SEO Link Building: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide11 Comments
You know you need inbound links; they’re the single strongest factor in Google’s ranking algorithm, so if you want search visibility, you need them – and lots of them.
But, ugh. Link building also happens to be the most difficult element of search engine optimization (SEO) as voted on by a recent survey of 357 marketers that we conducted. Furthermore, unless you’re an SEO guru, you probably don’t have much technical expertise.
So how in the heck are you going to build good links for SEO?
Here’s your definitive guide for doing so – with no technical expertise required. Enjoy!
Table of Contents
+ The Concept and Benefits of Link Building
+ Two Theaters of Link Building
+ Old Link Building vs. Modern Link Building (and How Not to Build Links)
+ Modern Link Building Option 1: Attract Links Naturally
+ Modern Link Building Option 2: Build Links Manually
+ Developing Your Strategy
Few terms are as polarizing in the online marketing world as “link building.” Sometimes misunderstood and sometimes neglected, link building is actually one of the most beneficial, cost efficient, and powerful strategies you can implement for your brand online. So why is it that a whopping 38 percent of online marketers aren’t using the strategy at all?
The way I see it there are three main reasons:
- Marketers misunderstanding link building, thinking of it in terms of archaic tactics that are no longer effective (or even safe).
- Marketers not seeing the true impact of the strategy, missing the potential value it holds.
- Marketers not knowing how to implement the strategy properly, leaving them unable to begin work, or leaving them with less-than-ideal results after pursuing the strategy for some time.
This guide is intended to help resolve all three obstacles to link building adoption. Over the course of this guide, I’ll explain exactly what link building is (and what it isn’t), what kind of impact you can expect to see from link building, and how to implement a link building strategy that actually works in the long term. By the end of this guide, you should have a thorough understanding of modern link building, with all the tools and knowledge you need to get started.
The Concept and Benefits of Link Building
Let’s start with the basics. Link building is a long-term strategy designed to increase traffic to your site while improving your reputation, all through the use of external links pointing back to your domain. All the approaches and tactics I’ll be discussing in this guide have the same fundamental purpose; earning a greater number of powerful links on other sites that point to pages on your site.
Why is this important? How does it work? What’s the best way to do it? I’ll dig into these topics shortly, but for now, let’s take a look at the key benefits.
Link building is about far more than just earning traffic (though that is certainly a key benefit). Take a look at some of the ways link building can support your brand:
- Brand (and content) visibility. Building more links on more prolific sources means you’ll increase your brand’s visibility. That may not seem like a big deal by itself, but it can cumulate into a powerful effect. On one level, you’ll improve your content’s visibility; by publishing your work on outside sources, you can gain access to wider spreads of more diverse readers, increasing the reach of your material. On another level, your brand name will reach more online users. Even readers who consume content at-a-glance will start becoming more familiar with your brand in passing, which will lead to more direct traffic and conversions later on.
- Reputation by affiliation. In the early stages of your link building campaign, you’ll be working with relatively low-level, niche sources, but as you build up, you’ll start getting positions on high-authority, noteworthy publishers. I’m talking about major household names like Forbes and Huffington Post. You can use these affiliations to promote the notoriety of your own brand, such as by including references to these publishers in trust badges or icons. The goal here is to associate yourself with names that the public already trusts, helping you establish a reputation with users who may not have ever heard of you before. Think of the immediate trust you could generate by showing off how you’ve been featured in these top-level publishers:
- Referral traffic. One of the biggest benefits of link building is the generation of referral traffic, which refers to any readers who click on your links and get to your site. Your website is where your actual conversions take place, so the more people you have coming to your site, the more direct revenue you’re going to receive. Different wording and placement choices can affect your click-through rates, but the biggest factor here is how popular your content is. Getting featured on a publisher with millions of hits per day can wind up funneling hundreds or even thousands of new users to your site—all from a single piece of content. Over time, you’ll be able to learn what types of pieces generate the most referral traffic, and which publishers generate the highest return for your efforts, giving you the opportunity to improve your results over time.
- Search engine optimization (SEO). Link building, as a strategy, first emerged as a means of increasing your ranks and visibility in search engines. To put it simply, Google takes two main things into account when pulling in pages for its search engine results pages (SERPs); the relevance of a page to the query, and the authority of that page. It measures authority based on the types of sites linking to that page, as well as to the entire domain, so as a general rule, the more links you have pointing to you (provided those links are valuable), the higher your pages are going to rank. Higher ranks means more traffic from search engines, which means more opportunities for conversion—and you can even control which pages you want to rank higher by the type of links you build. A good link building campaign can easily multiply your organic search traffic many times over.
- Ongoing return. Another major advantage of link building is its power to generate ongoing returns. When you build links, they’re almost always permanent. Yes, a publisher can choose to remove your link eventually, and your off-site content will usually generate a decreasing amount of attention over time, but the authority you build from those inbound links is cumulative, and you’ll indefinitely get trickles of referral traffic from even your oldest posts. This gives link building the power to generate compounding returns, multiplying your return on investment (ROI) the longer you pursue the strategy. This means you’ll see less of a return early on, but after a few months of consistent commitment, you’ll start seeing better and better returns.
(Image Source: Kickstarter)
Two Theaters of Link Building
You have the basic idea of link building, but how exactly do you go about building the links in the first place? The phrase “link building” was actually coined in reference to an archaic strategy of stuffing links everywhere you could online, but modern link building takes place in two main theaters, or approaches:
Link attraction, often referred to as “link earning,” is exactly what it sounds like. In this strategy, you’ll be developing pieces of content for your link building campaign that you’ll publish directly on your own website. The goal is to entice people to link to them based on their innate quality or “linkability.” This is advantageous because it circumvents the possibility of a Penguin-based penalty (more on that in the next section); all the links you generate in this method will be completely natural. The downside is that it’s difficult to control. You’ll be relying on social syndication and users’ natural tendencies to cite sources they’ve found valuable, which doesn’t always pay off the way you think it will. Think about the strange articles and pieces of content you sometimes see in the trending sections of social media platforms.
(Image Source: KissMetrics)
Manual link building
Manual link building sounds like it would be closer to the original practices of link building, which often involved spam-based tactics. However, modern manual link building is more sophisticated, and revolves around producing guest content for external publishers. Essentially, you’ll be producing material that these publishers find valuable for their own audiences, resulting in a mutually beneficial relationship. Within the content, you’ll include a natural, value-adding link to one of your pages within that content, and each party will gain from the relationship. As you gain more authority and produce better material, you’ll be able to engage with higher-authority publishers, gradually increasing the traffic, reputation, and authority you get from the process. It’s a bit riskier than natural link attraction in some ways, but it’s much easier to control, and will practically guarantee you some level of results.
I’ll be covering these two approaches to link building in their own respective sections later on.
Domain Authority and Page Authority
When it comes to earning higher ranks in search engines through link building, everything boils down to authority, but until now I’ve only referred to “authority” in the general sense. In reality, domain authority and page authority are slightly different, and the way they’re calculated is complicated—to say the least.
“Authority” is a subjective, unofficial score assigned to different websites based on how trustworthy Google deems those sites. This level of trust is determined by recognition throughout the web. A relevant link from a site Google knows to be trustworthy might pass a ton of authority to your site, while one from a decent site might pass a bit of authority, and a link from a known untrustworthy site might actually drag your authority down.
Whenever you link to a specific page of your site, that link increases that page’s “page authority,” which increases its likelihood of ranking in search results. However, you’ll also be increasing your overall “domain authority,” which applies sitewide. While domain authority and page authority are not officially used by Google (in fact, they are calculated and provided by Moz), correlation studies have shown that Google takes both domain authority and page authority (or something similar) into account when calculating ranks. With this knowledge, you can increase the chances of a specific page of your site ranking higher by directing more links to it. For example, you could boost the visibility of a certain landing page or product page. Keep this in mind when shaping your strategy.
Also note that authority is probably only passed if the link is a “dofollow” (ie, non no-follow) link. Most links are “dofollow” by default, which means that Google will actively view them and consider them as authority-passers. Some publishers, however, mark links with a “nofollow” tag, which essentially hides them from Google’s view. Nofollow links can still be valuable, as they’ll increase your brand visibility and pass referral traffic your way, but they probably won’t pass any authority to increase your search ranks. Using the “nofollow” tag helps publishers remain in good standing with Google, as too many authority-passing links to the same source, or in the wrong context, can be a red flag.
Key Principles for Success
Before I get into the specific strategies for each of the two main approaches to link building, I want to mention some overall guidelines for success in this strategy. These are key tenets you’ll need to achieve if you want to see the best results:
- Context. Google looks at the contextual value of your links to determine whether or not they’re “natural.” This means you need to pay attention to your context, and only publish links that are truly valuable for your target audience. For starters, if you’re guest posting, your content needs to be in line with your chosen publisher, and your link must appear naturally in the body of your work (as a citation, or as a reference to more detailed information off-site). Generally, you’ll want to include other links to other outside authorities as well. Ask yourself; does this link add value for the average reader?
- Domain strength. The domain authority strength of your link sources is the single biggest indicator of a link’s potential value. The higher your source’s authority, usually the harder it is to get a link from that source. When it comes to manual link building, you can iteratively climb to more authoritative sources, earning more value for every link you build.To an extent, you can rely on common sense here. Niche blogs without much readership won’t have much domain authority, but major household names (like national news sources) will have authority in spades. If you’re ever in doubt, you can use a domain authority checker like Small SEO Tools to estimate the authority of your selected source.
- Diversity. Diversity means a lot of things here, but the general concept is the same for all of them. Google is extremely sophisticated, and can detect patterns in links fairly easily. If it detects a pattern, it interprets an action as being manual, possibly manipulative, and it could trigger a red flag that ends up penalizing you. Diversifying your strategy is the best way around this.Diversify the following:
- Sources.If you build too many links on a single site, it will start to look shady, and you’ll earn less authority over time. Attracting links naturally can help you mitigate this risk, but you can also simply choose new publishers in your manual link building efforts.
- Linked pages. Linking to the same page (especially a home page or other “anchor” page) over and over will be a red flag as well.
- Nofollow vs. Dofollow links. Don’t be afraid to build nofollow links, and even unlinked brand mentions as substitutes and complements for your ordinary link building efforts. Normal link profiles always include nofollow links.
- Scale. The last general principle I have to tell you about link building is the importance of scale. When you first start out, you’ll be relegated to leveraging low-authority sources. This isn’t a bad deal at first, as your own domain authority will probably be low, and even low-authority sources can give you significant results. However, as you spend more time, you’ll find your results plateauing. Even new sources in the same authority tier won’t do much to elevate your site’s authority.
Instead, you need to seek bigger and better sources. This is difficult, as each rung in the ladder will prove to be its own obstacle, but if you want to improve your results, you have to continue moving up.
Old Link Building vs. Modern Link Building (and How Not to Build Links)
Now that I’ve outlined the basic concepts of modern link building, as well as a high-level view of the strategies you’ll need to be successful at it, let’s take a step back and look at how link building came to be, how it’s evolved, and why it has an undeserved questionable reputation in the SEO (and general marketing) industry.
Old-School Link Building
Old-school link building (a technical term, I assure you) was nothing shy of atrocious. Nobody liked it, even the people reaping the benefits of it. Why? Because Google’s authority measurement algorithm was painfully simple. Links couldn’t be evaluated in terms of quality, which meant that any link on the web passed roughly the same proportionate value to whatever site it pointed to.
As you can imagine, there was too much wiggle room for abuse in this model. Any webmaster with enough time on their hands could spam links everywhere they could—on blogs, forums, and so forth—and see their ranks climb in a linear and predictable fashion. Irrelevant and low-quality sites frequently made it to the top of the SERPs, frustrating searchers, and spammy links were popping up everywhere on the web. Even software was developed that could automate the entire process of signing up for sites, creating content with links in it, and posting that content. That’s why Google stepped up its game in 2012, with an algorithm known as the Penguin update.
The Penguin Update
The Penguin update was released in April 2012, and even though Google had taken measures to improve its link evaluations in the past, this was the first real step toward the modern ranking system we know today. Essentially, Penguin overhauled the way Google viewed the quality of links pointing to various websites. It became able to detect how “natural” a link was, and took a more natural approach to evaluating anchor text, which could previously be stuffed with keywords to improve a relevance score for those targets.
Penguin penalized sites that used these old-school, shady, “black hat” tactics, and instead rewarded sites that had a natural link profile. Any sites that had “bad” links pointing to them (i.e., ones with keyword-stuffed anchor text, ones irrelevant or non-valuable to users, etc.), could have those links removed, or in extreme cases, disavowed in order to eventually restore their ranking to its previous levels.
Multiple iterations of Penguin have rolled out since then, including Penguin 2.0 and 3.0, both of which have added new ranking signals to the algorithm. However, most of these updates have been small, and have essentially been “data refreshes” that haven’t overhauled Penguin’s core system of evaluating links.
How Not to Build Links
It’s hard to say exactly what Google views as a “good” or a “natural” link, but we do have some pretty good indicators—feel free to skip ahead to the “anatomy of a perfect backlink” section if you’d like. Still, it’s better to outline what Google considers to be a “bad” link in contrast, instead.
Avoid these types of link building strategies at all costs:
- Spam. If your link exists by itself, with no context, it’s spam. There are many definitions of spam, and it can be quite subjective, but chances are, you’ll know it when you see it. Trust your gut here, and don’t build a link unless you have a good reason for doing so.
- Comments and forum posts. Comments and forum posts used to be excellent opportunities to build links thanks to their easy accessibility. However, most forums these days carry low authority, or use nofollow links, or are too keen to link building techniques for this to fly. Avoid them.
- Paid links. Google explicitly forbids webmasters from paying people to post links to their sites. You can pay for consulting or help with executing a link building strategy, but the direct exchange of money for links between you and a publisher will put you at risk of being penalized.
- Link schemes. There are many types of general link “schemes,” most of which involve two or more parties engaging in tactics designed to increase the ranks of everyone involved. Link circles and article directories are just a couple of these. As a rule of thumb, if an opportunity seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- Exchanges. Link exchanges are basic “post a link to me and I’ll post a link to you” deals. Avoid these; they are known as reciprocal links, which Google easily identifies and essentially ignores for ranking purposes. Too many of them can get you penalized for being manipulative.
If you engage in any of these practices, Google will undoubtedly catch you, and you can expect your rankings to tank as a result.
EzineArticles.com was a popular source for posting articles that contained links in them in the pre-Penguin days. Penguin, along with another algorithm known as Panda, hit EzineArticles significantly, as you can see from this screenshot illustrating their organic search traffic over time:
(Image Source: Moz)
Why Link Building Gets a Bad Rap
To this day, there are search marketers who swear that link building is “bad,” “risky,” or flat-out “dangerous.” These are usually people who got hit by Google’s Penguin update and never bothered to update their strategies, or people who mistakenly associate the term “link building” with these bad, black-hat practices.
However, as you now know, modern link building is quite different, and a much safer, more beneficial play for your marketing strategy. Now, let’s take a look at the two main approaches you can use to build more links to your site without ever risking the threat of a penalty.
Modern Link Building Option 1: Attract Links Naturally
This is the first main “theater” or approach to link building you can take as a brand, and it involves the natural attraction of links to your site.
I’ve already mentioned the concept high-level, but here’s a rundown of how link attraction might work in a practical environment. You’ll create a high-value asset—one that people need for information or entertainment value, preferably both—and distribute that asset to the masses. People will naturally pick it up, sharing it and linking to it either as a citation or to show their friends and followers. Create an impactful enough piece, and you could earn hundreds to thousands of natural links pointing back to your domain. This very guide is an example of our “link attraction” strategy (so if you like it, please share it!).
The advantages are enormous:
- Guaranteed safety. You won’t be building these links; your customers, followers, authors, columnists, and other industry stakeholders will. Accordingly, you’re guaranteed to be safe from any link-related Google penalty. After all, how can you be accused of manipulating your rank if your hands are “off” the proverbial wheel?
- Potential for mass link attraction (“going viral”). If you create content that’s valuable enough, it can be shared virally, earning incredible levels of visibility from potentially millions of people. These events, while rare, are enormously valuable to your link building campaign.
- Secondary benefits. Don’t forget the raw value in creating good content—reputation, visibility, and of course, more conversions.
However, there are some disadvantages:
- Less control and direction. You’re trusting random strangers to build links for you. As a result, you’ll have far less control over which sites link to you, and less direction for your strategy’s growth.
- Wasted efforts. There’s always the chance that your content, no matter how exceptional it is, won’t be noticed or loved by your audience, resulting in wasted content effort that could have been spent on a safer bet.
Creating a Linkable Asset
Your first job with this strategy is to create what’s known as a “linkable asset”—something that people want to link to. This can take a variety of forms, but must be on your site in some way:
- Content. This is by far the most popular choice, since it offers the most options and tends to have the most “permanent” value. Articles, whitepapers, eBooks, infographics, and videos all fall under this umbrella (as do a variety of other forms I haven’t even mentioned). The sky is truly the limit here, as long as you’re following the basic tenets of asset creation (to follow in the next section). Content is valuable because it provides information, or entertainment, or both, and it can be consumed and shared quickly between users. If you’re just starting out in the link building game, I highly recommend using content as your first few linkable assets.
- Data. In many ways, data is a form of content. After all, how can you express data if not through content—either in explanations, numerical projections, or graphical representations? Still, any form of data or data analysis you can offer is a strong opportunity to earn inbound links, mostly because it’s original and citable information. For example, let’s say you conducted a recent survey and gathered insights about one of your key demographics. You could post your main takeaways, or key statistical figures on a page of your site, and even use it to build a PDF report which can be offered for free or in exchange for an email address.
- Functionality & tools. You could also have some kind of functionality, or interactive tool that provides value to and draws in more visitors. The more practical this is, the better. Some examples include:
Quizzes or games are great ideas, too.
- Gimmicks. There’s also room for some gimmicks in your linkable assets (though I dislike the term and what it usually applies to). For example, you might sponsor a contest that involves user participation on a page of your site.
(Image Source: Ignite Social Media)
- People. Don’t forget that the people on your team may also be valuable assets. You could host a different page, or maybe a different segment of your blog, for some of your top team members (or anyone affiliated with your company who might carry influence in your industry).
Value and Shareability
No matter what type of asset you choose to create (though again, I strongly recommend content here), there are two basic principles you’ll need to have in order to be successful: value and shareability.
Value is important because it makes your content inherently worth linking to. This is a vague description, because it applies to so many different contexts. For example, it might be worth linking to your asset if it has factual data that can prove someone’s point, or it might be worth linking to if it serves as an illustration of someone’s idea.
Shareability is important because it increases the potential visibility and reach of your asset. The more “contagious” your piece is, the further it’s going to reach, and the more people will have the opportunity to link to it in the first place. For example, it might be shareable if it evokes a strong emotional reaction or if it’s especially easy or rewarding to share.
Elements of Value
First, let’s explore the elements that constitute value.
- Originality. There’s a ton of content already out there, on just about every subject. Content marketing is extremely popular, and major informational sites like Wikipedia have a solid lockdown on most general topics. Why would anyone link to your content when they could link to Wikipedia for an even more reliable, in-depth look at an identical topic? If you want your piece to be valuable in any way, it needs to be original. This is going to do two things for you; first, it’s going to narrow your potential audience. This may sound like a bad thing, but as your audience gets smaller, your relevance goes up. Second, it’s going to decrease the competition for the link. If someone out there is looking to cite information like yours, and yours is the only or best reliable source they can find, you’re going to get the link. Make sure nobody has done this topic before—or at least that nobody’s done it as good as you will.
- Practicality. For the most part, your work will need to have some practical element to it, and almost anything can be practical if you put the right spin on it. For starters, there are obviously practical topics, like how-to guides, tutorials, walkthroughs, and research publications:But don’t be afraid to step outside these boundaries. For example, let’s say you’re writing a personal post about your opinions on the state of your industry. On the surface, this doesn’t seem practical—your opinions aren’t helping anyone do anything. But if you include the right framework, your opinions can be made practical. For instance, you can come to some general conclusions about the state and future of the industry, then come up with several potential strategies other business owners can use to make the transition. You can also back your opinions up with original data that others can cite for their counterarguments.
(Image Source: DMV)
- Detail. The level of detail in your piece is a crucial factor in how valuable it’s going to seem to your target audience. For example, let’s say you’re writing an opinion piece on the state of your industry. Do you fully explore all sides of the situation? Do you present counterarguments and rebuttals to your main point? Do you exhaust your resources to find data points that back up what you’re saying? This isn’t an excuse to stuff your pieces full of meaningless information; you’ll still want to be concise as possible. However, the more pieces of valuable information you include throughout your piece, and the more thorough you are in your overall coverage, the more valuable and linkable your piece will be overall.
- Effort. How can you quantify “effort” when it could apply to so many different elements of your work? The effort could refer to how much time you spent doing research, how many images and videos you pulled to illustrate your core concepts, or how much time you spent revising and polishing your work to make sure it’s the best piece there is out there. All of these factors, even the small ones, are important. Why? Like I said, the content marketing world is hyper competitive. There are millions of people producing and syndicating content—but there’s a normal distribution curve at play. For every person spending dozens of hours on a single piece, there are hundreds of people popping out fluffy, low-value pieces every minute. Guess where the links are going?This chart should make it painfully clear; only the best of the best content earns links. The rest fall to the wayside.
(Image Source: Moz)
If your content isn’t the best in its subject matter, it’s just a waste of time and money.
Elements of Shareability
Now let’s take a look at some of the elements of “shareability” you’ll need to target to maximize the potential reach of your piece:
- Accessibility. Your first goal should be making sure your piece is accessible. If it’s hard to get to, hard to read, impossible to play, or otherwise invisible, it’s not going to get shared. Make your piece prominent on your site as a first line of attack, interlinking it with the other pieces of your site and making sure it’s featured prominently on your home page. If it’s something you want to promote, it should be impossible to miss. Next, you’ll want to check on your web development fundamentals, making sure your content loads on mobile devices and on all web browsers. You can use sites like MobileTestMe and Browserling to help you out here. How quickly is your page loading? How well is your visual content displaying? Is your text easy to read? Beyond that, you’ll need to make your piece visible using an initial “boost”—which I’ll get into in my next section.
- Skimmability. I get it. You don’t like the idea of people skimming your piece. You’ve spent a lot of time doing the research, outlining, writing, and revising, and you’ve made sure that every sentence of your work is valuable. That doesn’t change the fact that some people are going to want to skim it – some people are just skimmers, and nothing is going to change that. If they skim it and get some value out of it, they’ll be likely to share it with their friends and followers (who might read it in full). If they skim it and gain nothing, they’ll click away, never to return. Accordingly, it’s in your best interest to make your content as skimmable as possible.
(Image source: Mcgill.ca)
Make your main points clear in the introduction and conclusion of your work, including as many bulleted and numbered lists as possible along the way. Separate your work into clear, prominent sections with sub-headers and visual navigation tools to help guide your readers’ eyes to the most important parts. Will these people get the full value of your piece this way? No. But it’ll help your link building efforts because you’ll get more shares and engagement from skimmers.
- Emotional resonance. People are far more likely to share content that has sparked some level of emotional resonance with them. What this emotional connection is, precisely, is up to you. It could be positive or negative. It could be present- or past-focused. The only requirement is that it’s a strong one. For example, you could use chilling statistics to illustrate a social problem that’s bigger than most people imagined it to be, like institutional racism. Or you could go the opposite route and try to evoke a response of humor and levity, like with Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” video. Emotional resonance is tough to pin down, so in order to be effective, you’ll have to dig deep into some market research and find out what really makes your users tick. You may even have to try some experiments and A/B tests to get it right.
- Utility. In addition to being practical, your piece should also offer a degree of utility—or a degree of relevance in your target readers’ lives. Think of this as a way of aligning your content topic with the current environments and lifestyles of your users. For example, let’s say your target demographics are in college, and it’s April. At this time, most students are getting ready for final exams, so you can create and promote a piece that has some practical value for this scenario, such as tips on how to better retain information or how to study more effectively. If a person reads a piece of content and is helped, even in a small way, he/she will likely share it with his/her peers.
- Convenience. This is a simple tenet of shareability, but it’s one you can’t afford to ignore. People are only going to share your content if you make it easy for them to share it. Honestly, if the process takes longer than a single click, your users aren’t going to take action. Your first job is making sure your social media share icons are present and prominent on each page of content. If it’s published on your blog post, these should already be here. Beyond that, go out of your way to include social share icons in any way you present your piece—for example, you’ll need to include these in your email newsletters, in your press releases, and you could even ask your followers to share your work directly on social media. It has to be easy, and it has to be obvious.
Providing the Initial Boost
The theory goes like this: if you create linkable assets that are valuable enough and shareable enough, they’ll start attracting links all by themselves. There’s a problem with this theory. You can write the best content in the world, perfectly valuable and shareable, but if nobody’s there to build that first link or push that first share, your content will never build momentum.
Accordingly, you’ll need to provide an initial “boost” to your linkable asset to get people seeing, reading, sharing, and linking to it. If it’s valuable and shareable enough, your users will take care of the rest, and it will eventually start earning more popularity just because it’s so popular already. But you still need to provide that initial boost—and this is how to do it:
- Social media distribution. First, the obvious one. Syndicate your asset on social media. Hopefully, by this point you’ve already built up a large enough audience for this step to be worth it. If not, you may have to start by building an audience from scratch (and even if you have, it pays to recruit more followers within your target demographics). You can learn more about building and executing a social media marketing strategy in my eBook, The Definitive Guide to Social Media Marketing. When you publish your asset, immediately perform a distribution across any and all social channels that are appropriate for it in terms of audience and medium. After that, schedule it for re-distribution on each one, too; as long as you frame your asset differently each time, you can push it out multiple times, at multiple times of day and days of the week, to maximize your initial potential audience reach. You can ask your teammates and employees to share it out on their personal channels as well.
- Interlinking. Interlinking is a necessary strategy for SEO, and the concept is pretty simple. Include helpful links pointing to the various pages inside your site from the other pages. This is effective for a few reasons. First, it helps shorten the potential distance from one page of your site to any other page. Second, it gives users more intuitive forms of cross-page navigation. Third, it enables users to spend more time on your site overall, which creates brand familiarity, trust, and loyalty. Include links from your latest content to other pieces of content on your site, as appropriate, and be sure to also link to your latest piece from older pieces of content, too.
- Email marketing. Email marketing may not seem like one of the latest and greatest online marketing strategies, but it still sports an astoundingly high ROI. Your first step is to build an email list. Ideally, you’ll already have an email newsletter, which you can use to notify your users of your latest content. If this is the case, all you have to do is keep your asset at the top of the newsletter and work it into your usual rotation. Here’s an example of that from our newsletter:
If this is an unusual development for you, or if you just want to add a bit of extra flair to your submission, you can create a dedicated email blast for your new asset, letting your users know it exists. Here’s an example of that from AgencyAnalytics:
In any case, make sure your users have the opportunity to view and share it easily from their inbox.
- Influencer marketing. Influencer marketing can be a powerful tool to get more eyes on your piece, especially if you’re in the early stages of your brand’s development and you don’t have a massive social following or email list to work with. Basically, the idea here is to work with an established thought leader in the industry—someone with a ton of social influence—and get them to either distribute, or at least talk about your piece. The best way to do this is to make it valuable for them in some way, such as mentioning them by name, or by sharing some of their content first. This is a value exchange, so as long as you offer something in return, they’ll probably help you out. It’s possible to get in front of thousands of new people this way, sometimes even more.
- Paid advertising. If you’ve tried all the above methods and you’re still struggling to attain that initial audience, paid advertising is another potential option. I tend to stay away from paid advertising because its benefits are relatively short-term, but it can be valuable as a way to provide a temporary increase in campaign traction. Google and Facebook are two popular options here, since you’ll be able to drill down to specific demographics and get more “bang for your buck,” but there are dozens of other choices, including:
If you do use paid advertising, be sure to set up a custom landing page so you can target your audience effectively.
After you’ve created an asset that’s valuable and shareable, and you’ve given it an initial boost, the rest should take care of itself. Unfortunately, this gives you little control over your final outcomes, which is where our next major approach specializes in compensation.
Modern Link Building Option 2: Build Links Manually
Now that I’ve covered how to naturally attract inbound links, it’s time to take a look at the more manual, controllable side of link building.
The concept here is pretty basic too, but the execution is a little trickier since it demands more precision control and more variables. With each link you build, you’ll develop a new piece of high-quality content, tailor-made for the audience of a specific publisher, and you’ll “guest post” that content on their site. The content will contain one or more links pointing back to your domain. Over time, you’ll target a wider diversity of different publishers, eventually inching your way up to bigger, more reputable sources.
Again, there are some excellent advantages here:
- Refined direction and control. You’ll have much more precision and control with manual link building. Rather than publishing a piece and hoping for the best, you can target publishers you know will link back to you, and seek sources closely in tune with your target audience.
- Reliable scaling. Link attraction is nice, but it’s almost impossible to scale—most of the sources from which you’ll acquire links using the “link earning” method are low- to medium-authorities. One link from a high authority website is worth dozens from lower authorities, so the long-term play is important here.
- Secondary benefits. There are a host of secondary benefits to manual link building including personal branding, visibility, reputation, and relationship building.
And some disadvantages:
- Increased risk of penalty. If you aren’t careful, you could wind up building links on bad sources or in “bad” ways that end up getting you penalized (though if you follow best practices, this shouldn’t be an issue).
- Ongoing time investment. Manual link building demands a heavy investment of time, and on an ongoing basis to build and manage all your publisher relationships. It’s truly a game of persistence and relationship building.
Anatomy of a “Perfect” Link: 6 Essential Factors
Okay, so you have the basic concept. Your guest post is going to serve as a kind of housing for your inbound link, but don’t let that description fool you—your content still needs to be top-notch. Let’s explore some of the factors that will make a “perfect” link—one that most publishers will accept, one that Google will never penalize, and one that will earn you the highest amount of authority and referral traffic:
- High-authority source. First on the list is your choice of a high-authority source. If you’re looking for a direct measure here, you can shoot for domain authority. The higher the domain authority of your link source, the more authoritative value your link will pass (and the more referral traffic you’ll probably get as well). The problem is, you can’t post links on any high-authority site that easily—if you could, they’d lose their authority! Instead, you need to work on some lower authority sources first, gradually working your way up (more on this in the next section).
- Natural placement. Next, you need to make sure your link doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. It needs to be placed naturally in the body of your content; there’s no need to be sneaky here, but it shouldn’t appear out of place. For example, if you’re writing a longer piece (1,000 words or more), you’ll want to include at least several links to outside sources, only one of which is to your domain. These should be spread throughout the piece, rather than lumped together, and should appear naturally in your work while adding value. That means it should support a fact or claim made within your content, or provide an example that illustrates a point. If a publisher suspects you of trying to sneak your own link into the body content, or if it doesn’t add value for readers, they’re either going to reject your submission, or remove the link.
- High-quality content. Remember all those elements I listed for how to make your piece “valuable” as a linkable asset? All those are going to apply here. Beyond that, your content needs to be high-quality in two different ways. The first of these is the conventional, intuitive way. Your content should be well-researched, logically organized, with some compelling points, multimedia integrations, and of course, eloquent writing that’s accessible enough for almost anyone to enjoy. The second requirement of “high quality” is a bit more subtle and variable—your content has to be valuable specifically for the readers of your chosen publisher. Though it may be tempting to try and write what you know or what your main audience might want, you’ll need to compromise and keep your publisher’s audience in mind as the priority.
- Contextual relevance/value. Context is everything when considering the value of a link, and “context” can apply to a few different things. First, your article has to be contextually relevant to the site it’s published on—that’s a given, and one that I mentioned in the preceding sub-section. Fortunately, you’ll have a bit of help here; if your article isn’t contextually relevant to a publisher’s audience, the publisher will flat-out reject it, saving you the trouble. Second, your link has to add some kind of value to your piece—you can’t just shoehorn it into an unrelated or out-of-place section, and you can’t just call out your brand name at the end. Instead, you need to find a natural, value-adding way to get your link in the body of the content. For example, you could cite a statistic or quote in your on-site work that validates the main point of your article.
- Optimized anchor text. Earlier, I explained one of the old-school “black hat” practices of over-optimizing the anchor text of your links. In the old days, “optimized” anchor text referred to text that contained one or more target keyword phrases, in order to increase the relevance of the target page to those phrases. These days, optimized anchor text is more about explaining or justifying your use of the link. You’ll need some contextual clues here too, and you might even call them keywords, but be sure your anchor text fits naturally into your writing. For example, you might call to the link in question with something like, “according to our recently published data on ____, X percent of all marketers take this action,” or “for more information, check out my post on _____.”
- Broader context. Your link should also fit neatly into the broader context of your campaign. for example, a link and a guest post may fit all the requirements I listed above, but if you’re posting to the same site for the 100th time (and you don’t acquire links from anywhere else), you’re going to see greatly diminished returns from every new link posted there. Remember, one of your key principles for success is diversification, so in addition to adhering to all the best practices above, your links should be distinct from one another in both form and source.
(Image Source: Moz)
Building a Perfect Foundation
Unfortunately, unless you already have a reputation established, building the perfect link (or the perfect guest post) won’t be enough. You need to establish yourself in some way, or publishers aren’t going to look twice at you. Remember, this is an exchange of value; you’ll be getting a link pointing back to your domain, but at the same time, you need to bring your target publisher some meaningful contributions as well. The best way to prove your worth early on is to build yourself a foundation independently. This takes a lot of work, but it’s going to serve as a kind of resume you’ll use to attract new publishers as part of your portfolio.
If you haven’t already, design an amazing-looking website and take care of all your on-site optimization; this is going to serve as many publishers’ first impressions of your brand. After that, create a blog, and fill it up with as many high-quality posts as you can. Back-date your posts so it looks like you’ve been at this for a long time, and do shoot for an impressive volume (at least 30 posts), but never sacrifice quality for quantity here. Your first round of publishers will have nothing to go on except these posts to determine your level of expertise, so get ready to impress them.
Once your blog is established, start syndicating your posts on social media and build your audience. There are a number of ways to do this (and the topic itself warrants a separate guide), but here are some of the basics:
- Post content regularly.
- Respond to your followers.
- Engage new followers in conversation.
- Participate in community discussions.
- Reach out to influencers and engage with them.
Your goal should be to develop an impressive blog with a decent recurring readership and an active social media campaign to match. Once that’s established, you can start shopping around for publishers.
Identifying Your First Publishers
Every rung of the authority ladder is going to present its own challenges, but identifying and earning a guest posting spot on your first few publishers is likely the most challenging part of the process. Once you have a handful of external presences under your belt, you can use those as a testament to your writing ability and overall reputation, but building that initial momentum is tough.
Here are the strategies you’ll need to get there.
- Start with a niche. The best way to get started is to choose a specific niche, as specific as possible. Why? There are a few good reasons. First, consider the fact that most “general” publications like The Huffington Post are quite discerning about the authors they onboard—they cover a lot of subjects and have a huge readership, so they want absolute experts on every subject they offer. A niche blog on the other hand, is much more limited in the experts they have access to, and will be willing to take in a new voice. They tend to run smaller, which means you’ll have an easier time getting in contact with a webmaster or editor, though this isn’t always true. But in any case, you can choose a niche very close to your own business, either in terms of industry or geographic location (such as a neighborhood blog).
- Find several key options. Don’t just settle on the first place you find, however. Dig deep into your research by looking for niche blogs and contributors everywhere—go to Google and type in “[your niche] blog” to find blogs in your niche, and use BuzzSumo to find key influencers within that niche. Take a look at each niche blog you find, venturing into peripheral niches if you have to, and start categorizing them in terms of their advantages and disadvantages. Some of the key traits you’ll want to look for are notoriety within the industry, traffic volume, domain authority, and willingness to accept new material. If you’re just starting out, you don’t need super high authorities, but you do need someone who’s going to accept your work—so consider setting aside your higher-authority or stricter publishers for later.
- Search for contact information. At this point, you should have at least one or two key blogs on which you’re willing to guest post. From there, you’ll need to find the contact information of the editor or webmaster so you can pitch a potential submission. First, look for a “Submissions” or “Contributors” page—these aren’t always there, but if they are, they’ll give you everything you need in terms of contact information and content requirements. If not present, check out the blog page and see if you can find contact information for the writers or the editor. If that fails you, a Contact page or Team page may have individualized contact information you can use. Try using LinkedIn or Twitter search to find the editor at each publication, too.
- Make a pitch. Once you have the contact information of the person in charge, whether that’s an editor or a webmaster, you’re ready to make a pitch. This is simpler than you might think, but it does require some strategic forethought. Remember that this is an exchange of value. Present yourself in terms of what value you can bring to the publisher. Introduce yourself briefly, and state why you’re an expert in the subject and why you think you’d be a valuable contributor. Don’t get too fancy or go over-the-top here; I’ve provided a sample pitch below that has worked well for me:
Hi [editor name],My name is [your name], and I currently write for [website A, website B, website C].I’m a business owner and passionate about [your industry]. I’m trying to meet new people, and build a name for myself as a thought leader in the [your industry] community. I would be honored to have the opportunity to contribute to [website]. My goal is establish my name as an expert in the industry while giving positively to the community.Would you please let me know if you’d be open to having me write for [website]?
Samples of my writing:
- Sample URL 1
- Sample URL 2
- Sample URL 3
As you send outreach emails, I highly recommend using Boomerang for Gmail, which is a Gmail plugin that will automatically remind you if you don’t receive a response after a certain amount of time. This tool is essential because the vast majority of editors are probably not going to respond to you, and that’s where persistence comes in. Don’t stop following up with them (every 4-7 days or so) until they give you an answer – whether it’s yes or no. Persistence has paid off for me so many times, I can’t recommend it enough.
- Get published. If the editor or webmaster accepts your outreach, they’ll probably ask you for some specific ideas on what you’ll contribute. Send along some ideas that fit the industry as well as their readership, and once you agree on an initial article idea, you can get started writing it. There are just a few more items you’ll need to bear in mind during this process. Remember that each publisher is going to have their own formatting and writing requirements. They may require that you adhere to a specific word count minimum and/or maximum, a specific number of images to include in the piece, or a different style of writing than what you’re used to. Be sure to ask and clarify what editorial guidelines they have before you make your formal submission—this will help bring a smooth start to your relationship. From there, it’s a simple matter of getting your work published. Once published, you can start syndicating and following up on that post (commenting, etc.) to promote it even further.
- Maintain a relationship. Even one post on a new publication can be a valuable addition to your link building strategy, but if you can post more content through building a relationship with that editor or publication, by all means, do so. Try to maintain an ongoing relationship with your publishers, sproviding new pitches for approval every so often. Ask them what types of content they’d like to see more of, what they think of your past pieces, how those pieces have performed for them, and how their audiences are reacting to the content they’re currently publishing. Again, you want to bring each publisher as much value as you’re taking from them, so remember that this is a two-way relationship.
Adding New Publishers to Your Arsenal
You’ll probably start with two or three decent publishers, but those won’t last you forever. Eventually, you’ll need to add more, higher-authority publishers if you want to be successful with your link building campaign in the long run. This is due to the the law of diminishing returns when it comes to links coming from the same external domain.
When you first earn a link from a new domain, that link will pass significant authority to your site. However, earning a second link from that domain will only pass a fraction of that original authority to your site. Posting your 10th or 12th link will pass an almost insignificant portion of that original authority, and so on until each link passes almost nothing. This is because you’ve essentially already “won” that domain’s third-party vote for your site’s trustworthiness. These links will still generate brand visibility and referral traffic, so they’re often worth building, but eventually, this law will force you to seek out new sources or start forfeiting the long-term compounding results of your campaign.
This is how you’re going to do it.
- Identify high-authority sources. Your long-term goal should be identifying and building relationships with some of the highest-authority sources online. There are many ways to find these high-authority sources, some of which are intuitive—make a list of all the major content publishers you read on a daily basis, and all the noteworthy influencers in your industry. Keep a list of these publishers, your end-goal targets, in a spreadsheet. You can’t go straight from small-level niche publishers to these major players (unless you have some sort of catalyzing action, like publishing a book), but you’ll want to keep them in mind as you start working on your next level of publishers.
- Bridge the gap. Instead, shoot for more middle-of-the-road publications, with authority scores in the neighborhood of 40-60, and then 60-80. It can be tough to find these; they’re not as specifically targeted as your niche specialists, nor are they as prominent and recognizable as your major players. It will take some research and some digging to find these sources. However, once you find them, you’ll follow almost the exact same process you followed to pitch new topics to your niche sources—except this time you’ll have more features on external publications to beef up your portfolio.
- Learning to handle rejection. Even if your pitches are fantastic, your demeanor is polite and professional, and you have ample examples of what a great content marketer you are, you’re going to get rejected. A lot. Don’t take this personally, and don’t take it as a sign that you shouldn’t be link building. It’s a normal part of the process. Ask for feedback when you can, so you can learn from any mistakes you might be making, but otherwise, simply cut your losses and move on. There are tons of publishers out there, and too many of them can benefit from you for you to dwell on a few that don’t want to work with you.
AudienceBloom’s Link Building Services
AudienceBloom’s link building services replicate this entire process; we just do it all for you. We identify publishers in your niche, handle the outreach, write pitches, write articles, and handle the submission process – all with your approval at every step of the way, of course. So if you’d rather skip these steps and have us perform this execution for you, let us know!
Other Feasible Link Building Options
Though the two main approaches to link building I covered in detail above are the main ways to earn links, there are some peripheral strategies you can use to earn more links for your brand.
Press releases used to be incredibly powerful sources for link building, but they’ve been diminished in recent years. News sources used to hold tremendous authority in Google’s eyes, but that all changed when Google decided that press releases were too easy to acquire and resulted in far too many links, all of which resulted in duplicate content (which Google hates).
Still, press releases can carry lots of authority depending on who and how many sources pick up your article. By using a distribution platform like PRWeb, you can take a press release and submit it to thousands of news sources at once, many of whom will “pick up” your content and link to you in the process. The only limitation here is that you need to cover an event that’s truly newsworthy, such as a monumental step for your business like a merger or acquisition. While links from press releases can help with branding and referral traffic, don’t expect them to make much of an impact for SEO.
Donations and Contributions
It’s bad form to pay for links—in fact, you’ll be pretty much asking for a penalty if you do. However, you can establish relationships with outside sources in order to earn a spot on their “donor,” “sponsor,” or “contributor” pages. These links tend to be higher in value than mere blog content links, especially if you can secure a place on high-authority domains, like those that use .edu, .gov, or .org extensions.
Take a look at how this is done on the Cleveland International Film Festival Sponsors page.
(Image Source: CIFF)
Oftentimes, a significant charitable donation will be more than enough to land you a spot here. But you can also contribute in other ways—for example, you could donate raw materials, or even have your employees volunteer to earn your brand a spot as a partner.
Interviews are goldmine pieces of content for a few different reasons. First, they involve you and (usually) an influencer in your industry. You only have to come up with the questions—the bulk of the “content” is created by your interviewee—and then, you can produce and syndicate your content in a number of different ways, including video, audio, and written transcripts. What’s really valuable about interviews as link building assets though, is your interviewee’s vested interest in making the post more popular. Both of you stand to benefit by sharing, distributing, and promoting this piece, which is instantly going to double your shareability (and give you a shortcut to influencer marketing in the process).
Like interviews, this is another way to bring someone else into the fold when it comes to producing and distributing your content. The difference here is that you’ll be working jointly on a single anchor piece, or if you prefer, a linkable asset. There are tons of options here, as there are with general production content, so pick a target collaborator first, and then choose a subject and angle that each of you could contribute to equally.
Developing Your Strategy
No matter what approach you’ve picked, once you start, you’ll need to take some steps to develop and improve your strategy over time.
Start With Goals
After reading this guide thus far, you may be tempted to jump right in and start working with new publishers. However, before you begin a campaign, I highly recommend you take a step back and set goals, objectives, and targets for your team to pursue. This is going to help you focus your campaign and give you something you can use to measure your success later.
For example, what are you more concerned about—building your reputation or attracting more referral traffic? Are you looking for fast results or long-term growth? These types of questions will help you outline what publishers you’re going to target and how much time, money, and effort you’ll need to put into your campaign.
Hedge Your Bets With Multiple Approaches
Most people tend to gravitate toward one approach or the other, but if you want to see the best results, it’s a good idea to target all of them. Use both link attraction and manual link building as elements of your overall strategy, and you’ll be able to compensate for each of their weaknesses. You can even throw in some of the peripheral link building strategies I mentioned in the preceding section. Hedging your bets this way maximizes your potential return while mitigating your risk. It’s more to manage, but it’s well worth the additional effort.
Measure Your Impact and Adjust
This is key. Don’t just build links blindly and hope for the best; you’ll need to measure the results of your efforts and determine what’s working and what isn’t. If a certain strategy is working well, invest more time and energy into it. If something isn’t working well, cut it out from your strategy. Most of your measurements here can be done in Google Analytics, though there are dozens of online tools to help you measure your link building success.
- Search ranks and organic traffic. Take a look at how your search ranks and organic traffic develop over time. This should be one of your biggest indicators of success. Your organic traffic measures how many people found your site via search engines, and is the bottom-line measure of your success in SEO. More organic traffic means more value to your business, so if you notice your organic traffic stagnating, it means your link building strategy has hit a plateau. You can find this information in the Acquisition section of Google Analytics, along with referral and social traffic.
- Referral traffic. Your referral traffic is a measure of how many people found your site through external links, which is perfect for determining the relative strength of each publisher you work with. If you open the referral traffic section here, you’ll be able to see a list of all the external publishers you work with and how much traffic each is bringing to your site. Use this information to improve your relationship with your most valuable contacts and filter out the least valuable ones.
- Domain authority and link profile. You’ll also want to keep a close eye on your domain authority, and your link profile in general, and Open Site Explorer is one of the best ways to do this. Plug in your URL here, and you’ll get a breakdown of all the links pointing to your page and domain, which you can then evaluate in terms of authority and value. You’ll get to see how valuable your current link profile is, where your heavy hitters are, and just as importantly, if there are any “bad” links that have cropped up that might be interfering with your authority score.
(Image Source: Moz)
Gradually Scale Your Efforts
Remember one of the key principles to link building success, which I mentioned in the introduction of this guide—scale. As you invest more time and energy into your link building campaign, and as you work with higher-authority sources, you’ll start earning more value for every action you take. This is because link building is a strategy that compounds in value over time—but only if you scale your efforts upward. Be careful not to become too complacent with your domain’s position, even if you’re doing well; keep pushing boundaries and moving yourself forward, even if you have to take baby steps to do it.
Keep Your Focus on ROI
Link building can bring tremendous value to your organization, but try to keep your bottom-line focus on ROI. Take all the benefits link building brings you—including organic and referral traffic—and try to reduce those to actual numbers. How much money are these visitors spending with you? How much revenue have you received that you wouldn’t have gotten without link building? And just as importantly, how much money and resources are you spending on your campaign? You need to make adjustments so that you’re earning more than you’re spending. Your ROI will almost always be negative to start out with, but as you expand your efforts, your ROI should grow in turn.
I’ve essentially covered everything you need to know about link building—start to finish. With this guide, you can theoretically take even a brand new site to any level of organic search traffic and domain authority (given enough time). But there are a few more tidbits I want to leave you with.
Link Building Tools
There are a number of tools I’ve found to be useful in my link building efforts, and I think you’ll like them too:
- Google Drive. Free and cloud-based, Google Drive can help you keep an entire team on the same page—literally. Use the spreadsheets here to set your goals and strategies, and keep active lists of your current publishers.
- Google Analytics. I mentioned this already, but Google Analytics is indispensable for measuring the success of your campaign.
- Open Site Explorer. When it comes to evaluating your current backlink profile (or looking at a competitor’s), Moz’s Open Site Explorer can’t be beat.
- Boomerang. Boomerang is a Gmail extension that helps you manage your responses and follow-ups—it’s perfect for keeping tabs on your publisher outreach.
- BuzzSumo. When you’re scouting for new blogs and publishers of any level, BuzzSumo can help you find exactly the types you’re looking for.
- Klout. Klout measures relative influence scores for social media personalities, which is useful for finding new publishers and influencers for your strategy.
- Alltop. Alltop lists top content in an insane number of niches, making it ideal for finding new publication opportunities (and content topics).
The Future of Link Building and Search
Finally, I want to note that everything I’ve covered in this guide is relevant to the modern era, but the modern era is always changing. You never know when Google will come out with a new update, or when the landscape of link building and SEO in general will change. Accordingly, it’s in your best interest to stay up-to-date with the latest link building news, which you can do on the AudienceBloom blog, and be ready to adjust your campaign at a moment’s notice. In any case, as long as you’re providing genuine value to your readers and publishers through high-quality content and relationship building, you’ll never have to worry about a penalty. Search engines care about users, so if you treat your users well, users and search engines both will reward you.
This concludes my guide on link building! Wherever you’re at in your SEO and link building journey, I hope this guide inspires confidence in you going forward:
Of course, if you would like AudienceBloom to create and execute a hands-off (or hands-on, if you like) link building campaign for you, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!