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One of the most important aspects of SEO is links, and this has traditionally been the backbone of how search engines work. As search engines scour the Internet and crawl all the pages in the world, they find links pointing to other pages. You know that blue underlined text that you see everywhere that you can click on and your browser takes you to some other page? You can think of each one of those links as a vote. And not every vote is the same. Remember that some sites are considered more authoritative and more trustworthy than others.
In this weighted democracy, there are really just two things that matter, the number of links you have pointing to you, and the quality of those links. Generally speaking, you'll improve your search engine visibility by increasing your link popularity. The more quality links you have pointing to your website from other websites, the more authoritative your site will be to search engines. If no other website was linking to yours, it would be very difficult for search engines to trust your site enough to return it in the search results. A search engine would much rather show results from sites that have earned links and authority.
But you can have all the links in the world, and it won't matter unless those links are of high quality. One thing search engines look for to determine link quality is how relevant the link is to the content on the pages. For example, if you run a recipe website, and you end up with a food blog linking to you, the search engine has no trouble at all with that relationship. It makes perfect sense that a food blog would link to a recipe website. But if you went out and told your friend who owns a gambling website to put a link on their site over to yours, that's going to be a little harder to justify.
A gambling site probably has no business linking to your recipes. And since that thematic connection isn't there, a search engine may not place as much value on that link. Search engines will also look at the link text itself. The text that you can click on is what's known as the anchor text, and if you think about it, that anchor text serves as a pretty good clue as to what the destination page is all about. For example, if a link uses anchor text like "california backpacking tips," that's a pretty strong signal to the search engines that the page on the other side of that link is about California backpacking tips.
A search engine doesn't even need to go to that page and it already knows what to expect. Think about that compared to a link that uses anchor text like "link" or "click here." Unless that page is really about links or clicking here, it's not going to tell a search engine much about what's on that page. Another indicator of quality is freshness and trends. Search engines expect you to naturally gain a steady amount of links over time, and if you don't, it might be interpreted as a bad thing. For example, if a bunch of links to your site showed up on the Internet five years ago and you've had nothing since then, your content may be considered stale, and your site would be less authoritative and less trustworthy.
On the other hand, if you've never had anyone linked to you in your life, and then on one certain date there was a pattern of a hundred new links showing up on random blogs on the same day every single month, the search engines are going to investigate a little deeper, and they might find out that you've hired someone to buy you a bunch of links every month. And while we're talking about spam, this is probably a good time to say that it is highly recommended that you not try to trick the system. Search engines are very aware of just about every technique out there, and there are some very real penalties for getting caught trying to manipulate the system.
If a search engine finds an extremely large amount of similar links with the same anchor text popping up all over the place, or links that appear to have been paid for, or suspicious groups of websites known to practice spamming techniques, or any number of other factors, it's very easy for them to figure out exactly what you've been doing and then penalize you for it. Penalties can be anything from dropping your rankings for minor infractions, to dropping you from the entire index if you're doing really overt things. Remember, search engine optimization is not something you do for short-term gains. It's something you build upon day after day, to build long-term value.
Finally we've entered into an era where social media is now a part of our online lives. When people post and share links to our content, or indicate its quality by clicking a button, search engines are taking note. If you think about it, where they used to have to rely on other websites in the weighted democracy, social media allows them a signal that actually tells them what people like. Understanding your audience, and the keywords they are typing into search engines, and creating great content around it is the first step to SEO. But earning the links back to your website around the Web is what really shows search engines just how trustworthy and authoritative you really are.
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