What is referring domains?

A Beginner’s Guide to Referring Domains in SEO

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We all know how important backlinks are for SEO. To rank higher for your main keyword on Google, you need to get as many inbound links or backlinks as possible. However, not all backlinks hold the same weight.

Backlinks depend on the quality of the website that is linking to you. This website is called the referring or linking domain. Many people get confused between backlinks and referring domains, and this guide aims to clarify the confusion.

Insights from the Article

A referring domain is a website that links to your website with backlinks; regardless of the number of backlinks from that site, only one referring domain is counted coming from that site.

Understanding the difference between backlinks and referring domains is vital, as multiple linking domains have more impact on SEO performance than numerous backlinks from a single site.

•  It is important to focus on securing multiple referring or linking domains rather than getting a large amount of backlinks from the same site to avoid potential SEO penalties from search engines like Google.

What is a Referring Domain?

A referring or linking domain is an external website with backlinks to your site. If external site A links to your site, then site A is considered the referring domain of your site, and no matter how many backlinks you have from this site, only a single referring domain is considered for your site.

Put simply, if a web page has a backlink from Wall Street Journal, it counts as one referring domain. Even if it gets two backlinks from Wall Street Journal, it still only counts as one linking domain. Hence, more the number of linking sites, the more the number of linking domains.

Why Do People Confuse Backlinks and Referring Domains?

Many people tend to confuse backlinks and referring domains because their definitions differ slightly. Let me explain.

A backlink is a hyperlink originating from another website that directs users to your website. Backlinks are usually embedded into anchor texts, but they can also be embedded into images, buttons, and infographics.

The difference between referring domains and backlinks.

The difference between referring domains and backlinks.

There’s no limit to how many backlinks you can get; one site can link to many pages on your website. For example, if a webpage links to one of yours, that’s one backlink. If the same site links to ten of your pages, you get ten backlinks.

A linking domain is a website that links to your website.

Why is it Important to Understand the Difference Between the Two?

Understanding how backlinks and referring domains are two branches of a tree is important because getting multiple backlinks isn’t as important as getting multiple linking domains. Simply put, getting 100 different sites (referring domains) to link to yours is way more impactful than getting a single site to link to yours 100 times (backlinks).

Although having loads of backlinks is good for your backlink profile, having a high backlink to referring domain ratio can imply shady link building tactics like a private blog network (PBN) or paid linking scheme and cause Google to penalize your site.

Hence, I highly recommend focusing on diversifying your link profile by securing multiple linking domains over a large amount of backlinks from the same site. But ensure your linking domains are credible and trustworthy.

What Factors Influence The Quality of Backlinks?

The quality of the backlinks linking to your website is crucial because this plays an important role in improving your rankings in Google search results, driving traffic, and improving your site’s online visibility. Hence, linking domains are responsible for determining the quality of your backlink profile.

A large amount of backlinks doesn’t necessarily mean a good backlink profile because not all links such as spammy sites and low-quality pages are valuable to search engines.

Factors affecting the quality of a backlink.

Factors affecting the quality of a backlink.

Search engines determine the weight of the backlinks based on factors like:

  • Relevance of the backlink: How closely related the content of the linking page is to the content of your page.
  • Authority: The credibility and trustworthiness of the linking domain and page.
  • Link Placement: The position of the link within the content and its prominence on the page
  • Anchor Text: The text used in the hyperlink (anchor text) and its relevance to the linked page.

Tip: Remember, the linking domain’s authority and relevance are key factors to focus on.


• Quality backlinks are essential for better Google rankings, increased website traffic, and enhanced online visibility.
• Quantity alone doesn’t define a good backlink profile; relevance, authority, and placement also matter significantly.
Search engines assess backlink weight based on relevance, authority, link placement, and anchor text.

How Do Referring Domains Help With SEO?

Here’s how an authoritative referring domain helps your SEO.

Improved Visibility

Having many referring domains link to your website can expose your brand to a broader audience. This helps your brand get noticed by more people and enhances its visibility by driving traffic to your site.

Improved Rankings

As mentioned earlier, the authority of the linking domain can significantly affect your rankings. When a high-authority website links to your site, Google considers it a vote of confidence or endorsement for your content. As a result, your site may see improvements in its rankings.

SEO Benefits of referring domains.

SEO Benefits of referring domains.

Tip: Avoid having low-quality sites link to yours because having multiple backlinks from such sites can indicate link spam, affecting your rankings negatively. 

Broader Audience Reach

Linking domains provides access to an audience beyond your existing networks. Websites that link to your content may have their own loyal readership that may be intrigued by your website, thus potentially driving referral traffic to your site. This allows you to reach potential customers who may not have discovered your site otherwise.

Brand Recognition

Linking domains exposes your brand to a new audience, which helps you build your brand’s identity. When users are constantly seeing your site mentioned on reputable domains, it enforces a positive outlook of your brand and makes it more trusted in your niche.

What Makes a Referring Domain Spammy or Low Quality?

Low-quality linking domains have low website visits and lack a credible backlink profile. Although they have a strong link profile, their organic traffic will be low compared to similar domains. The website may also have technical issues and low-quality content.

Backlink analysis can help you check the quality of backlinks of a linking domain.

Some instances that scream spammy practices are:
1. Multiple non-indexed links from linking domains.
2. Links from referring domains made with the main purpose of selling backlinks.
3. Links from PBNs that artificially inflate authority by interlinking to each other.
4. Links found in forums and comments that use excessively optimized anchor text.

For example, below is the backlink analytics report for a website that may be resorting to spammy practices:

The low organic traffic on this site may imply technical issues or below-average content.

The image above shows that the website has a single backlink from one linking domain but over half a million outbound links to other websites. This could imply that it was made purely to sell backlinks.

You don’t want your website to be linked from a referring domain like this unless you want to get a penalty from Google.

How to Get More Referring Domains for Your Website?

As you know, getting backlinks from authoritative referring domains should be a core part of your link building and SEO strategy. Let’s understand the different ways to get more backlinks and increase the number of referring domains on your website.

Audit Your Backlink Profile

Evaluating your backlink profile and identifying how many high and low quality linking domains are linking to your site is crucial while performing a backlink analysis.

Based on your results, you can decide whether to start by building more links or cleaning up the spammy links in your profile. There are many ways to perform a backlink analysis.


Go to SEMrush and click on the ‘backlink analysis’ tab. Enter your domain’s name and select ‘Analyze’.

As seen below, a dashboard with different metrics related to your backlink will appear.

Source: SEMrush.

Start by analyzing the ‘Overall Toxicity Score’ section. A low score implies that your backlinks are from quality linking domains.

However, a medium or high toxicity score suggests you have an alarming number of low quality backlinks that you may want to review and take action against.

Next, review the flagged backlinks in the ‘Audit’ tab.

To view the referring domain’s Authority Score and Toxic Markers for each potentially harmful backlink, click on the red number under the “TS” column.

Hovering over the red in the “Anchor” column reveals why the backlink was flagged.

This analysis can help you decide whether to whitelist, remove, or disavow the backlinks. Google advises disavowing links only if you have exhausted all other options, i.e., you are unable to remove them yourself or have them removed manually.

Next, go back to ‘Overview’ to examine the ‘Referring Domains’ and ‘Analyzed Backlinks’.

In the case above, the website has a lot of referring domains and backlinks, indicating a strong backlink profile.

However, the number of backlinks is significantly higher than the number of referring domains. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the website could benefit from gaining more unique referring domains.

Google Search Console

You can also analyze your referring domains using Google Search Console (GSC). If you have already set up a GSC account for your site, then:
1. Head over to your GSC account.
2. Enter the website that you would like to check.
3. Navigate to “Links” from the sidebar on the left in the “Legacy tools and reports section.”
4. In the “External links” section, choose “Top linking sites” and select the “More” button.

Google Search Console will display the referring domains and the number of external links for your site.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is useful for providing detailed data on the referring domains that are redirected to your site. The ‘Referral Traffic’ section in GA helps you track the number of visitors who came to your site from sources other than Google.

When someone clicks on a link from another website that brings them to yours, Google Analytics records it and labels it as a “referral visit” from that particular external domain.

To see how many websites are sending traffic to yours and to track the organic traffic from them, you can follow these steps in your GA account:

1. Go to the “Acquisition” tab in the left menu.
2. Click on the “All Traffic” tab.
3. Choose “Referrals” to view the full list of websites referring visitors to your site.

In this section, you’ll find a graph showing organic traffic from external sources and a detailed list of referring domains below it. This provides valuable insights into where your site’s traffic is coming from and helps you better understand your referral sources.

Identify Hidden Opportunities

You can also analyze your competitors’ backlink profiles similarly to find new referring domains for your site. Identify websites linking to your competitors but not to your site. These are potential outreach and collaboration opportunities.

Contact webmasters or site owners of the identified domains. Introduce yourself, explain why your content is valuable to their audience, and request a backlink. Keep track of your outreach efforts and follow up with website owners if needed.

Look for Broken Links

Finding broken links gives you the opportunity to snag valuable backlinks. Here’s how: Start by looking for inactive or expired domains related to your niche. A backlink checker will be used to inspect those expired domains and find any broken backlinks.

Ahrefs provides a handy tool designed to check backlinks and pinpoint broken ones.

Contact the owners of the sites with high domain authority, let them know about the problem, and ask if they could update the broken links with redirects to your website instead.

Since you’re assisting webmasters by identifying broken links on websites, your site should get priority when it comes to replacing those dead links.

Create Linkable Assets

Producing valuable content is one of the simplest approaches to attracting more websites to link back to yours. It’s all about winning the trust of your audience and fellow website owners to grow the number of sites referring to yours.

Consider sharing long-form content like case studies, creating in-depth articles, and creating content that truly addresses the questions and needs of your target audience. This will enhance your website’s credibility and encourage others to link back to your insightful resources.

The different kinds of linkable assets.

The different kinds of linkable assets.

No matter what kind of content you produce, remember that quality is everything. It needs to stand out and be noticeably better than what’s already on the first page of Google if you want to grab those valuable links.

Creating top-notch content involves various aspects, but here are some essential tips to keep in mind as you craft and share your content:

1. Before creating content, take time to research keywords and analyze search engine results pages (SERPs).
2. Ensure your content fully addresses search queries or focus keywords.
3. Use original research and case studies to add value.
4. Support your posts by linking to other relevant pages, making your content easily readable and visually appealing.
5. Optimize both your content and images for search engines.
6. Use effective internal linking strategies.
7. Finally, don’t forget to promote your content on social media to maximize its reach and impact.

Guest Post on Other Sites

Instead of waiting for your site to be organically linked to by other sites, you could increase the backlinks and linking domains to your site by guest posting on other sites. Guest posting usually allows you to add one or two links to your site.

Start by finding high quality sites that accept guest posts. You could review your competitors’ backlink profiles and find high quality sites that accept guest posts. Or, do a simple Google search to find sites with a high domain authority that allow guest posts.

Remember: Google views excessive guest blogging as a manipulative way to gain links.


 • Audit Your Backlink Profile: Evaluate the quality of referring domains linking to your site through a comprehensive backlink analysis to identify areas for improvement.

SEMrush: Use tools like SEMrush to analyze your backlink profile, assess the toxicity score of referring domains, and identify potential spammy backlinks that need addressing.

Leverage Google Search Console: Leverage Google Search Console to review your referring domains, analyze external links, and gain insights into your site’s linking landscape.

Harness Google Analytics: Utilize Google Analytics to track referral traffic, monitor visitor sources, and understand the impact of referring domains on your site’s performance.

Identify Hidden Opportunities: Analyze competitors’ backlink profiles to discover high-quality referring domains, initiate outreach to website owners, and capitalize on untapped linking opportunities.

Final Thoughts

Hoping you now understand what exactly referring domains and backlinks mean, you can now fully dive into your link building campaign and assess the difference between high and low quality referring domains and backlinks.

Remember, boosting both the amount of backlinks and referring domains to your site by diversifying your link profile is crucial for enhancing your rankings.


1. Are referring domains and backlinks the same?

Backlinks refer to the hyperlinks that guide users from one web page to another, specifically to your website from external sources. A referring domain, on the other hand, denotes a website with links directing visitors to your site. Regardless of the amount of backlinks a referring domain provides, it is considered as only one referring domain.

2. Why do people confuse referring domains and backlinks?

Backlinks refer to hyperlinks directing users to your site from other sites, while referring domains are the websites containing these backlinks. The confusion arises from their similar but distinct definitions.

3. What makes a referring domain spammy or low quality?

Low-quality referring domains lack credibility, have low traffic, and often engage in spammy practices like selling backlinks or using private blog networks (PBNs).

Gaby Alexander

Gaby Alexander

Gaby is a search marketing enthusiast with a passion for helping agencies improve their ROI through effective link-building strategies. With expertise in Google Campaign Manager, HubSpot Inbound Marketing, and SEMrush, Gaby provides valuable insights and guidance to optimize search marketing campaigns.

Gaby Alexander

Gaby Alexander

Gaby is a search marketing enthusiast with a passion for helping agencies improve their ROI through effective link-building strategies. With expertise in Google Campaign Manager, HubSpot Inbound Marketing, and SEMrush, Gaby provides valuable insights and guidance to optimize search marketing campaigns.

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