7 Ways to Link to Your Website That Won’t Get You Penalized
On-site optimization is important for SEO, to say the least. Not only is it necessary to give search bots something to crawl and index, on-site optimization is also your best opportunity to optimize your pages for specific keywords. However, without the power of inbound links, your SEO campaign doesn’t stand a chance of success.
Google ranks sites based on both relevance (which is tied to keywords and topical focus) and authority, which is calculated primarily using the quantity and quality of external links pointing to your pages. Though the algorithm used here is complex, the more links you have pointing to a page, and the more trustworthy those links are, the higher that page is going to rank for various relevant queries.
Finding the best way to build those links can make the difference in the eventual success of your campaign.
The State of Link Building
If this is the first you’re hearing of this, you might be tempted to figure out how to place as many links as possible on external sites to build up the authority of your top pages (and your domain overall), but as experienced optimizers know, Google has safeguards in place to protect against this. These days, Google has algorithms that evaluate how “natural” a link is, and may penalize your website if too many of your links appear suspicious or unnatural.
It’s possible to attract links completely naturally, relying solely on the quality of your content to entice your readers to cite you as a source, but this method is inconsistent, and won’t allow you to grow as quickly as you could with a formal link building strategy.
So, spamming links isn’t an option, but you can intentionally build “natural” links by including them as a citation in your off-site content. Basically, the process works like this:
Create a personal brand, which you’ll use to author content on your site and establish a reputation.
Pitch ideas to external publishers, eventually writing content specifically targeted to that publisher’s audience.
Include occasional references to content your domain, working a reasonable link to your on-site content into your off-site content when it’s appropriate to do so.
If you want your links to appear natural, however, you’ll need to make sure your citation is sensible. In general, your citation should meet the following criteria:
Relevant to the topic. Your link needs to be at least somewhat relevant to the topic at hand. If you link to an article about vacuum cleaners in a piece about the best pizza toppings, something’s going to seem off.
Valuable to the reader. Links should also be valuable to your readership. Examples include backing up claims made, providing a link to further explanation of a topic briefly mentioned, or linking to off-site resources a reader may find valuable.
Non-promotional. Calling out your brand in a promotional way (such as directly encouraging them to buy your products or “selling” your brand in any way) will probably get you flagged, depending on the circumstances. Most publishers won’t tolerate this kind of link building anyway.
Inconspicuous. This is somewhat subjective, but your links shouldn’t “stick out” in any way. Make sure you include multiple links to similar sources throughout the piece so they all blend in with one another.
If you’re not used to link building or using a link building service, that list of criteria may seem intimidating. So instead of relying on these characteristics individually, I’ve defined seven different archetypes of citations you can use to link to your brand in ways that fulfill all these important requirements.
Specific Modes of Citation
These are the seven types of citations you’ll be building if you want your links to seem natural and count toward your domain and page authority. Each one has advantages and disadvantages, and should be used in different contexts. Your best approach is to use each of these in balance with each other, across the entirety of your campaign.
1. Feature your business.
Your first option is to write a piece of content that focuses specifically on your business. In most link building tactics, you’ll need to find a way to introduce your brand into the body of an article, but here, you may be a part of the headline. This citation style is advantageous because it allows you to freely cite yourself, using a homepage and a brand mention, without the possibility of seeming irrelevant since the entire article is about you.
The downside is, of course, that most publishers won’t accept content like this—it reads as too self-promotional. To succeed here, you’ll need to be choosy about where you’re getting published and how you’re syndicating your work.
Your choice in content type is the real secret to getting this type of content successfully published.
Press releases. One of the simplest routes is to write up a press release about your company—preferably something you’ve recently accomplished. There aren’t any specific considerations you’ll need to make here, since anything that involves your company will naturally include a link pointing to it. If you want your press release to be accepted by the widest range of news publishers, make sure you’re announcing something with significance to a broader audience, such as an upcoming event, a significant milestone for the industry, or a new product or sale that people want to be a part of. If you distribute your press release using a service like PR Newswire or PRWeb, you’ll likely be asked for a link to your homepage, and most sources that pick up your story will naturally include that link (since most sources just syndicate the exact text from the original press release). It’s debatable whether links from press release syndication carry much (if any) SEO value, but there’s no debate about whether they can help get your brand name more exposure across the Web, and help with online reputation management.
Reviews. Reviews are a bit trickier, since you’ll need to recruit someone else to write about your brand. Reviews about a company’s products written by people within the company tend to be distrusted because they’re innately biased. Still, you can woo key influencers in your industry by sending them free samples of your products or free trials of your software. They’ll benefit from writing about you if your product is awesome and interesting to their readers, and you’ll easily earn a link to your homepage and/or key product pages (not to mention all the other benefits that come with being featured in a publication!).
Newsjacking. Instead of writing about news within your own company, you can spin news from outside your company to include your company as a focus. For example, if there’s an economic downturn in your city, you can report on what your company is doing to mitigate it. If there’s a new technology affecting your industry, you can report on how your company is adopting it. These are similar to press releases, but you’ll have more wiggle room with where you can publish them.
Keys to effective use:
Restrict your promotional tone. Since your company will be the main focus, it may be hard to resist the urge to self-promote. If you’re entrusting a review to someone else, you won’t have to worry about it, but if you’re writing a news piece, keep your tone as objectively professional and to-the-point as possible. Don’t use sales-y language to describe your brand.
Don’t stuff your article full of links. You may be tempted to link to multiple brand assets throughout the piece, depending on what comes up, but try to limit your links to one or two—and diversify by building links to other sources when you can.
Keep things relevant to your readers. You may be excited about your company’s 10-year anniversary, but what does that mean for your customers? What does that mean for your intended publisher’s readers? Make sure there’s some real value here.
Avoid over-reliance on this method. This is an effective way to get some extra homepage links, but don’t call upon it too often. Otherwise, your press releases may blur into white noise, and consumers may trust your brand less.
This is an effective strategy for your first few links, since it doesn’t require much finesse.
2. Cite specific facts, metrics, or research.
Citing specific pieces of factual information may be the safest way to build a link. Though publishers vary in how they set and enforce formatting standards, it’s generally a basic journalism requirement to link to your sources, especially for numerical facts like dates, percentages, and other statistics.
You need to include stats, and you need to link to your sources when you include them. Basically, that means you have a free pass to link to your site—as long as it contains valuable statistics for you to reference.
Trend articles. Articles reporting on recent trends, whether they’re in or out of your industry, are perfect opportunities to include statistical information. For example, if you’re writing about an increase in marketing budgets, you could cite a survey on your site that explains why a large percentage of marketers are planning to increase their marketing focus this year. This is the approach we took with our annual What Works in Online Marketing Survey.
Fact roundups and infographics. As you might imagine, facts are perfectly at home in infographics and other “fact roundup” style pieces. For these, you’ll need to collect statistics from a handful of different sources, and compile them in a narrative that makes sense to the reader, possibly adding visuals along the way.
Opinion pieces. Facts are also exceptionally important for opinion pieces. Even though opinion pieces are, by nature, based on a subjective viewpoint, you still need to include data points to back up your claims (if you want to persuade an audience or get published on a respectable site).
These are just three prominent examples, but I’m hard pressed to think of a piece of content that couldn’t be improved by the inclusion of more supporting facts. Literally any piece of content could use this citation style.
Keys to effective use:
Be specific. It’s possible to cite your website for something vague or commonly agreed upon, like the fact that snow is a common cause of traffic accidents, but it’s better to cite specific numbers, like 4 percent of traffic accidents are caused by sleet or snow. It’s more persuasive to the reader, and is more demanding of a link (so it’s less likely to be removed by a scrutinizing editor).
Make sure you’re the primary source. Let’s say you cite an external source on one of your blog posts, pointing to an authority like the Department of Transportation (as I did in the above point). It’s not recommended that you cite yourself as the source for this fact, since you are only reporting that statistic as a secondary source. Try to come up with original data on your own to cite, where you are the primary source of that data.
Have a strong anchor piece on your site. Your statistic should be housed in a strong piece of standalone content, such as a case study or in-depth blog post. Readers will want to follow your link to an authoritative piece, so be prepared to deliver.
Include other facts in the article, in the same formatting. If your fact is the only one you cite, it may stand out in your article, flagging it for potential removal. It’s much better to include multiple other facts, from sources similar to you in nature.
Avoid overreliance on one fact source. I’ll get into the importance of link diversification toward the end of the article. For now, just know that it’s a bad idea to have all your links pointing to one page, or all of your citations built around one cited resource. There’s nothing wrong with building multiple links to one page of your site (in fact, there are advantageous to doing so), but make sure you spread the link love when you can.
The biggest hurdle to overcome here is sourcing some original facts to reference; this typically means conducting original research, which might include a full-blown survey, or even a simple poll on your brand Facebook page (or Twitter page).
3. Give a quote.
If you don’t have original research to offer but you still want to contribute something valuable to an external piece, consider contributing a quote by an influencer or decision-maker within your organization. There are multiple ways to approach this, but two are especially common.
First, you could copy and paste a short section of a blog post on your site into a post you’re writing for an external publication. Second, you could ask someone in your organization for a quote (or make one up, attributing it to them with their permission), and cite the name of your organization when you name your source. For example, you could lead into your quote with something like: As Jayson DeMers of SEO.co explains, “(quote).”
Again, you’re expected to cite a source here, so it’s a free opportunity to build a link as long as you have something valuable to add.
Quote round-ups. Like with fact round-ups, you could collect quotes from various influencers in your industry about a given topic. Think of this as a kind of roundtable or interview collage. For this type of piece, you’ll contact a handful of influencers on social media or email and collect their thoughts on your given topic; then you can slip in your own organization’s quote with ease.
Interviews. You could also do a straight interview with someone from within your organization, though the citation here would be more akin to using your business as a primary focus (from the first citation archetype). It’s better to interview multiple people at once if you can. Here are a couple examples of interviews I’ve given that include links back to SEO.co:
Interview with Jayson DeMers from SEO.co (from Techwyse.com)
HARO.Help a Reporter Out (HARO) is a service that matches journalists looking for sources for upcoming stories with people who can be those sources. For example, if a story was being written by a journalist at TechCrunch.com about how online marketing has changed, and that journalist uses HARO to find a qualified source to interview for her story, I could respond to the notice and connect with that journalist, becoming the source for her story. As the source, I would be interviewed via phone or email, and when she incorporates my quotes into the story, she’ll reference me as “Jayson DeMers, CEO of SEO.co.”
Like with specific facts, quotes can be used liberally, in almost any piece of content you can imagine. Just be sure you or whoever is providing the quote is well-qualified to do so.
Keys to effective use:
Include multiple quotes. Like I mentioned earlier, this type of citation works best when there are multiple quotes in the piece. If yours is the only quote, it’s going to stand out as unnatural.
Cite a specific person. It’s possible to cite your general brand as the source of a quote, but it’s much better if it’s linked to a specific person within that brand. Personal authority is valued more than brand authority by readers, and editors will be less likely to be suspicious of the quote if it’s attributed to a person in the organization.
Keep it brief. Don’t quote entire paragraphs of text at once. As with most elements of content marketing, it’s better to be as concise as possible. Depending on the length of the rest of your piece, a sentence or two at a time will likely serve you best. It’s okay to have multiple 1-2 sentence quotes within the piece, but try to avoid huge quotes that span an entire paragraph.
This doubles as an opportunity to promote someone else’s personal brand, so make the quote count.
4. Point users to further information.
So far, I’ve been discussing how to use links as a mode of direct citation, crediting a source for information or acknowledging the source’s existence for credibility purposes. Here, we’re going to shift gears and use links as a way to send readers to somewhere else.
This mode of citation is a method of elaboration. Most articles you’ll write for external publications will be limited in scope and length, so you won’t get to explore your points fully in the body of your primary work. For example, you may make reference to the importance of marketing in a crowdfunding campaign, but you won’t be able to embed a definitive guide on the subject.
Readers may be interested in learning more than you’re permitted to include, so your link serves as a gateway to introduce that content. Here, you can include your links inconspicuously, using your target subject matter as anchor text, or introduce your link with a phrase like, “to read more on this topic…”
You may even be able to mention your brand by name. However, I find that using the title of the asset or content you’re directing the reader to gets the best click-through rate (assuming you’ve used a great title). For help choosing a great title for your content, see 101 Title Ideas for Your Next Blog Post.
See what I did there?
How-to guides. How-to guides are perfect for this application. How-to guide readers are definitely interested in learning more, but the narrow scope of your guide may not be able to give them all the information they need. For example, you might make reference to the importance of tire rotation in an article on how to change a car tire, but you’ll need to link out to give readers the full scoop.
Research pieces. Any piece that’s based around research is bound to draw on other, more elaborate sources. Here, you can point readers to sources that originally inspired your research, articles that fully explore points you only casually mention, and articles that contradict what you’re saying (to serve as a counterpoint).
Lists.Listicles are still highly popular, and for good reason, but they don’t give you much room to fully explore the ideas you present. Elaborating links are a superb fit here.
Keys to effective use:
Link to meaningful, non-commercial information. Your link shouldn’t point to a sales page, contact form, or otherwise commercially-oriented content. Also, readers should have a clear idea why you’re linking to more information, and what type of information they can expect when they get there. If you don’t set that expectation, your link will appear forced or otherwise unnatural.
Link to a strong page. The source you link to is meant to provide more detailed information to your readers, and they’re going to be disappointed if it doesn’t deliver. Your publisher will also likely check all the links in your piece to make sure they’re valuable, so make it obvious why it needs to be included.
Use rich links throughout the piece. The trend continues; if you use a link this way, you should use multiple links in your piece this way. If your goal is to be as thorough and informative as possible, that means you’ll need to link to other authorities besides yourself.
The quality of your work here will significantly impact how your link is interpreted; these need to be really high-quality, in-depth pieces.
5. Use yourself as an example.
This method is useful because of how flexible it is, but it’s also prone to making you appear too self-promotional, so be wary. The idea is to present a series of examples of some topic, either as the focal point of the piece or as illustrations in one specific section of the piece. You could also use your brand as a standalone example to illustrate your article’s point, but it’s usually better to have yourself as one of several examples.
The easiest way to do this is in list format, with each list item containing another example, but you can also mention yourself in an aside in the body of your content. For example, if I’m writing a section within an article about the benefits of getting exposure on major media publications, I might include something like this:
Acquiring brand mentions across the web brings many other benefits aside from just the obvious SEO value of inbound links. Did you know your conversion rates can go up as a result of them, too? One way to help with this is to include logos of the publishers on which your brand has been mentioned; this creates social proof and aligns your brand with trusted media outlets. For example, look at the homepage of SEO.co and you’ll notice that we have a scrolling banner which lists many of the logos of publications on which we’ve been featured. We’ve seen a 34% increase in conversion rates since we implemented it.
Buying guides. Buying guides are meant to help users decide how to make a purchasing decision for some family of products, such as a bike, a sales management platform, or something bigger like a house. Generally, they include tips on what to look for and examples of products they can buy immediately. You can use your own brand as an example of a product, comparing and contrasting your product with those of your competitors, or cite your brand as a resource that can be consulted for further help in the purchasing decision.
Lists. You can also include your brand in almost any listicle (an article which is a list), provided your brand is contextually relevant. Something blunt, like “The X Best _____ Businesses” can work, but more specific is usually better; try something like “X Tools Every Entrepreneur Should Use When on Vacation.”
How-to guides. How-to guides are another valuable opportunity to include yourself as an example. You can list your brand as a resource, or as a place to find specific products to complete the guide.
Keys to effective use:
Avoid promoting yourself. Be factual, but neutral. This is the most important tip for using your own link as an example. You’ll be tempted, especially when comparing yourself to others, to say your brand is the best in the industry. However, doing this can flag your link for removal or make your piece come across as marketing spam. If you have objective data that says you’re the best at some specific aspect or element, feel free to say that, but back up your claim by linking to the source that proves it. In general, avoid injecting subjective opinions in journalism unless you’re running an op-ed piece.
Include similar sources throughout the piece. It’s possible to use your brand as the only example, but you probably won’t get away with it. It’s better to use several similar examples throughout the piece—even if some of them happen to be competitors.
Make sure you fit the topic. Don’t wedge yourself in as an example unless your brand’s inclusion is a truly unique or valuable addition to the article. Users should be able to walk away with more knowledge and a better understanding of the topic when they encounter your link.
Using yourself as an example may seem easy at first glance, but there’s a thin line of relevance to walk here.
6. Utilize your author bylines and profiles.
Rather than citing yourself in the body of your content contributions, you can rely on citations found within your author profiles and bylines. Usually, when you’re accepted as a recurring guest author or columnist on a specific external publication, you’ll be given a dedicated page or blurb explaining who you are, what your expertise is, and possibly including a headshot and links to other resources.
You should optimize this area to show off your main area of specialty, and you’ll usually be given allowance for at least one link to your site (often the homepage) as well as your social media profiles. This link will pass authority to your site, like any other link, and will attract some traffic (but usually not as much as a link in the body of an article).
Relying on this one-time, permanent citation can come in handy when working with publishers that frequently remove your in-article links, esteemed publishers that have rigid linking standards, or those that you don’t plan to contribute to on a regular basis.
Rather than being tied to any specific content types, you’ll be creating bylines and profiles with specific types of publishers.
High-authority publication sites. Super high-authority publication sites have strict standards for what they publish, so you’ll need to spend all your effort coming up with truly original, dense material to contribute; you often won’t have room to cite yourself any other way. Simply maintaining an existence on these sites is usually enough to earn value for your brand, so consider forgoing the internal citations in favor of this long-standing, profile-based citation.
Niche sites. It may also be worth your time to establish author profiles on targeted niche sites related to your brand and industry. You may not publish content here often, but your link and profile will last indefinitely.
Keys to effective use:
Maintain an informative, objective tone. When writing your author profile, don’t play yourself up in a sales-y way, and don’t talk too much about your brand. If your author profile reads like an advertisement, it’s probably going to be rejected. Even if it passes editorial review, readers who encounter it won’t want to click through. Remain as objective as possible when describing yourself and your company.
Prioritize the quality of your content above all else. When maintaining your author profile on these high-authority sites, the quality of your content should be your top concern. Listen closely to any feedback you receive, spend extra effort polishing your work, and fight hard to maintain your position as a guest contributor or columnist.
Include links to your social channels as well. If you’re allowed to include multiple links, consider adding links to your social channels. This won’t directly affect your website’s domain authority, but it will boost the popularity of your social channels (and therefore, the popularity of any content you choose to share on them in the future).
Depending on how they’re used, links in author profiles can be one of your most powerful resources. Don’t underestimate them.
7. Cite yourself as a contributor, partner, or affiliate.
Similar to your author profile, you can also build a semi-permanent standing link to cite yourself as a contributor, partner, or affiliate of some other site. These don’t need to exist on sites that publish your work specifically; as long as you’re affiliated with the site in question in some way, you can likely build a link there.
You can have your brand listed on a dedicated page, get your link mentioned on specifically related pages, or potentially even build your link in the footer of a site, depending on the circumstances.
This citation method is best understood through examples:
Donor lists. You can donate to a charity, or possibly volunteer for an organization in exchange for having your business listed as a donor or contributor on their site. This may be considered a paid link, depending on the circumstances, but it’s still worth pursuing. As long as the majority of your link profile isn’t comprised of these types of links, there’s nothing to worry about.
Source acknowledgments. You can also have yourself listed as a source if you’ve contributed some material to the construction of the site (or page). For example, if you’ve provided an image for someone else’s work, they’ll be required to link to you as an acknowledgment of the original creator. If you designed the entire site, they may be willing to list you as the web designer somewhere, such as in the footer.
Partnership announcements. You can also get a link when announcing your partnership with another company. For example, if you’re the new supplier for a local business and they mention you in one of their News articles, you’ll get an instant link from them.
Case studies. If you enlist the services of other B2B companies, they may ask to use you as an example in their case studies. It’s almost always a good idea to take them up on the offer; you won’t have to do any work, but you’ll get a free link and your brand will become more visible to others.
Keys to effective use:
Keep it simple. Most of the time, you’ll be asking for these links rather than building them directly, so don’t ask for too much. Keep things simple, and appreciate these citations for what they are; they aren’t advertisements and won’t be major sources of traffic, but they will give you an extra boost of authority.
Make the most of your contributions. If you’re going to contribute to someone else’s site, make the most of that contribution. If you volunteer for a charity, promote that fact in the press, such as through a press release. If you’re working on design elements for someone else’s site, make them as appealing as you can.
Reciprocate. If someone builds a link to your site, be sure to thank them. If they know you appreciate it, they’ll be more likely to build more in the future. You can monitor who’s building links to your site by using a tool like BuzzSumo, which includes link alerts.
But for now, consider the following tips to use in conjunction with the preceding citation “archetypes.”
Use a variety of links. Don’t always link to your homepage. Don’t always link to your best blog post. If you want to avoid a penalty and maximize the value of your inbound links with regard to SEO, use a variety of different link sources, types, and targets. And be sure to keep things looking as natural as possible.
Work with a variety of publishers. Building multiple links on the same external source can be valuable, but it has diminishing returns. It’s more valuable to build links on new sources. Keep looking for new places to post your material.
Push for higher-authority publishers. When you first start out, you’ll be limited in terms of what publishers are willing to accept your work, but over time, you should move up, step-by-step, to higher authority publishers. Work your way up the ladder; it’s better to have one link on a high-authority publisher than a dozen links on low-authority sources.
Nurture your audience. Link building through guest post citations isn’t just about increasing the authority of your site, or attracting referral traffic. It’s about building a reputation for yourself and cultivating a brand community. Accordingly, it’s in your best interest to nurture your audience by engaging with them, collecting their feedback, and making them feel like they’re an active part of your brand.
Review your link profile regularly. Your “link profile” is the sum total of all the links pointing to your domain, including where they’re pointing to, where they’re coming from, and how much authority they’re passing. It’s easy to lose track of where you’ve built links in the past, so take a few moments, at least once a month, to review your current link profile. Use a tool like Moz’s Open Site Explorer, or Ahrefs and look for new opportunities based on your greatest successes.
Don’t sweat missed opportunities. No matter how good you are at building links, eventually, some of your links are going to be removed for various reasons. You’ll also face a ton of rejection as you try to work your way onto bigger and better publishers. When this happens, don’t dwell on it; this is a natural part of the process, and it’s something that everybody has to face. Keep moving forward, and eventually, you’ll get the results you want.
Consider nofollow links. Links are good for more than just authority—brand visibility and referral traffic are important too. That’s why you should consider throwing in nofollow links every now and then; nofollow links don’t pass authority to your site, and are therefore less likely to be removed by external publishers. They probably won’t help your SEO strategy directly, but they’re more valuable than having no links at all. Perhaps most importantly, nofollow links are a part of any natural link profile. If your link profile has no nofollow links, it could appear that you’re manipulating your inbound links too much, and thus appear unnatural.
As you gain more experience building links, you may find yourself favoring some citation styles over others; this is fine, as most of them will pass authority to your site in the same way. To be successful, you just have to make sure your links are valuable, natural, and on high-authority sites.
If you find yourself struggling and need some extra help, feel free to contact us or check out our link building services; we’ll help you get the links your site needs to succeed.
Timothy Carter is the CRO for SEO.co/. Since 1997 he's been helping businesses maximize their sales revenue from websites via content marketing, SEO and Internet Marketing strategies. Over the years he's written for publications like Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications.