In Part 1 of this series, I gave you a brief overview of how the search engines rank websites. One of the things I briefly touched on is the importance of backlinks and how they are viewed as “votes” by the search engines.
In this second part, I’m going discuss backlinks in a little more detail because they are probably the single most important factor in getting ranked at the top.
What are backlinks?
If you’re asking this question, you’re going to be hitting yourself when you realize how simple this is. To some extent, the internet was built upon the concept of links. Links are like the “citations” you see in a book. One website writes about a particular subject, then adds a link to another website that also talks about that subject or perhaps covers it from a different angle or in more detail. Links are literally EVERYWHERE.
And they don’t have to be links to other websites. If I’m a landscape designer and I have a web page on my site about caring for your lawn in the winter, I may link to another page on my site about caring for your lawn in the summer. Links are the backbone of the internet because they allow you to jump around from page to page and from site to site.
If you’re still not getting it, here’s a picture…it’s worth 1,000 words. This is a screenshot I took of a Wikipedia article on SEO; I circled the links. The standard web color for links is blue, but the website operator can change that to whatever he or she wants.
In the case of Wikipedia, most of their links point to other Wikipedia articles. So if I were to click “Analytics” in the above screenshot, I’d be taken to the Wikipedia article on “Analytics.” Wikipedia usually has citations at the bottom of every article where they link out to other websites on the topic. The point is, links can point anywhere….to another page on the same site, or a page on another website.
Just to drive this point home, here’s a screenshot of Google’s search results for the term “Cincinnati SEO.”
You can see here that Google’s search results are absolutely packed with links. You can also see that the colors are different…some are blue, some are purple. Google uses the standard colors for their links. Blue represent links you have not clicked on before, purple represents links you have clicked on before. It’s important to note that the website operator can choose any color for links so you obviously won’t always see them in blue, but they’re usually called out from the rest of the text on the page with some color that makes them pop.
Why are links important?
So now that I’ve beaten that dead horse hard enough and we know what links are, why are they important? To understand that question, we need to understand why Google has become so successful.
The (Brief) Story of Google
Google really started to take off around 2001 (seems like a lot further back than that) because they realized something none of the other search engines at the time fully understood.
Back in the day, search engines were using all kinds of factors to determine where a website should rank in the search results. Most of those factors had to do with the content on the website itself. There’s an inherent problem with this.
Let’s say I have a website about Dogs where I talk about my dog Jacky Boy. Now, what if I woke up one day and decided, “You know what? I think I want to rank at the top of the search engines for ‘Insurance’ because people looking for insurance might want to read about my Jacky Boy…I mean who wouldn’t want to read about Jacky Boy?”
So, being a huge web nerd, I decide that instead of writing about insurance, I’m just going to stuff a bunch of insurance-related words into the footer of my site. I’ll make those words white to blend in with the background so my visitors don’t see the words, but the search engines will find them.
After a few days, the search engine bots come roaming through my site, read all these insurance-related terms and decide my site must also be about insurance. And the word “insurance” appears like 200 times so it must really be about insurance. So the search engines start ranking me really high for “insurance.”
Well, what happens when you decide to go looking online for insurance? You find my site at the top, you click the link and you find nothing about insurance at all; instead it’s all about some mangy mutt named “Jacky Boy.” What the hell? If this happens enough you may start looking for a new search engine.
What Google realized is that if they wanted to be the biggest search engine in the world and make all that internet money they had to give their users what they wanted. And what they wanted was to find sites that were as closely related to whatever they searched for as possible. This is called relevance.
Well that’s obvious, right? Obviously people want to find what they’re looking for. The problem is, how do you give it to them? How can a computer program read a website and accurately determine what it’s about? In spite of all the advances over the years, computers are still really dumb.
This is where Google made it’s money. They realized that instead of relying on the content on the website itself to determine where that site should rank, they would rely on other websites to determine where it should rank. Google basically created a referral system for determining rankings. They realized that the most effective way to determine where a site should rank is simply by “asking” other websites where it should rank. In practice that means the Googlebot started visiting other websites and counting up the number of links to every other website on the internet. The sites with the most links ranked the highest.
This dramatically improved the relevance of the search results. If we consider my website about Jacky Boy using this method, we’ll see it’ll never rank for insurance-related terms because no other insurance-related website is going to link to it because, as far as those insurance website operators can tell, it’s not about insurance, it’s about my dog.
This incredibly simple idea and the PageRank patent is the foundation on which the entire empire that is Google was built upon.
Fast Forward to Today
Nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to find any traditional search engine that doesn’t rank websites this way. They all realized that was, by far, the best way for a computer to determine where a website should rank in the search results and so they all do something very similar.
And now you understand why links are so important
So now it should make sense why links are so important. Because search engines are all about relevancy, and to show the most relevant results for any particular search, they all consider links to the website as a huge measure of where a site should rank.
So when we work to rank a client’s website at the top of the search engines, we target Google first because it’s generally the toughest. Once you’re #1 in Google, if you’re still not #1 in Yahoo and Bing, we’ll do some extra work specifically targeted toward those search engines.
I hope this was all clear, but if you have any questions, feel free to respond…I love talking about this stuff .
The big question a lot of people always have about links are how do you get them? Obviously they’re important, but how the heck do you get other websites to link to yours? We’ll cover that in part 3 so stay tuned!
This was the second part in our series educating businesses about internet marketing. If you have any questions or would like to discuss how RLM can help you generate more business online, feel free to reply or give me, John Crenshaw, a call at 513-549-7355.