Backlinks are still one of the more important parts of a successful SEO strategy. But how do you know if a backlink is helping or hurting your website?

Bad, or toxic, backlinks can negatively impact your website’s search presence, as well as put your website under a Google penalty risk. Which no one wants.

As with all aspects of SEO, Google has changed how they assess (and define) the quality of a backlink.

They have become more discerning in the last four or five years about what quality means.

Nowadays, where a backlink is on a page, as well as the type, relevance and context of a backlink all play a role in determining its quality. Which is why links that were considered good once can become toxic. Also: the days of quality over quantity are long gone. 

Assessing backlink quality is not a one-off thing. This is an on-going process, and depending on the number of backlinks you have and/or how long your website has been live for, is something that should be done at least once a month.

Here’s how you can assess the quality of your backlink profile, and so improve your website’s search presence.

How is backlink quality defined?

There is no single aspect that determines a backlink’s quality. There is a range of metrics you will have to assess the quality of a backlink for SEO.

Four key factors that qualify a quality SEO Backlink include:

  • The link is in the body text of a page and is set as rel=do-follow.
  • The keyword in the anchor text of the link is relevant to your page’s topic.
  • The link is from a high-quality website.
  • Link is on a topic and page that is relevant to the top and page it’s being linked to.

Keep in mind it’s unlikely that all the links you earn will meet all of these factors. However, to have a good link, it must meet at least two of these criteria. To have a passable link, it must have at least one of these—preferably at least do-follow.

The importance of quality backlinks

It’s important to care about the quality of each link for two reasons. Well, there are many reasons, but two of the most important are:

The better the quality, the more juice it gives

Yes, “link juice”. Another way of thinking about it is that the better a backlink’s quality, the more fuel it gives to a page’s SEO. This is why there’s no point going out and getting a ton of backlinks without first knowing how valuable each will be.

This has made acquiring worthwhile backlinks harder, as it’s no longer a simple matter of volume. Rather, it is now a question of value.

Spotting potentially toxic links

The second important reason is you need to be able to spot potentially toxic links. Once you can spot toxic backlinks, you will able to disavow them, and so avoid any potential Google penalties.

Quantity vs Quality backlinks

In the early days of SEO, the first ranking factor for determining the best pages to show was the number of backlinks that pointed to a page. But that was before Google’s algorithms became sophisticated. Before they were able to determine context and relevance.

This shook up the SEO industry in a big way as it forced many to change what they were doing. And how they were doing it. Which, in a way, was why Google changed the rules—the old rules were too easy to manipulate.

Unscrupulous SEO professionals (known as Black hats) would create and buy link exchanges. Which allowed them to spam obscene amounts of low-quality links on any website they could find.

The result being a lot of irrelevant pages ranking highly, and this ruined the user experience. Since Google’s all about the user experience, they continue to refine their algorithms to make their search engine better for the end-user. And that is why there are now Google penalties for websites that engage in spammy linking building practices.

Now the importance of links is centered around contextual backlinks and link relevance.

5 tips for assessing the quality of a backlink

Now you know why the quality of a backlink is so important, let’s look how to do a proper assessment. There are many link-building tools that can help to make this process easier such as (to name just a few):

  • Ahrefs
  • BuzzStream
  • Moz Link Explorer
  • BuzzSumo
  • Screaming Frog

Here are five tips to assess the quality of a backlink. With the right software and these tips, you can avoid a useless link profile.

Analyze domain quality and relevance

Step one in assessing quality SEO backlinks is to look at the domain it’s linking to. This refers back to what we mentioned earlier with “link juice”. The more relevant and high-quality a domain is, the more SEO Fuel it will provide.

On the flip side, a whole lot of low-quality links irrelevant to the topic of your page is a red flag to Google. Which can cause your rankings to start dropping.

You also want to check the domain authority of linking root domains. This is where you need SEO tools like Ahrefs or Moz. What you’re looking for is:

  • How relevant the topic and link are, to your page that has the link.
  • How natural the link is worked into your content is? This means: is the link in the body copy in a way that reads normally, or has it been stuffed in there for its own sake?
  • Does the link help users? For example, is it a source being cited, or a link to a tool they can use?

How these factors are assessed does involve a certain level of subjectivity.

And yet, it is necessary you assess each link for each of these values as it’s the only way to ensure you maintain a healthy backlink profile full of authority links.

When you see any red flags, for example any links that look like spam, the best thing to do, and the safest, is to disavow it. This keeps your backlink profile safe, and your website’s SEO healthy.

Find referring domains

Amongst Google’s many algorithm changes was the shift from volume of links to referring domains. The thinking behind this is change is that it’s easy to spam a website with a huge amount of links; but much harder to spam links across a ton of domains.

Checking referring domains is now much more important as new domains have more value. This is again where you will want to use SEO tools like Moz, Ahrefs, SEMRush, or Majestic etc.

The benefit of using more than one SEO tool is that there will be some variation in what domains each tool finds. By using more than one you can collate the data yourself to find commonalities.

Part of assessing a new link’s value is to check and assess the domain it’s pointing to.

If the domain is one you have linked to already it’s useful, but not as useful as a brand-new domain. A brand-new domain is more valuable as it can make your backlink profile look more natural.

However, not all brand-new domains are valuable. This is another subjective judgement that needs to be made in the initial assessment. And it is also something that needs to be checked on regularly.

Running regular backlink checks in several SEO tools helps you to ensure that any low-quality, spammy domains are removed.

Fair warning: the health (or value) of domain can change. What was a quality domain today could, next month, lose some of its value.

Check anchor text

The clickable, blue, underlined text that gets hyperlinked is the anchor text. To determine how relevant a link is to your site, Google crawls the anchor text of a link. This is one of the newer additions to assessing a backlink that has made a significant difference to gaining quality backlinks.

What this means is, a quality backlink, in general terms, is a link with anchor text that uses the main keyword of the page it’s being linked to. For example, if your page is about home office supplies, then the anchor text would need to contain that keyword.

The reason Google now looks at anchor text is to stop the dodgy SEO practice of hiding irrelevant keywords for spamming purposes.

An example of this dodgy practice is getting a link to the home office supplies page, but then adding in a page about off-road racing, pet food or something similarly unrelated. But nowadays, the anchor text that links to irrelevant pages is a red flag that will see your site penalized.

Which is why, as we’ve already mentioned, you want to check your links’ anchor text to ensure it occurs naturally in the body copy of the page as well as being relevant. To have naturally occurring anchor text means it cannot be identical on all your pages. When there’s little to no variation it can look spammy to Google.

Most SEO tools have a referring domains report which will also show the anchor text of those links to make easier for you to assess their quality.

Locations of the on-page links

In a crackdown on relevancy and context, the location of the anchor text on the webpage. The position of a link on a page can determine what level of importance it implies. Which means Google doesn’t give the same amount of link juice to all links on a page.

So, if you were to write a lengthy guide to help your readers, you’re going to put the most important resources and links at the start of the body copy. Because you wouldn’t want to place any important information at the bottom of the guide; fewer people are likely to read that far.

All this means is: when you get a new link make sure you assess its position. If the link is in the main body of your content, you want it to be at the top or in the middle, although if it’s at the bottom this is ok.

If a link is in the header, footer or sidebar this won’t be considered as important as links in the main body content.

The hierarchy of importance for on-page links goes like this:

  • Body content (where the value decreases the further down the page)
  • Header
  • Sidebar
  • Footer

However, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a rough guide, and Google updates its algorithm consistently.

Check referral traffic

The last thing you should check is if there’s any referral traffic your get from a link. It’s not the most important aspect of a backlink, but it’s still something that often gets overlooked.

Checking this is not only good to see what traffic’s coming through, but it also lets you know if the link is worthwhile; if it’s relevant.

Checking referral traffic is as easy as logging into Google Analytics and looking at the Referrals which is under All Traffic which is under the main tab Acquisition.

If a link has ticked the above 4 boxes but has no traffic, it might be red flag. It’s not the most accurate or trustworthy of signals, but it still can provide some insight into a link’s quality.

Assessing a backlink’s quality

When building a healthy link profile, it’s important to consistently assess and monitor your backlink profile. By doing this it will keep your work honest. It will help to ensure you focus on diverse, relevant and quality links over sheer volume.

Routinely assessing your backlinks will also ensure your catch any red flags early and disavow them. This keeps your link profile fresh, clean and Google-friendly.

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