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Link Building vs Backlinks: An In-Depth Comparison

Link building and backlinks are critical elements of any successful SEO strategy. But what exactly is the difference between the two? At a high level, link building refers to the active process of acquiring backlinks - which are inbound hyperlinks to your website from an external page.

Getting quality backlinks remains one of the top ranking factors for Google and other search engines. The more high-quality backlinks you have pointing to your site, the more authority you build in the eyes of Google and the higher you tend to rank.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to build links. Understanding the nuances between deliberate link building efforts vs organically earned backlinks is key for long-term SEO success.

Link Building vs Backlinks Comparison

Here is a quick overview comparing the key characteristics of link building efforts vs backlinks:

Link BuildingBacklinks
DefinitionThe strategic process of actively pursuing inbound hyperlinks to your website from external sites.The inbound hyperlinks obtained as a result of link building or other efforts leading back to your site.
PurposeTo actively earn quality backlinks through outreach, content creation, etcTo build authority in search engines’ eyes and improve rankings
VisibilityBehind the scenes efforts - not visible to site visitorsVisible to site visitors if clicking on links
Main FocusBuilding relationships, high-quality content,Adding value for partnersQuality over quantity of links
ControlFull control over link building processNo direct control over who links to your site
ExamplesGuest posting, contributor submissions, influencer partnershipsEditorial links, mentions, affiliates

As you can see from the table, link building is the proactive process website owners take in order to obtain backlinks - which then point back to their site to bolster SEO authority and rankings.

Next let’s explore the nuances of link building efforts vs backlinks in more detail.

Link Building Explained

Link building encompasses a wide variety of SEO activities focused specifically around the goal of acquiring legitimately-earned backlinks. Common link building tactics include:

  • Content marketing - Creating quality blog posts, tools, or resources that publishers want to link to
  • Guest posting - Getting contributor access to write on authority sites
  • Link inserts - Having links added contextually into already existing content
  • Influencer outreach - Partnering creatively with industry leaders
  • Resource page development - Building link-worthy assets
  • Sponsorships - Sponsoring events or publications related to your niche
  • Brand mentions - Getting journalists or bloggers to mention your company

Essentially any effort where the end goal is getting another site to link back to your website is considered link building.

Unlike shady link buying networks and schemes, the most effective link building tactics provide real value to partners, establish genuine relationships, and result in links earned editorially - not paid placements.

The benefits of well-executed link building campaigns include:

  • Increased Domain Authority and Page Authority in the eyes of search engines
  • Higher organic search rankings
  • More referral traffic from partners linking to your content
  • Greater brand visibility and exposure
  • Thought leadership positioning

However, poor link building can also carry risks like Google penalties if using manipulative tactics or focusing solely on low-quality links. The key is using ethical, “white hat” strategies that provide value and align with Google’s quality guidelines.

What are Backlinks?

Backlinks are inbound hyperlinks from an external webpage pointing back to pages on your own website.

Sites can earn backlinks in many ways - via link building outreach, organic brand mentions online, or even old links from years past. Backlinks remain intact until the site owner actively removes or changes the link.

For SEO purposes, sites aim to build as many quality backlinks from authority sites as possible. All backlinks are not made equal however. Backlinks from reputable websites in your industry will provide the biggest ranking boost.

Here are key qualities Google considers when weighing the value of a backlink:

  • The Site Authority - Also called domain authority, measures the power and trustworthiness of the whole website based on its own link profile and metrics
  • The Page Authority - Values the ranking potential of that specific page, rather than the entire domain
  • Anchor Text - The words used in the hyperlink pointing back to your site
  • Link Context - Does the textual content around the link align with the destination site’s focus?
  • Link Location - Links higher up on a page or in sidebars/footers carry different weights
  • No Follows - Links with a nofollow attribute do not pass SEO value

Because you don’t have full control over who links to you or the exact placement, anchor text, etc - focusing solely on backlink numbers is not enough. Pay attention to the context and quality of links as well.

Link Building vs Backlinks: Key Differences

Now that we’ve explained link building and backlinks independently, let’s discuss four key differences between these two critical elements of SEO:

1. Control

The main difference between link building and backlinks boils down to control.

With deliberate link building efforts, you have full control over the entire process - from strategizing what partners make sense for outreach to carefully optimizing anchor text and placement.

But when it comes to the resulting backlinks themselves, you have little control or choice over precisely how others link to your site. Bloggers may choose to link to your older content instead of what you had pitched or use branded anchor text vs keywords. But the overall domain pointing to you remains the same.

2. Visibility

The link building tactics themselves remain largely invisible to site visitors. For example, a reader has no visibility into the guest posting relationships or influencer partnerships you used behind the scenes to earn backlinks.

But backlinks are visible. For most sites, visitors can easily click any hyperlinked text leading to your site and follow it back to view the page with the backlink live.

So link building is like the preparations before a show - while backlinks represent the public-facing results.

3. Volume Over Quality With Backlinks

With link building campaigns, quality over quantity remains imperative - as Google will penalize sites for manipulative tactics. Focus first on establishing genuine connections and adding value vs simply chasing link numbers.

But when evaluating backlinks pointing to your site, having a blend of both quality AND quantity matters for SEO authority. While low-quality links should be disavowed, you ideally want as many legitimate backlinks from trusted domains as possible.

4. Inbound vs Outbound Perspective

Finally, the core difference stems from link building representing the “outbound” effort - as you are actively promoting your own site externally and attempting to get featured.

A backlink signifies the “inbound” result - an endorsement of sorts to your page. It shows another site found your content valuable enough to warrant a link and pass authority your way. Not all sites linked to will be from your link building efforts.

Evaluating both your internal link building initiatives AND external backlink profile provides the full perspective.

Link Building and Backlinks Work Together

At the highest level, deliberate link building activities ultimately drive the backlink results. The outreach leads to earned placements which then become measurable backlinks - that when combined, elevate your overall domain authority and search rankings.

But a successful link profile is more than just intentionally created links. It also encompasses organically earned, third-party links from unsolicited brand mentions, references by influencers, or links within a related community.

A balanced link profile should include both sites you’ve proactively partnered with as well as reputable websites that decided independently your content was valuable enough to link to.

The strongest SEO strategies incorporate intentional link building efforts to continually expand a site’s backlink portfolio in terms of numbers, relevance, and quality benchmarks.

Link Building and Backlink FAQs

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions around link building and backlinks:

What are considered “quality” backlinks?
Quality backlinks come from authoritative websites relevant to your niche. High domain authority, page authority, reputable sources, and contextual placements all boost backlink quality.

How many backlinks are good?
There is no definitive perfect number when it comes to backlinks. You want as many high-quality, relevant backlinks from authority sites as possible. Strive for a blend of both volume AND legitimacy.

Should you disavow bad backlinks?
Yes, it can be wise to actively disavow low-quality links pointing to your site, especially from sketchy networks. Use Google’s disavow links tool to declare them as spam to avoid manual actions.

Is buying backlinks effective?
No, buying backlinks breaks Google’s guidelines and can seriously damage your site’s credibility if caught. Focus on earning links editorially vs paying for placements.

What is the most powerful type of backlink?
Backlinks earned naturally in a relevant textual content from authority sites in your niche are considered the most SEO value. Securing this type of contextual backlink is a top link building benchmark.

How do you get competitors backlinks?
Use backlink analysis tools like Ahrefs to reverse engineer what links your competitors have earned. Identify sites you may have missed for outreach by evaluating their strategies.

Can I have too many backlinks?
No, there is no limit for total backlinks pointing to your site. As long as they are high-quality and legitimately earned, continue expanding your backlink profile across different root domains.

What are follow vs nofollow links?
A ‘follow’ link passes SEO equity and signals a full endorsement, while ‘nofollow’ simply provides attribution to avoid inflating rankings. Most sites default to nofollow for user-generated comments only.

I hope this comprehensive overview breaks down the key similarities and differences between active link building efforts vs their resulting backlink. Let me know if you have any other questions!

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