Referring Domains vs. Backlinks: What’s the Difference?

Earning one of the top spots in search results can seem daunting, especially since Google keeps many of its ranking factors secret. However, through extensive testing, SEOs have determined that referring domains and backlinks significantly impact how well a page ranks in search engine results pages (SERPs).

If you’ve asked, “what are referring domains?” or heard that you need to get more backlinks to your website, this article will help you differentiate the two and give you next steps. 

Referring Domains vs. Backlinks

The difference between backlinks vs. referring domains is that a backlink is a link to a site from another website. A referring domain is a website on which the backlink appears. For example, if an article about real estate on the Wall Street Journal website links to one of your pages, the link itself would be the backlink, and the referring domain would be

What Is a Backlink?

A backlink is a link from another website that connects directly to one of your web pages. Having a variety of backlinks from quality referring domains will help you build a strong link profile.

Let’s say that you speak with a journalist at Wired magazine, and she quotes you in an article and links to your website. This is a backlink. And since that link comes from Wired, which has a strong link profile, the backlink will give you more credibility with Google and other search engines. 

Backlinks can:

  • Increase referral traffic
  • Pass link equity from authoritative referring domains

Backlinks are considered one of the most important ranking factors because they’re like a recommendation. If a high-quality website vouches for your website, Google takes this to mean that your website is also topically relevant and trustworthy.

You can have multiple backlinks from a single referring domain. Wired, for example, may have interviewed you for different articles and linked to you each time. These multiple backlinks would all be from the same referring domain.

Not All Backlinks Are Created Equal

To create a solid link-building strategy, it’s crucial to differentiate between quality backlinks and bad backlinks. The latter can actually harm your credibility and should be disavowed.

Because the link-building process was abused and manipulated in the past, Google now evaluates the quality of your links, not just how many are pointing to your website. 

What Is a Referring Domain?

A referring domain sends traffic to your website via backlinks. For example, a blog post  might reference your website and link to it. The traffic directed to your site is coming from the referring domain, but the actual link is called a backlink. 

The quality of a referring domain impacts how Google views its referring links, so it’s critical to focus on securing backlinks from authoritative referring domains.

What Makes a Referring Domain Authoritative?

The authority of a referring domain depends on its topical and industry relevance, as well as the quality of its backlink profile.  

Google indexes web pages to capture important information, such as topic, page structure, and the user experience. It uses signals such as backlinks to gauge a page’s authority on various topics. Other factors, such as online reviews, can also contribute to evaluating the authority of a website.

Your backlink profile should include links from multiple, high-quality referring domains. For maximum SEO benefit, referring domains should be:


A backlink from a reputable, trustworthy site can boost your page ranking, and a referral from a poor or spammy site can negatively impact it. Google examines each backlink for credibility and offers developers guidance on determining whether a site is high-quality and trustworthy.


Once you’ve acquired a single backlink from a domain, each additional link from the same domain has less impact on your ranking in SERPs. It’s better to have multiple sites endorsing a page than to get all your support from one site. 

The Difference Between Backlinks and Referring Domains: A Cheat Sheet

 BacklinksReferring Domains
DefinitionHyperlinks that direct the reader from referring domains to your web page A website that generates backlinks to your site 
Alternate termsIncoming links or inbound links Linking domains
How They RelateBacklinks come from referring domainsReferring domains generate backlinks
SEO ImpactA variety of backlinks from authoritative referring domains can positively impact your SEO. Few backlinks or spammy backlinks can negatively impact your SEO. SEO is greatly improved if a variety of high-quality referring domains link to your site. Your Google ranking may be negatively impacted if all your backlinks come from one or two referring domains.
FunctionBacklinks provide link equity from referring domains and can increase your traffic.Referring domains can help generate more traffic to your website and indicate your site is authoritative or trustworthy.
How to TrackUse Google Search Console or a paid tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush. Use Google Search Console or a paid tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush. 

How to Check Backlinks and Referring Domains

To create an effective link-building strategy, first take a look at your current backlink profile. What other websites currently link to your site? What pages on your site are linked to the most often? And whereare those backlinks coming from?

Google Search Console, Google Analytics, or a paid tool like Ahrefs can help answer these questions and many others.

How to Use Google Search Console to Find Backlinks & Referring Domains

If you don’t already have a Google Search Console account, create one and submit your domain for verification. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to get started.

Scroll down to the left sidebar to find the links report and click on it. From here, you can see two columns:

1.     External links.  Under this column, you’ll see three boxes. The first shows which of your pages have received the most backlinks. The second shows the most frequently occurring referring domains. The last box shows you the anchor text most frequently used to link to your different web pages. (To learn more about why this matters, see our FAQ about backlinking.)

Clicking on “more” on any of these boxes will provide you with more information, including how many domains are linking to your pages, how many backlinks you’re receiving from a particular referring domain, and how many target pages on your site are linked to. 

2.     Internal links. In this column, you’ll see your top-linked internal pages, which are the most linked to from other pages on your website. Click on this to see each of the links listed out.

links report for finding referring domains in google search consolelinks report for finding referring domains in google search console

Referring Domains and SEO

A positive correlation appears to exist between the number of unique referring domains and the amount of organic search traffic a site receives. A recent report by Ahrefs showed that the majority of websites that don’t have any referring domains generate on average zero traffic from Google. The study also showed that roughly 91% of one billion web pages don’t get a single organic visitor a month.

Referring domains are a resource that search engines leverage to understand the credibility of your website. Association with as many high-quality referring domains as possible will assist with improved SERP performance, making link-building a critical component of search engine optimization.

How to Get More Referring Domains

Since having a variety of referring domains is critical for improving Google rankings, you’ll want to implement a link-building strategy focused on generating more high-quality referring domains to your backlink profile. 

Use the following tactics to boost your link-building efforts:

1.     Create better content than the competition. Analyze the competition’s link profile in a tool like Ahrefs. Note any high-quality referring domains and see what content they are linking to. If you have similar content, optimize it so it’s more useful than your competitors and let the referring domains know about your content. 

2.     Identify your web pages with the most backlinks. You know this content is already liked and shared. Brainstorm new ways to share this content and secure additional backlinks.

3.     Continue to create excellent content. High-quality content is the backbone of a link-building strategy. Publish thought leadership content, write case studies that harness industry insights, create infographics, conduct original research, write guest blog posts, and more to generate backlinks from referring domains. Share it with people who may link to it from their sites or social accounts. 

4. Incorporate broken link-building tactics into your strategy. Follow our guide to broken link building to connect with new referring domains.

5.  Disavow spammy links. Use Google Search Console to understand every backlink that comes in from a linking domain. If you have backlinks from spammy referring domains, disavow them.

If you aren’t sure where to start with link-building or don’t have the bandwidth to take on this time-consuming activity, you can partner with an experienced link-building service that understands exactly how to design a credible link-building strategy and successfully execute it. At Victorious, we can handle the entire link-building process for you, from start to finish. Schedule a free consultation to learn more.


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