It’s not even a debate now whether backlinks work or they don’t; backlinks are considered the backbone of a website’s organic rankings.

I am not claiming something that’s not backed up by data.

In an analysis of 1 million search results, Brian Dean from Backlinko, found a clear and direct correlation between a website’s number of referring domains and higher search rankings.

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There are on-page tactics that you can apply to rank a few spots higher in search engines however backlinks are the absolute beast of a ranking factor when it comes to;

  • Scaling the reach
  • Gaining consistent traffic
  • Sustaining those rankings

There are quite a few ways backlinks help your website perform better in search engines. Here are a few of them;

1. Backlinks work as a vote of confidence

For search engines like Google, a backlink from one website to another works as a vote of confidence. To search engines, this conveys that this website is worth ranking higher since other website(s) are endorsing them.

2Website Starts Ranking for Additional Keywords 

We know that Google (and other search engines) have a semantic understanding of keywords. Thus when a website gains authority via backlinks, it starts ranking for hundreds, if not thousands, keywords which you didn’t even optimize for initially.

 This brings tons of additional traffic to your website.

This can happen even if you’re not ranking 1st for your head term. Look in the screenshot below. Ftd.com (ranking 4th) is getting more traffic than fromyouflowers.com (ranking 3rd) because it’s ranking for more keywords overall, primarily on the basis of a better backlink profile.

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3Strengthen your domain forever

Each backlink your website gets slowly adds up to its authority (not necessarily referring to metrics like DA or DR here). As your website keeps getting more and more links, from a wide array of websites in various industries, your domain achieves a power of credibility which then makes your pages/posts rank comparatively higher, almost forever.

What this means in simple words is that if you wrote a post and hitting the publish button it used to get up to the 8th page for its head term in a week, with tons of backlinks it may directly show up on the 2nd page in a week (nothing is to be considered absolute here).

Note: Reaching that level of authority in your domain isn’t something that can be achieved with a few months of link building. It can take years. Think of it like building a brand for a long term.

4Gain Referral Traffic

Getting referral traffic to your website through backlinks is considered rare. However the website you receive a link from is the variable of success and magnitude here.

Getting a link from an article of New York Times, written by a famous author, about US elections can be highly valuable in terms of referral traffic.

However, it won’t move the needle much if the link you received is from a local blogger. Thus the platform, the author’s popularity, the trendiness of the topic, everything counts in it.

So far we’ve shed some light on how backlinks help your website in search rankings. In fact, we’ve been openly claiming that backlinks are the number one driver of higher search rankings.

However, there are scenarios when backlinks don’t work as well.

Note: The idea of links not working doesn’t necessarily mean that their effect is nullified. In most cases, it refers to them not unleashing their full potential in terms of Google rankings for a domain/URL.

A lot can go into this, so let’s dive deep and discuss each plot separately on when back don’t work.

REASON # 1: Your Website is NOT Up to the Mark from an On-Page Perspective  

SEO is broken down to two basic segments; On-page and Off-Page. This is SEO 101 stuff. Both these segments are supposed to make search engines (like Google) find friendliness and relevancy towards a particular query (or a set of queries).

The ideal way to get the most out of your links is to first make sure your website is doing well from an on-page perspective.

According to Uptimiser, the on-site factors account for around 30% of performance in search engines. While another 38% comes from infrastructure and user behavior metrics on a website which again are highly impacted by on-site SEO practices indirectly.

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Thus we can say that around 60-70% of a website’s performance in search engines depends on its on-page and infrastructural optimizations and if you’re building links for a website that doesn’t have those two areas on-point pre-link building you’d be losing a ton of opportunity.

REASON # 2: Link-building is NOT Looked as a Campaign to Invest in Consistently.

Backlinks don’t work when business owners, marketers and SEOs make the mistake of seeing link building as a one-time done practice.

Many simply don’t see a logical reason behind doing link building on a constant basis and thus consider doing one or two link building campaigns only before they completely shut it off.

According to Ahrefs, mostly top ranking websites (which could be your competitors as well) builds around +5%-14.5% links per month.

Also plenty of times the website ranking at the top (especially if the query is informational) starts gaining backlinks naturally as top ranking pages have a higher probability of being quoted for references.

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This means your competitors that you’re trying to outrank are acquiring links (naturally or intentionally) every month while you call it off with a few months of link building.

Reason # 3: Pages on Your Website Are Facing Keywords Cannibalization

Keyword cannibalization can be a nightmare for SEOs, but what exactly is this devil? Keyword Cannibalization occurs when several pages on your website are ranking for the same keywords.

This confuses the search engines like Google to decide which page is to be ranked for which keyword, and thus rankings get stunted for several pages on the website.

For example, having two pages targeting a keyword like “baseball caps” with the content being different in wording but essentially sharing the same information will result in keyword cannibalization. 

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Again, in this case, building links won’t do any good since search engines aren’t confident about your web pages context.

In fact, if you’ve been building quality links for a website (especially if the website has thousands of pages) and you notice and fix some keyword cannibalization issues, you’ll immediately see a prominent improvement in rankings and traffic.

Reason # 4: You’ve Valued Link’s Quantity over Quality in Your Campaign

Not every link is created equal. This is simple SEO 101 stuff that every knowledgeable SEO is aware of.

Any link from a website is valued on the basis of the strength of the backlink profile of its root domain, as well as of that particular web page the link comes from.

To make this concept easier to grasp, look at the visual below.

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Since website A has links to more external websites (3 to be precise) than those of website B (2 to be precise), a link acquired from website A will have a higher impact on a website’s rankings than that of website B.

Your link building won’t move the needle much if you’ve been building ton of links like those of website B, while your competitors have been crushing it with links from websites like Website A.

This requires you to closely analyze the backlink profile of the website you’re aiming to get a link from. There are several great link building software options that’ll get you this information in one click. 

Ideally, you should aim for high-quality keywords in high quantity. But of course, building low-quality links comes easy compared to links from authoritative websites. Backlinks don’t work if they don’t come from authoritative sites that are not relevant to your niche.

Reason # 5: Your Links Aren’t Coming From Topically Relevant Websites/Webpages

Topical relevance is a huge factor in determining a backlink’s worth for your website. As we said earlier, the impact a backlink will have on your rankings varies depending on many factors.

Relevancy is one of those factors.

Let’s say your fitness blog, where you share tips about exercise and fitness, receives a link from a news website. That link would definitely be helpful but might not move the needle much.

On the other hand if your fitness blog receives a link from a fitness magazine, the strength of that backlink and its impact on your rankings can be significantly more.

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Google’s algorithm values relevancy in either of the following manner;

·         Domain level relevancy

·         Page level relevancy

·         Content level relevancy

·         Link (anchor) level relevancy

Reason # 6:  Your Link Profile Doesn’t Look Natural With Diverse Link Attributes

Let’s face the fact that Google knows what we SEOs and link builders are up to.  Google’s penguin update tackles unnatural links so no one could manipulate the search rankings.

But what signals does penguin update look at to determine if the backlink profile looks natural or unnatural?

Well there are numerous factors that go into this and one of them is the distribution of different link attributes.

Ideally your website’s backlinks should be diversified with do-follow and no-follow links. This makes your backlink profile look natural.

Know that there’s no perfect ratio of the link attributes used. Your goal should be to make your overall backlink profile look natural.

Using tools like Ahrefs you can get an overview of your website’s backlink profile in percentages and shift the focus accordingly.

Also a plus point is that a no-follow link may not pass page-rank (link equity) but it will still be beneficial for;

·         Referral traffic

·         Brand awareness

·         Passive backlinks

NOTE: Now with new link attributes link Sponsored & UGC diversification opportunities are even higher.

Reason # 7: Your Links Are Over Optimized with No Anchor text Diversification

Anchor text is the set of words that are hyperlinked to another webpage when building a backlink or sending outbound links.

Your anchor text is one of the main factors that decide how valuable a link will be.

Google’s algorithm uses your link’s anchor text in correlation with its surrounding text and the content of the entire page to determine topical relevance. 

Generally there are 5 types of anchor texts mostly used;

·         Exact match

·         Partial match

·         Branded

·         Generic

·         Long tail

So which one should be aiming for when it comes to the backlinks you build? The answer is; all of them. The reason for diversifying your anchor text is to make sure Google recognizes your backlink profile as natural.

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There’s no specific percentage to opt for but in general, the following visual shows what a good anchor text distribution would look like.

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Note: When it comes to anchor text diversification, the percentage of any anchor text type isn’t fixed and your target shouldn’t be to match a specific percentage number either.

Reason # 8: Your Website Isn’t Leveraging Internal Links to Pass Link Equity

As mentioned earlier, links equity (or page rank) is passed from links to links from external web pages to pages on your website.

The same rule applies to the internal links on your website; however, the strength of an internal link, in terms of the link’s value, is extremely low as compared to an external link.

The reason in simple words can be explained as the following; Google values what other websites say about your website (external links) more than what your website says about itself (internal links).  

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As you start building links, you’ll notice that some pages will be stronger than others. That’s where internal links can help to distribute the links equity across the website as you plan.

For example, one common problem link builders run into, is that the website they pitch often refuses to link to a promotional page like a product/service page. Instead webmasters are comfortable to link to a resource like a blog post or some data driven research.

In that case you can earn links on your content resource pages and afterwards leverage internal links to pass links equity to your product/service pages.

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As an example, take the following article from Ahrefs titled; Keyword Research: The Beginner’s Guide by Ahrefs.

It’s evident that the post is about keyword’s research and in the screenshot below you can see that the post has around 1271 linking websites.

Many of these websites linked to this page as it was a good in-depth resource on keyword’s research. And I doubt that many websites would have linked to just a product page of Ahrefs (in Ahrefs case it could be an exception since their product is so badass) or any other tool.

But Ahrefs knew how to pass that massive link equity to its desirable product page that’d make the most sense here. Thus they are internally linked to their keyword research tool, Keywords Explorer from that post to build up its page level authority.

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The Take Away for SEOs

As we know SEO is more of a science that depends on multiple factors. And backlinks being one of the most impactful ranking factors still have some dependency and correlation with other factors.

This doesn’t mean that if you’re not doing all of these points right then your strategy will fail or your backlinks won’t work.

It’s just that your links might not unleash their true potential in rankings, and thus you might not receive the ROI you expected from your link building efforts both in terms of traffic and conversions. We hope the article has provided you a primer on when and why backlinks don’t work.

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Usman Akram

Usman Akram is a digital marketer and SEO specialist passionate about experimenting with new SEO tactics and strategies. His main areas of interests are; digital marketing, SEO, web/mobile development trends, etc. Usman works with Buzz Interactive, a leading digital marketing agency as SEO Manager.