As more and more businesses attempt to broaden and engage audiences online, the need to maintain your competitive advantage increases. We discuss your website’s most valuable asset—backlinks and how to attract them through link building.

Our goal is to allay the fear and confusion often associated with building backlinks and how these link building strategies compare with natural links. Finally, we provide insights and reveal the metrics we use to determine the value of a link proposition.

For those new to the topic of link building and natural links you will find this information particularly informative. We reveal the distinct differences between link building and link earning and the collaborative mindset you need to help propel your website up the search ranks.

What is link building and why is it important?

Link building is a process or tactic used to boost a website PageRank or domain strength by acquiring links from external sources (other websites). The practice is highly valued as the number, quality and types of links to a website signals to Google your website is a worthy resource. Link building efforts directly impact a website’s ability to rank for targeted keywords in the search results.

Link building is an integral part of the SEO process which combines a number of strategies including on-page SEO, content creation, outreach, collaboration, guest posting and marketing through social media channels to leverage content exposure, buzz and natural links.

Google’s policy on purchasing backlinks.

It was quite some time ago when Google first revealed their intention to come down hard on webmasters taking part in link schemes—penalising those found buying or selling backlinks. The warning posted in Google Webmaster Guidelines struck with immediate and devastating effect as webmasters scrambled to remove links and discover alternatives.

While some who ignored warnings suffered the consequences, others continued without disruption.

Openly displaying on your website, your intention to inflate another website’s PageRank by selling links is also discouraged. To overcome the guidelines, some webmasters negotiate such terms directly with interested parties without openly advertising they offer such services. These tactics and are used more often by service-based and e-commerce companies.

Today, building links by way of guest posting, both paid and free appears to be very much alive and well. With backlinks a confirmed ranking factor, there remains considerable confusion in how backlinks are acquired.

The elusive ‘natural linking’ unicorn.

In short, much of the confusion propagated around the internet lies in the interpretation of the phrase coined by Google, called ‘natural linking‘. Much debate has occurred over the natural linking phenomenon—an argument presented by Google which infers the very act of pursuing something is unnatural.

The term natural linking has always annoyed me personally, an analogy that likens something occurring as a result of human intervention; as natural.

So how does this natural linking phenomenon occur? Well, some of the greatest minds in Google concluded that a genuine vote of trust occurs when another website links to your content purely because it was decidedly awesome. You may have also heard it often referred to as ‘earning links‘—a reward for all your hard work and sacrifice.

Sounds great right? A brilliant idea, until you dwell on it for a moment. Wait a minute, how am I going to attract these natural links if nobody knows my website exists in the first place?

In truth, the ‘natural linking’ phenomenon only exists when your website rises from obscurity to popularity—by definition: popularity is the state or condition of being liked, admired, or supported by many people.

Admittedly, there are numerous ways to build brand awareness other than search engines, but all these methods require a significant investment of time and money, and none of these solutions could be considered natural.

Let’s face it, reciprocity is a big driver of human behaviour, so let’s discuss some cost-effective ways you can determine the value of backlinks and start collaborating and link building your way to popularity.

Who knows, as your website rises the ranks to stardom you’ll earn a few natural links along the way.

How to gauge domain strength and link value.

Experienced SEO’s know gauging the value of a backlink is more than just domain authority. Domain authority (a Moz metric) or Domain Rating (an Ahrefs metric) are proprietary scores that reflect calculated guesses by scoring the strength of a domain based on a variety of in-house algorithms.

Don’t get me wrong, these metrics can be an invaluable guide when used in conjunction with other metrics or analytical tools, however, valuing a link solely by its score, could result in misplaced trust in an unworthy domain or lead you to miss out on some incredible opportunities on high visibility, high-traffic domains.

Numerous factors help SEO’s gauge the actual value of a link—and, as promised, we are going to let you in on a few secrets to help you identify the value of a backlink proposition.

Below is a list of metrics we use to critique every domain we evaluate;

  • DR: Domain Rating shows the strength of a target website’s backlink profile (links from other websites) on a 100-point scale.
  • UR: URL Rating shows the strength of a target page’s link profile (both internal and external links) on a 100-point scale. Ahrefs likens the UR score to the Google PageRank algorithm.
  • Referring domains: Total number of links from other websites to the target website across the entire domain.
  • Referring domains to internal pages: The number of backlinks to a target page (links from other websites), viewed as ‘votes’ from other websites as to page value. The quantity and quality (DA strength and related content) of referring domains impacts page UR and the page’s visibility in search engines.
  • High-intent terms: We analyse the website top-pages results in Ahrefs for the number of high-intent terms appearing in the top-10 results of Google; competitiveness reflects page strength.
  • Organic traffic: Organic traffic is an excellent indicator of strength and provides a no-nonsense view of the website’s visibility in the search engines when viewed in conjunction with overall keyword count, keyword competitiveness, keyword volume and DR. Authority scores like (DR) can be manipulated through unnatural backlinking practices and reflect strength, in these circumstances a domain with a high DR score and low to zero organic traffic often indicates it is part of a private blog network and should be avoided.
  • Selling links: Paid publishing of guest posting or link insertions. Websites that openly state they charge for links and publish with DoFollow are technically breaching Google guidelines and often penalised. We discount the value of links from paid publishing websites and place considerable importance on collaborative strategies.
  • Link pattern: A good linking pattern reflects the total number of backlinks with a gradual descending curve. The optimum curve or linking pattern we find decreases between 15-25% for each 10-point increment in DR or DA (Moz score). The linking pattern is a reflection of ‘natural’ linking rather than a structured approach. A greater propensity of backlinks from high-authority domains than low-authority domains could indicate unorthodox strategies to inflate PageRank. Link patterns should be used as a guide as bad results do not necessarily reveal deliberate manipulation of search positioning but rather highlight the need for further investigation when evaluating a link prospect. As link patterns occur naturally over time, we exclude new websites from link pattern analysis as they have a limited backlink profile to gauge results.
  • Dofollow links: These are the most valuable backlinks to acquire as they pass PageRank to the target domain and help build domain authority.
  • NoFollow links: NoFollow links have the “nofollow” tag included in the link anchor and do not pass PageRank to the target domain. NoFollow links can be beneficial from high-traffic websites where the content on both the originating and target domains is closely related as they can refer to high-intent audiences valuable to promoting your products or services.
  • Related content: Linking to and receiving links from closely related content is a significant ranking factor, having a perceived benefit to aid audiences in their decision process and purchase choice.

Domain metrics really matter.

The above metrics offer significant insights to determine whether a paid or collaborative link is worth pursuing.

Understanding the individual value of each of these metrics can be tricky without a thorough understanding of SEO. For instance, some judge the value of a link based solely on its DR (an Ahrefs metric) or DA (a Moz metric). Assessing the value of a link solely on its domain or page score can be misleading.

Inexperienced web admins place significant trust in authority scores alone, not realising the scores are third-party proprietary metrics and not derived from the Google algorithm. For this reason, we have developed an in-house domain health scoring system that balances a variety of metrics to help us quickly identify the value of a link.

Calculating the value of a link requires analysis of all of the above metrics and weighting (scoring) these metrics based on their competitiveness and how closely the content on the referring website is related to the target URL.

As a rule of thumb, traffic is a significant indicator of domain strength; high ranking sites typically reflect high traffic. It should be noted that DA or DR is not a definitive indicator of website value. It is possible for low authority website’s to have a substantial amount of organic traffic and may have strategically targeted relevant terms with low keyword difficulty. While increasingly used to build an audience, this strategy can reflect low buyer intent and require the value of the website traffic to be analysed more closely.

Nofollow vs dofollow links: what’s more valuable?

There are two link types used to refer an audience to another webpage. NoFollow links include the NoFollow tag in the link anchor, while DoFollow links are assumed in the absence of a NoFollow tag.

Variations of these two primary link types do exist, for instance, the ‘sponsored’, which is used for sponsored and paid links and ‘ugc’ for user-generated content. Both of these are variations of the nofollow link type.

DoFollow links are the most valuable as the referring domain passes page rank to the target URL, effectively devaluing the referring domain’s page rank value. For this reason, website owners need to consider the number of DoFollow links placed on a website. Just how many DoFollow outbound links can be placed on a website without detrimentally affecting search visibility will vary based on current domain strength and the number of backlinks they have acquired.

NoFollow links have no SEO value as they do not pass page rank to the target URL and indicate to Google the target website is not trusted. Depending on the website, nofollow links may provide a considerable stream of traffic to the target URL.

For the reasons above, both DoFollow and NoFollow links are valued backlinks. Whether collaborating or guest posting, the recipient of the backlink will need to carefully consider the value of the link based on the benefit the link will provide the website in terms of passing domain authority and the audience referred.

Annual versus permanent links.

The most sought after link arrangements are permanent DoFollow backlinks and generally incur a one-time payment. In the case of a collaborative agreement, another arrangement is negotiated in return for the link.

Annual links are commonly used in directories and are typically NoFollow. Yearly fees are rarely charged for blog publication and for good reason—if you are contributing a quality piece of content to a guest post or website the recipient benefits from cost-savings for the production of the content but also benefits from additional traffic the content generates.

Link styles and placement.

Website traffic and the quantity of traffic a link will likely send determines the link’s value. The location of the link (such as a homepage, category page, blog article or services page) and its position on the page impact link performance and referred traffic. The style of link, such as a banner, textual ad or anchor text in a blog or service page, will affect the performance and value of the link.

The most valuable link is one that naturally occurs within the content of an article where the link target’s content is related. Anchor links from textual ads and banners should be NoFollow.

Price and value are rarely the same.

After gauging a domain or page’s strength, you will know the true value of a link.

For bloggers who charge for the publication of articles on their guest post, the value and thus the price will fluctuate depending on the number of links you sell. In other words, a guest post website that charges for publishing or link insertions are less valuable to the recipient than link arrangements negotiated through collaboration that links to and from targeted content.

Links derived from websites within the same industry or niche are high-quality links and thus worth more than those obtained from guest post websites offering opportunities for various industries or niches.

Links from high-authority guest posts with high editorial standards whom do not charge for posting content are highly valued.

Collaborative relationships and practices.

Although links from collaborative sources are by far the most valuable asset in your link building strategy—they also are the hardest to acquire. Filtering prospects and negotiating backlinks is a time-consuming process. When collaborating, ensure the prospect you are targeting is closely related to your industry, and to link to and from only related content from within your article.

Great content is rare and valuable to audiences; when collaborating, place less emphasis on the domain authority and strength and focus on building collaborative relationships and the quality of the content they produce.

Backlink types you should investigate.

There are a variety of ways to link back to your website, and full investigation is definitely worthwhile—we recommend you check our article 25 backlink types which affect search ranking for more information on the subject.

One important takeaway here is to remember every backlink or mention builds website rapport with your audience and ultimately, whether those backlinks are followed or not, help increase the visibility of your brand.

The importance of link anchor text.

Link anchor text influences search engine ranking and is quite an extensive topic—too great to cover in this article, so we recommend you take a look at Ahref’s Data-Driven Guide to Anchor Text.

If there is one takeaway on link anchors we can quickly offer, is to mix them up. Do not use the same link anchors over and over again—the practice of requesting a specific link anchor will inevitably result in your anchors over time appearing unnatural.

The power of internal linking.

A much-overlooked strategy is internal linking, that’s internal links that point to sources within your own website. If you have relevant, link-worthy content on your website, use every opportunity to let the world know about it.

Why is this strategy so important? Just as backlinks from external sources are viewed as votes for your website or content, so too are links from and to sources on your website. We are by no means comparing the value of internal links to backlinks but they are a ranking factor that impacts the performance of your content nonetheless.

Remember, every news story you create should target audiences you want to inform and ultimately convert. Aim where possible to link back to internal content 2-3 times each article, and of course, make sure those links are followed links.

What pages on my website should backlinks point to?

The importance of targeting the right pages on your website to point backlinks is crucial. Knowing where your efforts will deliver the best return on your investment is paramount.

A great place to start is targeting pages where you can make an immediate difference—these are pages that just need a little nudge to hit page one.

For businesses, focus your efforts on your primary services pages and homepage and for e-commerce website’s focus your attention on your homepage and top-performing product pages.

The goal here is to target pages where you have a realistic possibility of ranking for the target keywords given your website domain strength and the quality of the content you deliver.

Final thoughts.

Acquiring backlinks to your website requires a long-term commitment, which balances delivering quality content to your audience. Whether you acquire backlinks naturally over time or by using strategies like guest posting or collaboration, remember, audiences are not attracted by links, but by the quality of the content you produce, the questions you solve and how well your business answers their needs.