Backlinks vs Referring Domains: Which is More Important for SEO?

So you are already somewhat involved in the world of search engine optimization (SEO)… that’s a great start.


Because SEO is arguably the most efficient and cost-effective way to earn leads organically.

But, ranking organically with SEO isn’t easy.

  1. It takes time.
  2. There are over 200 ranking factors

When people first read these facts, a lot of people just say “NOPE, SEO is not for me”.

However, you shouldn’t be this drastic. Although, ranking with SEO takes a long time and there are a lot of factors to consider. Ultimately, the ranking comes down to two major things. 

Great content and great backlinks.

Therefore the number and quality of backlinks and referring domains that a website has plays a huge role in ranking.

So, you need to understand exactly what they are.

However, it’s true that many people are confused about the differences between backlinks and referring domains.

This article will explore the difference between backlinks and referring domains and we will also determine which is more important for SEO.

Keep in mind that backlinks and referring domains both influence search engine rankings and are pretty similar, but that’s not to say there aren’t a few key differences.


So, we will get started with a bang and dive straight into the definitions you came to read.

What Are Backlinks?

Backlinks are simply just hyperlinks from other websites that point to your website. So, if there was a link on a Forbes article that went to this page – hi Forbes Readers 😉

Then, you would say this page has a backlink from Forbes.


Some people also refer to backlinks as inbound links or incoming links. These are not different things, it’s just wording from some SEOs.

Backlinks are a vital component of SEO, especially when it comes to ranking for highly competitive keywords.

This is because backlinks are signals to search engines that another human being has taken the time to read your content and thought “wow this is worth linking to”. 

The more high-quality backlinks your website has (from unique referring domains), the more chance it has of ranking well in organic search. Also, having backlinks from high-traffic pages can be a good source of referral traffic.

In most cases, the people coming to your website from the linking domain will be part of your target audience. This makes them an ideal fit to come to your website and potentially buy your products, and services, or at least sign up for your email list.

What Are Referring Domains?

Referring domains (RD) is all about the number of unique websites that are linking back to your website. 

Whereas backlinks count each individual link from another website as a separate backlink, referring domains count each website only once. 

So, if Site A is linking back to you from three different pages. This is three backlinks, but only a single referring domain. After the first link, each additional link doesn’t count as another referring domain.

Suppose Site B is linking back to you from ten pages, this is still just a referring domain.

Referring domains are a good metric to measure in SEO because they only count links from different websites.

Some websites exist purely to scrape content from websites like yours. In turn, all your internal links will be replicated thousands of times across the web. 

This would suggest that you have loads of good backlinks. So, your “total backlink” figure would be extremely high. However, search engines know that these links aren’t high-quality. 

Because referring domains only show unique websites, this is often a better indicator of the true popularity and authority of your own website.


This is Forbes’ backlink profile (in Semrush). It shows that they have way more backlinks than referring domains. In the case of Forbes, this is mainly because they have tons of content that website owners link to regularly.

The Relationship Between Backlinks and Referring Domains

There is no doubt about it – backlinks and referring domains are closely related metrics.

Typically, websites with more referring domains are likely to have more backlinks. This is because most websites will only link to you once (unless you are a massive authority site).

Are Backlinks and Referring Domains Necessary for SEO?

Yes, both backlinks and referring domains are necessary for SEO!

Search engines have very complicated algorithms that make them tick. 

No one knows for sure exactly how a website’s ranking positions are determined, but backlinks and referring domains are strongly correlated with the organic reach of your website. Without doubt, backlinks are one of the key KPIs for SEO.

Without backlinks, it’s difficult for search engines to understand how other websites view your content. Backlinks are regularly touted as being like “a vote of confidence” in your website. In a world where millions of articles on a single topic exist, search engines need a way to distinguish between authoritative and spammy websites.

Backlinks and referring domains are the easiest way for search engines to determine whether your content is trustworthy. 

Which One is More Important for SEO: Backlinks or Referring Domains?

Backlinks and referring domains are both important for SEO.

One single high-quality backlink is more important than having tons of referring domains.


Because a single high-quality backlink from a reputable website has a much more significant impact on your Google rankings than multiple low-quality backlinks from random unknown websites.

Authoritative websites don’t just hand out backlinks, that’s why they have such a major influence on your search engine ranking. In other words, these links pass tons of page rank.

How to Build High-Quality Backlinks and Referring Domains

Building high-quality backlinks from unique referring domains should be your top priority when working on your off-page SEO.


Building out a successful link-building campaign isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it’s worth it for the long-term benefits it will have on your organic search traffic.

Some of the most effective strategies for building high-quality backlinks from unique referring domains are:

  • Creating linkable assets such as case studies and statistics-based posts
  • Guest blogging and sharing high-quality content. Guest blog posts are also a good way to improve your online reputation.
  • Reaching out to industry influencers you mention in your content
  • Using platforms like HARO to connect with editors
  • Get people to review your products
  • Skyscraper technique
  • Broken link building
  • Testimonial link building

Your link-building strategy should use a mixture of all of these methods (if you have the resources). 

Creating valuable content and earning loads of new backlinks will put you in a good position to scale your business’s online presence.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Building Backlinks 

Building backlinks is one of the most beneficial SEO tasks you can do. Avoiding the most common link-building mistakes is imperative if you want to improve your organic reach online.

  • Prioritizing quantity over quality.
  • Not understanding anchor text.
  • Buying backlinks from websites like Fiverr.
  • Not examining your backlink profile regularly.

Measuring the Quality of Referring Domains

Inspecting the quality of the referring domains pointing at your website is key.

Strong referring domains can have a big impact on your site’s performance in search results.  Identifying the niches that your current referring domains operate in can be a good indicator of which of your own pages will rank well.

A good backlink analysis tool like Ahrefs, Semrush, Moz, or Majestic can help you to determine the authority and relevance of the linking website.

  • Analyze the anchor text attached to the backlink. 
  • Check the domain authority and organic traffic of the linking website
  • Disavow harmful backlinks from spammy/hacked websites. You can do this in Google Search Console.

By using specific SEO tools (we currently use Semrush) you can gain many helpful insights into which backlinks/RDs are having the most significant effect on your rankings, then you can make data-driven decisions to try and replicate these backlinks.

The Future of Backlinks and Referring Domains in SEO

It’s more than likely that both RDs and backlinks will continue to play a pivotal role in search. There are no guarantees in the world of SEO, but it’s likely with the development of GPT and AI content-writing tools, search engines will become even more dependent on backlinks with the surge of new content.

The importance of link-building can’t be underestimated.


Ultimately, backlinks and referring domains are both important for your ability to rank content online.

While having a high number of backlinks is beneficial, having a high number of high-quality referring domains is arguably even more important for SEO. 

The key takeaway from this article is that you need one thing primarily to be successful with your off-page SEO. 

Strong backlinks from lots of unique high-quality websites.


What is a backlink?

A backlink is a hyperlink that exists on another website that points to your website.

What is a referring domain?

A referring domain is an external website that is linking to your website.

Why are backlinks important for SEO?

Backlinks are a signal of value in SEO. They illustrate to search engines that other websites perceive your website as a valuable resource.

Why are referring domains important for SEO?

Referring domains are a key aspect of SEO – they indicate the popularity of your website. More RDs show that your website has a “viral factor”.

Can I buy backlinks?

You can, but you shouldn’t. Buying backlinks (especially from unreliable sources) is a bad idea. You will be in violation of Google’s Guidelines. Instead, work with an SEO agency or freelancer who can build links for you using safer methods.

Should I work with an SEO freelancer?

Yes, working with an SEO freelancer is one of the best ways to improve your content and backlink strategy. 
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