By Cory Collins
14 Feb 2017

Real Links, Real People: What Makes a Backlink “Real”? (2017 Update)

Basic SEO     Link Building     SEO Strategy

We have a saying at Page One Power: websites don’t link to websites, people link to people.

While obviously links are in fact created on websites, the point is to remind ourselves that it’s the people behind those websites who make the connection and decision.

In this digital age it’s easy to forget about people, especially as SEOs. We worry about backlink profiles, Google updates, crawling and indexation, website analytics, and organic traffic reports. Numbers on a screen are our metrics for measuring people -- so much so that we forget the people those numbers represent, entirely.

This is wrong.

Google's #1 goal is user (read: human) value. Their results must answer searcher intent, build loyalty, and keep people coming back to search again. That's how Google remains dominant, and continues to make staggering amounts of money -- 90.4 billion in 2016.

SEO should have this same laser-focus on people and audience. Searcher intent needs to be a key consideration when optimizing a page to rank. "Does this page deserve to rank, and does it answer searcher intent?" should be a part of every SEO process.

Here at Page One Power, we refer to this focus on human-value in links as “real links”.

There are a variety of different descriptors for what we commonly refer to as real links: genuine, valuable, quality, editorial, relevant, evergreen, natural, organic, manual.

But despite the many names, there isn't a singular definition. How can those who aren't savvy to SEO understand the difference?

What makes a link “real"?

It definitely doesn't boil down to Domain Authority or Trust Flow.


What Are Real Links?

Links can be used in a variety of ways online: as reference, citation, promotion, sharing, navigation, trust, etc.

But what is a link, really?

A link is a:

  • Connection between two websites (or pages).
  • Vote of confidence: sites only send their visitors to pages or sites they believe valuable and relevant.
  • Primary means of navigation, reference, and citation.
  • Signal of authority and relevance to search engines.

There are a thousand ways someone might link online, for a thousand reasons.

It’s impossible to know exactly which links Google will value and which they won’t. Anyone who guarantees a specific number of links will have a specific impact isn't telling the truth. No one has access to or full understanding of Google’s algorithms.

Real links are made by putting humans first, creating links that humans will value and click.

How do you create links for humans? You build links that are:

  • Relevant
  • Editorial
  • Useful
  • Natural.

Those are the elements that define real links. Let’s take a look at each one.

Link Relevance

Link relevance should be the north star of your link building efforts. You should never pursue a link that isn’t contextually relevant.

Building relevant links means you’re staying within Google’s guidelines, and you've created a link that humans will actually click.

Irrelevant links are a red flag to both humans and Google; links that do not make contextual sense are one of the primary earmarks of link spam.

How do you determine link relevance? I wrote about it in depth here.

Look for relevance on four different levels:

  1. Domain to domain
  2. Page to domain
  3. Page to page
  4. Link to page.

My favorite method to test link relevance is to ask why the link is relevant. Humans are trained all their lives to make connections: if the connection can't be explained, it’s not relevant.

Editorial Links

Google became the premier search engine based upon their ability to return the best results.

What did Google do differently to return better results? They included links as a primary ranking factor in their search algorithm.

Google was founded on the principle that links are a vote of confidence, and used links as a signal of authority and relevance.

The integrity of links as a ranking signal is predicated on the editorial nature of links. Google strictly monitors any link that doesn't appear editorial – they’re on the lookout for links that are intended to manipulate their results.

Google’s Penguin algorithm -- the name for Google's algorithm that devalues low quality links -- has squashed long term link abuse. The only links worth pursuing are links that require effort, sweat, and determination. Links that are editorial in nature.

So what makes a link editorial? Well:

  1. Does the other site knowingly, understandingly, link to yours?
  2. Is the link within their discretion?
  3. Do they choose how and why to link to you?
  4. Was the link reviewed by a human and given the green light?

The link needs to be honest. It needs to be reviewed by the humans behind the website and created intentionally.

Useful Links

Real links have value, to both the web and people on the web.

There should be a purpose behind the link for the website and its audience. You should be able to explain the utilitarian reason the website should link, and why it makes sense for their audience.

The value behind the link serves multiple purposes.

First, you will have a much easier time securing links to your pages if you can clearly explain the value to the website and their visitors.

Secondly, you want the people who click the link and visit your website to have a positive interaction. If you build links that aren’t useful, you’ll be creating poor brand interactions. It’s not worth hurting your reputation for higher rankings.

And finally, if you're creating links for the sake of links alone your rankings will be built on a house of cards -- meaning you're not building a sustainable strategy.

Natural Links

Natural links happen when you build links for humans. SEO benefits naturally follow.

What does it mean to build natural links?

Well, natural links:

  • Make contextual sense on the page
  • Have a clear purpose and function
  • Use sensible descriptions
  • Are commonly surrounded by other links.

Can naturalness be determined by tools or algorithms? I would guess Google’s taken a pretty solid crack at it. For SEOs and marketers, my advice is to use human intuition as your litmus test.

My favorite method to determine whether or not a links is natural is to ask myself:

  • Am I happy to show the link to the client?
  • Am I happy to show the link to a colleague?
  • Would I show the link to a family member?

I should be proud of the link and my work at every stage of the process. I should understand the relevance, value, and editorial nature of my work, and know that my built link was earned.

Pulling It All Together

If there’s one thing you should take away from this article, it’s that real links are made by real humans, for real humans.

Human care is needed in creating links that matter. You can’t substitute human care, no matter how clever, brilliant, or efficient you are.

More importantly, there should be value for real people when you create a link. If your link doesn’t serve any value beyond SEO, Google doesn’t want to count it in their algorithm.

To secure real links that achieve real results, you’re going to need to invest in intelligent humans. And make sure that they are building links that are:

  • Relevant
  • Editorial
  • Useful
  • And natural.

We’re in the digital era, but technology still exists to serve humans.

Cory Collins

Cory Collins is the Business Development Manager at Page One Power and has been with the agency since 2012. Cory is an SEO strategist, writer, runner, and outdoor enthusiast residing in Boise, Idaho, with his wife, daughter, and (too) many pets.