How do backlinks influence search engine results?
Backlinks play a central role in how websites are ranked in search engine results. Using backlinks as a key ranking factor is a logical choice - after all, the more links pointing to a site from other websites, the more likely it is that that site has something worth pointing to. Unfortunately, unscrupulous individuals long ago (correctly) figured out that to improve their ranking in search engines, all they had to do was just to get lots of backlinks. Even today, many companies continue to specialize in doing exactly that: they “sell” backlinks by the 1000s, their staff doing nothing but posting links all day (though usually computers do the job for them).
Link weighting and site authority
One of the ways search engine companies deal with attempts at manipulating and falsely skewing search results by link “spamming” is to attribute a measure of importance to each site providing the backlink, and to share that measure of importance or site “authority” among the links leaving that site.
To use last week's example, the website of the UN is obviously a more credible and significant source of information than “lets-be-friends-with-other-countries.com”. A link to your website from the homepage of the UN's website would therefore be treated more favorably that a link from “lets”. The impact on your site's search engine results from a UN link is thus greater than the impact from a lesser-known, or less-reputable site. A site's reputation thus increases a site's rank, and enhances its ability to positively affect ranking results for sites it links to.
Reputation and sharing
A site's reputation is a quantifiable value, that can be calculated at any given moment. This reputation is not unlimited, however. Instead, it's shared, and each backlink from a site only brings with it a proportional share of a site's reputation. The more links there are from a page, the less of that reputation each link will carry.
To return to our example, if ever the UN added large numbers of links to other websites, the weight attributed by search engines to each link would diminish. A website shares it's credibility with the sites it links to, and each link shares a proportion of that weighting. The more links created, the less importance attributed by search engine algorithms to each link. Once those links become too numerous, their positive affect on the receiving website's own credibility or reputation ranking is thus greatly diminished.
Though link weighting is a little more complicated than the example outlined above might suggest, the basic principal is simple enough to understand. If you want to find out more on exactly how search engines use backlinks for search engine result ranking, you can read more about it here.
Getting backlinks, and making them relevant
When you start working on improving your site's visibility (ranking) in search engines, the essential point to remember is that a handful of good quality backlinks is always better than a score of poor-quality links. Try to avoid the temptation to "spam" other websites simply to get backlinks.
But It's also important to ensure that backlinks carry meaning as well as reputation – after all, search engines are all about providing relevant results for people searching.
One of the measures of relevancy for backlinks is their context. Getting a backlink from the home page of the UN is great if your website deals with international diplomacy and dispute resolution. But if you're selling tire swings, the connection with the UN is a little more difficult to make. Search engines are trained to look at the context of a link (the text of the page and site it comes from, in addition to the anchor text of the link itself) and use that information to evaluate a link. If your link is relevant to the content of the page where it's present, the link will work more effectively to improve your site ranking in search engine results.
When building links, try to target sites that have a connection with your website content. But don't neglect backlinks within your own site - not only are they an important part of building a navigational "framework" for your site visitors, they're also important for search engines, and enable them to "see" what's important on your website, and which words are relevant search terms for your content.
Where do I start getting links?
One of the first places to start building links is by submitting your site to directories, and one of the most important directories for listing a site is DMOZ. A quick search on the web will uncover countless lists of other directories – the following will give you somewhere to start:
Try not to limit your work to directories alone – building backlinks is also about advertising your site, and ensuring that advertising is placed in a meaningful context for the people (and search engines) who come across it.
In addition to directory listings, get a head start on link building by exchanging links with websites that share a theme similar to yours – doing so ensures that the link context is meaningful, and that the reputation of the site providing the link is a know variable from the start. Though many sites offer links in exchange for money, you should avoid using them. You can achieve the same results by listing and exchanging links with sites for free, and by engaging in active link-building in forums, blogs, and through direct link exchange partnerships with web sites. Not only will you control the context of those links, you'll also develop relationships that will help ensure your link building is meaningful, lasting and successful in the long term. There are a lot of articles around the web that look at going about developing link building strategies, such as this one and that one.
It takes a lot of time and effort to make a website, but even more time to get noticed on the web. Starting early with a link-building strategy is an important part of ensuring the long-term success of a website, whatever free website builder or website development software you choose. It's not something to be rushed: a little work every week will prove more useful over time than a lot of work concentrated over a short period. However, there is a lot more to ensuring your site gets visitors - and that they stay around long enough to appreciate all that hard work – than simply building links from other websites. More on that next time.