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As usual, this post comes as a result of a friend asking a good question: “Is it smart to have external sites linking to your blog?” he asked. “Yes“, I replied. And here is what I told him…

When an external site links to your site, we call this a ‘backlink’. Typically a backlink is an indication of a reference or an endorsement. As such, backlinks are a strong indicator of popularity. Popularity is one of the driving forces behind SEO, and so therefore backlinks are of extreme importance; the more you have, the better.

Search engines are on a constant lookout for good content, and one of the ways they measure whether content is good is by how many people are referencing or endorsing the content. This is sort of a ‘crowd-sourcing‘ strategy that assumes that if more people are referencing a specific article, that the article must be more relevant than articles that are otherwise being ignored. This is why ‘going viral’ is the pinnacle of SEO; the greater the number of people who are interested in your article, the more the article appears to be relevant.

Search engines tally up the number of links they find to a given article, and use that number to gauge it’s popularity or ‘relevance’.

To explain, let’s say that you write and post an article about rain clouds, and it is a particularly good article with well-researched information and a few funny anecdotes that make it entertaining to read. You tell a few of your friends about it, and they like it enough to share it to their Facebook friends. They do this by including a link to your article on their Facebook page with a short note about how funny they think the article is.

Search engines are starting to index Facebook content, so there is a good chance some of these initial links will be counted. Search engines will recognize that someone thought the article was worthwhile, and give your article a little boost in their ratings.

Next, let’s say that a few of the friends on Facebook are bloggers, and they decide to link to your article from their own articles on their own blogs. This becomes a powerful SEO popularity snowball where the more people who link to your article, the more popular your article becomes in the search engine rankings. This process acts very much like it does in high school if everyone is talking about your cool new shoes; as word gets around, more people are talking about your shoes, and more people want to see them. Eventually, the social authorities will recognize your shoes as the standard, and will reference them to everyone. Just like the search engines do to popular articles.

A few quick rules of thumb:

  1. Backlinks from sites that are discussing your given topic are more valuable than backlinks from sites that are not related by topic. This means that the search engines will give more credit to your rain cloud article if the backlinks are coming from a weather site, than if the backlinks come from a cooking site.
  2. The most valuable backlinks are the ones that are organically grown. This means that if your backlinks are natural and genuine, they will be inherently more valuable than if you elect to artificially generate backlinks. Examples of artificial backlinking include paying a ‘link farm’ to post information about your article on a series of junk sites simply to get some links created.
  3. A best practice for stimulating backlink generation is to post comments on other relevant sites, and to include a link to your article in your comments. This method is so valuable that black hat proprietors have created bots to do this automatically. You no doubt have noticed this spam in your blog. Avoid using bots, and make sure to strategically place your comments on other relevant sites with thoughtful comments that add to the conversation. Your links are more likely to be approved when you are seen as a real contributor, and the backlinks will be stronger when made from legitimate, relevant sites.
  4. Another great way to generate backlinks is to create backlinks from your site to other relevant articles. Don’t be afraid to link out to other sites from your own sites. There are two good reasons to do this: First, the more links you have to outside sites, the more the search engines will see you as a community hub, and ultimately a good destination for people looking for your type of content (such as ‘weather’ or ‘cloud watching’). Second, when you generate outgoing links, you are raising awareness to other bloggers who receive your backlinks, and are more likely to reciprocate with backlinks to you and get involved in your conversation.

Web communities are very strong when it comes to SEO, and backlinks to and from relevant websites is the most effective method to building a strong community that gets recognized and rewarded by search engines. Backlinks are not only ‘good’, they are a foundational element to your search engine optimization.

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