DIY SEO #16: How Link Building Works

How link building worksLink building is a integral part of any SEO project.  There are always keywords your site isn’t ranking well enough for and there are always competitors gunning for you for the keywords for which you are ranking well.  A good link building campaign is the solution to both those problems.  So, how does it work?

What are links?
In the technical sense a link is a reference to an online document which a reader can follow…or a place you can click to get to another web page or file.  In the SEO sense, a link serves two purposes:

  1. A link provides a way for a web page to be found and indexed by the search engines.
  2. A link is a vote, a way for a website to recommend a page to their readers and to the search engines.  While it’s a little more complicated than this, essentially, the more votes a page gets, the better it can rank in the search results.

How Does Link Building Work?
As mentioned above, link building works like a vote or recommendation.  Each link performs two functions, it passes authority and it passes reputation.  Each plays an important role in how effective your link building efforts will be as search rankings are primarily a factor of authority and relevance.

Link Authority:
Inbound linksThe search engines give a certain amount of authority to each page (in Google this is called PageRank).  Pages can then pass some of that authority (PageRank) to other pages through links.  This effects the page being linked to in a general sense, meaning it isn’t helping with any specific keyword, but rather all potential keywords.  With each link the  page gets more authority.  This allows the page to rank well for more competitive keywords.

As you can see, this means that page authority varies from page to page and over time.  All links are not created equal.  A page with few inbound links to it will pass a small amount of authority through its outbound links while a page with many inbound links will pass a large amount of authority.  So, getting inbound links from highly authoritative pages is more valuable than low authority pages as they will give your page more authority.  It’s similar to how a recommendation of a restaurant from a famous chef is more valuable than a recommendation from some guy you met at the 7-11.  Also, Well established sites tend to have more authority because they have been around long enough to get a lot of inbound links.

Link Reputation:

Update: 11/04/2014:
Google has updated how they deal with keywords used in links.  Due to people abusing link reputation by creating thousands of spammy links with their main keywords, Google now has de-emphasized this signal and will even penalize sites that have too many keyword-rich links.  In addition, most of the links you should be trying to get should be created by someone else who is, of their own accord, choosing to link to you either because you have great content or because you’re just awesome.  So, you shouldn’t even have control over what text is used for links in most situations. [End Update]

In addition to passing authority, links also pass reputation.  This is where relevance comes in.  Reputation is established by the link text or, in the case of image links, through the alt tag text.  Link reputation effects the page being linked to in a specific sense, meaning it helps only for the keywords used in the text or those very closely related.  This is why it is important to get people to use your targeted keywords in the link text for your inbound links as much as possible.  The more links pointing to your page using a certain keyword, the better that page will rank for that keyword.  Going back to our chef recommendation metaphor, if the chef recommends a certain dish, the recommendation will cause more people to get that dish than other dishes and restaurant may become know for that specific dish.

There are some types of links that do not have link text.  In those cases little or no link reputation is passed with the link, but link authority is still passed.  I say little or no because there may be some reputation passed based on the content of the page on which the link is located.

The Theory Of Link Building:
To sum it up, link building works by building the authority of your web pages from the authority being passed to your pages through the links.  It also allows you to target specific keywords which, along with your on-page SEO, establish the relevance of the pages for those specific keywords.  The combination of authority and relevance then determine how well you will rank for those keywords.

DIY SEO 15: Becoming More Competitive <- DIY SEO: Main -> DIY SEO #17: 17 Things You Need To Know About Link Building

4 Responses to “DIY SEO #16: How Link Building Works”

  1. I have been doing a few blackhat methods in the past in getting my sites ranked but I have been having a strong conviction on doing my SEO work as whitehat as possible. As you can imagine, whitehat seems to be be more work, but in the eyes of God, I'm sure it's the way He wants me to go. I guess what i'm asking is, where do I start in doing an honest backlinking campaign that will show results for my sites? Any tips?

  2. Hi Denis,

    At this point the "secret" is just doing a great job with your organization/website, creating great content, and connecting with people. If you do a great job with your organization/website, that can generate natural links as people recommend you to others because of their great experience. The next thing is great content. Create content that is interesting, helpful, entertaining, etc. Something that people would want to share with other people. It should be somewhat related to what you do, but don't limit yourself too much. If you sell Christmas trees, you don't have to only create content about Christmas trees, you can also write about all kinds of Christmas stuff. Then be connecting with people. Provide ways for people to connect with you through social networks, reach out to people, and go where people in your niche are. The better a connection you have with people the more likely they are to consume your content and share it. Guest blogging is good for this, too. (notice I didn't say guest blogging was good for link building). If you can guest blog, it puts you in front of a larger audience and can grow your audience.

    It can be more work, but it won't get you penalized and it will create a following that's better than unearned links anyway.

  3. Thanks a lot for sharing this, Kurt. Here’s a tip of you want your linking building efforts to work now that Google Hummingbird is here. Hummingbirds are madly in love with natural and relevant link profiles, links from relevant sources (and not just PageRank 7 sources), links from evergreen content sites, links from established, reputable online publications. Trust and authority remain king. How do we get that? Provide content that helps people solve problems, or better yet, teaches them something. I hope this helps.

    • Hi Luke. Thanks. Yeah, link building has changed a bit in the 2 1/2 years since I wrote this post. Though, certainly teaching people and helping them solve problems has always been a great way to earn natural links. Very good.

      Google has always liked natural, relevant link profiles and relevancy has become increasingly important (even over PR as you pointed out) for a few years now, even before Hummingbird. Hummingbird was really more about semantics. Google is now better able to understand entities and concepts and how things related to each other (rather than just looking at keywords). So, relevancy has opened up a bit. No longer is relevancy just about the keywords being used on the page, but rather what the page is truly about and even what the site is about.

      Also, I'm very happy that you left a thoughtful comment and have joined the discussion. Just as an FYI, though, I'm fine with people linking to other resources if they are directly helpful (other articles, studies, etc.), but I prefer that people don't just link to their services. So, I have removed the promotional part of your comment.