External Links vs Backlinks: What’s the Difference?

Christy Walters


August 16, 2022 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

yellow paperclips on a white background and one white paperclip on a yellow background to show the difference of external links vs backlinks

Inbound, outbound, internal, external. These are words marketers and search engine optimization (SEO) experts throw around daily when planning linking strategies for content creation and promotion. Which types of links lead where? What do they do? Why do they matter? It’s easy to get confused or forget which is which when the words sound alike and you’re working within your fast-paced strategy. That’s why today we’re looking at the uses for and differences between external links vs backlinks with topics like:

What Is an External Link?

External links are hyperlinks that take readers from one domain to another, away from your website or content. They also go by the names of outbound or outgoing links. If we wanted to create an external link from CopyPress’s website to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, we would use an external link that looks like this: https://www.bls.gov/. Notice how the domain isn’t www.copypress.com. This makes the connection an external link.

Related: What’s in a Name?: Parts of a URL Structure

What Is a Backlink?

diagram showing the difference between external link vs backlink

Image via Backlinko

Backlinks are hyperlinks that take readers from one domain to another and point traffic to your website. They’re also called inbound or incoming links. If an SEO brand like Backlinko or Ahrefs wanted to link to this article, CopyPress would receive a backlink from that organization.

Can External Links and Backlinks Work Both Ways?

External links and backlinks work the same in opposite directions. That’s why the concept gets confusing. When your content receives a backlink from another source, that link is an external link within the other piece of content. When you use an external link in your content, you’re giving another source as a backlink.

Many sources list the definitions of both types of links as “links from one website to another” as Ahrefs does with backlinks and Moz does with external links. Using this kind of language is accurate, but it makes it more difficult to keep the concepts straight. You can use these two formulas to see how each type of link relates to your website, and how those links appear for each one:

  • Link from your domain or content → Another domain = External Link
  • Link from another domain → Your domain or content = Backlink

Do External Links Matter for SEO?

External links help add credibility to your content. They show that you’ve done your research on the topic. They also show that you’re incorporating information from around the industry into your pieces instead of speaking only from your own experience. When your content is more credible, it’s likely to attract a bigger audience. That signals to search engines that your content is high quality.

The more clicks, engagements, and shares you get show Google and other search engines that people find your content valuable. The more value assigned to your content, the better chance it has to rank higher on search engine results pages (SERPs). That allows you to grab more organic traffic and grow your business. The higher you rank, the better chance you have to earn backlinks from your content, too. This also tells Google and other search engines that your content is top-quality. It increases your chances of ranking higher and staying there longer.

Related: Outbound Links: Are They Important for SEO?

Do Backlinks Matter for SEO?

Pages and content with many backlinks typically have higher organic search engine rankings. That’s because search engines view backlinks as recommendations or “votes” from one domain to another. They show that the content on the receiving end of the link is valuable, trustworthy, and worth sharing.

Backlinks tell search engines that other sources online vouch for your content. If they think it’s good, general readers and searchers should think so, too. As your site’s authority builds with external links, search engines will start to rank it higher.

One of a search engine’s top priorities is to provide the best user experience possible. When real readers and other content development sources are recommending your content, it shows search engines that your domain is providing that expected top-quality user experience.

Related: What Is Search Engine Positioning and Why Does It Matter?

Differences Between External Links vs Backlinks

External links and backlinks are opposites. One brings traffic to your website from outside sources and the other sends it away. Here are some other ways external links and backlinks differ from one another:


You have more control over the external links you use in your content. You do the research to find the right ones. Then you decide where to put them in each piece of content. You don’t have this same luxury with backlinks, or at least not with all backlinks. Any website, blog, or online source can link back to your content. They don’t need your permission to link to your site, just as you don’t need permission to link to anyone else’s.

But toxic backlinks can hurt your SEO standing with Google and other search engines. In their opinion, quality is more important than quantity. If you have a lot of backlinks but they’re from untrustworthy sources, you might be better off if you didn’t have any backlinks at all.

What are your options if you find toxic backlinks in your profile? You can contact the site administrator from the linking source and request to remove them. If these sources don’t take your link down, and you’re at risk of receiving a penalty from Google, you can use the service’s disavow links tool. This program tells Google you don’t claim or support these malicious links that come to your website.


There is no acquisition process for external links, just research. You don’t have to “acquire” them or track them the same way you do with backlinks. That’s because the SEO boost you get from external links doesn’t hold as much weight as the ones you get from backlinks.

In best practice, you want to gain backlinks naturally. That means other sources find your content through search, social media, or other forms of communication. When people read it, they think it’s so valuable that they want to share it with their own audiences or cite it in their own research. The more quality content you turn out, the more backlinks you get.

In a perfect world, creating your backlink profile would work this way. But everything isn’t always on the up and up online. Some people pay for their backlinks. According to Google, these kinds of link schemes violate webmaster guidelines and may cause penalties to your site. But let’s face it. We know marketing teams are doing this and not all of them get caught.

That’s because they’re strategic about how they buy their links. They engage in practices like guest posting, where they contribute to another website in exchange for links back to their own content. These types of practices don’t result in penalties from Google and allow you to have some control over acquiring authoritative backlinks.

Definition of Value

External links and backlinks both have value for increasing your SEO. But how professionals define that value differs slightly. Google and other search engines determine the value of a backlink through the giving domain, or the source linking back to your content. Search engines look at that domain’s authority rating, the amount of organic traffic it receives, and spam scores to determine if it’s a credible source.

Those with high domain authority, lots of organic traffic, and a low spam score are most valuable. The value of external links comes from your domain and its relationship to another site. If your content shares context with the other page, and the other source is trustworthy, search engines consider that external link valuable.

Similarities Between External Links vs Backlinks

Despite their differences, there are also some similarities between external links and backlinks, particularly their SEO factors. Even though backlinks hold more weight in your SEO strategy, both still affect your organic search rankings and how lonely Google and other search engines are to recommend your content to others. They judge external links and backlinks by many of the same factors, including:


No matter which type of link you’re dealing with, you want to make sure the source on the other side is credible and authoritative. When linking externally to your own content, you want to make sure the source you’re linking to is valid. For example, linking to a government agency holds more weight and has more credibility than linking to an article from some basement blogger. The same goes for backlinks. Your SEO gets a better boost if an authoritative website in your niche links to your content rather than clickbait to spam.

Related: All You Need To Know About Domain Authority

Anchor Text

Choosing the right anchor text for your external links helps search engines understand the context of your content and what people will find when they follow the link to another domain. When receiving backlinks from other sources, especially when working in link-building partnerships, you want others to use variations of your content target keywords in anchor text.

Let’s say you have an article about writing blog posts for realtors called, “How To Develop New Blog Posts for Real Estate Every Day.” You wouldn’t want every source giving you a backlink to use the article title as anchor text. Using a strategy like that looks like spam to search engines.

Instead, you hope they link with variations of the keyword like “real estate blogging,” or “blog posts for realtors.” This instead signals to search engines that your content is relevant to those topics. It also appears that you’re earning the backlinks naturally and not through a link scheme.

Topic Relevance

Similar to the authority factor, Google also cares about link topic relevance, both for external links and backlinks. How does your content relate to the pieces you link to? Linking out to sources on the same topic as your piece shows that you’ve done the research and that the information you’re sharing is credible.

On the opposite side, when you receive links from sources that discuss the same topics as your content—whether or not they have superior domain authority—that helps Google understand connections among content. Getting backlinks from sources in your industry holds more weight than backlinks from sources that aren’t.

For example, to return to the real estate blog post, relevant backlinks for this kind of article would come from other realtors, real estate agencies, or even financial companies that work in real estate. Backlinks from sources like ice cream shops and grocery stores wouldn’t be relevant. Those would hold less weight in your SEO profile.

Related: Why Should You Add External Links To Your Content?

Are There Other Types of Links To consider for Content and SEO?

It’s important to have a balance of all kinds of links for SEO. Linking out continuously and receiving no backlinks may tell search engines that your content doesn’t have any authority on the topic. Receiving a lot of backlinks, credible or not, doesn’t mean as much if you’re not also linking out to other relevant industry sources. But there are other kinds of links to consider when writing that can also affect your SEO strategy:

Internal Links

Internal links are those that connect one page to another on the same domain. They make it easier for readers and search engines to find content on your website.

Readers use them to explore your website and engage with content. Search engine crawlers use internal links to understand the context of your website structure and hierarchy among pages and other content. Having a good internal linking strategy helps search engines assign value to your content. It also shows them when and how to recommend your pieces to searchers based on relevant keywords and queries.

Related: Contextual Link Building: How To and Why It’s Important

Nofollow Links

Nofollow links aren’t a special type of link. Rather, they’re named for a piece of code that tells search engine bots and crawlers how to process the link information and how they affect a domain’s SEO. Links that include the nofollow tag don’t count toward or against a domain’s SEO.

If you use a nofollow tag on your external links, you’re telling Google not to associate your domain with the one on the other end of the link. You might use this tag if you’re citing a source that may not be entirely credible. This can happen if you’re talking about a new or unexplored topic that doesn’t have much information on the internet.

From a backlink perspective, any link to your website with a nofollow tag does not count toward your backlink profile. Even though another website is linking to yours, Google doesn’t count this link. It’s essentially like it doesn’t exist. While you might have a lot of sources in your industry linking to your content, if they use nofollow links, you don’t get any of the SEO credit for them. We consider any link that isn’t a nofollow link a dofollow link. This means Google and other search engines count those links toward a domain’s backlink profile and SEO.

Let CopyPress Handle Your Linking Strategy

You don’t need to know the ins and outs of linking when you work with CopyPress. Our creatives and strategists do all the work for you. We perform an in-depth content analysis to determine where your content gaps are and what you should be targeting. Using this data, we develop a plan for producing and promoting content that makes your brand the authority, increasing the potential for earning backlinks. Our content marketing services support your content promotion through credible link-building strategies.

Ready to learn more? Contact us and tell us more about your projects and what you’d like to see from a partnership with CopyPress. Or skip the form and schedule your strategy call with us today.

“CopyPress gives us the ability to work with more dealership groups. We are able to provide unique and fresh content for an ever growing customer base. We know that when we need an influx of content to keep our clients ahead of the game in the automotive landscape, CopyPress can handle these requests with ease.”

Kevin Doory

Director of SEO at Auto Revo

Author Image - Christy Walters
Christy Walters

CopyPress writer

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