+ Intro to Link Building for SEO
+ The Benefits of Link Building for SEO
+ Two Primary White Hat Methods of Link Building
+ How Not to Build Links
+ Attracting Links Naturally
+ Building Links Manually
+ Developing Your Link Building Strategy
Furthermore, unless you’ve been an active SEO for decades, you may not have a complete Rolodex of all the relevant sites in your niche from which to acquire a large volume of high-quality, relevant backlinks.
And, even if you had the connections, not all links are created equal. Some can actually hurt your rankings.
Let’s dive in!
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:
By the end of this guide, you should have a thorough understanding of modern link building services, with all the tools and knowledge you need to get started.
A link is a connection from site A to site B, but it’s more than that.
Google’s algorithm has hundreds of rankings factors, but association among links cannot be overvalued, especially when you look at it through the lens of link co-citation and co-occurrence:
Co-citation also involves the transitive property, which looks like this:
Sites B and C are related to one another due to the co-citation from site A. References via links have both direct and indirect ranking factors that can boost your SEO. Understanding this is critical to maximum optimization of your link building campaigns. More on co-citation and co-occurrence here.
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 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.
Take a look at some of the ways link building can support your brand:
1. 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 culminate 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.
2. 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:
(Image Source: Kickstarter)
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
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 and manual link building/outreach (I would also suggest visiting our complete list of 77 link building strategies that work for growing organic traffic).
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.
In short, sexy content attracts the best links in both quality and quantity.
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 content and performing backlink outreach to other sites in your niche.
Essentially, you’ll be producing material that these websites 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.
But, link builder beware. This method is not without its own risks, as Ross Hudgens so aptly points out.
We will cover these two link building approaches more in-depth later in this guide.
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. Google used to publicly post its Pagerank method, but discontinued it. Other third-party tools like Moz, Ahrefs and Majestic now help give similar oversight into the quality of the links you’re procuring.
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.
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 search engines 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.
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:
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.
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 (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 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.
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:
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)
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.
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:
However, there are some disadvantages:
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:
Quizzes or games are great ideas, too.
(Image Source: Ignite Social Media)
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.
First, let’s explore the elements that constitute value.
(Image Source: DMV)
(Image Source: Moz)
If your content isn’t the best in its subject matter, it’s just a waste of time and money.
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:
(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.
The theory goes like this: if you create link-able 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 link-able 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:
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.
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:
And some disadvantages:
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:
1. 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).
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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 _____.”
(Image Source: Moz)
6. 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.
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:
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.
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.
As you send outreach emails, we recommend using Pitchbox, Mailshake or Boomerang for Gmail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 link building 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.
Remember, link building is less about the rapid spike:
And more about the slow climb:
Link building can bring tremendous value to your organization, but try to keep your bottom-line focus on SEO link building 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.
Of course, if you would like SEO.co 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!