Image Source: Genisys Credit Union
It goes without saying that backlinks are hugely important when it comes to SEO. Not only do they help drive traffic to a site, search engines are able to gain a lot of information information about a site based on the sites that link to it. For example, if a site is being linked to hundreds or even thousands of times, that must mean the content is highly valuable and worth sharing, right? Well…not necessarily. Sure, in some cases, a page might get a ton of backlinks because its content is genuinely interesting and useful to a wide audience. But the more accurate answer is a lot more complicated.
The simple fact of the matter is that not all backlinks are equal. A long time ago, back in a pre-Penguin world, Google took the approach of seeing backlinks as being a reflection of the quality of the page being linked to. Well, it didn’t take long for people to start abusing the system by creating huge amounts of backlinks in really spammy ways. Nowadays, there’s a much greater emphasis placed on the quality of a link and that’s exactly why you need to regularly monitor your backlink profile.
First of all, monitoring your backlinks helps you see how your backlink profile grows and changes over time. A site that offers valuable, engaging content should gradually gain backlinks as people discover it and share the content elsewhere.
However, there needs to be a big emphasis on the word “gradually.” It’s just not natural for a site to suddenly gain a massive amount of backlinks overnight, so if Google notices a huge, sudden spike in your backlinks, they’ll see it as a sign that you may doing something sketchy to build links, like buying links or participating in link schemes.
If you have a company handling SEO on your behalf, watching your backlinks is also a way to make sure they’re performing quality work on your behalf. Unfortunately, there are a lot of unscrupulous SEO firms out there that don’t use accepted white hat SEO techniques and even well-established businesses can unwittingly find themselves involved with them.
In 2011, J.C. Penny’s website was majorly penalized after it was discovered that the company handling their SEO had participated in a paid link scheme that created hundreds of backlinks on unrelated websites with highly descriptive anchor text. Had someone at J.C. Penny been monitoring their backlink profile, they would have seen large bursts of extremely spammy link building happening in the time leading up to the 2009 and 2010 holiday seasons, which should have raised a red flag before it was brought to their attention via the New York Times.
We’ve all heard the real estate adage that “location is everything,” but the same principle can be applied to SEO as well. Certain types of content are inherently going to be seen as sketchy, like pornography and gambling, so you don’t want your site to be associated with that type of content. If you suddenly have links turning up on sites with that sort of content, you’ll want to disavow them as soon as possible.
Ideally, you should be gaining backlinks from trusted sites that are relevant to your site’s niche. Going back to the J.C. Penny example, when the story first made the news, Search Engine Land found links to J.C. Penny’s comforter set page on over 700 different sites, which included lots of completely irrelevant sites about things like buying cottages, car modification, piano players for hire, and how to hack Friendster. Even though a lot of people need comforters, there’s no reason why any of these sites would naturally be linking to a page about comforter sets. These types of links are not going to bring qualified traffic to your site and if you have a large amount of unnatural backlinks, Google might penalize you because it looks like you’re participating in a link scheme.
It’s not enough just to be linked to, you also need to make sure your site is being linked to with appropriate anchor text. Search engines use anchor text as a clue about what a site is about, so if you have a lot of links pointing to your site that use anchor text that would mislead users about the intent of your page, you could end up being penalized. Google does not like it when people try to manipulate rankings or inflate their traffic by targeting irrelevant keywords and anchor text falls into that category. (Example: a restaurant being linked to with the anchor text “free iPhone.”) Keeping a close eye on your backlink profile gives you a chance to spot any problems so that you can disavow them before being penalized.
Not only is it important to check on anchor text, you also need to make sure you’re not being linked to with the exact same anchor text over and over again. If your site is gaining backlinks organically, you should be seeing some variations in the anchor text being used since each site is going to have their own style of linking. For example, a personal injury law firm might have backlinks that use anchor text such as the name of their firm, “car accident attorney,” “personal injury attorneys,” “auto accident lawyers,” or “slip and fall attorneys.” But if a lot of their anchor text was something like “best Michigan car accident lawyers,” search engines might see that as spammy and unnatural linking.
In short, monitoring your backlink profile gives you a chance to avoid penalties and other issues before they happen. Whether you’re managing your own SEO or having a firm handle it for you, it’s important to make sure your site is growing as you want it to. Spending the money on a backlink checker tool can easily help you avoid a lot of headaches down the road.