Search engine optimisation, or SEO, became important the moment search engines emerged. SEO became significant in the very early days of the internet. It became quite clear very early on that the sites that showed up higher in a search engine ranking would be the sites that got the most traffic, the most users, and were more likely to increase business.
And as we quickly discovered, that early growth was necessary for these sites to maintain their competitiveness.
Of course, in those dark ages, search engines were not as sophisticated as they are now. So, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane.
Originally, keywords were the be-all-and-end-all of search engine optimisation. The more and better keywords your site had, compared to a competitor’s, the more likely it was to end up on top of the heap. From our modern perspective, this was a straightforward avenue to exploit. Black hat SEO marketers would keyword content. They would even hide invisible paragraphs of nonsense that contained relevant keywords on their pages.
This scenario started an arms race among search engine companies. The race was between companies who wanted to be able to deliver relevant links that would make their users come back to their service again and again and marketers and site owners who wanted traffic.
Things began to change when a little something called PageRank came along. PageRank was an early algorithm used by none other than the newly emerging (at that time) Google. In the late 90s, Google’s founders, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin knew that the search engine game was suffering from exploitation by black hat SEO. Their new algorithm, named after Page himself, sought to find another metric by which to judge pages.
The idea wasn’t to completely discard keywords as a factor but to determine what other factors might be more useful—and less exploitable. And one of the revolutionary ideas they came up with was, as many innovative ideas are, elementary: links.
The idea was that a website’s importance could be gauged by how many other sites link to it. Why? Because these connections between pages showed that the page was considered a valuable resource within its respective community, industry, field, or medium.
Before we get into how backlinks work, let’s discuss what backlinks are. A link, or a hyperlink, is a clickable object on a webpage that leads to another webpage. A backlink, also known as an inbound link, is a valuable source for search engine algorithms in determining your page’s importance in its ecosystem. These are links that come from other sites and link to your site.
Search engines interpret these as a vote of trust. They can help raise your page’s ranking in the search engine and increase its credibility. They can establish your page as a source of authority on a topic.
For example, let’s assume that the BBC breaks a new story. They are the source of this latest scandal, and it’s an inspiring and culturally titillating event that spreads across the web like wildfire. Bloggers and vloggers pick it up. Twitter is blowing up. Other news organisations are compelled to issue their own stories on the topic. But the first and most credible source for the story is the BBC write up.
A majority of these secondary sources are going to reference and probably link the BBC story. Now, perhaps you hear about the narrative over the watercooler at work. Your co-worker mentions a few key names and the event itself. So, when you get back to your cubicle, you can’t help but pull out your smartphone and plug in a search.
The first story, the number one result, is probably going to be that BBC write up. Not just because it’s the first, and not only because it contains those keywords, but because a network of backlinks has provided the search engine with a web, and the centre of that web is the BBC story.
For a more simple, real-life example, let’s imagine that you move to a new town. You want to know where you can find the best burger, so you ask a few people. Maybe you ask everyone you meet. These people don’t necessarily have any relationship to one another, but they all say that the best burger in town is at Rowdy’s. You’d be reasonably confident that Rowdy’s has good burgers, so you’d go there. In effect, this is what search engines are doing.
This is how the existence of backlinks naturally provides search engines with a way to determine which sites are “expert, authoritative, and trustworthy” (EAT). EAT has become the primary goal of many search engine algorithms because it embodies what they want to accomplish: giving users the information they want from comprehensive, trustworthy sites that will satisfy their curiosity.
And since the goal of search engines is to determine which sites are EAT, it’s your goal to ensure that your site (or your client’s site) meets these standards. And backlinks are one of the most important ways that you can accomplish this.
But couldn’t this be as easily exploited as keyword stuffing? Well, perhaps it was at some point in the past. But today, search engine algorithms are far more complex, and much smarter, than that. Not all links are created equal. Sites are rated as EAT for far more than the sum of their inbound links. And for those sites that have higher EAT ratings, their outbound links (i.e., links to other websites) carry much more weight.
So, let’s say you come up with a brilliant new cake recipe. It’s amazing. So amazing that for some reason, the BBC decides to run a story on it, linking to your cooking blog. Because their site has such a high EAT value, it will have a much heavier weight in increasing your site’s EAT value. And of course, other news organisations and websites that pick up the story will probably link to the BBC story and to your blog, which will further increase your site’s status.
You can see the effects of extensive natural linking when you check out nearly any important, authoritative site online. Wikipedia, for example, shows up in the top search results for almost any topic on which it has a well-researched article because that article has thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of backlinks in many cases. We’ve already mentioned the BBC, and you’ll see similar results from other news sites. It’s also why official sites and brand sites are often the top results when you search for a company or brand. Their sites have been linked to others when reporting on or discussing that brand, company, or organisation.
What’s important to note here is that the links that carry the weight are natural. Buying up ten or a thousand domains that all link to your domain isn’t going to do you any good, no matter how many artificial backlinks you create. The search engine algorithm can handily identify these links as false, or at least lacking the EAT weight necessary to boost your site’s reputation.
Link “juice” is the term we use in the marketing industry to describe this “weight.” The more weight a site has, the more “juice” its links possess. As we’ve already discussed, this juice isn’t just determined by the number of backlinks. It is determined by the backlinks’ value. It is evaluated by where they come from.
And yes, your site has “juice” as well. One of the ways in which professional, ethical SEO marketers help build a site’s reputation is by navigating ways to encourage backlinking. This process often includes your site linking to others via its outbound links—that is, passing on your site’s “link juice” to others. When these sites and others then backlink to your website, that helps to build a web of reputation that search engines can identify, giving all your sites a boost.
You want to build “link juice” by creating content that others will want to link to, and you equally want to pass that juice on by linking to other sites with high EAT values. You’re ready for outreach when you are willing to prove that you’ll pass on link juice in an SEO savvy manner. This process means improving that web of reputation in a way that will increase search engine rankings.
Of course, we expect you already know it’s essential to get your content out on various platforms to increase traffic. But it’s also often helpful to reach out to other relevant sites that are important to your industry, the topic at hand, or linking to similar content.
By establishing your EAT value and forming connections with these other sites, you can start to build a reputation web that will continue to grow on its own, even as you continue to feed it more material.
And always remember that expertise, authority, and trustworthiness are the keys to content that will generate link juice. Backlinks are essential for improving your rankings. But you want to work with the system, and not try to game it.