As marketers, we’ve all been in the difficult position of feeling like we’re doing everything right—yet the results just aren’t going in our favor. In the realm of search engine optimization (SEO), and especially the sub-field of link building, this feeling creeps up often; these are complex tactics with hundreds of variables, so when things go wrong or when your results grow stagnant, it’s hard to tell exactly where the problem lies.
Fortunately, with a bit of digging—and the help of this guide—you should be able to uncover at least a few of the issues plaguing your link building campaign.
First, let’s talk about how link building is supposed to “work” in the first place, and the various ways that link building can go wrong. By now, you’re familiar with link building basics, if you’ve read my guide, SEO Link Building: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide—you understand the goal is to establish or earn links pointing back to your domain to reap the benefits of increased authority and traffic—so how can you tell if your strategy is working or not?
Link permanence. Nothing on the internet is truly permanent—at least, that we know of—but for the most part, the links you build should seem that way. One of the biggest advantages of link building is its capacity for accumulation; since all your links remain in place indefinitely, they’ll continue paying dividends of traffic and building on each other’s authority to improve your campaign further and further over time.If your links are getting removed, or if they’re otherwise unable to fulfill that duty, your link building campaign can’t possibly work.
Increasing referral traffic. Link building should also increase your referral traffic; each new link you build serves as another portal to your site, and if that portal is relevant to your audience, at least a portion of your readers should be inclined to click through. As you build more links on higher-authority sources and continue reaping value from your old links, your total referral traffic should be on a trend of constant incline.If your growth slows to a negligible crawl, or worse, if your traffic starts to actively decline, you have a problem on your hands.
Increasing domain authority and organic traffic. Similarly, as you progress in your link building efforts, you should see both increasing domain authority and organic traffic growth. Domain authority growth is an indication that you’re building positive momentum with the number and diversity of links you build to your site, and you can calculate that figure using Moz’s Open Site Explorer or a similar tool.If your domain authority becomes stagnant or starts to decline, it’s a sign that your campaign is in jeopardy. If your domain authority is rising, your organic traffic should also start to rise, since your overall search rankings will rise; if it doesn’t, something isn’t working correctly.
New opportunities and reputation growth. Throughout your link building campaign, you should be met with a steady stream of new opportunities and the growth of your reputation. That means, you should gradually work your way up to bigger and higher-authority publishers; if you find yourself trapped in the same handful of publishers you started with, you’re doing something wrong.Though reputation is linked to this upward momentum, it’s a distinct concept that’s much harder to measure; if you feel you aren’t establishing your brand as an authority in the industry, it could be a sign your link building isn’t working as well.
These general problems all indicate that something is probably wrong with your campaign. Even if you’re earning value in some areas, a disruption of growth in any other area is enough to warrant closer inspection; detecting and correcting the issues within your campaign can always make it stronger.
That said, there are many different possible issues to address, so I’m splitting them into two main groups: high-level and ground-level issues.
First up are high-level issues; these are general problems with your approach, your overarching strategy, and your means of execution. They aren’t specific to any one aspect of your campaign, but can affect almost all aspects of your campaign when they exist.
One of the most effective ways to build links is creating guest content to be featured on off-site publications; this provides context for your link, gives you a good excuse to be featured on high-authority sites, and gives you a recurring platform for development. However, if you can’t find your way onto a publisher’s site, which is usually the case, then this option is closed for you. I wrote an in-depth guide on how to become a contributor at major media publications, called The Ultimate, Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your Business by Guest Blogging.
Rejection is to be expected with this strategy; no matter how authoritative you are or how strong your pitches are, some publishers just won’t be interested in what you have to offer. But if you find yourself rejected consistently, and unable to land your first guest spot or advance to another publisher, you won’t be able to progress.
There are a few possible influencing factors here:
Status and reputation. First, your status and/or reputation may not be sufficient to land you a guest spot. Publisher standards vary from highly restrictive to universally open, but if you don’t have a portfolio of content to demonstrate your abilities, or a sufficient online presence to prove your background and expertise, you may still face rejection. You can overcome this obstacle by spending more time on your personal brand, building up your social media profiles and following, and developing more content on your own personal blog.If you have a handful of strong, original pieces of content to show off, and an impressive follower count, you should be able to make an impression with a first line of publishers. For help, see 101 Ways to Get More Social Media Followers.
Publisher choice. If you have a decent reputation already in place but you’re still facing rejection, consider your choice in publishers. If you’re targeting high-authority publishers that cater to a national audience of experts without the credentials to back up your work, you’ll have a hard time getting accepted.Consider starting by targeting lower-authority publishers, more local publishers, or publishers more closely related to your niche. You can always work your way up to bigger publishers as you build a stronger reputation for yourself.
Pitches. Even a questionable reputation can be overcome if your pitches are strong enough—and conversely, even if you have a strong reputation, a set of bad pitches can earn you a rejection.When writing pitches, make sure you’re talking to the right person; find the editor of the given publication, or at least someone you know to be affiliated with the blog. Keep things light, personal, and concise in your introductory email, and don’t waste their time with flattery or a template you copy and pasted from another source.Make it clear that you understand their publication, and come up with two or three original ideas that their audience would genuinely like to read, describing them in just enough detail to get the point across.
Content quality can affect your campaign in a number of different ways; content quality can indirectly affect the strength of your link, it can affect which publishers accept you, and it can even determine whether your link stays in place or gets removed. Of course, content quality is an important factor for many aspects of SEO, so low-quality work will practically guarantee the ineffectiveness of your link building campaign.
There are hundreds of variables and considerations that relate to content quality, but these are some of the most important with respect to your link building campaign:
Depth, conciseness, and wording. “Quality” is a vague term that refers to many dimensions of written work, including depth, conciseness, and the eloquence of your wording. Deeper pieces almost universally perform better for link building; “deep” pieces are ones that incorporate lots of outside research, and dig into the details of a given topic. This makes them more likely to get published, earn attention, and attract inbound links.Conciseness refers to the piece’s ability to convey as much information as possible in as few words as possible—in other words, making good use of your space. Wording is the most subjective quality; you’ll want to use a diverse vocabulary, but never extending beyond a high school reading level (for most publishers).You’ll also want to vary your short and long sentences to build cadence, and write as clearly and specifically as possible.
Relevance to publisher audiences. Even eloquently written pieces won’t make it to publication if they don’t speak to your publisher’s audience. You’ll need to do your research to fully understand each publisher you write for, and propose topics that appeal specifically to their target audience.Though the relationship is mutually beneficial, the publisher has more power in this relationship, so you need to prove that your content is worth the effort to publish, and make your editor’s job as easy as possible.
Thought leadership and engagement. On top of that, you’ll need to write pieces that people haven’t seen before, and push the boundaries of your industry by stating new opinions and presenting new information. Thought leadership distinguishes you from the hundreds of other writers in your niche competing for space, and makes your work far more attractive to prospective publishers.It also helps if you can make your pieces more engaging—that is, make them more interactive, or make them encourage action and discussion. More engaging pieces generate more readers, which in turn build your reputation and promote your work further.
Imbalance of Building and Earning
You might also experience stagnation in your link building campaign if you have an imbalance between building and earning links. Thus far, I’ve mostly focused on manual link building, but it’s important to remember that link earning can be just as valuable.
While link building requires you to target new link locations and build them yourself, link earning is a process of trying to earn links naturally by creating and promoting amazing, linkable content on your own site.
Link earning is advantageous because it employs a more hands-off approach, and because all the links you earn here will automatically be “natural,” meaning you shouldn’t have to worry about quality issues or penalties related to link manipulation. However, growth in link earning is much more difficult to predict or control—and even if your content is truly astounding, there’s no guarantee it’s going to earn links for you.
Link building, by contrast, is more controllable and conducive to strategic direction. However, it doesn’t have the same explosive potential as link earning. Accordingly, the best link building strategy incorporates elements of both building and earning (skewing toward building if you’re serious about achieving consistent growth). Any imbalance here can skew your results and leave your link building strategy less effective.
A lack of diversity in your link building campaign could also be to blame for a non-flourishing strategy. You need to rely on a number of different sources, internal destinations for your links, and tactics throughout your campaign to see the best results; a show of diversity makes your links seem more natural, and exposes you to a wider audience, which in turn helps you see better returns on both domain authority and referral traffic.
It also gives you more practice with a wider range of publishers, giving you more experience and flexibility that you can use in future endeavors.
Diversity is important in multiple dimensions of link building:
Source diversity. When you build your first link on a new external source, you’ll get a boost of authority passed to your domain. However, when you build a second link on the same source, you’ll see a much lower return.Any subsequent links you build there will have an even lower return (though you’ll still see benefits from the referral traffic you gain). Accordingly, it’s in your best interest to diversify the sources you use, seeking new sources whenever possible.If you’ve only been relying on the same handful of sources, you’re bound to see a plateau in your returns.
Destination diversity. Source diversity is important, but so is the diversity of links you actually build on those pages. Each link you build passes authority both to your overall domain and to the individual page it’s targeting; you can use this to your advantage by building multiple links to a particular page you’d like to emphasize.However, if you rely exclusively on one blog post or one internal page, eventually, you’ll run into problems; your other pages won’t have as much authority, and won’t succeed as easily, and your links will begin to look unnatural, making them more likely to be removed or be discounted from Google’s ranking algorithm.
Exchanges and relationships. There’s generally no harm in building links on the same source over a prolonged period of time, so long as you have other sources in your wheelhouse.However, you still have to be wary of link exchanges; if your site and another site constantly link to each other, with little diversity on either side, you could be accused of participating in a link scheme, designed to manipulate your ranking unnaturally, and at the expense of users.
Timing. Finally, you need to work on the spread of your timing with how and when you build links. Instead of clustering a dozen links to build at the start of every month, consider spreading them out to build three or four every week. Instead of following a rigid routine of when to add a new post to each publisher site, try to follow a looser, more variable schedule.Even, random-looking timing will seem more natural to search engines, and give you a more even spread of traffic and authority boosts, which will both help your campaign grow more steadily.
Pacing and Scale
The scale and pacing of your operation is important to consider; by “scale,” I’m referring both to your frequency of building links and the number of high-tier publishers you use, and by “pacing,” I’m referring to how quickly or slowly you increase that frequency.
If you scale too slowly—in other words, if you spend too much time on low-authority publishers, building one link at a time—you’ll reach a plateau before long, and you’ll be stuck there until you make the investment to grow more quickly. However, there’s also a danger in growing too quickly; if you try to reach out to high-level publishers before you’ve built a decent level of authority yourself, you’ll end up facing more rejection than acceptance, rendering your efforts useless.
The extremes are dangerous here, so your best bet is to set a clear path forward, gradually increasing the number of links you build as well as the quality of sources you use to build them. It’s difficult to find this balance, but if you set both long-term and short-term goals, and keep inching your efforts forward, you’ll eventually settle into the right pace.
Even if your link building campaign is conceptually flawless, there’s a chance you’ll see worse returns on your investment if there’s significant competition interfering with your work. If a competitor is building the same types of links you are (or better ones), for example, they may rival your rankings, making it nearly impossible for you to advance and keeping your organic traffic consistent (despite increasing investments in your work).
Earlier, I made reference to Moz’s Open Site Explorer, a tool used to monitor the domain authority and inbound links for practically any domain on the web. In the previous context, I recommended you use it to calculate your own authority, but you can also use it to see a competitor’s authority (as well as what types of links they’re building).
If you can identify your key competitor culprits, noting their positions in search queries you’re currently targeting, you can use this tool to investigate how they’re building links, and decide whether they’re the ones stifling your campaign growth.
If they are, there are several potential solutions. The easiest path forward is avoidance, steering clear of the most brutal competition by investing in other keyword targets and link sources that your competitors don’t touch. You could also invest more time and money into your highest-profile targets to assert your dominance, but the chances of succeeding are lower, and the costs are higher, so judge the benefits carefully before proceeding.
Knowledge and Adjustments
One of the most common mistakes I see in link building is not paying close enough attention to your costs and benefits. If you don’t know whether or not your strategies are effective, how can you set yourself up for success long-term? How can you know how and when to make improvements?
The real danger here is that the people making this mistake often don’t even realize they’re making it; they neglect the importance of tracking their link building efforts, don’t know which stats are most important to measure, and ultimately are blind to the full potential results they could be seeing if they spent more time measuring and analyzing their work.
There are many variables to consider when calculating the ROI of your campaign, including your total traffic figures, conversion rates, and profit margins, as well as the total costs of your efforts. But with consistent reporting (at least once a month) and a firm understanding of your most essential metrics, you should be able to forecast your results, interpret which of your efforts are effective and ineffective, and use that information to make meaningful improvements to your campaign.
Next, there are the ground-level issues. These are problems that develop despite having a solid direction for your campaign. They may be a result of a mismatch between your strategy and execution, mistakes, or inefficiencies that prevent you from getting the full value from your campaign.
Choosing bad sources is a problem that can ruin an otherwise solid link building campaign. In the early stages of your campaign, a “bad” link to your site can make it harder to build a baseline authority. In the later stages of your campaign, with a tight network of high quality links, a bad link can halt your momentum, or even attract a penalty, setting you back several steps.
So how can you tell if a source is bad?
Authority. The most obvious type of bad link is a link from a very low authority site. You’ll note that earlier, I actually encouraged you to build links from low authority sources (when guest posting) if you’re having trouble getting attention from high authority sources, since it’s easier than building one on a high authority source; I used the term relatively in that instance.The worst sites—ones with a domain authority score below 20, or those with a history of spammy tactics or bad content—can actually do more harm than good if they link to your site. Bottom-feeders are usually easy to spot, and therefore easy to avoid, but if you build links there, you could end up sabotaging your own site’s authority.Similarly, if you spend too much time or effort on low but reasonable authority sites, you might trap yourself at a low authority and be unable to progress. Choose your sources carefully. For help, see my article, The 7 Characteristics That Can Make A Link “Bad” For SEO.
Relevance. During the early stages of your campaign, you’ll also want to keep the relevance of your sources in mind. Each link you build should be on a publisher site that has some degree of relevance to what you do; for example, if you run a marketing business, anything related to marketing and advertising would do just fine.As you develop more authority and create more diverse content for your main site, you’ll be able to expand the range of publishers you can reasonably work with. If you spend too much time on non-relevant sources, creating content that doesn’t fall in line with your expertise, you might reach a standstill.
History. It’s important to judge each new potential source individually, evaluating it based on its authority, relevance, and other merits, but you should also pay attention to your history with other sites.For example, have you linked from this site in the past many times? It may be time to move on to a bigger and better site. Could your relationship with a given site be interpreted as a link exchange scheme? Consider sticking to nofollow links for a while. This is related to the importance of campaign diversity I mentioned in the previous section.
Google doesn’t tolerate any tactics it believes to be spam, or a deliberate intention to manipulate your rankings without benefitting the general audience of web users. It judges links based on their merits, or their usefulness to readers; if a link is found to be unnecessary, irrelevant, or otherwise useless, it could be considered a “bad” link. If that’s the case, your publisher will have clear grounds to remove the link, and if they don’t, you could end up facing a Google penalty.
These are some of the most common spam-like tactics marketers use—if you’ve participated in any of the following strategies, it could be the reason your campaign isn’t progressing:
Links without content. There’s a reason guest posts are such a popular means of link building; Google (and web users) want their links to mean something. They want context for the links, and a clear, straightforward reason why they should click them. If a link is introduced with a paragraph of text explaining its value, or as a citation for an important statistic, it’s clear why the link needs to exist.If it’s standing by itself as an entry, or if it otherwise doesn’t have any content for context, it’s clearly promotional and unnecessary. It’s unlikely that any respectable publishers will let you get away with this tactic. This is most commonly seen in comment spam, where users try to leave a comment on a relevant story that consists solely of a link. Spammers often use automated methods for distributing these comments to a massive array of sites, where some of them inevitably stick.Not only is this an extremely ancient method of link building, it will only harm your efforts. Don’t let any website or person convince you this is a good idea.
Forum comments. Forum comments used to be one of the best ways to build links to your site; you could answer a question or provide some information on a relevant thread, and include a link pointing back to your site to cite the information or redirect the user.However, modern tactics have rendered such comments obsolete; forum moderators and other users are stricter with self-promotional content, so if you post a link too often, or even if you post just one link before you’ve established yourself as a valuable contributor to the community, your link will likely be removed or your entire account could get banned.Forum comment links can be useful for driving referral traffic, but shouldn’t be considered useful for an SEO campaign.
Paid links. Google’s terms of service forbids you from paying other sites to place your links unless that link is clearly marked as “sponsored” and tagged with the nofollow If you’ve done this, it could be the reason why your campaign isn’t progressing.There are some interesting possible exceptions to this, however; for example, if you donate money to a charity and they feature a link to your site to highlight your donation, you’re unlikely to face a penalty.It’s also perfectly fine to work with an agency (such as SEO.co) to pay for them to develop content that carries a link to your site, then help you pitch that content to various media outlets. This is, after all, quite similar to what any PR agency does.
Other link schemes. Google has an extensive list of link schemes that it considers to be a breach of its terms of service, including link exchanges, paid links, link circles, and automated link building efforts.If you used any of these as a shortcut to build your authority rapidly, you made a mistake; these could actively interfere with your ability to build your site’s authority.
Note that it’s unlikely that you accidentally participated in any of these spammy tactics; if you used them deliberately, knowing the risks involved, it should be clear that they were a contributing factor to the stagnation or reversal of your campaign momentum.
Publisher Link Removal
You might be seeing a decline in your link building returns if your publishers have a habit of removing your links before or after your content is published. This is a factor that’s easy to observe and check for; do a manual review of any content you’ve submitted to external publishers, and look to see whether the links you originally included in your content are still present.
If more than a few of them have been removed, this could be part of the problem. A link removed before publication will never contribute to your authority, and a link removed after publication will negate any authority you may have originally gained from it.
There are a few good reasons why a publisher might remove your links, and they’re all preventable:
Context. If your link doesn’t seem like it fits with the rest of your content, or if it doesn’t add value to the piece, it’s going to be removed. For example, if the only link in your piece is to your website, that’s grounds for removal.If the link isn’t necessary to improve a reader’s understanding of the work, or doesn’t back up a fact or claim you make, there’s no reason for it to exist. You might also see your link remove if it isn’t relevant to the overall work, or if your anchor text doesn’t seem natural. For help understanding what makes a link stick, see my article How to Properly Include Links and Penguin-Safe Anchor Text in Your Guest Blogs.
Content quality. Consider what pages you’re linking to as well—your editor will be visiting every link in your article to make sure they’re high quality. If you link to a page of your website that has very little content, it’s probably going to be removed.If you link to a product page, or a page that’s exceptionally promotional, you might also set yourself up for removal. You can correct this and prevent this by striving to link only to your best-researched, best-written, and most relevant onsite content.
Publisher standards. Some editors are just plain picky, especially at the higher publisher authority levels. If you’ve been link building a long time, and you notice a greater percentage of your links being removed by higher-level publishers, it may not be a result of anything you’ve done wrong; it could just be a result of evolving, higher journalism standards at those publications.If that’s the case, you can step up the quality of your content even further, or work on finding new, more amenable publishers to round out your sources.
I also want to point out that your efficiency has a bearing on your overall results as well. You may be seeing a respectable increase in your organic and referral traffic, but if you’re hemorrhaging money to make it happen, you might not consider your efforts to be “working.”
Take a close look at how you’re spending money, including:
How much money you spend. You might be tempted to believe that spending less is a good idea, since you’ll have fewer costs to offset your returns. However, lower-cost services and low-level employees are more likely to make rookie mistakes.You’re better off dedicating a sizable portion of your SEO budget to link building—so long as you spend it wisely.
Who you’re spending money with. Whether you’re hiring someone full-time, or working with a link building agency, do some background research before you hand over the reins of your campaign. Look for someone with ample experience, and services and/or guarantees to back up their work.
How your efforts are paying off. Are there specific tactics that work better than others? If you’re wasting money on underperforming tactics, you could end up with a mismatch between your investments and results, ultimately leading you to a poor-performing campaign.
These aren’t the only issues you could be facing. You could also have trouble with:
Publisher issues. If you end up with publishers who are difficult to please, or if a major publisher goes under (taking all your links down with it), it could interfere with your campaign’s effectiveness. Hedging your bets by working with a diversity of publishers can mitigate your risk here, but there will always be a chance that strict, unconventional, or poor-performing publishers get in the way of what are otherwise solid link building practices.
Brand issues. If you’re building good links and writing good content on good publication sites, but you aren’t generating much referral traffic, you might have standing brand issues that have nothing to do with your link building tactics; for example, if your brand has poor customer service, or a bad reputation for other reasons, it’s going to be especially difficult to make up for that with offsite content alone.
SEO issues. Remember, link building is just one of many components to an effective SEO campaign. If you have other SEO issues, such as thin on-site content or poor direction with your target keywords, even a great link building strategy may not be able to compensate for those weaknesses. Make sure you do a thorough SEO audit before you blame link building for your organic traffic stagnation.
The Biggest Overarching Problems
You’re likely reading this guide because your link building campaign isn’t getting you the results you wanted (or maybe you just want to ensure you don’t make any of the mistakes that commonly cause poor results). I’ve covered many different potential issues on this list, but most of them can be categorized into one of the following broad categories:
Investing too little. If you don’t put in enough time, money, and effort, you aren’t going to get impressive results. Link building is a science and an art that demands commitment if you want to see a return.
Emphasizing quantity over quality. That said, you can’t invest in heavy frequency or rapid expansion and expect to see the best results. Quality is far more important than quantity, and you have to work hard to ensure your content, link placement, and publisher relationships remain as strong as possible.
Jumping in too quickly. If you start link building before you understand how it works, or if you try to scale too quickly, you’ll end up making a critical mistake or overextending your resources. Take your time, learn as much as you can, and be patient as you develop your campaign.
Failing to measure and adjust. This is crucial. You need to be able to measure your results so you can understand how your individual efforts add up—and figure out what you need to adjust in the future. Without this information, you won’t be able to conclude whether or not your campaign is working—and if it isn’t, you’ll never figure out how to correct it. For help, see The Ultimate Guide to Measuring and Analyzing ROI On Your Content Marketing Campaign.
If you’re still struggling to get your link building campaign in order, you may be in need of some outside direction. For a free consultation on your efforts thus far, and a recommendation of where to go next, be sure to contact us today!
Timothy Carter is the CRO for SEO.co/. Since 1997 he's been helping businesses maximize their sales revenue from websites via content marketing, SEO and Internet Marketing strategies. Over the years he's written for publications like Marketing Land, Search Engine Journal, MarketingProfs and other highly respected online publications.