High-Quality Links and How to Get Them

by Quenton Fyfe

19th February 2019

If you want to move your website higher up the Google rankings, you probably know that you need to get more backlinks. In other words, links from other websites pointing to your website.

But the days when you could go out and build hundreds of low-quality links to your site, and expect to see it shooting to the top of page 1 on Google are long gone.

Today, more than ever, you need high-quality links – and building low-quality links might do more harm than good.

But what do we mean when we talk about “high-quality links” and how can you get them?

Before we answer that question – it’s important to understand the answer to this one:

Why Does Google Care About Links Anyway?

When Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, were at Stanford University they noticed that some academic papers received a lot more citations than others.

And those papers which were often cited in other papers tended to be the higher quality, more significant ones.

Large circular library with three floors of bookshelves around a central atrium with reading desks.

They realised that they could use this idea to rank web pages – making the more frequently linked-to (and therefore higher quality) pages rise to the top.

They called this ranking system “PageRank” – and it became the foundation of the Google search engine.

Today, Google still uses PageRank, (albeit a modified and improved version), as well as other ranking factors to rank its search results.

Google still uses backlinks as a signal of the quality or importance of a page. That’s why getting more links is still the best way to rank higher in Google.

You can think of each link to your website as a “vote” or “recommendation” of your site from the webmaster linking to you.

But not all votes are created equal – as we’re about to find out:

High Authority

As we’ve already seen, Google makes use of the fact that some web pages get more backlinks than others.

Pages with more backlinks have more “ranking power”. And if they link to you, they pass some of that “ranking power” to you.

That “ranking power” is usually called “PageRank” or “authority”. You might even see it called “Link Juice”.

So a link from a high authority web page is worth a lot more than a link from an average web page.

US Supreme Court building against a blue sky. Carved roof with the words "Equal Justice for All" is supported by 8 stone pillars - the building is at the top of a large flight of steps.

Google doesn’t publish a web page’s PageRank any more – so how can you tell how much authority a page has?

One way is to use the Ahrefs Toolbar which will show you their estimate of a page’s authority on a scale from 0-100.

Screenshot of ahrefs toolbar showing statistics for a web page.

It’s not the same data that Google uses – but it’s a good approximation, and will help you work out which websites are most worth getting a link from.

Relevance

A few years ago, it didn’t matter where your backlinks were coming from as long as the sites had authority.

If you had a website about Dog Training, backlinks from sites about Dogs, Recipes, Poker and Nuclear Physics were all equally good.

Now Google pays a lot more attention to the relevance of the websites linking to you.

They’ve worked out that people publishing websites about currency trading don’t naturally link to dog training websites.

Montage of photos of different subjects. On the left, a golden labrador do jumping over a fence, in the middle hands holding playing cards, top right pots and vegetables for making soup and bottom-right an artists impression of an atom.

Links from websites on unrelated subjects are probably not natural editorial votes for the site they’re linking to. They might even be paid ads.

That’s why Google gives less weight to links from sites on unrelated topics.

So we want to get links from pages on topics related to our own.

Not Lost in the Crowd

Every page that Google knows about on the Internet has a certain amount of authority or PageRank.

And that total amount of authority is divided between all the pages it links to.

Diagram showing a page with a pagerank of 100 sending 25 to each of 4 linked pages, and another page of 100 pagerank sending 5 to each of 20 linked pages.

So if a page has 10 links on it, each link will give 1/10th of the page’s authority to the pages it links to.

But if the page has 100 links on it, and one of them is to your page, you’re only going to get 1/100th of the authority (ranking power) from that page.

So other things being equal, a link from a page with a few links on it is worth more than a link from a page with a lot of links.

That’s why we want to get links from pages that don’t have too many links on them.

Reasonable Surfer

There’s another way to think about PageRank:

Imagine someone randomly surfing the web and clicking on a link.

Your page’s PageRank is the probability of the random surfer, landing on your page.

The more incoming links you have pointing at your page, the greater the probability that a random surfer will land on it – and the higher Google wants to rank it in the search results.

But people have come up with all sorts of tricks to allow them to put links on their pages so that Google would find them, and count them for ranking purposes, but human visitors wouldn’t notice them.

Putting lots of links in the page footer, using a very small font size, making links a similar colour to the background so they almost disappear – that sort of thing.

Google thought that was deceptive (and it was messing with their rankings) so they came up with a new idea to solve the problem – the “Reasonable Surfer” algorithm:

Man in black wetsuit surfing a large breaking wave.

A typical human visitor surfing a web page is much more likely to click a link near the top and in the middle of the page content. Especially if the link is easily visible, and a normal size. And they’re much less likely to click a small, nearly invisible link hidden-away at the side or bottom of the page.

So the Reasonable Surfer algorithm made links which human visitors were more likely to click, pass on more ranking power than links which were unlikely to be clicked.

That means not all links on a page are equally powerful – so we want a link that people can find, and might be tempted to click – because that will be more powerful in helping us to rank.

Within Google’s Guidelines

At first, Google considered every backlink to be an Unbiased Editorial Recommendation.

In other words, a link given by a webmaster because they thought the page they were linking to was valuable and they wanted to recommend it to their site visitors.

Extract from Link Schemes section of Google Quality Guidelines text with Google logo at 45 degree angle overlaying the text.

And if webmasters just linked out naturally to the pages they liked, then Google’s PageRank algorithm would work beautifully – and in the beginning, it did.

But people are resourceful (especially webmasters trying to promote their websites!) and when they discovered that backlinks helped them rank in Google, they came up with a myriad of clever schemes to get more links and boost their rankings. For example:

  • Buying Links (including exchange for products or services)
  • Reciprocal Links (I’ll link to you if you link to me)
  • Private Blog Networks (building lots of fake websites that all link back to you)
  • Embedding Links in Widgets (such as free traffic counters)

And many more…

The problem is that links like those aren’t Unbiased Editorial Recommendations – so counting them told Google nothing about the quality of the sites they link to.

And the result of all these spammy links was that Google’s search results began filling up with junk because of all the SEOs gaming the system.

Scrapyard showing piles of old cars, domestic appliances and other scrap metal.

So Google came out with a set of guidelines for webmasters, saying what you should and shouldn’t do to promote your website.

Over the years, these guidelines got tighter and tighter as Google fought fires and closed loopholes. It’s worth reading Google’s latest Webmaster Guidelines.

If Google catch you doing something outside their guidelines (which they’re very good at doing, because their multi-billion dollar business depends on it), then they reserve the right to give your website a ranking penalty, or ban you from the search results altogether.

And that’s why we want real backlinks that are within Google’s guidelines – they work better, and we’re not worried about getting banned – which helps us sleep better at night!

DoFollow

One of the link schemes that webmasters and SEOs used to get backlinks was using bots to leave fake generic comments (“Awesome post dude!”) on other people’s blogs – including a link back to their own website.

All that spam made the comments sections useless for real readers, and the links were undermining Google’s algorithm by ranking more low-quality pages.

Google’s solution was to invent a new attribute called NoFollow which websites can add to links. Links with NoFollow look just the same to people viewing the web page – and they still work if you click them – but Google doesn’t count them for ranking purposes.

A black right arrow casting a shadow on the white background.

Today, most blog comments, forum profiles and other user-generated content use NoFollow links. That takes away some of the incentive for people to drop spammy links promoting their own stuff.

Google’s guidelines also state that if you buy or sell links, they must be NoFollow.

There’s nothing wrong with having NoFollow links pointing to your website – there’s no need to avoid them – they’re part of a natural link profile. People can still click on them to visit your website, so they still have value.

But this article is about getting “high-quality links” – so we’re looking for links that will help us to rank.

(By the way – there’s no DoFollow attribute – it’s just a name that’s been given to ordinary links without NoFollow).

The Perfect Link

So if we bring all that together, what does our ideal high-quality link look like?

It should be:

  • On a Real, High Authority Website
  • On a Relevant Page
  • On a Page with Few Other Links
  • Within Main Page Content and Easy to Find
  • Within Google’s Quality Guidelines
  • DoFollow

In other words we want links that are “Unbiased Editorial Recommendations” from real, relevant websites.

The bad news about links like that is that they’re much harder to get.

Three neon signs each one spelling out the word "perfect"

The good news is that if a link ticks all those boxes, it’s a powerful link that will give your rankings a real boost.

And because links like those are so powerful – you don’t need very many of them.

Just a handful of top-quality links will be far more effective than hundreds or even thousands of lower-quality links.

How to Get High-Quality Links

First, a note on Google’s Webmaster Guidelines: On a strict interpretation of Google’s Guidelines, doing anything at all that could be seen as “Link Building” is outside their guidelines.

They would rather you just create great content, then sit back and let their algorithm do the rest.

Bearded man at his office desk, leaning back in his chair and laughing - he has a sticker on his forehead that says "Be Happy".

Back in the real world – that just doesn’t work – at least not within any reasonably time frame. Most of us don’t want to wait for years for Google to discover and rank our pages – so we have to promote them by getting some high-quality links to kickstart the process.

Just be aware that nothing you do to build links is totally without risk. Having said that – the link building techniques I’m about to show you are usually considered pretty safe:

Deserve Them

Google’s right about one thing: The best way to get more links is to deserve them! Step 1 in any link building campaign should be to look at your page and make sure it deserves to be ranked #1 for the keywords you’re targeting.

Of course you’ll be biased, as we all are – but try to put that aside and think like an independent observer.

Your page needs to have an attractive design, and to satisfy the users’ intent. That means providing all the information they’re looking for, and making them happy they found your page.

Little girl in blue top holding both hands up with expression of delight on her face.

When webmasters see a page like that – they’ll want to link to it and tell their visitors about it – because showing their visitors a high-quality resource makes webmasters look good.

If you’ve got high-quality content like that – your link building task will be much easier. If you haven’t – I suggest creating something outstanding first, and then build links to that.

Competitive Intelligence

One of the best ways to get quality backlinks is to find sites that already link to your competitors, but don’t yet link to you.

You can then reach out to them, make them aware of your site, and request a link.

You can find these sites using Ahrefs “Link Intersect” tool, or the “Clique Hunter” tool in Majestic. (Both tools require a paid subscription).

Screenshot of ahrefs Link Intersect feature showing three domains to check against our domain.

You simply enter several competing websites, and Ahrefs will find sites that link to all of those competing sites – but don’t yet link to you.

They are a prime target, as they link to similar sites to yours, so they should be willing to link to you as well.

Check out what sort of content and what sort of pages they’re linking to, get in touch, and suggest something similar (or better) that they could link to on your own site.

Broken Link Building

Broken Link Building is a great way to get links with three simple steps:

  • Find a website that you want to get a link from.
  • Find a broken link somewhere on that website.
  • Tell them about the broken link, and suggest that they link to your website instead.

This is one of my favourite methods of link building:  Not only is it a very effective way to get high-quality backlinks from real websites – but you’re making the web a better place by helping get rid of broken links – which are a poor user experience.

Large rusty chain with broken links at each end

You can get started with using a free tool like the Chrome extension Check My Links, which will find all the broken links on a web page.

There’s a lot more to this technique than I have space for here. So I’ve written a Guide to Getting Started with Broken Link Building which will help you get your first links with this powerful method.

If you’re really serious about building backlinks, I created the Broken Link Building Mastery course, which will show you the systems and processes you need to scale up, and use Broken Link Building to get loads of backlinks, any time you need them.

Skyscraper Technique

Named by well-known link building expert Brian Dean of Backlinko, the skyscraper technique is a simple but effective three step process.

  1. Find a piece of content in your niche that a lot of people already link to.
  2. Create something better on the same subject.
  3. Reach out to everyone who links to the original, and let them know about your improved content.

Again, using a tool like Majestic or Ahrefs will help you with step 1 by showing you the pages on competing websites that have a lot of backlinks.

Screenshot of ahrefs report showing pages of a website and numbers of inbound links to each.

It makes sense to choose an article that is relevant, and that would fit into your website. You should also choose a resource that either isn’t that great , or is a bit out of date, or has a dull or dated looking design.

In other words, something you can clearly improve on with a well-designed, comprehensive article that’s bang up to date.

Once you’ve published your new article, outreach is simple – just collect the contact details from websites that link to the original, and tell them about your improved version.

If you’re struggling to find contact details, try a tool like hunter.io or Voila Norbert – or use Buzzstream which can help you manage the outreach process and find contact details too.

Whatever you use, don’t forget to send a follow-up email to people if they haven’t linked to you after a week or so – it’s quick and easy to do – and you’ll pick up some extra links.

Glass skyscraper viewed from ground reflecting blue sky and clouds.

The Skyscraper Technique is great because you don’t just get some new backlinks – you’ll have a great piece of content for your site too – on a subject you already know is popular and attracts links – so it’ll probably pick up new links over time as people find it.

In this article, I’ve talked about why Google cares about links, and what sort of links they consider high-quality in terms of improving your rankings.

I’ve given you my formula for a Perfect Link, and shown you some link building techniques that you can use to get some powerful high-quality backlinks for your own website.

If you take action and start a link building campaign using any of these techniques, and work at it consistently over time, you’ll soon see new backlinks to your website, and your rankings and traffic will start to improve.

What’s your favourite link building technique?  Let me know in the comments below.

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