Main takeaways:

  • Quality and context of a link > quantity of backlinks.
  • Many URLs that are ranking for competitive keywords have a high number of backlinks. This is correlation not causation.
  • Most backlinks you see reported in third-party tools on ranking competitors are junk.
  • Ask yourself why your page deserves to be served on top of Google search. If the information on your page could be better – work on this first!

Links can push a webpage higher up in the SERPs.

Ironically, fixating on getting more links every month is one of the reasons why your pages aren’t ranking well on Google SERPs. Having reviewed thousands of backlinks, I’ve concluded that most guest posting campaigns are a waste of money.

How many links do you need to outrank your competitors?

It’s probably not what you’re thinking.

Let’s get started.

Click here to skip to my recommendations.

How many links will I need to rank?

You may need one page-level link, no links at all, or dozens of links sprinkled across multiple URLs.

But here’s the thing. If you’re asking this question then you’re approaching SEO the wrong way. This is because Google has gotten better at devaluing low-quality backlinks.

July 2021 update: Google has rolled out a link spam update (source – opens in a new tab).

In 2010-2014, backlinks were very effective in ranking on Google. Back then, you could throw any type of link .

Then Panda came and the SERPs have never been quite the same. From 2018 onwards, Google has advanced its algorithms to reward high-quality content and as a result, backlinks are becoming less of a ranking factor.

How do I know this and why should you take my word for it?

Early in my SEO career, I made the same mistake.

I tried increasing DR/DA with guest posts (new URLs) and link inserts (existing URLs), hoping that with a higher DR/DA than a competitor would result in a better keyword ranking.

This method no longer works and hasn’t for quite some time.

I have calculated the number of links a ranking competitor has and built more page-level links than them and guess what happened?

There was no change to the target URLs ranking.

When I consult for clients, this is my belief:

  1. Getting more backlinks than ranking competitors is ineffective and costly.
  2. Getting backlinks from reputable websites that your target audience recognize is the new battlefront.

The good news is that it is no longer a quest of quantity, but rather, quality of linking sources.

The bad news is that this approach to off-page SEO is a lot more difficult to secure backlinks but let me show you in the next section how you can achieve the best possible result for your sales, informational, or product category pages.

Let me show you in the following section why it’s not about the number of links that matter.

I love using Site Explorer in Ahrefs (see below).

Within seconds, I can see the number of links any URL has, the estimated keywords it ranks for, and how the URL has been trending in terms of estimated organic traffic.

But Site Explorer doesn’t give me a complete picture and it can lead you to make the wrong conclusion. For example, at the time of writing this post, this particular URL is ranking for the keyword “boston criminal lawyer”.

I could make the assumption that the 2,000+ backlinks from 11 unique websites is why this law firm is ranking in #1 position.

Similarly, using Backlink Analytics in Semrush (shown above), you could just as easily end up thinking that you’ll need to build 580+ links from 5 unique websites in order to compete with this site.

Furthermore, some sites have PBN links and these links do not always show up in third-party tools.

Here’s another example using “best mattress” (5,100 monthly search volume) as the keyword in Australia. The following screenshot is from Keywords Explorer in Ahrefs and scrolling down to SERP overview.

Here’s what we can see:

  • The first result has 12 links from 10 referring domains.
  • The second result has 88 links from 52 referring domains.
  • The third result has 69 links from 26 referring domains.
  • The fourth result has 97 backlinks from 44 referring domains.
  • The fifth result has 1,617 backings from 55 referring domains.
  • And the last result has a grand total of 1 backlink.

As you can tell, the number of links and referring domains follow no obvious pattern to ranking pattern and you will see this a lot in the SERPs.

From the same screenshot, you will also see that there is no linear pattern between ranking position and DR/UR/AR. This is because Google doesn’t use DR/UR/AR in their ranking algorithm.

Without diving deeper, I can say with certainty that there’s more to play than the number of page-level links.

Therefore, third-party link data should be used to give you an indication of whether or not ranking competitors are investing in link-building. Using Ahrefs, Semrush, SerpStat, or Majestic you can see what URLs they’re building links to and what type of link building they’re using.

In the following section, I’ll show you why link volume is irrelevant to your pursuit of ranking in the top 3 of Google.

Most backlinks that you will find are junk.

Link vendors will tell you all sorts of things why the links they’ve got you are good. Many will tell you that you will need X-number of links per month and X-number of links to rank higher in Google SERP.

Some will say that they got a link placed on a high DR/DA site.

Here’s the thing: even sites with DR50+ and DA60+ metrics can be junk.

Both DR and DA are metrics that can be gamed and many guest post farms do this to make money from selling link placements.

Using the same Boston law firm from the first example, the following screenshot shows the backlinks Ahrefs has found.

Despite high DR scores, all of these sites have zero traffic from organic search (Google) with the exception of one.

After filtering Ahrefs to show just one ‘dofollow’ backlink per domain, you will notice that all the sites are directory listings. I call these citation links and they’re good for establishing to Google that your business is legitimate but citation links ≠ link-building.

Similarly, in Semrush, we see the following:

We see the same directory listing sites in the Backlink Analytics tool.

Now take a look at the backlinks that the first result for the site that ranks for “best mattress” in Australia (see below)

Of the 16 backlinks that point to the target URL, all are scraper websites (i.e., junk value links).

Let’s take a look at the site that has 1,617 backlinks!

Using Site Explorer in Ahrefs and filtering backlinks by organic keywords, here’s what you will see:

  • Of the 1,167 backlinks, only a handful (<10) are noteworthy. The rest are junk.
  • There is at least one mattress manufacturer (Sealy) who has linked to the URL. Sealy may not have a high DR or UR but Searly Corporation is a known entity in Google’s knowledge graph. This is a good link.
  • A fellow comparison (Cosier) has linked to the URL and it has done so from a page that has significant search traffic and ranking keywords. This is a great link.
  • It is also worth noting that Cosier’s linking page has 18 inbound links itself.
  • I also found a link from a well-known Australian newspaper – this is a noteworthy link to have.

From this quick analysis, we can conclude a few things:

  • The total number of backlinks is irrelevant as 90% of these links have no value whatsoever.
  • There is usually a few links from noteworthy sources that offer significant ranking signal.
  • And links from URLs that have noteworthy backlinks themselves are the holy grail.

But that’s not to say that links don’t matter because they can! What I want you to understand is that not all links are the same and that there is a better way to approach link-building.

PS – To understand what low quality backlinks are and why they’re a waste of money, I get super critical in this blog post.

Here’s what you should do.

Backlinks will always play a role in ranking until Google figures out how to work around it.

While Google will not disclose how they rank webpages (source – Search Off The Record podcast), they and their representatives are being more proactive in announcing updates and releasing helpful documentation.

So instead of paying for guest post placements from low quality websites, this is what you should ask yourself when wanting to get your website ranking.

Is your page the best it can be?

Building page-level links should be the last thing in your SEO strategy.

You should only consider a link-building campaign once the information on the target URL provides better value to people who are searching for that query.

In order to do this, you will need to understand the search intent behind the keyword and provide a better user experience than ranking competitors.

You can use content optimization tools such as SurferSEO, Frase, Page Optimizer Pro or Clearscope to bring your content on par with ranking URLs.

I recommend using Google Search Console to measure the relevance of your target URL across time. In the screenshot below, GSC shows all the keywords associated with a particular URL.

This is a powerful free tool to help you understand how Google sees your page.

I explore how you can achieve this through content marketing and you can learn how to collect data and develop topical relevance here.

Then there is E-A-T (click here to learn more) to consider.

What other valuable information can you provide to searchers?

Replicating ranking competitors information is a start. But to really outrank them, you need to offer a better user experience.

To do this, your page needs to do a better job at communicating value to your audience than URLs that are already ranking.

This is where building out comprehensive topic clusters comes in.

At a basic level, a topic cluster will look like this (see below).

For a publisher, topic clusters may look like this (see below).

As you can see – you have a lot of work to do and I show you how to start from scratch all the way through to optimizing existing pages here.

What publishers can you collaborate with?

The best backlinks are ones that take time and effort to pursue (I explain what makes a good backlink here). This usually involves pitching stories and commentary to established websites and publishers.

In a nutshell, this is how to build noteworthy links in 2020 and beyond:

  1. What type of content does your target audience consumer?
  2. What websites does your target audience frequent?
  3. What unique angle can you offer to these websites?

What complimentary services or businesses can you collaborate with?

To go one step further than the above and ignoring silly metrics such as DR and DA, can you build a relationship with complimentary services?

For example:

  • An ecommerce business can offer sales data, trends and forecasting insights to a news media outlet.
  • A law firm can do pro bono work for a non-profit and ask for link back.
  • A mortgage broker can offer trends infographics and forecasting insights to a news media outlet.
  • A wedding photographer can offer a guest post to an image compression software business.
  • A pest control business can offer a guest post to a roofing or real estate business.

Frequently asked questions.

A ranking competitor has 25 backlinks. Will I rank above them if I get 30 links?

Not necessarily. You may outrank them with 1-3 good links because you may discover that all 25 backlinks are junk (I cover how to do this here). Therefore, when you do a backlink gap audit, ask yourself the following:

  1. How many of the links come from high-traffic sources that you recognize?
  2. How many of the links come from scraper websites, directory listings, and guest post websites?
  3. How can I improve the quality and credibility of the content on my page?

If you see that a ranking URL has only 1-2 credible backlinks, that’s your answer. That is, make your page(s) better for real people searching and work on acquiring 2-3 high-quality backlinks.

Should I replicate the same links my competitors have?

No, and here’s why.

What you’re seeing in third-party link tools is a historical view of all the links a URL has. It doesn’t tell you which links had a net positive effect on its ranking. I cover this here on this page.

Replicating the link profile of a website that has been around for years will cost an exorbitant amount of resources. Plus, third-party link data does not tell you which links have been disavowed by the website.

Instead of copying the same backlinks as ranking competitors, I recommend that you approach link-building with the end user in mind.

  • What websites does your target audience frequent?
  • What type of content are they likely to consume?
  • Combining the two: how can you get in front of them?
  • The answer to these questions will lead you to identify what links from what website are worth investing in and will most likely have the greatest impact on referral traffic and ranking.

Should I ignore nofollow link opportunities?

Many established and credible publications have a blanket outbound nofollow rule.

Nofollow backlinks from large publishers can be beneficial. This is because in March 2020, Google changed the way it treats nofollow links (source – opens in a new tab).

What this means for you is that a nofollow link from a credible source can be a ranking signal. This is because earning a backlink from a credible publisher is often difficult and this can be your competitive advantage at ranking higher above your competitors.

In summary.

Chasing backlinks will burn a huge hole in your marketing budget and most link vendors deliver backlinks from sites that are devalued by Google or worse yet, become liabilities to your business.

In certain verticals such as payday loans, gambling, porn, and vapes, mass-scale links continue to be one of the major ranking factors. However, if your business operates outside of these verticals, content marketing is becoming a stronger ranking factor.

Links from contextually relevant, industry-specific and industry-recognized websites are the types of backlinks you should strive for. You don’t need a lot of them as they’re typically difficult to secure. And because they’re difficult to get, these links will provide your target URL a much stronger signal than your run-of-the-mill guest post site.

Want to learn how to apply SEO like this?

For years I have recommended clients to invest in customer education to showcase their expertise. So watch me practice what I preach by showing you the exact process I deploy for my clients.

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