SEO: A Common Sense Assessment of Link Quality

Applying common sense to assessing the quality of a backlink can yield good results. Ensuring the link is good for both humans and search engines is a good start.

A quality backlink pleases both humans and search engine algorithms. It is editorial in nature. It comes from a well-respected source, and it is relevant to the topics covered on both the linking and linked websites.

One might even say that in a perfect scenario, link building for search engine optimization would be nothing more than creating content so good that awestruck readers would link to it out of pure admiration. Those links would also be “do follow” and use keyword-rich anchor text.

Unfortunately, as many marketers and search optimizers will tell you, creating content so good that it cannot be ignored is rare. It is a worthy goal, but typically we must create good content and entice others to links to it. It’s hard work.

In many ways, it is similar to a sales process. It requires relationship building, adding value, and earning trust. And that assumes your content is link-worthy.

But not every backlink is desirable. Sites that scrape content or publish offensive material, as examples, do nothing for SEO. Likely they are harmful.

Thus it’s important to understand what makes for a good backlink. If your business is going to invest in superior content, focusing on quality backlinks is key.

Common Sense

Google, Bing, and other leading search engines have not defined a good backlink. Representatives from these companies have commented. Articles have been published. But in the end, we are left to draw some of our own conclusions.

This makes sense as there’s not a single recipe for the perfect backlink. It will likely differ from one circumstance to the next.

Fortunately, using a little judgment and a touch of observation, and we can make out some of the characteristics of a good backlink. We could even call this a common-sense approach to assessing link quality.

We could conclude that a quality link will have at least four characteristics.

  • It will please humans and search engine algorithms.
  • It will be editorial in nature.
  • It will come from a respected source.
  • It will be relevant.

Humans and Search Engines

Backlinks are important for SEO.

First, backlinks help search engines discover new pages and content. A backlink could introduce Google or Bing to your company’s latest blog post or product category page.

Second, the quantity and quality of links to a particular URL impact how well it ranks on a results page.

But a quality link doesn’t stop with search engines. Links are also traffic drivers.

For example, I’m aware of a U.S.-based direct-to-consumer ecommerce business that derived 23 percent of its total website traffic for the first seven months of 2019 from a single landing page. While some 80 percent of that traffic came organically from search engines, a handful of links on authoritative websites have sent thousands of visitors directly to this ecommerce company. No search engine required.

So build links for SEO and for direct traffic.

Editorial in Nature

An editorial link adds value, provides a reference, or allows readers to learn more. The author or editor inserted it by choice.

Here is an example from Search Engine Journal. On June 16, 2019, Joseph Robinson wrote the article, “7 Awesome Ecommerce Content Marketing Examples for 2019.”

Robinson’s fourth example comes from Beardbrand.

“Beardbrand has fully committed to the power of the blog. So much so that their blog posts account for a full 69 percent of their organic traffic,” Robinson wrote. “Their number one blog post — How to Grow a THICK BEARD [capitalization in original] — brings in a whopping 16,000 visits a month.”

Robinson linked to Beardbrand’s post because it helped to make his point. Sharing it added authenticity. Thus, that link is editorial in nature.

In contrast, a link in a footer, a link in an author’s biography, or a link in a directory would not typically be editorial.

If your company can provide references or examples to authors, you may earn quality editorial links.

Respected Source

Most links are valuable for a commercial website. But common sense tells us links from leading and respected sources carry more SEO weight. A link from CNN, for example, is better than one from your neighbor’s personal blog.

A Google search on August 13, 2019, for the phrase “men’s dress shoes” returned as the first organic result the men’s dress shoe category page from Nordstrom.

The men's dress shoe category page from Nordstrom had the top organic position on a crowded Google search engine results page.

The men’s dress shoe category page from Nordstrom had the top organic position on a crowded Google search engine results page.

The Nordstrom URL had 100 referring domains and 591,600 backlinks, according to Ahrefs.

Ahrefs provides a domain rating for each site in its index. This domain rating “shows the relative ‘backlink popularity’ of the referring website compared to all other websites in [Ahrefs] database on a 100-point logarithmic scale.” Ahrefs’ domain rating and similar metrics from SEMrush, Majestic, Moz, and others help to identify authoritative websites — respected sources if you will.

The top five referring domains for the Nordstrom category page had Ahrefs domain ratings of 71, 58, 55, 46, and 45.

The second organic result “men’s dress shoes” was Macy’s category page. Macy’s URL had 13 referring domains and 75,122 backlinks, again according to Ahrefs. And the top five referring websites to Macy’s page had domain ratings of 46, 45, 38, 29, and 27.

In short, websites that linked to Nordstrom’s page were much higher quality than those that linked to Macy’s.

Ahrefs provides an overview of the Google search engine result page for the query "men's dress shoes."

Ahrefs provides an overview of the Google search engine result page for the query “men’s dress shoes.”


Finally, common sense tells us that given a choice between a relevant backlink and an irrelevant one, we would prefer the former, and presumably search engines would, too.

Take the example of the Search Engine Journal article linking to Beardbrand. That link is relatively less relevant than the link from this article to Robinson’s post. In the case of the latter, Practical Ecommerce and Search Engine Journal are similar in the topics they cover. So a link from one to the other is highly relevant.

As you build links to your good content, aim for relevance.

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