Referring Domains vs. Backlinks: What's the Difference? -
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Referring Domains vs. Backlinks: What's the Difference?

Craig Dewart

Written by Craig Dewart

Referring Domains vs. Backlinks: What's the Difference?
published April 27, 2023

Understand the differences between referring domains and backlinks with our guide.

Although backlinks are the product of referring domains, it's important to think of them as separate entities. They are intrinsically linked, but many referring domains produce different search engine optimization (SEO) results than backlinks.

As a ranking factor, referring domains are the number of individual websites that link to your site at least once. Backlinks, on the other hand, are the total number of inbound links you receive, regardless of whether they're from one site or many.

As a webmaster, you must fully acknowledge both entities to create a strong backlink profile. Let's take a closer look at the differences between a referring domain and a backlink:

Whenever you use a site traffic research SEO tool like Ahrefs Site Explorer, you'll likely come across two separate statistics: backlinks and referring domains. Given how closely linked these two statistics are, many think of them as the same thing with the same level of influence.

However, a high level of quality referring domains is better for SEO than a high level of quality backlinks. Here's why:

Referring domains

Referring domains are the individual websites that provide a hyperlink to your website. The number of individual websites that reference you get tallied up by Google and used as a ranking factor.

Referring domains are your primary source of traffic. Without other domains pointing toward your website, you will have no site traffic whatsoever, according to a recent study by Ahrefs.

Additionally, referring domains help Google and other search engines understand your site better. Each referring domain gets examined by Google bots to determine the origin of your referral traffic. Your site will be considered credible if the referring domain is a trustworthy and relevant source.

The more quality referring domains you have, the higher your search engine rankings will climb.

Although you may hear backlinks being endlessly referred to as 'a vote of confidence,' the referring domain acts as this seal of approval. Every referring domain stands on its own as a vote of confidence, while this title cannot be applied to each backlink.

Backlinks refer to the number of inbound links you have in total, whether it be from one referring domain or several. A single backlink is counted whenever an external website creates a hyperlink to your page.

Backlinks can be inserted in various creative ways on a webpage. For example, you can find backlinks in the main body of the text, in image descriptions, on buttons, and in titles. The placement of the backlink impacts how much ranking power - or 'link juice' - the linking domains grant you.

The best type of backlink you can receive is one that comes with strong and relevant anchor text - this is the blue highlighted and clickable part. Anchor text plays a significant role in how search engines interpret and contextualize the referral link.

Backlinks grant your site authority, high search rankings, and organic search traffic.

How Do Referring Domains Work?

You can only ever receive one referring domain tally per website. Even if you have several keyword-strong backlinks from the same website, it will only be considered as one referring domain.

For example, if you attain a single backlink from the Daily Mail, you have one referring domain. You still have one referring domain if you receive two backlinks from the Daily Mail. However, if you receive one backlink from the Daily Mail and one from the Washington Post, you now officially have two referring websites.

When search bots crawl webpages, they'll click on all hyperlinks they come across. From this, information will be gathered regarding the link's relevance and the value of your webpage. The search engine may grant you greater domain authority if it deems it worthy.

Although you can earn multiple backlinks from one site or even the same page, it can appear spammy and harm your SEO. Once you attain a backlink from a single website, each consecutive backlink you receive from the same website has less of an impact on SEO.

As a webmaster, you should keep an eye on your backlinks and referring domains, as both play a vital role in getting your site to rank. Performing a backlinks analysis and referring domains report regularly is essential to keeping your web pages steadily climbing the ranks.

You can check your backlinks and referring domains using tools such as Ahrefs Site Explorer, Google Search Console, or Google Analytics. You'll be able to run your site through any of these platforms to find out your current level of backlinks and referring domains and the source of these inbound links.

Google Search Console

If you haven't yet submitted your domain to Google Search Console, we recommend that you do. Not only does this Google tool help you analyze your backlinks and referring domains, but it also helps you pinpoint where you currently rank and how your site is performing overall. You can also monitor and diagnose technical SEO issues from this platform.

Once you have set up Google Search Console, head to the 'link reports' section, which you'll find on the left-hand side. Under the external links column, you'll see which pages receive the most backlinks. You can also check which high-quality referring domains link to you the most and how many backlinks you receive from each.

Whenever you identify a spammy link on the GSC, you can disavow them. This means you can distance your content from any suspicious site that may cause ranking issues and associate yourself exclusively with authoritative referring domains.

What Makes A Good Referring Domain?

The qualities that you should look out for in your referring domains are:

  • Uniqueness - The more unique referring domains you have, the stronger your linking profile becomes.
  • Good reputation - The more well-known and respected the site is, the stronger the referring site. Sites with high domain authority (DA) are what you are looking for.
  • Relevance - The domain should have clear relevance to your niche.

A good backlink should:

  • Have strong anchor text - Anchor text provides search engines with an indication of the relevance of your site. Backlinks with keyword anchor text will help your webpage rank for these words.
  • Have singularity - The fewer backlinks you have from one domain, the better. Having one really strong backlink is better than having a tonne of sub-par ones. The latter can appear spammy to search engines.
  • Have relevance - Relevance is important for referring domains, but even more so for backlinks. The specific page the inbound link is coming from needs to have strong relevance to the page linked.

Both backlinks and referring domains are influential in the ranking status of web pages, and they both provide referral traffic and build the reputation and exposure of a site. However, having a range of high-quality referring domains tends to be the most crucial part of link building.

If you have a high backlink profile but a particularly low amount of referring domains, Google may treat your website with suspicion. It suggests that some degree of algorithm manipulation has gone on and that you've potentially bought links through a paid linking scheme. For this, your site may be penalized and have its ranking status revoked.

Given that each consecutive backlink you receive from a single website is weaker than the last, it could be argued that attaining more referring domains is more important than collecting lots of backlinks. Each referring site stands as a strong-ranking influencer, while the same cannot be said for all backlinks.

To that end, referring domains are of greater importance.

Besides performing routine SEO, try the following tips to increase your authoritative referring domains and improve your backlink profile:

At Link City, we specialize in niche edits and guest posts. We can secure you backlinks from all the top-ranking sites in your niche. Not only will this boost your organic traffic, but having strong referring domains will help you climb the ranks quickly - and gain even more organic backlinks along the way.

Add authoritative websites to your referring domains list with our SEO blueprint.

Outdo the competition with infographics

If your biggest competitor is outranking you, you've got to give your target web pages something that your rival does not. For example, add graphs and charts featuring up-to-date statistics that would add massive value to other websites. Give major websites a reason to link to your site.

Refresh old content

Keeping your website active is the best way to gain more backlinks and referring domains. Keep all statistics, facts, and figures up-to-date. This way, other sites will turn to you as a reliable source and link to you to bolster their content.


What does DA mean?

DA means Domain Authority, which refers to how well your webpage will rank. This ranking score was first developed by MOZ. One of the biggest contributing factors to DA is the number and quality of your backlinks.

To get referral traffic, you first need backlinks. Referral traffic is the level of traffic that your backlinks bring. The more popular the referring website, the higher the referral traffic you'll receive.

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