What is a Backlink and Why it is the Cornerstone of SEO

As a new blogger, I face all the challenges a new blogger does. While I have eluded most of them, I have already hit a tough roadblock to overcome without consuming a lot of effort …

seo backlinks

As a new blogger, I face all the challenges a new blogger does. While I have eluded most of them, I have already hit a tough roadblock to overcome without consuming a lot of effort and time. Yes, you guessed right, the roadblock I have already hit is that of backlinks. Backlinks are the most critical and challenging part of SEO. People may even pay a ton of money to acquire them (and then tell you how to do it the hard way).

But what is a backlink? A “backlink” is a link from another blog or website to your blog or website. That's all there is to it. So, why are backlinks so important to SEO? Despite all of your On-page SEO efforts, you can still not beat your competitors that post similar content.

Backlinks are the cornerstone of Google's PageRank. PageRank has evolved dramatically since its inception, but it addresses a fundamental problem everyone faces. Backlinks distinguish bad apples, good apples, delicious apples, and excellent apples, to put it simply.

Imagine that when you go to your trustworthy mechanic to fix your car, they discover a problem that requires different expertise. Since you trust your mechanic, you ask them to refer you to the right mechanic that can fix your car's problem. Similarly, when you start a business, nobody knows you. The best way to gain authority and build a “brand” is by getting referrals from renowned and trustworthy companies. But what does that require? Public or personal relations and mutual profit.

Look, a backlink! Credit: Moz

Let's move to the digital world. Whenever you read a post of mine, link back, or backlinking to TechRadar, you may press the link. Is it because I referred you to TechRadar? Not really. It's because Techradar is an authority in the tech domain. Now let's reverse this.

If TechRadar provides a backlink to Borderpolar, will your click it because you recognize Borderpolar as an authority website? No way. It's because TechRadar referred you to Borderpolar, and since you trust Techradar's judgment, you may end up reading a blog post on Borderpolar.

Search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex, etc., initially know nothing about your blog. They may still rank you very high if you perform “predictive SEO.” Predictive SEO means that you start ranking for content just before or right at the start of its existence. If you are the first to be ranked, you will rank first. At least for a while.

So why do you end up dropping in rankings despite delivering the same or higher value than your competitors? It's because Google knows your competitors and trusts them, but it doesn't trust you (yet). If you keep ranking high for a long, Google will start trusting you. But it may take a while or even a long time.

A new site without a strong backlink profile will have to spend much more on its content. On the other hand, you see websites with high authority that Google trusts, producing low-quality posts compared to the competition and still ranking on the first page.

How do you overcome this? With backlinks! If you start receiving backlinks from domains that Google trusts, Google can trust you. Now, there is an index for that level of confidence. Two SEO giants created two.

  • Link Juice: When a webpage links to any of your articles or your website's homepage, it passes “link juice.” This link juice benefits the article's ranking and improves the domain authority. You can stop passing link juice as a blogger by using a nofollow tag.
  • Nofollow Link: When a website links to another website but has a nofollow attribute, that link does not pass link juice. No-follow links are not helpful concerning a page's ranking as they do not contribute anything. In general, a webmaster uses the no-follow tag when he/she is linking out to an unreliable site.
  • Dofollow Link: By default, all the links you add to a blog post are do-follow links and these pass link juice.
  • Linking Root Domains: This refers to the number of backlinks coming into your website from a unique domain. Even if a website has linked your website ten times, it will only be considered one linked root domain.
  • Low-Quality Links: Low-quality links come from harvested sites, automated sites, spam sites, or adult sites. Such links do far more harm than good. This is one reason you should be careful when buying backlinks.
  • Internal Links: Links going from one page to another within the same domain are called internal links. The process itself is referred to as internal linking or interlinking.
  • Anchor Text: Text that is used for hyperlinks is called anchor text. Anchor text backlinks work great when trying to rank for particular keywords.

What is Domain Rating and Domain Authority

Domain Rating (DR) is a metric created by Ahrefs, while Domain Authority (DA) is a metric developed by Moz. They index from 0 to 100, demonstrating a domain's trustworthiness or authority on the Internet.

ahrefs domain rating

Domain Rating (Ahrefs)

DR is measured on a logarithmic scale from 0 to 100, with the latter being the strongest. ”Logarithmic scale” means that the gap between DR 77–78 is much bigger than between DR 27–28. In other words, the higher your DR gets, the more challenging it will be to grow it by another few points. 

  1. Look at how many unique domains have at least one dofollow link to the target website;
  2. Take into account the DR values of those linking domains;
  3. Take into account how many unique domains each of those websites link to;
  4. Apply some math and coding magic to calculate “raw” DR scores;
  5. Plot these scores on a 0–100 scale (which is dynamic in nature and will “stretch” over time).

Now let's explain this in a much more actionable way:

  • The second, third, and subsequent links from the same website will not improve the DR of a target website;
  • The more unique websites a site links to, the less “DR juice” it will transfer to each of them;
  • If the website is only linking to you via nofollow links, it won't increase your DR;
  • If the linking website gets more backlinks and their DR increases, that will positively affect each website's DR that they link to (with dofollow links).

Your DR or DA is zero when you start a blog, and getting to 19 is relatively easy.

  • A small blog will probably have a DR of 30-50.
  • Blogs from 60+ are the heavyweights of blogging.
  • Large corporations and news outlets have a DR in the 80s-90s.
  • The tech giants like YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., have a DR of either 99 or 100.

This means that I can retire happily when Borderpolar hits a DR of 80. Joking aside, increasing your DR or DA is what will make your blog skyrocket. That's easier said than done, though.

Domain Authority (Moz)

Domain Authority (DA) is a search engine ranking score developed by Moz that predicts how likely a website will rank on search engine result pages (SERPs). A Domain Authority score ranges from one to 100, with higher scores corresponding to a more remarkable ability to rank.

Domain Authority is calculated by evaluating multiple factors, including linking root domains and total links, into a single DA score. This score can then be used when comparing websites or tracking a website's “ranking strength” over time. Domain Authority is not a metric used by Google in determining search rankings and does not affect the SERPs.

Naturally, a backlink from a domain with high DR, such as TechRadar, The Wired, or Bloomberg, has much more value than a backlink from a DR in the 20s. Of course, expecting such a high-value backlink is unrealistic. Or it may cost you $1,000 to $3,000 — yes, people make money this way too.

High-quality backlinks are both referrals and votes of confidence in the SEO world since they make the search engine trust your blog and show it to more people. And since your content must be awesome to receive such a link – whether you wrote the said content or someone else did – people will like it too.

Here is the problem, though. By default, all backlinks are follow links. Follow backlinks pass value and authority to your blog. However, by adding the rel=”nofollow” attribute to a tag, the author directs the search engine not to follow the link during the crawling website.

Your blog/website won't gain any DR or DA with no-follow backlinks.

While no-follow backlinks don't increase your DR or DA, they are still helpful. Despite directing the search engines not to follow them, they direct the actual readers to your blog, boosting your organic traffic.

So, any backlink from a popular domain may work wonders for you.

Any time you refer to a resource that brings value to your content, you should keep it as a dofollow link. Whenever you want to direct the user to another site, like an affiliate or sponsored link, you should mark it as nofollow. In extreme cases, the search engine may penalize you if you don't follow this practice in the case of affiliate and sponsored links.

To keep it simple, use your backlinks naturally, following this principle.

Once again, use internal backlinks naturally. Please don't overdo it to pass value from one of your pages to others. If something should be linked, then link it. Otherwise, don't try to make it fit. Internal backlinks provide structure to your blog or website, which is vital to the user's experience.

Simultaneously, citing external sources also improves your SEO score, so do it whenever appropriate.

The URL Rating (UR) factor by Ahrefs

The URL Rating (UR) is a metric of value per individual page of a domain, while the Domain Rating (DR) or Domain Authority (DA). The more popular an individual page is and the more backlinks it has, the more value it can pass to your own domain. Naturally, you want your content to receive backlinks from pages with high UR.

UR is evaluated differently from DR, so even a UR in the 30s or 40s is considered high. So don't get disappointed if you can't score a high UR for your pages.

Page Authority (PA) by Moz

Page Authority (PA) is a score developed by Moz that predicts how well a specific page will rank on search engine result pages (SERP). Page Authority scores range from one to 100, with higher scores corresponding to a more remarkable ability to rank.  It is the equivalent of Ahref's UR.

Page Authority is based on data from our web index and considers dozens of factors. Like Domain Authority, it uses a machine learning model to identify the algorithm that best correlates with rankings across the thousands of SERPs that we predict against, then produces Page Authority scores using that specific calculation.

Moz score Page Authority on a 100-point logarithmic scale. Thus, it's significantly easier to grow your score from 20 to 30 than to grow from 70 to 80, just like DR, UR, and PA.

niche contextual backlinks
A contextual backlink from a fitness blog to another fitness blog. Source: Backlinko

Context is everything. We need to start thinking of search engine algorithms as humans. That is the level of understanding of our content that they start reaching. You need backlinks for people in the same niche as your own. A random backlink from a source with high authority is not good enough if the source is irrelevant to your niche. A backlink from a blog with avocado recipes will not benefit this post.

In the past, the anchor text was essential in understanding context too. With the current natural language processing level, algorithms can extract knowledge and context from the whole text.

To sum up, backlinks are the juice that provides energy to your blog.

  • A blog needs to have external sources linking to it to gain Google's trust.
  • The more trustworthy these external sources are, the more trust you will gain.
  • Dofollow links pass energy, while nofollow links don't. It would be best if you still had both, though.
  • Domain Rating and Domain Authority are metrics that demonstrate a domain's “strength.”
  • Ahref's URL Rating is also an important indicator, demonstrating the “strength” of an individual URL in a domain. Getting backlinked by pages with high UR will work much better.

Let's now address the elephant in the room. If backlinks are so important, how do you acquire them?

I am not here to tell you to write excellent content and get them naturally. I have written awesome content already, and by the time people find it, the year will be 2022 or 2023.

Also, I am not here to tell you to use the broken link building method, with which you identify broken links on a website that you want to get a backlink from and then ask them to replace that link with your content. It's time-consuming, and they still may charge you for that.

Submitting to web directories is not a bad idea to get several backlinks and increase your initial DR. This is quite important. Let's see why.

Generating Leverage – Mutual Benefit

This is the fundamental problem in backlink SEO. The top competitors in your field backlink to one another to stay on top. There is no reason for them to backlink to you for free since you may become a competitor. So why is this not a backlink scheme? Even if it is ethically, the sole fact that they exchange quality backlinks will not penalize them because the search engine sees real value in their Domain Ratings.

At this point, the battlefield may seem uneven, and it to be fair, it is. So how do you build leverage?

Guest Post-trading – Backlink Trading

This is where the money is. When you are a new blogger, don't target the giant whales. Instead, find other people in your niche who experience the same growing pains. Reach out to them. A blog with a DR below 20, like this one, will welcome a guest post or a backlink from a blog with similar targets.

Start building a circle of relationships. As you expand that circle the right way, you won't experience any search engine penalties. If the authors you find also write guest posts on high-authority websites, they will probably backlink to your guest post at some point. And if they do, the backlink energy transitively reaches your blog too.

Since their guest posts are on high authority websites, they will also be backlinked to by others. The transitive nature of backlinks is what creates an avalanche.

That's why people go crazy about backlinks from domains with high DR. It's not just the direct benefit you get but also the transitive one due to the page's popularity linking to you.

When you write a guest post, don't just backlink to your blog and the blog you are guest posting on. Backlink to other influencers. This way, you provide backlinks to them from different domains. Afterward, you can contact them and use those backlinks as leverage.

By working with you, they invest in the acquisition of even more future backlinks from your future guest posts.

It's a simple strategy that requires much work but provides exponential rewards. So, form a web of trust. Expand that web.

Finally, this is precisely what you pay SEO agencies for. They perform the same process for you. This is how people grow, and this is what engagement pods do. This is also how guilds work in MMOs. “Help me, and I will help you.” Don't be a solo act. It may still work, but it will take time and cost a ton of money. People who understand the game are the ones who beat it.

So, what are some ways to get quality backlinks for your blog?

  1. Write excellent cornerstone articles – thanks, Sherlock.
  2. Use the Broken link-building method – tedious and time-consuming.
  3. Replicating your competitors' backlinks is excellent until you realize the competitors paid for those backlinks.
  4. Start guest blogging – put your money on this.
  5. Submit to web directories – easy but not highly beneficial.

This is the one area I have a problem with the so-called SEO experts.

The typical advice you hear is “don't buy backlinks.” The people who tell you not to buy backlinks buy them for themselves and their customers.

However, you are in for a treat if you ever try to do some backlink outreach research and start contacting people to trade backlinks.

Other blogs/websites don't care about the value of your content. They care about DA/DR. So if those are low, you will receive a response suggesting that you pay anywhere from $300-$15,000 for a backlink.

Wait, what?

One backlink from a top authority may be enough to skyrocket your blog. So I advise buying backlinks if you can afford the most expensive ones. Anything above $1,000 should come from a very high authority with a lot of traffic.

Don't buy the cheap low-authority spammy backlinks that come from questionable sources.

You can get some of those for free, and you should start with these if you are a new blogger. When the time comes, though, you need to bring it to the next level. 

Trust me, the more I look at backlink profiles of top websites, the more I realize that, at some point, everybody buys backlinks. But the ones that buy backlinks and get featured on top media outlets are the ones you won't be able to figure out unless you have a keen eye for detail.

Finally, SEO agencies buy backlinks for their customers or use PBNs, but once again, those are of the type that you won't be able to tell what's going on.

Why is everyone advising you against buying backlinks when there is a market for backlinks (otherwise, did top media outlets ask for a fortune to feature Borderpolar's posts)? 

Because their services would go out of business, on-page SEO is important, but a firm backlink profile outweighs almost everything since it will bring you massive traffic and authority. If things go well for me one day, people will ask me whether I bought backlinks or not, and I will just be shrugging my shoulders.

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