What is link building for SEO?
In this ultimate beginner’s guide to building links, you will learn everything you need to get started, including the best link building strategies and tactics that are needed to create a well-rounded backlink plan for sustainable SEO growth for your website.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: A Link Building Overview
Link building is a term referring to the practice of establishing links (hyperlinks) that point to your site.
It’s that simple.
But, why would you invest time and money in link building?
It’s All About Promotion
Link building is a promotional strategy that helps people find your site—and in a number of different ways, as we’ll see.
Building backlinks is most commonly known as a search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. That’s because it helps you increase your domain authority (DA). A higher DA means higher rankings. Higher rankings mean more traffic… and you already know why it’s a good thing to have more traffic.
That said, link building is also a good strategy for generating traffic via other channels. Notably, if you build a strong link with a good publisher, you can generate a stream of separate referral traffic to your site!
Google uses more than 200 ranking factors to determine web page trustworthiness and rankings.
That’s a lot to juggle as a webmaster.
Link building is only one factor among many.
Chapter 2: The Purpose & Benefits of Link Building for SEO
At this point, you may not be convinced that link building is worth all that effort.
But link building is about far more than just increasing your search engine rankings.
Take a look at some of the ways link building can support your brand.
Brand & Content 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. Also, your brand name will reach more online users.
Reputation by Affiliation
In the early stages of your SEO 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.
One of the biggest benefits of resource page backlinks 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.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Link building, as a strategy, first emerged as a means of increasing your rankings and visibility in search engines Higher rankings means more traffic from search engines, which means more opportunities for conversion.
Ongoing Traffic & Return on Investment
Another major advantage of link building is its power to generate ongoing SEO ROI. When you build links, they’re almost always permanent. This gives your linkgraph 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.
The Purpose of Links
Hyperlinks are designed as a navigational tool. If you click a hyperlink, you’ll be automatically taken to another website—the website whose URL is housed in that link.
The main function of a link is to make navigation easier for users of the web, and to create the architecture between web pages responsible for the web’s “web”-like connections.
This is fundamentally important, because there are only three ways to reach a page. You can either click a bookmark, type in a URL, or click a link. Therefore, if you haven’t yet discovered a page, a link is the only way to discover it.
But there’s another purpose for links, now that Google and other search engines exist.
In the eyes of Google, a link is a vote of confidence. It’s a sign that this website inherently trusts the linking page.
On a small scale, that’s not a big deal. But on a large scale, you can use this principle to analyze the trustworthiness of millions of pages.
Chapter 3: Link Building Strategy Considerations
You have the basic idea of how links benefit your website, 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 acquisition takes place in two main theaters, or approaches: link attraction and manual link building/outreach.
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 opportunities 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 (e.g. Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram & TikTok).
In short, sexy content attracts the best links in both quality and quantity.
Manual Link Building
Manual link requisition 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 off-site content via performing backlink outreach to other sites (often for guest blogging) in your niche.
Essentially, you’ll be producing material that these other 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.
Due to its natural difficulty, backlink building includes both working smart and working hard.
Domain Authority & 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.
Similar studies by Moz show a direct correlation between the number of days a piece of content has been live and it’s ranking position the SERPs.
A guest blogging link from relevant websites 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.
Check your domain and page authority now using our backlink checker.
Chapter 4: How to Build Links the “Right” Way
We’ll shortly talk about the two general methods for building high quality links (attract links vs. manual link building).
But before we get there, we need to talk about the general principles you’ll need to follow to ensure your links function as intended—and don’t attract a penalty.
In other words, there’s a “right” way to build links.
White Hat Approaches
There can be a vast differential in the quality of the backlinks you acquire back to your website. Quality beats quantity every day of the week. This shortlist should help you determine the characteristics of a high-quality backlink.
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.
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, the better—though it will also be harder to get the link. Niche blogs without much readership won’t have much domain authority, but major household names (like national news sources) will have authority in spades. We use Moz and Ahrefs Domain Authority and Domain Rating to help gauge.
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.
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 backlink building efforts.
Nofollow vs. Dofollow
Don’t be afraid to build nofollow links, and even unlinked brand mentions as substitutes and complements for your ordinary backlink efforts. Normal link profiles always include nofollow links.
Linked Page Diversity
Linking to the same page (especially a home page or other “anchor” page) over and over will be a red flag as well.
Chapter 5: Black Hat Strategies (or, How to Build Links the “Wrong” Way)
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.
In this chapter we will dive into the dark abyss of black hat strategies in SEO.
Black Hat Link Building Strategies to Avoid
It’s hard to say exactly what Google views as a “good” or a “natural” link, but we do have some pretty good indicators.
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.
If your link exists by itself, with no context, it’s spam. There are many definitions of link 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 & 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, which means they are likely to provide little value
Google explicitly forbids webmasters from paying people to post links to their sites. You can pay for consulting or help with executing a quality strategy, but the direct exchange of money for links between you and a publisher will put you at risk of being penalized.
Private Blog Networks
Links built on a private blog network or (PBN) are typically performed on owned sites that may be hosted on different IP addresses to make the backlinks appear natural.
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.
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.
Chapter 6: Attracting Links Naturally
This is the first main approach to backlinks you can take as a brand, and it involves the natural attraction of links to your site.
First: You’ll create a high-value asset—one that people need for information or entertainment value, preferably both.
Second: You’ll distribute that asset to the masses.
Third: People will naturally pick it up, sharing it and linking to it either as a citation or to show their friends and followers.
Advantages of Attracting Links Naturally
Create an impactful enough piece, and you could earn hundreds to thousands of natural links back to your domain. This very guide is an example of our “link attraction” strategy (so if you like it, please share it!).
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?
If you create good on-site and off-site 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.
Don’t forget the raw value in creating good content—reputation, visibility, and of course, more leads, conversions and sales.
Disadvantages of Attracting Links Naturally
There are of course a number of disadvantages of attracting links natural. Here, we outline only a few.
Less Control & 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. For instance, if you want to engage in broken link building, this will never happen without direct outreach and manual effort.
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.
How to Create Link-able Content Assets
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). Content is valuable because it provides information, or entertainment, or both, and it can be consumed and shared quickly between users.
- 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.
- 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.
- People. Server response time can make or break your site speed, so consider upgrading your servers or purchasing a more robust plan from your hosting provider.
- 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:
- This calculator that helps figure out the cost of installing new windows
- This bulk domain authority checking tool
- This mortgage calculator
- Website backlink checker
Provide an Initial Backlink Boost
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.
Social Media Distribution
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.
Your audience could be on multiple platforms, but the impact and effectiveness of your boost campaign is dependent on many factors, not just platform popularity.
Internal Link Building
Internal link buildingis one of the best SEO strategies available, and the concept is pretty simple. Include helpful internal links pointing to the various pages inside your site from the other sites. Internal links effective for a few reasons.
First, internal links help shorten the potential distance from one page of your site to any other web page. Second, internal links gives users more intuitive forms of cross-page navigation. Third, internal links enable 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 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.
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.
Chapter 7: Building Backlinks Manually
Now that I’ve covered how to naturally attract inbound links, it’s time to take a look at the more manual, controllable–albeit a bit more risky–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 blog post” that content on their site.
The content will contain one or more links pointing back to your domain with high link quality. Over time, you’ll target a wider diversity of different publishers, eventually inching your way up to bigger, more reputable sources.
And, for some of the best hyperlinks, we suggest focusing on broken links as a broken link building strategy can work wonders for massively quick gains in SEO.
Advantages of Building Links Manually
There are some readily visible advantages to building links manually. Here we enumerate just a few.
Refined Direction & Control
You’ll have much more precision and control with building manual backlinks. 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.
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.
There are a host of secondary benefits to manual link building strategies including personal branding, visibility, reputation, and relationship building. If you are sourcing broken links, you will find immediate page authority pass-through without having to wait years to achieve it from newly minted links.
Disadvantages of Building Links Manually
Building links manually has its own disadvantages, including:
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).
Manual outreach demands a heavy investment of time (and other resources) on an ongoing basis to build and manage all your publisher relationships. It’s truly a game of persistence and relationship building.
Building a Perfect Link Foundation
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 Conversations
- Participate in Community Discussions
- Engage Regularly with Influencers
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.
Chapter 8: How to Find Backlink Opportunities
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.
In addition, once you have a team and standard operating procedure (SOP) for acquiring broken links, your broken link building process will be much more effective and scalable as well.
Strategies for Sourcing Link Opportunities
1. 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.
2. Find several key options.
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.
3. Search for contact information.
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.
4. Make a pitch.
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:
While the broken link building email sample itself may seem fine, I would definitely do a bit more A/B testing on the subject. Also, be sure to proofread your work multiple times before sending. There is nothing worse than a broken link building outreach email with errors.
As you send outreach emails, we recommend using Pitchbox, Mailshake or Boomerang for Gmail.
5. Get published.
If the editor or webmaster accepts your outreach for links, 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.
6. Maintain a relationship.
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 Link Building 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 law of diminishing returns when it comes to links coming from the same external domain.
Chapter 9: Planning Your Link Building 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.
Keyword Analysis & Niche Analysis
It’s also a good idea to conduct some keyword research. While keyword research is primarily used to direct the development of your onsite content, it can (and will) also inform your link building strategy.
We’ve discussed the importance of choosing the right anchor text. While natural anchor text should be your top priority, you can (and should) also include keywords from your campaign—where they make sense.
Similarly, you’ll want to conduct a niche analysis. What types of content are your competitors publishing? What types of publishers are they using? How can you position yourself to be an expert in a niche without much competition? What did your SEO backlink audit reveal about your site’s link profile relative to the competition?
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 outreach 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 backlink 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.
Gradually Scale Your Link Building 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 link building efforts upward.
Ultiimately, you don’t want the link building “spike,” but more of the slow climb:
Chapter 10: Link Building Return on Investment (ROI)
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.
Thank you for joining us for agency SEO Link Building: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide. We have 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 to read more on link building or have SEO.co 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!
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