How Many Backlinks do I need to rank highly in the search engines?

This article discusses a frequently asked question that your boss and customers ask regularly. The question we're about to answer is one of the most frustrating problems an SEO and digital marketer faces.

Considerations on the number of backlinks pointing to a website

Millions of websites operate in a growing number of niche business verticals. As the search engines refine their algorithms, they are more capable of understanding your area of interest. For example, suppose your business operates in a very narrow niche. In this case, you're not likely to need as many backlinks as you would if you were operating in a very competitive business. There are no general rules for search engine rankings nowadays: a small website can rank prominently on the search engines and generate high-quality organic traffic without many backlinks.

Ranking in the search engines can be tough to understand for those unfamiliar with backlinks and link building for SEO. Although relevant, we realise that answering how many backlinks are necessary to rank in the search engines is very difficult.

From our perspective, there are many different ways to tackle the subject of backlinks and link building for SEO to answer this question. It is crucial to provide the proper context to answer such a tricky question.

Understanding Backlinks for SEO

How many backlinks are enough to rank in the search engines is a case of understanding oranges and apples and comparing oranges with oranges and apples to apples. In one of our earlier articles on crawling the web we proposed the image of a pyramid made out of lego:

a pyramid representing the structure of the Web

The power of backlinks for SEO

In that article, we described how all web pages have different weights and values. The supporting data provided in that article made it quite clear how backlinks work. If you have a backlink from a page that is right at the top of the pyramid, it will carry an inordinate amount of "power" or trust. On the other hand, a backlink coming from a page positioned at lower levels will carry far less weight and authority because we are dealing with a logarithmic scale. The logarithmic scale explains the disproportionate difference between a backlink from a web page situated at the very top of the pyramid and one at the very bottom. Because we are dealing with a pyramid, there are many more pages at the bottom than at the apex.

Boost your rankings with Backlinks

While all this is true in principle, we face another issue: the number of backlinks hosted on a page. In fact, the impact of a backlink on rankings (and more in general on organic placement in the search engines) may vary significantly if that very authoritative page carries a large number of backlinks. The effectiveness of backlinks for SEO will decrease as their number increases on the page. Another factor that influences backlink efficiency is the on-page position described in our previous article What is a good backlink?

How many backlinks do you need to rank organically? It depends...

So far, we have seen only a few significant variables that can make a difference and indeed, they will. We know this for a fact, based on our research and feedback from professional and experienced SEOs. SEO and Link Building are complex and articulated. Every website is unique because of its history: every website differs significantly from the next one. On many occasions, we have stated that websites live a life of their own, and any attempt to replicate what someone else has done will not guarantee the same results or performance. There is no general rule we can apply to link building for SEO - it depends.

We know how irritating the phrase "it depends" may sound, especially because used too often by SEOs. We believe in data, our data. We know that a backlink profile can tell you a great deal about a website. It will not give you a magical number on which you can base your link building for SEO. In other words, it is close to impossible to directly answer how many backlinks you need to rank well in the search engines: ultimately, it is not a very sensible question to ask.

Backlinks have different strengths and variable impact on performance

Different backlinks have completely different strengths. In other articles of this series on backlinks and link building, we've discussed nofollow backlinks. Nofollow backlinks are those where Google says that we should use a nofollow tag to indicate that these links are only for discovery purposes and are not necessarily a signal of quality or an endorsement of some sort.

Understanding Backlinks

There are different attributes and particular scenarios at play here: for example, we could have redirects or backlinks which may go undetected by the search engines. Let's concentrate our attention on those cases where the search engines successfully identify and spider a backlink. In this case, the search engines will use several options to understand two things about the backlink:

  • First of all, search engines evaluate the influence of the backlink. The level of influence, or even better the amount of Trust Flow shared by the backlink, will depend on the authority of the page: in other words, the impact of a backlink will depend on how powerful the page is
  • The second critical aspect is the concept of context. The Search Engines will identify relevant topics for the page and seek affinity between the two: the closer the topical relationship, the stronger the impact. A topically relevant backlink is extremely powerful. A backlink with little or no contextual relevance will prove to be less effective in most cases.

The power of internal links

Another factor playing a significant role is the internal linking strategy. Internal links can significantly affect the strength of a page. You can read this article about good backlinks, where we described a real case of a backlink from the BBC. It was a backlink from a page on the BBC website. In this case, the page itself had a minimal value because it had no backlinks. Consequently, the links coming out of it also had limited value. Such a backlink may have had a more significant impact when the news page was fresh: over time, the page became less relevant to the public and even more so to the search engines. Consequently, the backlinks are also less relevant (hence less powerful) than they were years ago.

The internal link structure of a website can significantly affect the strength of the web pages. The stronger the page, the stronger the backlinks coming from that page. Evaluating the potential of a page is one reason why the SEO link research tools of Majestic perform calculations to understand a page's value. It is when you have fully understood the value of a page that you can determine whether a backlink is of value or not. This concept correlates tightly with the original concept of Page Rank, Google's measurement of the quality of a web page.

Backlinks and PageRank (PR)

The SEO value of a page may change significantly and be unexpectedly high or unexpectedly low. We discussed this topic in the article How PageRank Works.

The article explains the PR algorithm, with an example of the original mathematical calculation that Google used many years ago to evaluate web pages. Things have changed a lot since then. However, Google still score every web page on the Internet.

The score is a value between one and ten—this score is for internal use only. PageRank values were once public: in March 2016, Google confirmed the removal of the PR Toolbar. Already at that time, Google had stripped away PageRank values from Toolbars and browsers, which they hadn't updated in years.

The web crawlers "look" at all the web pages on the Internet. Crawlers index the links and retrieve web page data to calculate the value of every web page.

In the article we previously mentioned on how PageRank works, we illustrated how to calculate PR for a five-page internet.

Simplified model to calculate Google PageRank - Majestic.com

Let's consider five pages A, B, C, D and E of a simplified website. These pages are all linked as we typically do to guide the user to search for products, services and information. The following image shows the distribution of PR with several links between pages. The actual PR distribution amongst pages may come as a surprise.

Values of PageRank for a simplified website model - Majestic.com

A similar yet more complex situation occurs if we consider websites in place of pages.

Values of PageRank for a model  of five websites- Majestic.com

Managing the interlinking between pages can represent a bit of a challenge for most of us. When we move to a small internet of five websites with a few pages each, things are even more complicated to work out and ultimately to understand. Now we are dealing with links coming from different pages within those sites. Let's go back to the BBC example we mentioned earlier: keep in mind the Internet's pyramid structure. Many websites have a similar structure. It's easy to understand the difference between a backlink from the BBC's Home Page and one coming from a news article nearly 20 years old.

Let's consider our tiny Internet web of ten pages - the challenge is to identify the best page for a backlink. It's not easy to see because the PR scores vary significantly.

So, how many backlinks does a website need to rank?

By now, you may have guessed the answer: one or more. It's impossible to estimate the potential of a backlink accurately. Perhaps one backlink will provide a significant boost for you to rank in your vertical for your keyphrase.

Technically, you are not required to have any backlinks. As we have seen, internal linking will privilege some pages and impact their rankings in the search engines.

There is no direct correlation between the number of backlinks and organic placement

It is very easy to prove this statement. Choose a query and run it on the search engine your choice. Open Majestic and analyse the results with our Bulk Backlink Checker or the Compare Backlinks tool. You will see how the backlink profiles differ significantly and how there is no correlation between the number of backlinks.

Backlinks can play a significant role in organic placement

Backlinks and Link Building for SEO matter a great deal. In fact, backlinks are a powerful signal search engines keep in high consideration to determine how influential a page is. They are often a means to help search engines discover a page in the first place and help understand your content's topical context.

To identify the best link building opportunities, it makes more sense to leave the heavy lifting to Majestic to calculate values of Trust Flow and Citation Flow for each page, rather than looking at absolute numbers of backlinks.

We evaluate the strength of a link at the page level.

Conclusions

In this article, we tackled the frequently asked question, "how many backlinks do I need to rank on the search engines. While we may attempt to solve the problem by providing an answer of some sort, there is no clear and definitive answer to such a question. The many aspects and implications of backlinks and link building for SEO give an idea of the complexity we face. We trust this article provides sufficient information on the importance of link building for SEO and explains why there is no simple answer to how many backlinks are required to rank highly on the search engines.