Link building requires strong social skills, excellent communication, persistence, and creativity. It’s marketing, sales, and psychology combined.
Links are a strong ranking factor in Google’s (and other search engines’) search algorithm.
Securing a link on another website gives another audience direct access to your website, and can pass referral traffic.
A link is a vote of conﬁdence from one website to another. Each link creates a positive connection and develops a relationship.
Links are vital to increasing traffic online. A website without links isn't going to get any traffic — from search, or from other websites.
That’s the short, nitty-gritty explanation. Now let's take a deeper look.
Link building is the process of securing a link on an independent website back to your own site (or a client's).
Google search is based around links. The more links you have from relevant and authoritative websites, the better your website will perform in search for relevant queries. Links also drive referral traffic and help develop relationships.
SEOs use customized strategy with diverse tactics designed to convince another website it is in their — or their audience's — best interest to link to a page on your site.
Link building gained popularity with the rise of Google in 1998, and is still vital today in 2017.
SEOs, marketers, and website owners use link building to increase traffic to their site through search.
In fact, it’s called the web due to links — links are the ‘webbing’ that combine the millions of websites into one entity, creating the interconnected web.
There are two primary reasons marketers and businesses should be concerned with links:
Links are valuable for marketing, audience development, relationship building, and search engine optimization.
Links are important to humans, marketers, and internet usability. Google search is also reliant upon links, both for ranking and crawling.
Let’s take a deeper look at how specifically search works.
Google crawls the web by following links (again making search reliant upon links), creating an index from the pages they find. When you use search you're not searching the live web, but rather Google's index of the web.
Google stores their index in numerous data centers, which are incredibly large and complex.
Google's last reported index size is roughly 130 TRILLION pages, taking up over 100 million gigabytes.
How does Google know which pages to return for a given search (query)? How do they determine which pages are relevant? How do they rank and order those pages?
Google uses algorithms, both machine learning and human coded (by Ranking Engineers), to determine the most relevant results.
There are over 200 ranking signals used by Google's search algorithm. No one knows precisely what these signals are (or even the strength given to each signal) — though many speculate.
There are three different categories of optimization you can perform to improve your website in search:
Technical SEO is the optimization of technology involved in Google crawling and indexing your site. This includes domain architecture, technology stack, robots.txt, server codes, redirects, page speed, internal links, etc.
On-page SEO is the optimization of the content and HTML of your site's pages themselves. This is a more granular view of the elements on the page, which help Google understand the topic and intent of the page. This includes the words on the page, the URL, title, header tags, images, meta tags, etc.
Off-page typically refers to links, although it can also include citations.
Technical and on-page SEO are crucial — you’ll never rank to your site's full potential without clean, optimized on-page and technical SEO. Fortunately you should largely have control over these elements, which are the direct result of how you build your website and its platform.
Technical and on-page SEO both become much more complex as you scale a website (increasing the number and size of pages), and involve more technology.
Off-page is the element you least control in SEO. It requires convincing another website to provide positive signals to your site, which doesn’t happen without a good cause.
Links have perhaps the most ranking value of any single signal. They’re absolutely critical to ranking in competitive search.
Securing a link from an authoritative website in a relevant manner isn’t easy. Google’s original algorithm succeeded because it used links as a core ranking signal, which no other search engine used at the time.
Google’s concern is the same as any business: making money.
Google's primary source of revenue is from search. In fact, before Google split to become Alphabet, search was responsible for the majority of revenue — despite many successful side projects (which have now become their own businesses, under Alphabet).
How does Google make money from search, which is free? With advertisements, at the top or bottom of the search results page. This is an incredibly big business. Google reported $74.5 billion in revenue in 2015, with a consistent growth year-over-year.
To ensure they continue to make money from search, the core of their company, Google has to do two things.
To better understand search, let me show you a search for 'coffee':
I highlighted the Knowledge Graph in orange, the local pack in green, additional search features in red, and the ad in yellow. Let's take a look at each element.
The Knowledge Graph is Google's attempt at explaining real-world information, instead of relying upon another website to answer searcher needs.
The Local Pack is Google satisfying local and mobile searchers.
The additional SERP features represent Google’s attempts at creating an overwhelmingly great user experience, no matter what the intent of the searcher. In the case of this search, they pull in publications about coffee and searches related to coffee.
The advertisement represents Google's revenue. Ads are how Google makes money within search.
Anything not highlighted has made it into the results using at least some search engine optimization, including clean technical structure, optimized on-page content, and links.
Take a moment and appreciate just how much Google puts into search quality — there’s a wealth of informational elements designed to satisfy searcher intent, without even having to click away from Google.
[Coffee] is a completely generic term — often referred to as a 'head term' within SEO — with no clear intent. Yet no matter what the intent of the searcher, the odds are good this result page will answer it. We have real-word knowledge (Knowledge Graph), nearby coffee houses (Local Pack), articles from publications, additional search suggestions, and nine organic results to meet additional intent.
Without much information to work from, Google is able to create an amalgamation of results to answer a variety of searcher intents.
This result also doesn't include personalization, which is common in search. If you consistently search [coffee], you'll see different results than appear here.
Also, notice how discreet the ad is; sitting at the bottom with nothing but a green "Ad" to differentiate it from the rest of the search results.
Finally, consider the fact that every website not highlighted wouldn't be in the search without the help of SEO.
Google’s staggering revenue flows from search. SEOs work to increase website's ranking in relevant searches. The highly competitive, lucrative search terms are dominated by SEO efforts.
Google has a vested interest in managing SEOs. If we're able to manipulate low-quality websites into search, we could affect their bottom line, no matter how many non-organic elements they include in search.
As SEOs it’s important for us to always start with searcher intent. Before we optimize a page for search, we should first consider if the page actually belongs at the top of search results. If it doesn't, our efforts might be wasted for two reasons:
Google wants to return the most relevant results for searchers. Any wins we experience might be short term if our page doesn't deserve the rankings.
SEOs' ability to rank subpar pages has largely diminished in the last few years, and can lead to penalties if taken to extremes (manipulation).
There is no secret shortcut to securing quality links. You'll need to identify how your website adds value to the web, the opportunities that exist within your niche, and secure the links your website deserves.
With a little creativity, research, analysis, and strategy link building can make the difference your website needs.
Every link should be useful for your website, the website linking, and their audience.
Quality links will help your website earn meaningful organic traffic from Google search.
There are many other factors within SEO, but links still remain very integral to any SEO strategy.
Link building is both a science and an art: technical knowledge and analytical skills are necessary, but the defining element is human creativity.