While a number of factors determine how a website ranks in search engines such as Google, Bing, Yahoo and others, inbound links from other sites have long been considered one of the key ranking factors. But how exactly do links affect ranking and ultimately traffic to a website, and how many links do you need?
What is a High-Quality, Relevant Link?
When it comes to linking, the first thing an agency will tell you is that not all links are created equal, and that the links you want should be high-quality and relevant. So let’s start there: what is a high-quality, relevant link?
The kind of links you need to point to your site will come from trusted sources. These will be websites that get a lot of traffic and already have a lot of links pointing to them. They are often sites that are authorities on their topic and that have content that is relevant to your content. Quality links come from diverse, but relevant sources, and when possible include informational, educational, non-profit and other types of organizational sites. Learn more about the anatomy of a link.
How Can I Find the Links that are Pointing to My Website?
You will want to access several sources of data to determine which links point to your website. Website analytics data – such as Google Analytics – can show the source of links to your site that people have actually clicked, but you will want to look further. Both Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools can provide lists of links to your site if you setup and verify an account. Third party sources such as Open Site Explorer, SEMRush, Ahrefs and MajesticSEO can also help identify links to a website.
The purposes of using multiple tools rather than relying on a single source is that despite the similar functions of these tools, they each crawl the web differently, producing different data sets and different backlink reports in the process. The more you know…
What is the Relationship between Links, Rankings and Visitors?
Now that we know what we are looking for and where they are, let’s look at the relationship between links, site visitors and ranking position. Unfortunately, this relationship cannot be easily quantified. We do know that the more links you have pointing to your site from relevant, high-quality websites, the better your chances are for ranking well for searches related to your site content and the content on the linking website. We also know that the higher your website shows in a search result, the more traffic you tend to get. Here is an older article that helps visualize how ranking can impact traffic. Don’t forget, too, that the link itself has the potential to bring referral traffic through users clicking the link during normal browsing, in addition to impacting organic traffic.
How Do Links Impact Traffic?
Despite the clear benefits of quality linking outlined above, ranking doesn’t always have the traffic impact you might think. For example, personalized search results, localized results and ranking for low-volume keywords with little search value are often overlooked in this analysis. You can learn more about keyword rankings in our Osky Blue article “Why Website Owners Should Not Focus on Keyword Rankings” and well as this Moz article on rankings and traffic that talks about why rankings and traffic don’t always increase in lock-step.
How Can I Calculate the Value of a Link?
So how does the relationship between links, ranking position and site visitors work? We talked about how rankings impact referral traffic above, so now let’s focus on the relationship between links and rankings and the impact on organic traffic. The answer to how links mathematically impact rankings is both “unknown,” because Google and other search engines don’t share the specifics of their algorithms publicly, and “it’s complicated,” because search results are a very dynamic environment.
Let’s start with the “unknown” aspect of this. What anyone knows about Google’s algorithm has come from very limited information they have shared, data monitoring and research studies done by agencies and others, and best practices shared by SEO professionals. For that reason, no one outside of the search engine can say for certain exactly how it works.
As for the “complexity” of it. Even if we did know the exact mathematical relationship between links and ranking position, it would still be very difficult, if not impossible, to give an exact value for a link, because search rankings and the content on the Internet are evolving by the second. For example:
Google, Bing and Yahoo make hundreds of changes to their algorithms each year.
Google in particular has an Artificial Intelligence component called RankBrain as part of its algorithm that watches what people search, under what circumstances and parameters, and adapts what it serves up in real time based on how the searcher interacts with the results given and the sites visited. Note: RankBrain is the 3rd biggest factor in how sites rank and nearly impossible to optimize for.
In addition to core algorithm changes, the layout of search results pages also changes frequently which can affect both rankings and click-through traffic.
Your competitors and millions of other website owners are constantly changing their content/link ecosystem every time they add links, adjust content and make other changes to their websites.
Link value is also dynamic because the value of a link is predicated on how the page that has the link to your site on it is perceived by the search engines at the very moment someone performs a search. Is that page and website’s content relevant to your content? How many other sites link to that page and site? How does that page and site perform in search? And that’s just the secondary level. After that, search engines can go to a tertiary level of valuation on the sites linking to the site linking to your site. When you picture the math involved with that, it’s easy to imagine how complex this can get.
While measuring the exact impact of gaining 1, 2, 10 or even 50 new links to a site is not a simple equation, we do know that links can both bring traffic to your site directly (as a referral) and indirectly (in the form of organic traffic resulting from better rankings), and it’s still an activity worth pursuing when done correctly.
About Osky Blue: Osky Blue is a full-service digital marketing company that offers website design, software development, and digital marketing services to a variety of clients. If you are interested in improving your website’s search engine optimization or other services, feel free to contact us.