Google isn’t very democratic. Everybody gets a vote but some votes count more than others.
A Hong Kong client wrote to ask me if backlinks were bad for his website. The email was out of the blue and unexpected. The client is a topic expert who knows his own field, but he doesn’t know much about websites or the internet in general. Which is why we are working to improve his website performance from basically flat zero into at least a semblance of life.
But that makes a question about “backlinks” from him rather unexpected.
Are backlinks bad for my website?
It always rings alarm bells when a client unexpectedly throws in some industry jargon. That was true in my teens when I fixed PC for people, and if they suddenly asked me about RAM or Turbo-mode on their AT it was a surprise.
It means they have been having new input, often from other non-expert friends over a beer, and so end up getting an incomplete picture. I bet doctors have the same concern when a patient suddenly asks for a “non-steroid anti-inflammatory drug”, instead of something for a headache.
What are Backlinks?
What exactly was he asking about?
Backlinks are the term for when any website links to another. Those clickable pieces of text, originally always blue and underlined but now any colour according to the whim of the designer, that when you click them take you to another web page. Sometimes on the same site, something on another site entirely.
And it is when another website includes links to your Hong Kong website that things start to get interesting.
Why do they matter?
Google see backlinks as votes in favour of a website.
But, and here is the key part that makes life confusing, doesn’t consider all backlink to be equal. Some votes count a lot more than others, and a few types may even have a negative effect.
The founders of Google, students Sergy Brin and Larry Page, realised that when a page was linked to frequently that probably meant it was more important. They invented the original Page Rank algorithm, named after Larry Page, and it has been the basis of Google ever since.
Backlinks are therefore votes for a page, so backlinks to your website, to its individual pages, are a vote in favour of their worth in the eyes of Google. But at the same time a link from an important website is seen as more of a vote than a link from an unimportant website. And how is importance determined? By the number, and importance, of the links to those pages.
If this sounds like circular logic and rather Alice in Wonderland, then don’t worry, you are not imagining it, yes it is circular. But Larry Page worked out the mathematical technique for resolving this and coming up with a valid scoring system. That’s what made his idea special.
Votes – for or against
So backlinks are votes and votes are good.
Only things are never quite as simple as that. As soon as one person starts measuring something, someone else finds a way to cheat the system. And that’s exactly what happened with links and google. Webmasters started to artificially inflate the number of links their websites received to fool Google into thinking they were more important.
And just like any good school exam invigilator, once Google saw people cheating they introduced anti-cheating measures. Some of these simply consist of defining rules, the webmaster guidelines, while others are automatic detection systems with fancy names like Panda and Penguin.
But Google likes to automate things, so they are not looking at links one-by-one to see if they are genuine. No, instead they set overall rules, all algorithms, that detect links liable to be artificially created. As these systems are not full proof they won’t take action against a site with one or two links that seem artificial, because that might be a mistake, but if Google sees a large number of unusual or suspicious links then they will first start to ignore them, and if there are really too many, will actually consider them to be negative votes.
What your Hong Kong website needs
So to rank well in the eyes of Google you do need backlinks, but they need to be ones that either really occurred naturally or which are of a type which seems entirely reasonable, and not at all artificial.
If your website is linked to from scmp.com then that counts for a lot and seems perfectly reasonable. Similarly being listed in a directory like 852.com or hongkong.asiaxpat.com will help your website seem not only reputable, but Hong Kong related. That increases your chances of ranking well for queries made on google.com.hk, particularly if they relate to products or services for HK.
What you don’t need though, and this is where my client probably became concerned, is large numbers of irrelevant links from websites that exist purely to sell links. That is at best unhelpful and at worst actually destructive. Why might you have such links? Because these are a typical product of all those “Guaranteed first place in Google” offers which you receive in your email.
One of the “standard” techniques of these snake-oil SEO companies is to build up massive quantities of links, with no thought as to whether they are meaningful or reasonable. And they do it because this will temporarily provide your website with a boost until Google starts to integrate and count the number and type of links and find that it just doesn’t make sense.
The bottom line is that your website does need backlinks.
But the right kind. Which means good quality, relevant and appropriate links.