Whenever Google rolls out a new Penguin update, marketing professionals across the globe sprint to their analytics to see if they’ve been affected. You’ve heard the horror stories. Sites dropping 90%+ organic traffic due to algorithmic penalizations related to link spam or link quality. These penalizations cause the entire community to question what constitutes a quality link portfolio, and by extension, what is a high-quality link itself.
Most general marketing practitioners will turn to their most trusted sources of SEO news and performance. For many, that’s Moz. Moz and other sites like Search Engine Journal, Neil Patel, or Search Engine Watch are great resources, no doubt. But as they’ve been gained a larger audience, it’s become increasingly clear to us that what the SEO powerhouses are teaching marketers about link quality and link portfolios is not always what we see to be true in day-to-day off-page SEO.
As a result, we’ve taken our experience of running hundreds of SEO campaigns, acquiring well over 1,000,000 backlinks for customers, and delivering millions $$$ in organic search revenue to give you a breakdown of what does (and does NOT) make a high-quality backlink.
What Makes a Quality Backlink?
High Page Relevancy
The idea of domain niche relevancy as a backlink quality requirement has been categorically disproven (see below under “What Does NOT Make a Quality Backlink”). However, it’s increasingly clear as Google updates its internal algorithm that page niche relevancy is critical to backlink authority.
Page relevancy measures the thematic relevance of a website page’s content compared to the backlinked websites on that page. If you are working with another website to build a link to your website, it’s critical that there is thematic relevance within the content of that page.
It’s important to note that hyper-granularity is not helpful when determining page relevancy – thematic relevance is what will make or break that link’s equity passing to your website and thus directly lead to increased organic rankings.
Thematic relevance is defined as a measurement of how relevant a piece of content is to a particular keyword phrase, beyond simply determining if that keyword occurs in the content. If semantically relevant phrases, words, and themes exist within the page content, it’s considered thematically relevant and a high-quality backlink.
Examples of good page relevancy:
- Your company is a weight loss eCommerce store. You acquire a link on another website, and the page content with the backlink is a blog post about “6 Ways to Eat Healthy This Week”.
- Your company has built a SaaS sales enablement platform. You acquire a link on another website, and the page content with the backlink is a blog post about “How to Be a Better Performing Account Executive”.
Anchor Text Selection
Anchor text is the clickable text in a hyperlink. In a thematic keyword research SEO campaign, the anchor text should be relevant to the page you’re linking to on your site, rather than generic (with some exceptions) or branded text. This is called an “exact match” anchor.
However, you want to be careful not to create too many anchor text backlinks. Google tracks every website’s anchor text portfolio. This portfolio contains every link that is pointed to your website. Google sees the anchor text distribution between these three varieties of anchors and has a threshold for the % level of exact match anchors within a “natural” anchor text portfolio.
If Google sees your website has a higher level of exact match anchors than the threshold, your website may be hit with an over-optimization penalty. This will happen because Google has identified your website as “over SEO’ed” (their words, not ours). Again, Google wants to avoid any un-natural SERP placements whenever possible. By creating the over-optimization penalty, it keeps marketers in check.
While the details described above are the risks associated with exact match anchors, they’re easily avoidable when a proper strategy is executed upon – and, more importantly, the rewards of exact match anchors are extremely valuable.
We’ve seen, (literally) thousands of times, exact-match anchors propel our customers from an unranked position for a targeted thematic group of keywords to Page One results from a single exact match anchor. Of course, the exact-match alone didn’t cause the massic SERP change (the domain authority, page relevance, and page content length need to be spot on), but it is absolutely a critical aspect of what makes a good backlink.
Page content length is the total number of crawlable words that Google sees on a particular web page. Within the purview of backlinks, page content length helps Google determine that the particular page with the link is authoritative and contains valuable content to a user.
The combination of page relevancy (discussed above) and page content length are two distinct factors that communicate to Google the specific page authority.
We’ve determined, through acquiring over 1,000,000+ backlinks for our customers, that the total page content length needed for a quality backlink is 500 words. This is a different amount of content than our recommended on-page content length (minimum 800 words, ideally 4,000 words).
If you’re a marketer working to acquire backlinks on your own, we would advise against any link acquisition opportunities that do not follow the minimum recommendation of 500 words on the page. This can be a red flag to Google as an unnatural link and could cause a manual penalty if it becomes a habit or pattern within your domain’s link portfolio.
What Does NOT Make a Quality Backlink
Domain Name or TLD
The domain name and TLD of a website make absolutely zero impact on the weight Google attributes to a keyword.
How do we know this? Our network of website/blog/journalist relationships includes over 250,000+ websites – many of those websites have thematically irrelevant domain names and obscure TLDs (think .xyz, .marketing, .info, etc.). We acquire links on these varied TLDs literally daily.
There are over 1,500 global TLDs available for registration as of this post. We have relationships with bloggers and authors who own and write on virtually every one of those TLDs. It creates zero weight, positive or negative, on the link equity passed to our customers’ websites as long as the best practices listed above (Domain Authority, Page Relevancy, Page Content-Length, Anchor Text) are executed.
Domain Niche Relevancy
This backlink qualifying misconception is a common one we see with miseducated marketing professionals. Truthfully, it’s easy to be mistaught about domain relevancy because of Moz’s SEO propaganda about what constitutes “white hat” link building.
Let’s use a real-world example: Forbes.com has a Domain Authority of 95. This is easily in the top 0.0001% of all websites. A link acquired from Forbes can catapult a site through the SERPs to a Top 3 position.
What type of content does Forbes publish? Business? Technology? Money? Health? Politics? Investing? Sports?
The answer to all of those is: Yes.
How is it that a site with such a broad stroke of topical content can deliver a knockout punch in terms of link equity and SEO authority? Because domain relevancy does not matter! It’s impossible to use domain relevancy as a significant ranking metric because some of the Internet’s most authoritative websites are publishing content that spreads the gamut in themes and topics. As a result, it’s clear as day: page relevancy is the variable Google signals as the truly important relevancy metric.
Site design, or how to website visually looks to a reader or visitor, is a purely aesthetic, non-authoritative metric for link quality. However, it is easily the biggest prejudice marketers bring into link assessment.
Google’s algorithm does not have the capability to scan and rate a website’s aesthetics. Why? Because site aesthetic and design is a purely subjective, human preference. There isn’t an objective, quantifiable way for Google to determine whether a site has a quality design and therefore should pass higher or lower link equity to other websites.
As a result, Google categorically avoids site design as a quality metric for backlinks. This is why some of the s***tiest website designs have insane search authority. For example, the website http://beforeitsnews.com/ clearly has a terrible design. It looks like it was built in 2002. It’s hard to navigate, lacks proper site architecture, there is no compelling imagery, and there are an absurd amount of links on the home page. But that site’s relative Domain Authority? It’s 78.
Should a backlink be acquired within the content that is promotional in nature, that is, speaking about the features, values, and quality of your company or product? In our opinion, absolutely not. Why?
When working on link acquisition, it’s important for marketers to divorce their link building strategy from promotional and PR strategies. They are not the same thing, and should not be mixed or matched.
The goal of a link building campaign is to communicate the thematic search term authority of your website to Google’s search algorithm.
Link building is not to increase your brand presence. It’s not to generate referral traffic. It’s not to improve industry presence. Link building tactics are 100% for the benefit of your organic search presence, and as such, we must remove any non-conforming perceptions of a proper, high-quality link. Promotional content does not deliver on the goal of communicating authority to Google.
In fact, if the content is too promotional in your link acquisition strategy, it can potentially hurt your brand presence. While we know for a fact Google’s algorithm does not use the TLD or domain name as a link authority factor, if you build promotional links on a website like www.mcdreamyshospitalnews.xyz, and that highly promotional content gets indexed for your brand name in search, do you really want potential customers to see your name on that website? Probably not, and we don’t blame you, because neither would we.
This is why it’s critical to focus on non-promotional content in link acquisition. Non-promotional content will not be indexed under your brand name (because it’s not even talking about you!) while simultaneously giving your website the link equity needed for Google to increase your SERPs. The results are what matters, and non-promotional content that contains your backlinks delivers on those results.
High Domain Authority
Wait…what?! Domain Authority (DA) doesn’t affect the quality of a link? It never did.
DA 1.0 did have value in understanding the quality of a referring domain, but it is and always has been a trailing metric. It effectuates no impact on a link’s quality. And not with DA 2.0 becoming a purely relative competitive metric, AKA it is different for every industry and niche, it has lost and objective measurement authority.
We have an entire post dedicated to the new Domain Authority Update 2.0 and why SEOs need to shift their methodology away from DA and to other quality metrics.
What Really Matters – What Google Wants
To tie a bow on this guide, it’s important to always remember that a good backlink is measured by its ability to drive increased search results for keywords that matter to your company. Based on our experience of dictating SEO strategies for hundreds of websites, building over 1,000,000 high-quality links, and not once receiving a penalty from our link strategies, we believe our approach is a clear path for marketers to build a link portfolio that safely delivers long-term SEO results.