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Understanding the Core Fundamental Relationships Between Links and SEO

Note: Links and link building, in general, is hugely nuanced. This blog post won’t even come close to explaining everything, articulating all possibilities, or even touching on all points. However, this post aims to sort of take a step back, and on a basic level, understand why links are paramount to SEO.

Let’s begin!

We’ve all heard that links are essential to SEO. We’ve also heard and read about whether or not to do link building.

As per reasonable expectations, conversations, and definitions, when someone talks about “links” and “SEO” together, most of the time, they’re talking about backlinks (which only happens to be one of the three different types of links at the highest level).

At its core, links fall into 3 categories:

  1. Backlinks: Also commonly referred to as inbound links, link backs, etc. In other words, an external website (outside of your own) has a link back to your website. For example, if a website had a link FROM their site TO feedthecuriosity.com, it would be considered a backlink TO–> Feed The Curiosity.
  2. Outbound Links: Another familiar term for this is external link. This is pretty much the reverse of number 1 above. This applies when your site links to another website.
  3. Internal Links: Separate from the 2 above, internal links classify as those links when your website links to other pages on your website.

Now, before we dive a bit more on all 3, let’s do a quick FAQ about the top 5 questions that I’ve encountered.

Why Do Links Matter to Search Engines?

One of the core principles of search engines is to crawl and index, as much of the internet they can, in the hopes of answering users’ queries, as best as they can. So the real question then becomes, how would they crawl the internet in the first place?
As you might have guessed, “LINKS” (amongst other factors). It is believed that search engines start from a known sub-set, and then start crawling. So, for example, if Site A links to Site B, Site B links to Site C, (and assuming search engines start crawling from site A), in theory, they would have crawled & indexed 3 websites.
In reality, it is not simple as the explanation above, but the key takeaway here is that while links matter for rankings (more details below), it’s also very essential for crawlability and indexation (which in itself contribute to how well your site can rank)

Are All Links Equal?

Most certainly not! There are nuances as to why one link (be it a backlink, outbound link, or an internal link) would hold more sway than the other. As a straightforward example, a backlink from a very popular site to your website will carry more weight, than a backlink from mine. (all things being equal).

Are Footer Links Bad for SEO?

There seems to be a lot of discussion around this. Without going super details into this, the short answer is no. Google used to give penalties, but now they tend to devalue any links that may appear as unnatural, overused, or non-relevant. That doesn’t mean you should go crazy with it. But it also doesn’t mean you should be discouraged from it.
High level:
1. Don’t spam, or try to game the system (you’d know if you’re doing this!). One, you will likely not succeed, and two, if you overdo it, you may end up with a penalty.
2. With the above stated, if you actually think that footer links are valuable to users, go ahead. For example, if you have a site on personal finance, it may make sense to have a footer link to one of your loan calculators.

How Do Links Contribute to SEO Ranking Factors?

Speaking extremely succinctly, and referring to links as backlinks, think of links as votes. The more votes/a.k.a links you have, the better (all things being the same).
A subset of that is also “referring domains,” or in plain terms, how many websites link to you. As an example, 2 backlinks from a single site are less valuable than 2 backlinks from 2 sites (1 each; and all things being the same).

How Do Internal Links Contribute to SEO Ranking Factors?

Akin to backlinks, internal links also hold a lot of sway. Say, for example, example.com/product1.html has 10 backlinks from 10 referring domains, and in turn, example.com/product1.html, has an internal link to example.com/product2.html. The product 2 page just got some serious love! Essentially, product 1 is passing on its link equity to product 2. Internal links can also assist in faster indexability of the updates on your pages, and can signal their importance.
Say, for instance, if 10 pages internally link to example.com/product3.html, versus only 5 pages internally linking to example.com/product4.html, all things being the same, search engines may pick up on the signal that product 3 is very important to you.

Importance of Backlinks

As referenced earlier, think of backlinks as votes. However, how much worth that vote/link is, depends on multiple factors. A few well-known ones are:

  1. The existing authority of that URL/Page. As in, how many other people are linking to the website/page that is linking to you.
  2. Relevancy of that page to your website. For example, if an adult website links to a site about construction, it’s not that relevant. Maybe it is, and search engines might get that, but if there seems to be a high number of links from adult sites, it looks very unnatural.
  3. Anchor text (applies to any link). Without going into too many details, anchor text is the word (in many cases, the full website URL) in the hyperlink. See screenshot below for reference:
Showing Anchor Text
The word “cookie Policy” acts as an anchor text.

Mostly, the more votes you have (and better if from different people/a.k.a websites), while being relevant, and while having your desired anchor text, the better. Of course, this is assuming you aren’t involved in spammy, unnatural link building tactics.

You May Also Want to Check Out:

Like backlinks, outbound links play a role too! Maybe a little less, but an important one nevertheless. Linking to external websites can achieve the following 2 common goals:

  1. Establishing credibility with users and search engines. More like, don’t believe me, check out what this popular news website also has to say. In general, it can also assist in outreach efforts for future collaboration.
  2. Getting their attention. Any SEO-er will keep track of backlinks. If they start to notice backlinks from your site, at that point, you have their attention. Who knows, if they like your content, maybe they give you a shout-out, or share your post on their social media? The possibilities are numerous.
  3. Outside of credibility and trust, it also helps establish the relevancy of your content — to your target keyword.

There are different strategies you can employ for outbound links (not the primer of this post), but you really can get creative.

If you remember, links also play a significant role for crawling, and indexation. The biggest advantage with internal links is precisely this! See, when it comes to backlinks, you really can’t control a lot. But since you have access to your website, you’re in full control of the following:

  1. How many times you link
  2. Where you link
  3. Quick updates to existing links
  4. Anchor text
  5. Global links such as header, footer
  6. Breadcrumb links
  7. Controlling which pages get the most link equity
  8. Etc.

If you smartly play the 5 above, it can highly assist you with:

  1. Indicating which pages you value the most
  2. Relevancy of your pages
  3. Association of different pages with each other
  4. And above all, speeding up the process of assimilating updates, content, CSS, JavaScripts, etc. all because you could rank faster! Internal links can indeed be very powerful! Yoast has a post that’s a must-read!

Other Expert Resources

  1. The Beginner’s Guide to Link Building
  2. External Links — SEO Best Practices 2020
  3. The Seven Commandments of Internal Linking that Will Improve Content Marketing SEO