What is link building? A beginner's guide

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Links are one of the most important (if not most important) factors when it comes to Google determining your rank.

What is link building though? Can you do link building for free? How do you know it's actually working?

Whether you've been doing SEO for a while or have just dipped your toes into the wonderful world of Search Engine Optimization you have probably come across the term 'link building'.

We're going to dive deep into link building, backlinks, and more in this guide to show you how to use links to improve your rank and drive more traffic to your website.

While link building may have a reputation for being difficult, I hope this guide will show you it's quite manageable.

What is link building

Link building is the process of acquiring links to your content. There are two types of links: internal links and external links.

Internal links are links within your site. These could be links that connect related pages to guide visitors, and Google, through your website. Internal links are great for leading visitors deeper into your site, and showing a strong site construction to Google.

External links are also called backlinks, these are links from other websites to your own. Backlinks are one of the most influential signals to Google about the quality and authority of your website.

There are many techniques you can use in developing a link building strategy. Most SEOs (and I agree with this 100%) feel that link building is the hardest part of their job.


Because a lot of things in SEO are completely under your control. You can optimize your website. You can research keywords. You can create content. Link building is different though: it depends on other people and how effective your outreach efforts are.

Don't be discouraged though!

You do not need some expensive software or high priced consultant to build quality links (thought it can help). With consistent effort and a solid strategy in place you can begin building links and improve your rank.

It may take some time, but the reward is well worth the effort. Now about these internal vs external links, we'll get to these in a minute but first let's dig into why link building is so important for SEO.

Why link building is important for SEO

Links are one of the most influential signals to Google about the authority of your website.

They are so important that they were featured heavily in Google's original page rank algorithm and continue to be important to this day.

Where Google was revolutionary as a search engine, is the fact that they took cues from how many websites a page had links from, rather than just the on page content. Google sees links as 'votes', the more links going back to your website the more votes your content has as quality.

Google also uses links as a way to understand your content better. By analyzing content of the previous page and the anchor text in the link back to your page, Google can understand your content better and rank it appropriately.

What kind of links are helpful?

Not all links are helpful in bolstering your rank. Some might even detract from your SEO efforts!

Don't worry though, we'll break down the key areas to focus on in obtaining links to your website. There are a series of criteria to look for in quality links, so let's go through them one by one.

Links with authority

What would you rather have, a link from The New York Times or a link from some random blog.

Yeah, I'd go with the Times too.

Not just because it has a much bigger audience. Larger publications and well-known sites just have more authority than your run of the mill blog. When they link to you, that's a big vote of confidence in the quality of your content, and Google pays close attention.

Links that are relevant

It's not all about authority though, relevancy matters too.

If the source linking to you is not relevant, the SEO benefit the link provides is going to be pretty minimal. That's because Google is adept at understanding what a piece of content is about and takes relevancy into consideration.

Here's what an ex-Google employee has to say on the subject:

Not only this but take PageRank for example, getting a link from a high PageRank page used to always be valuable, today it’s more the relevance of the site’s theme in regards to yours, relevance is the new PageRank.

Link that are placed in the main content

You may be surprised to find that it matters where the links directing back to your site are placed.

Links that are intentionally and thoughtfully placed matter more than links slotted in at the bottom of the page. These well-placed links are called editorial links and they matter a great deal to Google:

The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community.

Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.

Google's Webmaster documentation

In fact evidence shows that links placed elsewhere from the main content, like the page footer or side bar, just aren't that valuable when compared to smack dab in the middle of the page.

What's more, the amount of links on the page matters. The more links on the page the less importance your link is given, meaning the less authority will be passed on to your website.

Focus on earning links that are intentionally placed in the natural flow of the on page content. If you can't earn a link there, keep trying and continue refining your content until you do.

No follow vs Do follow links

As if things could not get more complicated, here we are.

There are these things called do follow and no follow links, and the difference between them is very important when it comes to how much SEO benefit (or link juice) you get.

Do follow links. Do follow links are links that tell search engines to follow to the linked page and analyze it. Links are do follow links by default (which is good news!) however there are cases where links are automatically no follow.

No follow links No follow links are links that tell search engines not to follow through to the linked page, these provide no (or minimal) SEO benefit to you. Links from social sites, blog comments, forums, and the like are always no follow. This is to prevent abuse of those platforms and Google's algorithm.

Here's what a no follow link looks like in HTML form:

Simple (and free) link building strategies

This all might sound complicated, but hang in there with me! There are some free, and simple, strategies you can use to build up the links to your site and give your content a rankings boost.

Build internal links in your website

Internal links are the easiest links you can control, and will lend a nice rankings boost when done well.

Internal links are links within your website, and while most people focus on external links (also called backlinks or inbound links), internal links can be an excellent way to help improve your site structure and optimize it for Google's crawlers.

Internal links help tie your content together and demonstrate to your site visitors, and Google, that your content is comprehensive. By internally linking to other pages it shows you have a vast library of content that goes in depth into all aspects of a topic -- and that is exactly what Google is looking for when it comes to finding quality content to put on the first page.

Tips on building internal links for your website

Map out your content. Start by assessing the content on your website - I like to organize each page of my site into an excel spreadsheet so I can break up my pages by primary site pages, blog pages, and landing pages. This allows you to take inventory of your content and prepare for the next step.

Assign a focus keyword/topic to each piece of content. Now that you've got all your content mapped out it's time to set a topic for each piece of content on your site. It could be a keyword or key phrase - anything to summarize and encapsulate the post. Once you've got this set we can move on to the next task.

Group the related pieces of content and build links between them. Now that your content is organized and assigned to a keyword, try to group your content by topic. For us we may have posts on how to set up Google Analytics, how to lower your bounce rate, and the best Google Analytics dashboards - these are all related under a broader topic of 'Google Analytics' and as a result they should link to each other.

This is an excellent strategy to immediately start leveling up your content with internal links.

Reach out to other websites to earn backlinks

Ah backlinks: one of the best ways to drastically improve your rankings.

Backlinks are links from other websites to your own website, they are 'votes' that signal to Google (and people browsing the web) that you know your stuff.

Earning backlinks from a high quality website is the holy grail for SEOs and marketers alike, so how do you do it? It begins with quality content. Without high quality content you have nothing for people to link to, so before you start building out a massive outreach strategy start by laying the foundation for a bank of content on your website.

From there, it's a matter of finding websites to earn links from. How do you do that? Here are a few tips:

Create "Link Bait'

Just like click bait entices you to click through, link bait grabs the attention of other websites and encourages them to link to you.

How do you do that? Not by writing a run of the mill blog post (like an intro guide to Link Building (cough, cough)). You create link bait by creating an in depth and highly unique piece of content.

It could be a unique collection of power words, a photo library, or some original research that you've done. Perhaps it's a massive survey you ran, or the results from a series of interviews. Whatever it is, it has to be unique and worth someone's time to link to it.

Most blog articles are written about something and use research as evidence to back up their point. By creating that evidence yourself you stand to earn far more links than you would with any typical blog posts.

In many ways, link bait is what Google had in mind in using links as votes for content. It's high-quality original content in its purest form.

Find pages linking to a broken resource

This is an extremely common and efficient way to build backlinks.

As the web changes, websites come and go meaning the sites some pages are linking to may not be active. Perhaps the company went out of business or the webpage was accidentally deleted.

Either way a page is linking to a dead link and that is an opportunity for the tenacious link builder!

Simple create a resource that matches the dead link, reach out to the webmaster calling their attention to the error and offer your page to link to in its place.

You save the webmaster some potential embarrassment, and earn a backlink - everyone wins!

Get listed in a resource page

Resource pages are a sort of directory page linking out to other pages under a core topic.

These are built specifically to link to external pages, they're an excellent target when it comes to outreach in earning a link.

I know I said the amount of links on a page matters, but that doesn't mean to write these pages off. They're just a bit lower on the list of priorities as the return won't quite be as high as the other types of links.

Get interviewed

You don't always have to create content to earn a link, sometimes you just need to get your name out there.

Podcasts are all the rage nowadays, and by appearing as a guest in one you can easily pick up a link from the podcast's website or show notes. It's a simple way to build your own personal brand and earn a link from a website in your niche - win win!

Black hat links and penalties to watch out for

Before we end with a clear roadmap to link building success, we must warn you about the dangers of black hat SEO and potentials penalties for black hat links.

Black hat SEO and links are anything that goes against Google's webmaster guidelines. Essentially, any quick fix or attempt to get ahead and game the system. Google is smart, and will catch up to black hat tactics eventually -- even if not immediately.

Google cares so much about this that they dedicated a whole algorithm update to it: Google Penguin.

What is Google Penguin?

Google Penguin is the code name for an update to Google's algorithm back in 2012. The aim of the update was to decrease the rankings of websites that violated Google's Webmaster Guidelines via black hat techniques.

The effects of Penguin were felt around the search world. Around 3% of queries in English were affected - that sound small but remember there are millions upon millions of queries per day.

How to work around Google Penguin

The best way to work around Google Penguin is to not do shady sh*t.

Build white hat links. Create high quality original content. Studies from Ahrefs show you can dodge penguin by minimizing exact match anchor text which just means not having the anchor text be the exact keyword you want the article to rank for.

At the end of the day, all you can do is focus on building up a quality website full of good content worthy of being linked to.

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