What is link building for SEO? In this ultimate guide, you will learn everything you need to get started link building for SEO.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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 & Returns
Another major advantage of link building is its power to generate ongoing returns. When you build links, they’re almost always permanent. 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.
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’ll shortly talk about the two general methods for building links (link attraction 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.
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 link building efforts.
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.
Nofollow vs. Dofollow
Don’t be afraid to build nofollow links, and even unlinked brand mentions as substitutes and complements for your ordinary link building efforts. Normal link profiles always include nofollow links.
When you first start out, you’ll be relegated to leveraging low-authority sources. This isn’t a bad deal at first, as your own domain authority will probably be low, and even low-authority sources can give you significant results. However, as you spend more time, you’ll find your results plateauing.
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 link building for SEO.
If your link exists by itself, with no context, it’s spam. There are many definitions of spam, and it can be quite subjective, but chances are, you’ll know it when you see it. Trust your gut here, and don’t build a link unless you have a good reason for doing so.
Comments & Forum Posts
Comments and forum posts used to be excellent opportunities to build links thanks to their easy accessibility. However, most forums these days carry low authority, or use nofollow links, or are too keen to link building techniques for this to fly. Avoid them.
Google explicitly forbids webmasters from paying people to post links to their sites. You can pay for consulting or help with executing a link building strategy, but the direct exchange of money for links between you and a publisher will put you at risk of being penalized.
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.
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.
This is the first main approach to link building 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.
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!).
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
First, let’s explore the elements that constitute value.
There’s a ton of content already out there, on just about every subject. Content marketing is extremely popular, and major informational sites like Wikipedia have a solid lockdown on most general topics. Why would anyone link to your content when they could link to Wikipedia for an even more reliable, in-depth look at an identical topic?
If you want your piece to be valuable in any way, it needs to be original. This is going to do two things for you; first, it’s going to narrow your potential audience. This may sound like a bad thing, but as your audience gets smaller, your relevance goes up. Second, it’s going to decrease the competition for the link.
How can you quantify “effort” when it could apply to so many different elements of your work? The effort could refer to how much time you spent doing research, how many images and videos you pulled to illustrate your core concepts, or how much time you spent revising and polishing your work to make sure it’s the best piece there is out there. All of these factors, even the small ones, are important.
Why? Like I said, the content marketing world is hyper competitive. There are millions of people producing and syndicating content—but there’s a normal distribution curve at play. For every person spending dozens of hours on a single piece, there are hundreds of people popping out fluffy, low-value pieces every minute. Guess where the links are going? This chart should make it painfully clear; only the best of the best content earns links. The rest fall to the wayside.
For the most part, your work will need to have some practical element to it, and almost anything can be practical if you put the right spin on it. For starters, there are obviously practical topics, like how-to guides, tutorials, walkthroughs, and research publications. But don’t be afraid to step outside these boundaries.
The level of detail in your piece is a crucial factor in how valuable it’s going to seem to your target audience. For example, let’s say you’re writing an opinion piece on the state of your industry. Do you fully explore all sides of the situation? Do you present counterarguments and rebuttals to your main point? Do you exhaust your resources to find data points that back up what you’re saying?
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:
Your first goal should be making sure your piece is accessible. If it’s hard to get to, hard to read, impossible to play, or otherwise invisible, it’s not going to get shared. Make your piece prominent on your site as a first line of attack, interlinking it with the other pieces of your site and making sure it’s featured prominently on your home page. If it’s something you want to promote, it should be impossible to miss.
Next, you’ll want to check on your web development fundamentals, making sure your content loads on mobile devices and on all web browsers. You can use sites like MobileTestMe and Browserling to help you out here. How quickly is your page loading? How well is your visual content displaying? Is your text easy to read? Beyond that, you’ll need to make your piece visible using an initial “boost”—which I’ll get into in my next section.
I get it. You don’t like the idea of people skimming your piece. You’ve spent a lot of time doing the research, outlining, writing, and revising, and you’ve made sure that every sentence of your work is valuable. That doesn’t change the fact that some people are going to want to skim it – some people are just skimmers, and nothing is going to change that.
If they skim it and get some value out of it, they’ll be likely to share it with their friends and followers (who might read it in full). If they skim it and gain nothing, they’ll click away, never to return. Accordingly, it’s in your best interest to make your content as skimmable as possible.
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.
People are far more likely to share content that has sparked some level of emotional resonance with them. What this emotional connection is, precisely, is up to you. It could be positive or negative. It could be present- or past-focused. The only requirement is that it’s a strong one. For example, you could use chilling statistics to illustrate a social problem that’s bigger than most people imagined it to be, like institutional racism. Or you could go the opposite route and try to evoke a response of humor and levity, like with Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” video.
Emotional resonance is tough to pin down, so in order to be effective, you’ll have to dig deep into some market research and find out what really makes your users tick. You may even have to try some experiments and A/B tests to get it right.
In addition to being practical, your piece should also offer a degree of utility—or a degree of relevance in your target readers’ lives. Think of this as a way of aligning your content topic with the current environments and lifestyles of your users.
For example, let’s say your target demographics are in college, and it’s April. At this time, most students are getting ready for final exams, so you can create and promote a piece that has some practical value for this scenario, such as tips on how to better retain information or how to study more effectively. If a person reads a piece of content and is helped, even in a small way, he/she will likely share it with his/her peers.
This is a simple tenet of shareability, but it’s one you can’t afford to ignore. People are only going to share your content if you make it easy for them to share it. Honestly, if the process takes longer than a single click, your users aren’t going to take action.
Your first job is making sure your social media share icons are present and prominent on each page of content. If it’s published on your blog post, these should already be here.
Beyond that, go out of your way to include social share icons in any way you present your piece—for example, you’ll need to include these in your email newsletters, in your press releases, and you could even ask your followers to share your work directly on social media. It has to be easy, and it has to be obvious.
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
Hopefully, by this point you’ve already built up a large enough audience for this step to be worth it. If not, you may have to start by building an audience from scratch (and even if you have, it pays to recruit more followers within your target demographics).
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.
Internal Link Building
Interlinking is a necessary strategy for SEO, and the concept is pretty simple. Include helpful links pointing to the various pages inside your site from the other pages. This is effective for a few reasons.
First, it helps shorten the potential distance from one page of your site to any other page. Second, it gives users more intuitive forms of cross-page navigation. Third, it enables users to spend more time on your site overall, which creates brand familiarity, trust, and loyalty. Include links from your latest content to other pieces of content on your site, as appropriate, and be sure to also link to your latest piece from older pieces of content, too.
Email marketing 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
If you’ve tried all the above methods and you’re still struggling to attain that initial audience, paid advertising is another potential option. I tend to stay away from paid advertising because its benefits are relatively short-term, but it can be valuable as a way to provide a temporary increase in campaign traction. Google and Facebook are two popular options here, since you’ll be able to drill down to specific demographics and get more “bang for your buck,” but there are dozens of other choices, including:
If you do use paid advertising, be sure to set up a custom landing page so you can target your audience effectively.
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 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.
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 manual link building. Rather than publishing a piece and hoping for the best, you can target publishers you know will link back to you, and seek sources closely in tune with your target audience.
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 including personal branding, visibility, reputation, and relationship building.
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 link building 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.
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).
Next, you need to make sure your link doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. It needs to be placed naturally in the body of your content; there’s no need to be sneaky here, but it shouldn’t appear out of place. For example, if you’re writing a longer piece (1,000 words or more), you’ll want to include at least several links to outside sources, only one of which is to your domain.
These should be spread throughout the piece, rather than lumped together, and should appear naturally in your work while adding value. That means it should support a fact or claim made within your content, or provide an example that illustrates a point. If a publisher suspects you of trying to sneak your own link into the body content, or if it doesn’t add value for readers, they’re either going to reject your submission, or remove the link.
High Quality Content
Remember all those elements I listed for how to make your piece “valuable” as a linkable asset? All those are going to apply here. Beyond that, your content needs to be high-quality in two different ways. The first of these is the conventional, intuitive way. Your content should be well-researched, logically organized, with some compelling points, multimedia integrations, and of course, eloquent writing that’s accessible enough for almost anyone to enjoy.
The second requirement of “high quality” is a bit more subtle and variable—your content has to be valuable specifically for the readers of your chosen publisher. Though it may be tempting to try and write what you know or what your main audience might want, you’ll need to compromise and keep your publisher’s audience in mind as the priority.
Contextual Relevance & Value
Context is everything when considering the value of a link, and “context” can apply to a few different things. First, your article has to be contextually relevant to the site it’s published on—that’s a given, and one that I mentioned in the preceding sub-section. Fortunately, you’ll have a bit of help here; if your article isn’t contextually relevant to a publisher’s audience, the publisher will flat-out reject it, saving you the trouble.
Second, your link has to add some kind of value to your piece—you can’t just shoehorn it into an unrelated or out-of-place section, and you can’t just call out your brand name at the end. Instead, you need to find a natural, value-adding way to get your link in the body of the content. For example, you could cite a statistic or quote in your on-site work that validates the main point of your article.
Optimized Anchor Text
Earlier, I explained one of the old-school “black hat” practices of over-optimizing the anchor text of your links. In the old days, “optimized” anchor text referred to text that contained one or more target keyword phrases, in order to increase the relevance of the target page to those phrases.
These days, optimized anchor text is more about explaining or justifying your use of the link. You’ll need some contextual clues here too, and you might even call them keywords, but be sure your anchor text fits naturally into your writing. For example, you might call to the link in question with something like, “according to our recently published data on ____, X percent of all marketers take this action,” or “for more information, check out my post on _____.”
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.
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.
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.
Search Ranks & Organic Traffic
Take a look at how your search ranks and organic traffic develop over time. This should be one of your biggest indicators of success. Your organic traffic measures how many people found your site via search engines, and is the bottom-line measure of your success in SEO.
More organic traffic means more value to your business, so if you notice your organic traffic stagnating, it means your link building strategy has hit a plateau. You can find this information in the Acquisition section of Google Analytics, along with referral and social traffic.
Your referral traffic is a measure of how many people found your site through external links, which is perfect for determining the relative strength of each publisher you work with.
If you open the referral traffic section here, you’ll be able to see a list of all the external publishers you work with and how much traffic each is bringing to your site. Use this information to improve your relationship with your most valuable contacts and filter out the least valuable ones.
Domain Authority & Link Profile
You’ll also want to keep a close eye on your domain authority, and your link profile in general, and Open Site Explorer is one of the best ways to do this. Plug in your URL here, and you’ll get a breakdown of all the links pointing to your page and domain, which you can then evaluate in terms of authority and value.
You’ll get to see how valuable your current link profile is, where your heavy hitters are, and just as importantly, if there are any “bad” links that have cropped up that might be interfering with your authority score.
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.