Link building is a critical element of a successful SEO strategy, but let’s face it: actually building links can really suck the wind out of your sails sometimes.
People talk about backlinks like they are the gold standard of SEO and there’s no way to rank without them. To add insult to injury, they also flood the web with a host of backlink tactics that haven't worked since 2010.
Well, let’s set the record straight.
No, link building is not the end-all be-all of SEO, but yes it is important and you can still successfully build links. You just need to update your approach a bit.
In this guide we’ll cover:
While link building may have a reputation for being difficult, we hope this guide will show you it's quite manageable.
Link building is the process of acquiring links to your content. There are two types of links you can acquire:
Internal links are links within your site. These are the easy ones, they 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.
Link building is important because the number of backlinks you have to your website sends a very strong signal to Google as to how important your website is.
If many websites are linking to your website, and if some of those websites are important, then Google will think that your website is important and rank it higher in search results.
Backlinks are so important to that they were featured heavily in Google's original page rank algorithm and continue to be important to this day. This is what made Google so revolutionary as a search engine and adept at understanding what content was quality and what content was not.
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.
It also opened the door for a great deal of abuse - we’ll get to that later though.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As if things could not get more complicated, here we are.
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:
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.
These are all tactics that we have personally used with clients, and coach them on developing.
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.
Here are some quick tips for success:
This is an excellent tactic to immediately start leveling up your content with internal links.
HARO (help a reporter out) has been an old favorite for those seeking to be featured in authoritative websites and news articles, however HAB2BW (help a b2b writer) is a newer player on the scene that works in a similar way.
Both sites allow you to subscribe to an email digest where you can review daily requests to be quoted in an article. HARO leans more towards news publications whereas HAB2BW leans more towards b2b websites.
Both can be very effective channels for earning backlinks, though these do take time to keep on top of and your chances at success can be limited depending on your niche.
The old strategy of writing a blog post and mass emailing for backlinks just doesn’t work anymore.
Because most people get bombarded with generic blog content asking for a link, and they're a lot smarter now than they were 10 years ago. Let's be honest: no one wants to link to that blog post, so rather than create generic content that anyone can find create a unique piece of content that people actually want to link to.
Enter, the link magnet,
A link magnet is a highly attractive piece of content that someone would want to link to. When you’re writing, think about the times you linked to another website.
It was probably:
A link magnet is a piece of content that you can create that fulfills those requirements. Maybe it’s original data that you can pull together from your customers or a survey. Maybe it’s an interview with an industry leader.
Whatever it is, it needs to be something that is unique and cannot easily be reproduced by someone else. Some example link magnets we've dreamed up in the past include:
Not only does this increase the chances that someone will want to link to it, but if it ranks then it will continue to build links as time goes on. This becomes an evergreen link building machine for your website that continues to pay dividends as time goes on.
Guest posting is an excellent tried and true tactic to earning backlinks, however most people go about it the wrong way.
I get dozens (literally) of emails each week asking for a guest post. All of these emails come from people I have never heard from, and many are clearly auto-generated (some are even riddled with typos, no thank you I don’t want that on my website).
From experience, I have found that the best way to earn a guest post on a website is to build a relationship with that person. Actually invest in your niche, build relationships with websites similar to yours (though non-competing if possible, it’s usually easier that way) and nurture those relationships to a point where a guest post seems more like a favor than a request.
Strong relationships are the single best source of quality guest posts in my opinion.
One unique area of opportunity is a paid sponsorship. I know, don’t pay for backlinks - except this can and does work.
If you have a business that is local, or want to invest in your local community, sponsoring an event is a great way to acquire a quality link. As for what type of sponsorship, that’s where you can get creative.
A client of ours sells insoles online, so we decided to purchase sponsorships for road races in their home state. This led to us acquiring 5 high quality backlinks for a relatively low cost (around $100 - $200 each) which gave them a boost in referring domains and a strong start to the year in traffic.
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.
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.
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.
Link building is a key piece of an effective SEO strategy, but it’s only one piece.
While folks in SEO will say that links are the only thing that matters, we disagree. Backlinks are important, but they cannot make up for a poor SEO strategy. A good SEO strategy serves as the foundation that a link building strategy can elevate, however without a good SEO strategy in place you'll run the risk of losing all your hard earned work.
Building an effective SEO strategy can be hard though, and it requires a lot more than a simple keyword list and a series of blog posts. Fill out the form below to get our complete SEO strategy framework which will show you how to think critically and strategically about SEO. We've taken dozens of companies through the exact framework we outlined in the book below, and we're confident it will help you grow your traffic this year.
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