Why are links so important?

Search engines need to determine two things when they attempt to fulfil a user’s search request – they need to decide which pages in their index are relevant to the user’s query, and then they need to rank those pages in terms of quality and importance.

The engines have to rely on criteria, and one of the main things that indices a page’s perceived importance to search engine’s ranking algorithm is the quantity and quality of references (or links) to that page from other web pages. Each link to a page is a vote of confidence for that page. The more links that point to an individual page (and globally to the site as a whole), the higher the collective vote of confidence for that page (and/or site) becomes, and the more important the page is deemed to be by that search engines.

Votes from different pages carry more or less weight depending on the perceived importance / quality of the source page, the type of link, the anchor text used in the link and a host of other factors taken into account by the search engine algorithms. When you consider the tangled skein of interconnecting links that make up the world wide web, you begin to appreciate the complexity inherent in assessing the relative importance / quality of all of those pages in relation to one another.

Incoming links in general are a good thing, and play a critical role in determining your search engine rankings. The more links you have pointing to your site, the higher your perceived authority – but there is a caveat. For ‘votes’ to be counted, the incoming links have to pass certain search engine filtering criteria. Those that fall outside the engines’ criteria (generally any link that that is designed to hoodwink search engine’s into assigning higher rankings rather than to guide site users to a relevant page) are either ignored or can have a negative impact on your ranking.

While all incoming links that satisfy the search engines’ criteria will influence your ranking in a positive way, it makes sense to try and maximize the value of your incoming links by focusing your link-building efforts on quality links over quantity. Attracting high-quality, natural links from authority sites with subject matter that is aligned with the content on your site is the real key to high rankings. That is not easy, but the way to get those kinds of links is producing outstanding content that high-authority sites will want to point their users towards.

Links from authority sites are probably the single most significant factor in boosting your site’s overall rankings in the SERPs. A single link from e.g. CNN, BBC homepage could be worth more to your site in terms of ranking and exposure than countless links from smaller, relatively unknown sites. Authority sites, by their very nature, also tend to be high traffic sites, and you’ll inevitably garner some direct traffic as people click through to your site via the link.

The flip side of this is that links from authority sites are notoriously difficult to secure, while links from smaller, less well-known sites generally takes less effort. In practice, your aim should be to get as many inbound links as possible from sites with as high a perceived authority level as possible.

The role of internal and external links

Internal links and external links are both important for boosting the ranking of individual pages within your site.

Internal links – links that reside on pages that belong to your domain or subdomain. In other words, links between pages on the same website, or pages that reside in subdomains of the primary domain.

External links – links that reside on pages that do not belong to your domain. In other words, links from other websites.

All these links are important. Links from reputable external sources boost your site’s perceived authority with the search engines, which in turn helps your more popular pages to rank higher in the SERPs. Internal links give you a way of disturbing the ‘authority’ accrued by your more popular pages (like your homepage) to other important pages that you want to rank for. Internal links can also help to group pages or related content. For example, using ‘related posts’ list helps to make your site content more engaging, and encourage visitors to explore the sites rather than bounce off a page as soon as it has been visited.

Getting good links

There are a huge number of ways that you can encourage people to link to your site. But building quality natural links is not easy and it takes time. It depends on creating high quality content, and building a reputation for excellence (or no) in your chosen field, which in turn encourages other website owners to link to you.

There are some quicker, easier ways to secure incoming links, but such links tend to either be of poor quality, or violate search engine guidelines. Search engines take a dim view of anyone trying to manipulate search results. They see any attempt by a less relevant or lower quality site to leapfrog up the rankings as ‘search engine spam’.

Harvesting links purely for purpose of boosting your site’s rankings in the search engines is frowned upon, and while it may work in the short term, it is a risky strategy at best that will ultimately harm your rankings, and may even result in your entire site being blacklisted and removed from the search engines’ indexes altogether. If you are trying to build a sustainable, long-term online business it simply is not worth the risk.

For sustainable long-term rankings, focus instead on building high quality links through ethical means, concentrate on your content, and build your site with your end user in mind. Exploiting search engine loopholes and ‘clever’ tricks to artificially boost your rankings isn’t really search engine optimisation. It is search engine manipulation. And that will ultimately backfire. Working within search engine guidelines may mean that it takes a longer to achieve the rank you are looking for, but in the end it is generally better way.

Ryan, D., 2016. Understanding digital marketing: marketing strategies for engaging the digital generation. Kogan Page Publishers.

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