Updated February 2014 – original 2003
First, a definition. A passively-obtained natural backlink is a link given from one site to another site that the receiving site had nothing to do with obtaining. You got a link, and you didn’t know a thing about it. You didn’t ask for it, didn’t pay for it, didn’t swap for it. It just happened.
The search engines all love passive links like this. Why? Because they can be trusted.
Here’s an example (disclaimer, client). It’s circa 2003. Your site is Earthbound Farms, major grower, and seller of organic salads (note they rank#1 or #2 on any given day). Produce. Veggies. You sell your produce all over the U.S., to hundreds of stores, food chains, and specialty markets. You’ve rarely if ever ask for a link to your site, yet your site has several hundred links.
How can this be?
Explanation 1: Many of the stores and restaurants Earthbound Farms sells organic produce to also have websites, and on their sites, they have sections like Suppliers, Vendors, or Purveyors. Here’s an example. On the Paul Martin’s American Bistro website, they have a “Purveyors” page where they list the companies they purchase products from. When those companies have websites, like Earthbound Farms does, they often provide a link to the company. Have a look. Classic passively obtained natural backlink for the organic produce company.
Explanation 2: Your company is going to attend an upcoming trade show for your industry, or maybe sponsor an event related to your industry. Trade shows have websites, and so do special events, and on those sites, there’s a section with links to the websites of all the companies that are going to attend or be sponsors. Here’s an example. Bingo, another passively obtained backlink. Side note: argue with me all day that this sponsored link was sought after and thus not natural, but in the grand scheme of links, this is about as white hat as it gets.
Search engines likely judge these types of links as being better signals of quality content on the site being linked to…
These are just a couple reasons a site might have links they didn’t actively seek. And search engines judge these types of links as being a better indication of the quality of the content on the site being linked to than the links you DO actively pursue and obtain. This makes sense to a certain point since the basic nature of the web from the early days was a massive network of passively obtained links. Back in 1993, nobody was seeking links in order to improve their search rankings, because none of the search engines looked at links. They looked on-site only.
But here’s a dirty little secret. Many links that appear to have been passively obtained are in fact actively obtained.
How do I know this? Because many of the links I mentioned for the organic produce company in “Explanation 1 above exist because I requested them. Many of the grocery websites and restaurant websites existed before the organic produce company had a site, so the grocery stores and restaurants sites couldn’t link to the organic salads site since there was nothing to link to.
But, once the organic produce company launched their website, now there was something to link to. The only catch is that most of those grocery and restaurant sites have no idea the organic produce company has launched a site, so they have to be told. Link requests have to be made.
So, what appears to be a passively obtained backlink is, in fact, an actively obtained backlink.
But all this masks two important lessons. First, these links above were earned based on merit. Earthbound Farms was not going to obtain a link from either of those sites above unless they had the goods (no pun intended) to earn the link in the first place. Every website has its own universe of inbound links it can reasonably expect to come about from a passive approach. Second, you can’t just sit back and wait for a grocer or restaurateur with a website to notice your site, remember they buy from you, and link to you.
The key is to be strategically active, rather than randomly active. Make sure you know which sites are the best targets for your link requests. If you aren’t sure, seek advice from someone you trust. Me maybe.
The goal is not to trick the engines into thinking an actively pursued link is a passive link. The goal is to make sure you obtain the merit based links your site deserves and has a natural and logical reason to obtain.
Identifying the natural and logical targets is 90% of the battle.