Backlink Building Guide (Updated for 2020)

When describing the importance of building backlinks for SEO, I used to like using a high school analogy. If you want to be popular in school, you’ve got to have a lot of friends. But it isn’t enough to just have a lot of friends. You need your friends to be popular too. So, being best friends with the football star is going to matter more than being friends with the entire chess team.

The same goes for your website. If you want your website to have a good reputation so it will rank on the SERPs, you’ve got to have a lot of popular friends – i.e. lots of high PR backlinks. Having a zillion backlinks from no-name websites isn’t going to mean as much as one link from a “popular kid” like BBC or The New York Times.

But, as anyone who has gone through the ordeal of high school knows, building reputation and popularity isn’t that simple.

Quick History of Backlink Building for SEO

Ten years ago, it was really easy to manipulate search engine rankings with backlink building and carefully-chosen anchor text. You would just hire someone in India to write a handful of cheap articles (and then use article spinning software to turn these into dozens of "new" articles), put these low-quality articles on a bunch of free Blogger or WordPress websites, and use these websites to create keyword-optimized backlinks to your real website. If you had even a moderate budget, you could easily buy your way to the top of the SERPs with these backlink building techniques.

Then Google cracked down on this with its Penguin update. The Penguin algorithm update discounted links which appeared spammy or low-quality.
Got 100 backlinks in one day from brand-new websites? Spammy.
Got 100 backlinks which all have the exact same anchor text pointing to your site? Spammy.
All of your backlinks are from forums or blog comments? Spammy.
Some websites were even penalized for having too a spammy backlink profile. For example, if 99% of all the backlinks going to a site were from spammy sources, then the site might get a penalty. This was the first time that Google ever penalized sites for bad backlinks -- before bad backlinks just didn't count; they didn't get you penalized. The SEO community was outraged. They (rightly) claimed that shady webmasters could get their competition penalized by sending a bunch of spammy backlinks their way. To counter this, Google launched its Disavow Tool which lets you tell Google which links you don’t want to be counted when assessing your website.

Worried that you might be penalized by spammy backlinks? You probably don’t have anything to worry about. In most cases, Google just doesn’t count backlinks which are low quality. You only should worry if a significant portion of your backlinks are spammy. It is, however, good practice to pay attention to where your backlinks are coming from (which you can easily do in Webmaster Tools) in case any blackhat SEOs are attacking your site with bad backlinks in hopes of getting you penalized.

Link Juice of Backlinks

We can’t have a discussion about SEO backlinks without also talking about link juice. Link juice is a term which was coined by SEO expert Greg Boser. It refers to the amount of power that is transferred from a link. Note that link juice can also be from internal links (such as a link from your homepage mattering more than a link buried deep within your contacts page or other less-important page).

With link juice of backlinks, it is usually PageRank which is talked about most. Obviously, you want backlinks from popular, powerful websites like The New York Times. But relying solely on PageRank to determine the value of a backlink is an outdated practice, and many say that PageRank doesn’t matter anymore This makes sense: if Google relied on PageRank to calculate the amount of juice passed by a link, then links could be easily bought and sold, and new websites would never have a chance to rank. PageRank can still be valuable if you are using backlink-building methods like guest blogging and want to determine which sites are worth your time, but there are other more-important link juice factors to focus on.

According to Boris Demaria at WooRank these are the qualities to look for when weighing the link juice of a backlink:
  • Page content is relevant to your site
  • Page has high PageRank
  • Page has few outbound links
  • Page has quality content
  • Page appears in the SERPs
  • Page has user-generated content
  • Page is popular in social media
  • Page has keyword-optimized anchor text
You’ll note that relevancy is listed as #1, ahead of PageRank. For example, let’s say that The New York Times runs an article about a recent earthquake. They interview you about damage to your local boutique, and the journalist is nice enough to link to your boutique’s website. You just got a high PR backlink, but it has absolutely no relevancy to the article. You'd probably be better off with a backlink from a fashion website, even if it had lower PR.

Backlinks Are for Getting Referral Traffic, Not Rankings

Backlink building has always been considered a SEO tactic to get higher in the SERPs. But your backlink building techniques shouldn't be about SEO. Backlinks should be about getting referral traffic.

Guest blogging is now considered the best backlink building method. When choosing guest blogging opportunities, you'll want to choose the blogs which are most likely to bring you traffic. That means choosing blogs which are highly relevant to your site and have a high number of followers. The good news is that backlinks which have high potential for referral traffic are also going to have high SEO weight.

Here's another reason to aim for backlinks which will bring referral traffic: some SEO professionals believe that backlinks don’t pass any juice unless they are clicked. Not all SEOs agree with this, and Google will never disclose to us all of its secrets. But, even if backlinks with no clicks do count now, Google might update its policies in the future so only clicked links pass juice. Remember, Google makes about 500 algorithm updates per year, so it is futile to try to keep up with all of the updates! You should stick to backlink building methods which drive traffic, boost reputation and brand awareness, and build connections – not high PR backlinks because you think they will get you a boost in the SERPs.

Traditional Backlink Building is Dead

Considering how difficult (and even dangerous) it is to manipulate backlinks for SEO, it is no wonder SEO analyst like John Mueller has said that link building isn’t advisable and that, “In general, I’d try to avoid that.”

If you are building links on forums, comments, and other low-quality pages, then you are probably being spammy, wasting a lot of your time, and could even harm your site. Follow the time-old SEO advice that "Content is King." If you make great content, backlinks will come naturally. And once you've got your own content in order, then you can start focusing on backlink building techniques like guest blogging which will actually bring you relevant traffic.