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Do I Need Links to Rank on Google?
If you want your web site to rank on the first page of Google, you’re going to need a lot of links from other web sites, right? The answer might surprise you. Like many things in SEO land, link-building, the process of getting other web sites to link back to your web site, is not very well understood by many business owners (and probably some SEO companies alike!).
You probably receive at least a dozen emails each day offering to get you more links – thereby improving your organic rankings. Links have become synonymous with SEO, but do you need links in order to rank well? How many do you need? Should you buy links? Can you acquire them on your own? After reading this blog post, you won’t be an expert on all things link building, but you’ll understand the basics; you’ll be in a much better position to evaluate any SEO companies pitching you and you’ll see that, in many cases, you really don’t need much in the way of links in order to rank on the first page of organic search results!
The Minimum You Should Know About Links
We don’t know Google’s ranking algorithm (sorry to let you down!) and neither does any other SEO company. We track and monitor what we call ‘ranking signals’ and what we’ve seen is that search engines like Google want to provide their visitors with the most well-matched, relevant, authoritative and trusthworthy web sites – given the visitor’s search query. Every day, Google scans millions (probably billions) of web pages – the code, content and offsite factors – looking for clues about the subject matter of the site and how important it (the site) is relative to other similarly themed pages.
Links to your site from other web sites are treated like votes or referrals. All things being equal, more links and more referrals equals a higher ranking website – at least according to many SEO companies. Pretty straightforward, right? We wish. If you’ve actually read any of the SEO email solicitations you’ve received over the past week, you’ve probably started to notice a whole new language that goes along with link-building.
You probably read terms like:
- Inbound links
- Anchor text
- Followed links
- Nofollowed links
- PageRank or PR
Link-Building Terms Explained
Here’s a Cliff Notes version of what each of the link-building terms above mean:
Backlinks and inbound links: Backlinks and inbound links typically refer to the same thing. Simply put, they are links from one web site to another web site. If an SEO company is offering to get you more ‘backlinks,’ they are offering to get or place links to your web site on other web sites (presumably not owned by you). How are they able to do this? That’s a great question!
Here are some of the more common link acquisition strategies:
- Placing your links on websites that the SEO company owns
- Asking other websites to link to you on your behalf
- Listing your website in free online directories – many include a free link with signup
- Adding comments to blogs and including a link in the comment
- Participating in social media groups (like LinkedIn) and including links in posts or within comments
These are just some of the ways that SEO companies acquire links – in reality, the list goes on and on. The important point is that inbound links and backlinks refer to the same thing – they are links from someone else’s website back to yours. (Note: The relatively uncommon strategy for acquiring links, but the ONLY strategy recommended by Blue Corona, is to create remarkable onsite content and promote it to relevant and authoritative sites – although, often times they find it on their own!)
Anchor text: Whether you’re familiar with anchor text or not, if you’ve spent any time on the Internet, you’ve seen it a million times. Anchor text is the keyword or keyword phrase that serves as the link to another web page or web site. Anchor text is typically highlighted like this: anchor text (if you click this example, a nother window will open up that contains our other blog http://bluecorona.wordpress.com).
Anchor text is important because it gives web site visitors (and search engines) a hint about the web page or web site they are about to visit (if they click the link). This is why you DON’T want to use common calls to action like, “click here” or “our website.” Instead, you want to use keyword rich anchor text. If you’re having a contest to give away a free website makeover for the HVAC industry, make free HVAC website the anchor text! If thousands of web sites link to your site using the anchor text ‘leading residential furnace installers‘ there’s a good chance that you’re in the residential HVAC business and you install furnaces!
Followed vs. nofollowed links: Links come in two basic varieties – followed and nofollowed. Google assigns every web site and web page a PageRank (this is probably changing with the launch and growth of Google +1). The higher the PageRank, the more authoritative (and typically the higher ranking) a web site or web page. Facebook is a 10 out of 10. Ebay is an 8 out of 10. If you own a regional home services business and you have been actively marketing it for the past 2-3 years, your PageRank is probably somewhere between 3-5.
When web site A links to web site B, web site B gets a little boost in PageRank. The higher the PageRank (sometimes called PR) of web site A, the higher the boost. This is why all links are not created equal. A link from Apple.com (PR9) should have a far bigger boost (in SEO terms) for a local computer accessories store than a link from the local chamber of commerce – which is both less relevant to a computer store and would presumably have a much lower PR.
So, when web site A links to web site B, web site A passes a little bit of PageRank to web site B. This is true UNLESS web site A links to web site B and adds a little snippet of code that tells the search engines NOT to pass PageRank to web site B. When this is done, we call the link a ‘nofollow’ link. Nofollow was created to allow websites to link to advertisers without violating Google’s terms and conditions (Google expressly forbids paid links with the intention of influencing another site’s PR).
(Note: All you SEO experts reading this, no need to comment or email us – we’re oversimplifying things to allow most of our target audience to get through this post without falling asleep)
Crosslinks: Some SEO companies use the term crosslink interchangably with link, backlink and inbound link, but crosslinks or cross-links typically refer to links from one web page to another web page within the same website. If you look back at the homepage of our website (www.bluecorona.com), you’ll find some anchor text (do you remember what that is) in the main paragraphs of the page. These links go directly to other pages deeper within our site. These are crosslinks (there are also crosslinks within this blog post!).
Do You Need A Lot of Links to Rank on Page One?
With all of the basics covered, let’s get back to answering one of our original questions – do you need a lot of links pointing to your site in order to rank on the first page of Google, Yahoo and Bing? The short answer is, “NO.” In many cases, just a few links (or none at all) is all that you need in order to rank on the first page of Google, Yahoo and Bing.
Here’s one example (of hundreds):
Hartz Stone, the top organic listing (if you don’t count the video) has 74 links. Tileandstonerestoration.com, the third organic listing has just 5 links! Elegant Floor Services, which is close to the bottom of the page, has 30 links (and 9 of them are ‘nofollow’ links). You could probably get close to 100 links to your website by simply adding your website to every business directory in your local area (not that doing this will make any difference in your organic rankings).
Here’s another example:
Waterdeliverymd.com, the second organic listing, has a whopping 2 links! Endless Waters, the third organic listing has 26 links (5 of them are ‘nofollow’ links).
In case you were wondering, there’s nothing significant about the 2 links to Waterdeliverymd.com. Both of them are from www.perfectse.com which (now) goes to a Godaddy.com parked page!
The Takeaway on Links
Ranking well organically on Google, Yahoo and Bing comes down to optimizing three aspects of your web site:
- Site code and structure: Your site must be coded and organized in a way that makes it easy for search engines like Google to find, read, index and rank. It’s very common (unfortunately) for web design companies to say that they know SEO and then code a website in a way that makes it impossible for the search engines to read. For example, significant amounts of text contained inside images cannot be read. Designers often do this for stylistic reasons, but it’s a major barrier to SEO.
- Onsite content: The content of your web site must be relevant to the keywords searched. In almost all cases, it should include the keywords or the keyword phrases for which you are trying to rank – in the title, the headings, the file name, the main body content, etc. (note: there’s a difference between including keywords and keyword stuffing). It should be unique and remarkable. It should answer your visitors’ questions – whether those questions are implied or explicit.
- Offsite factors: You want to establish an authoritative overall presence online. This means having all of your social media profiles matching and complete; listing your site in relevant directories; and getting other ancillary (and authoritative) websites to reference you as a subject matter expert in your industry.
Links are one offsite factor. Despite the (often aggressive) sales pitches made by other SEO companies, you don’t need links (or at least not a lot of them) to rank on the first page of Google, Yahoo or Bing. Be clear, we’re not saying that having more links doesn’t help you push your organic rankings up. We believe links do help; you just don’t need them the way many SEO companies would have you believe you do.
The types of links you really want are obtained by creating awesome content. Assuming a well-coded and structured website, the single most important factor for ranking well organically is onsite content. Invest your time and money on creating fantastic content. If you don’t like to write or don’t write well, you can always hire a do-it-for-me web site copywriting service.
Links for the sake of links is a waste of time and resources and buying links is expressly prohibited by Google. If you get caught buying links – whether you’re responsible or your SEO company is – you might find yourself getting penalized. Google “JC Penny link scandal” for more information.
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About The Author: Ben Landers is the President and CEO of Blue Corona, a data-driven, inbound internet marketing company. Submit an inquiry to book Ben to speak at your next conference or event.
View more blogs by Ben Landers