When I say the term “link building,” does a big “spam! spam!” alarm go off in your brain? That’s thanks to some outdated practices that were, truthfully, incredibly spammy. While some of those practices still exist today, link building is primarily a wholesome and incredibly important SEO tactic.

Link building is an SEO enigma to many, especially if you’ve been a website owner for a decade or so, or more. It used to be more of a veiled practice that SEO agencies and professionals used to increase rankings, without being super transparent about where and how exactly those links were being built. However, as Google grew and improved their algorithm, SEO agencies and professionals improved their link building practices, too.

I’d be lying if I said spammy practices no longer exist, because they certainly do, although it’s pretty debatable as to how much they still help improve rankings when Google’s so much better at detecting and penalizing spam.

So, we’ve established that link building has lost its “always spam” label, but what, then, does it really involve? How do we know that it still matters so much? What sorts of links are actually helpful?

5 link building myths, debunked

Link building, along with the concept of SEO as a whole, is rife with myth and mystery. Let’s separate some link building myths from the facts.

Myth 1: Backlinks don’t matter as much anymore.

Fact: Spammy link building practices have abated, but link building itself has not, and is still incredibly important.

Studies performed by Backlinko and Ahrefs have found that there is absolutely a correlation between a number of backlinks and Google rankings. According to Backlinko, “pages with lots of backlinks rank above pages that don’t have as many backlinks. In fact, the #1 result in Google has an average of 3.8x more backlinks than positions #2-#10.”

Take a look at this graph by Ahrefs on the number of referring domains (aka links) vs. Search traffic:

referring domains (aka links) vs. Search traffic:
Image source: Ahrefs

The takeaway: More links = more traffic.

Backlinko has a similar graph showing referring domains (links) vs. search position (rankings):

Number of referring domains
Image source: Backlinko

The takeaway: More links = better rankings.

Myth 2: It’s just the sheer number of links your site has that matters the most.

Fact: While the number of backlinks is definitely important, links from high-quality, authoritative pages and domains matter the most.

We can go straight to the source (Google) for this answer. In an article in the Search Console Help Center titled “Steps to a Google-friendly site,” Google explains:

Links help our crawlers find your site and can give your site greater visibility in our search results. When returning results for a search, Google uses sophisticated text-matching techniques to display pages that are both important and relevant to each search. Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote by page A for page B. Votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily and help to make other pages “important.”

Well, that sounds pretty straightforward — links from important pages are best. Except, what the heck is “important”?

In this case, importance = authority. Some quick facts on authority:

  • Domain authority is a pretty good indicator of a website’s authority. Be careful, though: Domain authority is a score developed by Moz, and is not a specific Google ranking factor.
  • Authority is a part of Google’s E-A-T  (expertise, authority, trust) guidelines, so expertise and trust are equally important. A link to your content from a site with high expertise, authority, and trust will matter more than one from, say, someone’s blog they’ve just spun up a couple weeks ago.
  • Also, consider subject authority. Subject authority just means that the content is written by a human who is an authority on the subject. Example: You’re a SAAS company offering payroll software and services. Links from sites like Capterra, NerdWallet, and Fit Small Business would be authority links. A link from ClearVoice would be OK, but ClearVoice isn’t a subject authority on payroll software, so it wouldn’t be as helpful as the others in helping boost your rankings.

Social media links don’t help your rankings.

Myth 3: Social media links don’t matter and don’t help your rankings.

Fact: Social media links count as “mentions” and bolster your content as being authoritative, and shouldn’t be discounted.

Google has explicitly said that social media is not a direct ranking factor. However, conjecture and research throughout the SEO community has found that, while social media likes and links don’t directly influence rankings, there is a correlation between an active, engaging social media presence and search engine rankings.

Backlinko’s list of Google’s 200 ranking factors includes:

  • Site Has Facebook Page and Likes
  • Site has Twitter Profile with Followers
  • Official Linkedin Company Page
  • Legitimacy of Social Media Accounts

Beyond those, I like how OptinMonster puts it:

“Social media may not be a ranking factor for Google, but it can amplify the ranking factors that Google DOES consider.”

For instance, we’ve already established that Google loves high-quality links. Social media amplifies your content, people see it, share it, and perhaps link to it in their own content.

Social media also helps get your content in front of people who maybe haven’t seen or heard of you before. If they like your content, it’s possible that they’ll bookmark your site or perform a branded search for you later. Direct visits (via the bookmark) and branded searches are both Google ranking factors on Backlinko’s list.

Myth 4: Links should be built to your most important pages, like service pages.

Fact: Google is all about a natural link profile — as in, one that looks like other sites link to yours under their own volition. Your service pages are among the least likely pages to be linked to naturally. In short: don’t do it.

Are a few links to your service pages going to hurt? No. But putting your effort into a link building campaign specifically for your service pages is going to look unnatural.

Of course, visits to your service pages are the ones that are more likely to bring in revenue, so it’s understandable that you want to build up the authority of those pages.

Here are a few ways to go about link building to your service pages that are in better accordance with Google’s natural link guidelines:

  • Create awesome, relevant-to-your-industry content with a few contextual links to your service pages throughout. This content then acts as top-of-the-funnel marketing, attracting readers who continue on to your service pages.
  • Build brand mentions across the web, along with natural links to your homepage.
  • Use social media to promote your content and services.

Learn more about natural link building from Search Engine Journal.

Exact match anchor text is the way to go

Myth 5: Exact match anchor text is the way to go!

Fact: Exact match anchor text looks unnatural and is, therefore, an outdated practice.

In the good old days of link building, we SEOs would build links like “Minneapolis MN HVAC service” for our HVAC client, or “best locksmith in Minneapolis” for our locksmiths. Whatever keyword phrase we were hoping to rank for, we’d use as link text.

At its core, the above is keyword stuffing and is now an outdated practice. In fact, Google now looks at it as spammy and included it in their Panda algorithm update. Your site may be penalized for having too many exact match links.

Instead, Google is looking for diverse anchor text, which is what would happen naturally when sites link to yours. For example, I’ve linked to Backlinko’s list of Google’s 200 ranking factors three times in this article. The anchor text I used is:

  • “Backlinko”
  • “list of Google’s 200 ranking factors”
  • “Backlinko’s list”

I cited the list in all natural ways that made sense in my own content. This fits Google’s definition of “natural.”

In short, you just need to vary your anchor text (when you have control over what your link will be). Hopefully, you’ll be linked to in a bunch of ways you don’t really have control over, because you’ve written awesome content that’s getting shared and referenced across the web!

Bonus: The history of link building

If you’re somewhat of an SEO nerd and you’re interested in just how much the practice of link building and Google’s algorithm have evolved together, there’s a very cool resource by Paddy Moogan called The Link Building Book. It’s a huge, valuable resource on link building. If you take a look at Chapter 4, he provides the history of link building, which is super interesting, and helps you see where some of the above link building myths came from. Find a snippet of it below. Enjoy, and happy link building!

A lot of the large-scale link building techniques (e.g., article syndication, directory submissions, blog comments) were used for a reason – they worked! And not only did they work, but they were also very scalable and they made link building into much more of a commodity, which suited most SEO agencies. Even some of the very best SEO agencies that prefer to stay on the white hat side of the line used these techniques because they worked and posed little risk.