natural than those that have nothing to do with your business.

For example, it would be natural to trade with a lawn service business if you sell lawnmowers and landscaping equipment, but not with a mechanic, who fixes cars. Staying in your niche area will also result in a more natural use of keywords.

  • Value first: Always make sure your content is valuable. There should always be value in your posts as well as in your links. Make the content engaging and create a sense of worth for what you are presenting.
  • Credibility: Leave a link to the blog author’s bio information so that readers will know who is behind the post. The more credibility you can build on the content, the more people will respect you and Google will reward you.

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SEO Tools: Backlink Checker

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Link building is important. When website owners aren’t actively trying to build more backlinks, then they aren’t maximizing their potential search engine optimization.

As beneficial as the hunt for links is, it can be time-consuming. That means that you have to do it right, or else a significant amount of time, and potentially money, could be flushed down the toilet.

Website owners and search engine optimizers can ensure that their link profiles will be high in quality, reaping the rewards that strong backlink can provide. Avoid no-follow and redirect links. Focus on building links from only high-quality, trustworthy websites. Purge any bad links that exist from previous practice.

Businesses are worried that they will suffer from the Google rules but just remember: you won’t go to prison if you don’t break the law.

Read up on the latest Google algorithms and changes and then just do things naturally. Provide links when they are necessary to add value to the content or to provide people with added information to help in their search for knowledge. Trade backlinks only with relevant websites that complement your business subject, and always think of what the searcher needs. This practice will keep you out of SEO prison and in the Google search results.

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