SEO experts, bloggers and content marketers start with on-site SEO (search engine optimization) because that is the simplest to control.
However, they’re only one part of what Google and other search engines use to determine search engine rankings. Great web designers and SEO agencies also use off-page SEO factors to tell Google what other people think of your website and help determine how valuable it is for users.
Google’s Ranking Factors
For most of this article, we’ll use facts and statistics about the way Google ranks websites on search engine results pages (SERPs), since last year 74.54 percent of online searches were conducted through Google. However, other search engines use similar factors for ranking pages, so if you optimize for Google, chances are you’ll rank high with them as well.
Google uses more than 200 ranking factors, and says these are the three most important:
While there are some ranking factors you can let slide, for a while, backlinks are not one of them.
What Are Backlinks Again?
A backlink is also called an inbound or incoming link. They’re when another website links to one of your web pages. Above, when we cited a statistic, we created a backlink to the page where we found it so if you wanted to you could check out the study. They’re a vital part of off-page search engine optimization.
Off-page SEO tells Google what other people think about your site. If you have lots of high-quality links that lead users to you, web crawlers assume your site has great content on that topic. Otherwise, people wouldn’t be linking to and reading it. Backlinks are like a word of mouth referral.
Link building used to be easy. You could buy them or create websites whose only purpose was to provide backlinks for your main site. A site with 400 inbound links ranked higher than a site with only 20. You can still buy links actually, but we’ll tell you later in this article why that’s a very bad idea that can lead to penalties and the death of your online rankings.
Because so many people were creating backlinks that provided no value to the user, Google’s algorithm got smarter. It measures not just the number of backlinks your site has, but their quality.
How Google Evaluates Links
When Googlebots crawl the web analyzing content, they ask questions like the following:
Where does the link originate? If you walked into a meeting on web development, you would be much more likely to listen to web design advice from the owner of a large, successful web design company than you would from someone who identifies themselves as a student just exploring the field. Search engines are designed to evaluate the referring site’s authority in much the same way.
How diverse are inbound links? One way search engines detect spamming websites is by evaluating their type. If your page is about motorcycles, backlinks from a plumber and a ballet shoe vendor are unnatural. Some diversity is good. Three links from three separate authority websites are more valuable than multiple links from one site.
Are they relevant to the topic? If your motorcycle page links come from Harley Davidson, Ducati and BMW motorcycle pages, they’re all related to what you’re writing about. Search engines are sophisticated. If your page is about crash bars, the backlinks should all be related. If Ducati links to your page on crash bars, search engines think you must be an authority on the subject. However, if Ducati’s page actually has to do with motorcycle racing in Italy, Google gives less weight to the referral.
Is the text around the link relevant? Search engines evaluate the images, headings and body text surrounding the backlink to understand the topic.
How recent is the link? Google Penguin is an update integrated into the core algorithm that evaluates sites in real-time at a granular level. Search engines prefer backlinks that developed recently to ones that have existed for years because that indicates your site is a current authority and your information is not outdated.
Is it local? If you have a storefront, local backlinks say you are preferred by users in your geographic area.
A Few Ways to Get Links
To some, it sounds like an impossible task. When you’re in the beginning stages of web development or just starting to plan your website redesign, you may not have material that makes authority websites want to link to yours.
Content is why search started in the first place, which makes it an indispensable investment for on-site SEO and establishing yourself as an authority. You can also use it to gain quality links by following these suggestions.
Guest blog for related sites. If you run a business, there are some topics on which you are an authority. Analyze what you have in-depth knowledge on and write posts on that topic. Be authentic and write content that is of value to users. Then offer what you’ve written to authority websites.
Develop visual assets that are easy to link to. Long form content is important for search engine optimization, but visuals make it easier to digest. Use graphic design to create high-quality images, diagrams, charts and infographics people will want to use on their own sites.
Provide original research and data. If you’ve discovered trends for your industry or your area, turn that into a report related sites want to use for statistics.
Work with business partners, clients and vendors. They need links too. If your products and services complement each other, find a way to emphasize that connection with high-quality backlinks.
Black Hat SEO
Remember in old western movies when the bad guy wore a big black hat? Black hat search engine optimization involves strategies that are shady, and they’re always a bad idea when it comes to web design. You might see a temporary spike in ranking, but Google is always watching.
Search engine penalties could get your site completely removed from search engine results, possibly forever.
Google and Bing both have guidelines for what to avoid. Here’s a quick summary of what might get you flagged.
Using private blog networks (PBNs) that exist just for links. This just isn’t worth the trouble.
Guest posting on inferior or unrelated websites just for a link. The Penguin Algorithm finds suspicious looking posts and other material that looks like spam.
Exploiting security flaws to create links on a website not your own.
Forum link building – Google frowns on the practice of posting site links on forum comments just to drive traffic, they must be relevant and serve a purpose.
Link penalties involve either ranking demotion or complete site removal. If you’ve been hit by the Penguin Google Update, you won’t receive notification, your ranking will just plummet. It’s possible to address problem links to improve your ranking.
A manual link penalty happens when a human from Google reviews your site and penalizes you for unnatural links. Notifications occur in your Google Search Console. Avoid both types of penalties by only creating white hat links.
Social Media and Off-Page SEO
Off-site SEO uses your brand’s interactions to build relationships and make user experience with your organization the best they can be. Part of that involves your social media presence.
It makes sense that when you have more positive mentions, more shared content and a high number of followers on social media that you would also have more leads and higher site conversion rates.
Social media isn’t a direct ranking factor, but it does impact rankings. If you create good content, you’re going to be well received on social media. Your reputation, shares, likes and links all indirectly contribute to your off-page SEO.
You wouldn’t invest in updating your store and improving your products then neglect to let the public know about it. If you prioritize on-site SEO and developing backlinks with authority sites and don’t use social media management to let people know, it’s the same thing. We wrote a whole series on how to use social media for business growth, but here’s a quick summary of how it impacts search engine optimization.
When people say positive things about your product and brand on social media, that leads to more positive reviews and site traffic, both of which boost your ranking.
Social media allows you to provide good customer service so users feel good about your brand.
Use social media to learn what your customers are interested in and worried about. Create content around those trends.
Be a resource on social media when users ask for recommendations. This builds brand loyalty.
Social media builds brand awareness. When people have a positive experience with you there, they’re more likely to click on your content in search results.
Other Off-Site SEO Factors
Search engines evaluate every mention of your brand or page for off-site SEO. Every time your name, address, and phone number (NAP) is listed in directories and on other websites, it must be consistent to build trust with users and search engines. While your relevance and authority are always under evaluation, your activity over time also matters. Any time visitors block your page or search engines blacklist it, your rankings suffer.
Reviews influence purchasing decisions, with 84 percent of shoppers trusting online reviews as much as they would a recommendation from family or friends. Google wants to provide users with helpful information, and search engines believe reviews do just that.
One survey says review signals make up 10.3 percent of overall local ranking factors. Work with your website developer to create a review acquisition strategy.
Off-page SEO strategies can make or break your online reputation. Critical elements include quality backlinks, positive social signals, consistent feedback from other sources that will build trust and positive online reviews.