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  • What Is Second Tier Link Building?

    What Is Second Tier Link Building & How Can it Boost Your SEO

    Link building is one of the most important strategies in any search engine optimization (SEO) campaign, but the straightforward, basic tactics of link building often aren’t enough to get you the results you want—or keep you safe from the threat of penalties.

    Second tier link building, the practice of building “second tier” links that feed your campaign by pointing to “first tier” links (a.k.a. primary links), is a powerful way to improve your results.

    But what exactly are secondary backlinks?

    What is the value in second tier link building?

    And, how can you structure your SEO campaign to include both first tier and second tier links?

    First Tier Links vs. Second Tier Links

    First Tier Links vs. Second Tier Links

    Let’s start with some basic definitions, and an explanation of link building from a high level. In case you aren’t familiar, link building is a set of strategies designed to help you earn and place links that point back to your website.

    While it’s possible to try and manage an SEO strategy without link building, most practitioners find link building to be indispensable.

    How Impactful are Secondary Links?

    When Google “decides” how to rank search results, it considers both the relevance and the authority of potential results. Relevance refers to the context of the page, and whether it matches the user’s query. Authority refers to how trustworthy the page is. This trustworthiness is measured in terms of “domain authority” and “page authority,” which exist at the domain and page levels, respectively. These metrics are calculated in large part based on the number and quality of links pointing to a domain or page. In other words, the more links you have pointing to your site, and the “better” those links are, the higher your pages are going to rank.

    link graph
    A site’s link graph can tell search engines a great deal about what the site is about and how it should be ranked.

    This is a very basic overview of a complex and nuanced topic; for your link building campaign to be successful, you’ll need to consider your external content, the placement of your links, your link sources, and many more variables.

    So how do primary and secondary links play into this strategy?

    Primary links are links you build on an external source that point to one of your web pages.

    You can think of these as “standard” SEO links. They pass authority directly from one source to your website, and are incredibly valuable for increasing your domain- and page-level authority.

    Most modern link builders create primary backlinks by writing high-quality content on external publisher sites; these pieces of content cite your onsite content as a source, providing a statistic or further reading.

    Second Tier Backlink Definition

    Secondary backlinks, by contrast, are links built on an external source that point to a piece of content containing a primary link. These links are designed to pass authority and traffic to the piece of content responsible for generating value with the first tier link.

    For example, let’s consider your website “A,” an external publisher “B,” and a separate external publisher “C.”

    A first tier link may exist in a piece of content on site B, pointing to site A. Once a primary link exists, a secondary link could be a link built on site C, pointing to site B.

    The Two Types of Second Tier Links

    The Two Types of Second Tier Links

    Even within this definition, there are two main types of second tier links.

    Linking to a page with a primary link

    Straightforward secondary link point directly to a page that contains a primary backlink, with no alterations or other functions. Calling up our previous example, C points to B, and B points to A.

    Combining primary & secondary links

    You can also build second tier links that are used in conjunction with primary links. In this case, your content on site C would contain both a second tier link to site B (which contains a first tier link of its own) and a first tier link that points to A. In other words, C points to both B and A, and B points to A. This approach is arguably more powerful, since it capitalizes on both primary and secondary link value simultaneously. However, it may also be riskier.

    The Power of Tiered Link Building

    Why would you use second tier link building? Wouldn’t it be better to focus exclusively on primary backlinks?

    Second tier backlinks with several advantages:

    Increase link equity

    First, you can increase your “link equity,” or the potential for your links to pass authority back to your site. If you build a second tier link from C to B, and a first tier link from B to A, your link to B will increase the page authority of B. If you do this frequently, you can greatly increase the authority of site B, and make every primary link on that site more inherently valuable. This is an especially powerful strategy if you’re utilizing a private blog network (PBN), or if you’re trying to grow a number of different sites. It’s also a valuable strategy if you’re link building with lower-authority publishers that could benefit from an external boost.

    Multiply referral traffic

    Secondary backlinks are also an easy way to multiply the referral traffic generated by your direct, primary backlinks. Remember, even though link building primarily gets attention as a way to increase domain authority and rise in search engine rankings, it’s also valuable for attracting more referral traffic. If you build a first tier link from site B to site A, it may generate 500 monthly visitors for you. So what happens when you build a new link from site C to site B? Let’s say that link generates 1,000 visitors to site B, and 500 of those visitors eventually click through to your site; you’ve effectively doubled your referral traffic from this source.

    Expand visibility

    Brand visibility is powerful, even if you aren’t immediately generating traffic or onsite conversions. If you have a strong brand mention as a first tier link, building second tier links is a convenient way to get more eyes on that link. This is especially useful if your first tier link is citing your site in a way that emphasizes your expertise on a subject, increasing consumer trust.

    Mitigate risk

    Though manual actions are reserved for only the most egregious offenses, link building does carry a risk. If you spam links, or if you build links in a way that’s perceived as low-quality, it could hurt your search engine rankings. Second tier links are a great way to mitigate your risk. Not only do you reduce the volume of primary links emerging, you also increase the perceived authority and value of your first tier link sources, making your links look better overall.

    This doesn’t mean that secondary links are a practical necessity for all SEO campaigns. However, it can complement and improve most link building strategies that mostly center on first tier links.

    Best Practices for Second Tier Link Building

    Best Practices for Second Tier Link Building

    Second tier link building isn’t a guaranteed success. Like with a standard link building strategy, there are many best practices you’ll need to follow if you want to yield the best results.

    Make every link natural 

    This should be familiar to you if you’re used to first tier link building: make every link as natural as possible. Good links enhance the content in which they reside; they provide value to the reader in the form of citing statistics, linking to further reading, or backing up an important claim. They also fit naturally in the context of the article, and don’t stand out as abnormal or awkward. This will help you in several ways. Most notably, you’ll reduce the chances of catching a Google penalty. But you’ll also provide a more seamless experience for your readers, increasing your ability to generate referral traffic and reader engagements.

    Prioritize quality content

    As with first tier link building, your main priority should be writing high-quality content. It’s possible to build second tier links with forum comments and other low-quality methods, but content is your best bet. Good content makes your link more natural and better received by readers; it’s also a great way to flesh out your author profiles and earn a good reputation as an expert in your field. Poorly researched, poorly written, and otherwise “thin” content will rob your second tier links of their value.

    Optimize second tier links

    Second tier links serve a variety of purposes, so it’s only natural that you can optimize your strategy for a number of different goals. For example, if you’re mostly interested in boosting your authority, you can build second tier links with the intention of passing more authority. If you’re more interested in generating referral traffic, consider prioritizing second tier links to the highest traffic-generating first tier sources.

    Target your best primary sources

    With a backlink profile analysis, you should be able to figure out which of your first tier links are most valuable, both in terms of how much authority they pass and how much traffic they generate. For the most part, these should be your primary targets when building second tier links. However, there are also cases where it’s better to lend support to some of your underperforming links.

    Avoid over-linking

    Like with first tier link building, if you spam the same links over and over or rely on the same tactics, eventually you’re going to get red flagged as a spammer. It’s important to mix up your tactics, relying on a variety of different publishers and building a diversity of different links. Similarly, it’s important to vary your anchor text and link placement, making your links as natural as possible.

    Use a mix of link types

    We mentioned earlier that there are two main varieties of second tier link building; you can use standalone second tier links or a combination of second tier and first tier links in the same article. There are pros and cons to each of these approaches, so try to use a blend of both to capitalize on all the benefits while minimizing your risks.

    Embrace nofollow links

    Too many search engine optimizers avoid nofollow links as if they’re useless. Nofollow links, in case you aren’t familiar, are links marked with a “nofollow” tag, so Google won’t consider the authority they’d otherwise pass. This makes them ineffective for building your authority—but they’re still valuable for generating referral traffic, and they carry zero risk of attracting a Google penalty. Accordingly, you should consider throwing in some nofollow links occasionally, and don’t bail on a publisher if they only allow nofollow links.

    Avoid low quality sources

    Low quality publishers are rarely worth your time, even if they seem to have low barriers to entry. In a best-case scenario, you’ll get a small amount of authority and a bit of referral traffic. In a worst-case scenario, your link could earn you a Google penalty and your very presence on that publisher could harm your reputation. Instead, focus on the highest-quality sources you can, and if you’re having trouble getting published on them, work your way up to that level as soon as possible.

    Build your network

    Link building, is largely about relationship management. You need to carefully develop your reputation and presence as an author, and provide value to all the publishers in your network. Maintain relationships with those publishers, and gradually expand your network over time. In time, you’ll develop a following of readers, a more impressive portfolio of work, better relationships with publishers, and access to higher-quality publishers. Keep striving to improve in these areas.

    Avoid automated software

    Finally, steer clear of automated software. There are some companies claiming they can help you build links in an automated way, sometimes even generating content on your behalf. However, these methods tend to be highly unreliable. It’s easy for Google and other search engines to detect content that has been generated by an algorithm, and even easier to detect patterns of link spam. In most cases, you’ll only end up penalized for trying to use these tricks.


    With a better second tier link building strategy in place, you can increase the value of your primary links, ultimately increasing your domain- and page-level authority and increasing your total incoming traffic. If you’re interested in learning more about second tier links (or SEO in general), or if you’re ready to start a campaign of your own, contact SEO.co today for a free consultation!





    VP of Business Development at SEO Company
    Ryan Nead is the Vice President of Business Development at search engine optimization services company, SEO.co. Ryan has spent the last 10 years as a digital marketing consultant working with enterprise clients and top brands on digital marketing initiatives that drive digital results. He has worked with brands like Smashburger, Fatburger, PHH Mortgage and Con-Way (now XPO Logistics). He resides in Texas with his wife and three children.
    Ryan Nead