Everything you need to know to increase search traffic, leads and bottom line results through quality link building
What You'll Learn
Links and Search
Link building is the search engine optimization (SEO) practice of acquiring backlinks to gain authority and trust to ultimately improve your rankings within search engines.
A backlink is simply a link back to your website from another website. Backlinks are acquired by pitching relevant, uniquely useful content to other websites (i.e., blogs, publications, and industry authorities).
Link building is a vital component of any SEO strategy. There are literally hundreds of factors that affect rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs), yet you’ll be hard-pressed to rank without a robust backlink profile.
We’ll even go so far as to say this:
Your business will not rank in SERPs if you do not continually build relevant, quality links to uniquely helpful content on your site. All other factors being equal, links are the deciding factor when search engines choose which sites to rank—and which ones to bury 100 pages back.
But in order to gain a big-picture understanding of why link building is important to your business’ bottom line, you first need to understand:
We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started.
Search engines like Google use a complex algorithm — called PageRank — to decide which web pages to display in SERPs. Over the years, this algorithm has become smarter and smarter, producing more and more accurate answers to a myriad of questions.
While Google holds the precise inner-workings of its algorithm close to its vest, marketers have a good idea of the factors the algorithm takes into account when ranking pages through experimental data and information about all of Google’s major algorithm updates.
The algorithm is based on 200+ factors, but it essentially comes down to this:
All factors being equal, the key to ranking is good content plus a robust backlink profile.
Here’s how the algorithm, crawlers, and SERPs work in practice:
Hint: It has a lot to do with $$$$
Okay, okay. So links are great for navigating the web and communicating trust and authority. It makes sense for links to be a Google ranking factor, but why are links so heavily weighted in Google’s search engine algorithm?
It’s actually pretty simple: money. And lots of it.
Google’s traffic comes for organic (unpaid) search, but Google makes money off advertisements (paid search).
In order to maintain the continual stream of search traffic that pays its bills, Google needs to give users a good reason to return — carefully curated organic results that exactly satisfy searcher intent. Then it sells potential “clicks” to advertisers.
User experience (UX) is at the epicenter of how Google makes money and ultimately dictates its algorithm (the method Google uses to rank websites). Without providing a good user experience, Google would risk losing some search engine traffic due to frustration and, in turn, lose money.
Refining the algorithm is how it continually improves the accuracy of the results it provides year over year. Google has found that backlink profiles are the best barometer for the value and authority of a website and its content.
Sites don’t link to just anything—they’ll link to useful, relevant, or authoritative content. The more industry-relevant sites linking to a page, the more likely that site has helpful, relevant content that will provide a good experience to the user.
A site’s link profile tells a story about how trustworthy and informative its content is. Google looks to each link as a “vote of confidence” — the more votes you have, the more likely you’ll win a first-page SERP spot.
As Search Engine Watch so eloquently put it:
“Links aren’t valuable because of Google, Google is valuable because of its use of links.”
Links are how people navigate the web; they’d be valuable with or without Google. Google just happens to be better than other search engines at measuring the worth and validity of links and translating that into a ranking algorithm.
In large part, Google’s success can be attributed to its ability to parse through the billions of links on the web, interpret them, and assign a ranking value to various websites based on them.
Delivering authoritative, helpful sites in SERPs provides a good user experience. And a good user experience means more users will frequent the site, so Google can sell more “clicks” and make more money.
Google’s goal is good UX, and it can spot link manipulation from a mile away
Google doesn’t blindly accept links as an indication of valuable content. I knows there are businesses and SEO agencies who try to game the system.
Remember: Google’s goal is to provide good UX. Allowing any site — regardless of the worth of its content — to rank because it has links works against that goal. And Google continually modifies and updates its algorithm to penalize sites that don’t play by the rules.
Google is very aware of the tactics and tricks SEOs use to obtain links. Some tactics (i.e., naturally earning links through outreach campaigns and creating great content) actually help Google in its quest to provide the best search experience to its users. Other tactics (i.e., link exchanges and excessive directory links) do not.
It continually rolls out updates that penalize those sites that are manipulating ranking signals. In fact, if Google catches you breaking the rules, it will demote your rankings, either manually (someone specifically applies a penalty to your site), or automatically (because of an update to the algorithm).
These same updates actually benefit sites providing helpful information, a good UX, and earning natural links.
Here’s the takeaway:
As Google’s algorithm gets more refined, SEO will align more and more closely with “user experience optimization.” To future-proof your link-building campaign, it helps to think of SEO and UXO as one and the same. Because, soon enough, they will be.
The Anatomy of a "Good" Link
The anatomy of a “good” link
Links are one of the most important SERP ranking factors. They indicate authority, relevance, and other sites’ trust in your content.
But not all links are created equal. Some links provide more value than others. For example, a link from Forbes is understandably more valuable than a link from an obscure mommy blogger. However, it goes much deeper than that.
There are many metrics you need to look at when evaluating the strength, value, and relevance of a potential backlink. Namely, we look at user experience, authority, relevance, and technical considerations.
Here’s how we (and Google) measure the value of a link:
How to Develop a Link Building Strategy
How to develop a goal-oriented link-building strategy
Now you know why links are valuable and what a “good” link looks like. So you’re ready to start full-speed ahead on a link-building campaign, right?
Well, not quite. Link building campaigns require strategy. You can’t just blindly build links and expect results. You need to evaluate your current backlink profile, establish goals, reach out to the right publications and, of course, pace your link-building campaign so as not to tip Google off that you’re building links at all.
That’s what this whole chapter is about — how to develop the perfect, goal-oriented link-building strategy.
Let’s dive in.
Find out what opportunities exist to increase your traffic through link building
You need to know where you are right now to know where you need to go. To get the most out of any link-building campaign, you need to know where your links are coming from, which anchor texts they use, and what content is earning the most links.
Whenever we start a link-building campaign for a new client, we do a deep dive into the company’s existing backlink profile — the complete collection of links pointing toward content on its site — before building any links.
We use a myriad of tools that allow us to look at which sites are linking to you, which pages the links are pointing to, and even the estimated value of the organic traffic you receive due to the backlinks. We use Majestic SEO, Moz Open Site Explorer, and Ahrefs, among others.
When performing a backlink audit, we ask ourselves several questions, such as:
To show you how we evaluate backlink profiles, let’s look at ESPN.com’s backlink profile using Ahref’s Site Explorer:
ESPN is in a distinctly good position, with 98 percent of its backlinks being dofollow, and only 1 percent being nofollow.
ESPN, for example, is owned by parent company Walt Disney. In theory, ESPN could acquire thousands of backlinks from Disney’s other subsidiaries, boosting its search engine rankings. Google prevents against this method of manipulating SERP ranking signals by only counting a backlink from a domain once.
That’s why it’s important to acquire links from a diverse profile of websites, rather than just establishing a strong relationship with one blog or publisher.
While ESPN may have 323 million backlinks, it only has 218,000 distinct referring domains. This makes sense because many bloggers, teams, and newspapers use ESPN as a source for photos, quotes, and statistics on a regular basis. Therefore, multiple links can be attributed to the same site. Still, each distinct referring domain only counts as one “vote.”
Ahrefs actually provides you with a list of all the domains linking to your site. Below is the first of 4,357 pages of linking domains. Looking through these domains gives you an idea of the types of sites currently linking to you and can allow you to spot gaps or opportunities — i.e., sites that aren’t currently linking to you that you could target in your link-building campaign.
It’s also important to look at the authority of the sites that are linking to you. You want an even, natural distribution of “authority” ratings. If all your referring domains are high-authority, then Google might think your backlink profile is unnatural and penalize you. If all your referring domains are mid-authority, Google might think your backlink profile is unnatural and penalize you.
Basically, you want to have a diverse profile of referring domains because that’s natural. Some high-authority publications might link to you — but certainly not hundreds of them at once. And some low-authority mommy bloggers might link to you — but certainly not hundreds of them at once.
Link-building campaigns should provide a balance of high-, mid-, and low-authority referring domains, so the progression looks natural to Google.
ESPN is a good example. It has a lot of low-authority sites — which are easier to acquire — a couple mid-authority pages, and only a few high-authority referring domains.
For example, if ESPN really wanted to rank for the keyword “sports news site,” and built all its links with that anchor text, then it would look very unnatural to Google. Sure, sometimes sites use keywords as anchor text. Other times, though, they link to insignificant words like “this” and “click here.”
That’s why you need a diverse collection of anchor texts. Earned links hardly ever have “optimized” anchor text. Google wants you to acquire links naturally, and every link-building campaign should have natural-looking anchor text profiles.
As you can see, ESPN’s anchor text profile is vast and diverse. There are more than 41,000 keyword variations, including non-optimized keywords like “article” and “said.” This looks natural, while still including optimized keywords like “sports news.”
You want to increase the breadth of keywords driving traffic to your site. Doing an audit of your rankings across hundreds of keywords gives you a better idea of which keywords you should focus your link-building campaign around.
ESPN, for example, is currently ranking organically for about 8.1 million keywords. Of those 8.1 million, it is ranking on the first page for more than 1.4 million. It is ranking on the 2nd page for 760,000 keywords. And so on.
Building links to 1st-page keywords help maintain traffic to your site, and your position in SERPs. Building links to deeper pages—keywords for which you’re currently ranking on the 2nd, 3rd or even 15th SERP page—creates new opportunities for traffic growth.
Those lower ranking keywords are good targets to focus our link building efforts on. Oftentimes, as long as your content was created with keyword targeting in mind, its already ranking well — within the first 5 pages. It just needs a push to make it to the first page. Through a strong link-building campaign, you stand to move up to the 1st page, earning more traffic and, in turn, more money in the form of qualified leads or purchases.
For example, ESPN is ranking on the 2nd page for “PGA.” If it built more links surrounding its golf coverage, it could increase its traffic and earn more money by selling more advertising.
There are quite likely sites that are linking to your competitors and not you. These present opportunities for link building, as long as you have similarly helpful or relevant content worth linking to.
Competitive analyses are a key step in any link building strategy. It allows you to see what others in your industry are doing to obtain links and increase SERP rankings. You can learn from their SEO successes—and their mistakes.
How to develop keyword-targeted content specifically for link building
You can’t build links to nothing. Before you build a single link to your site, you need to make your site worth linking to.
Let us say it again:
As Google refines its algorithm, UX and SEO are becoming one and the same. To future-proof your link building campaign, every link you build needs to provide value to the user and make sense in context.
Therefore, you need useful content on your site surrounding the keyword topics and themes for which you’d like to rank. You need to create blogs, guides, and pages — called “linkable assets” — that are uniquely valuable to your target audience.
Keyword research and content creation are the foundation of link-building campaigns. Without quality content to point links toward, link-building is an uphill battle. Think about it: editors, bloggers, and industry authorities will be exponentially more willing to link to your site if it provides value to their users or readers as well.
Creating keyword-optimized linkable assets is harder than it sounds, but the idea behind it is really pretty simple:
Once you have a foundation of uniquely useful linkable assets optimized for the keyword themes you’d like to target, you’re ready to strategize which sites you’d like to target in your link building campaign.
Tactics for Acquiring Links
A brief overview of building backlinks that will provide lasting value for your site
Once you’ve done an audit of your backlink profile and developed a strategy for your campaign, you should have a pretty good idea of the keywords you need to target, the linkable assets you need to create, and the sites you need links from.
Now you have to actually build the links. And that’s what this chapter is all about — the link-building tactics search engine marketers use to secure links that will provide lasting value for your site.
Basically, we’ll take you from a theoretical understanding of link building down to the nitty gritty of how we actually do it. This is the not-so-exciting chapter where you’ll learn that link building, like anything else of value, requires a lot of grunt work, strategic thinking, and patience.
See, just because you have a great strategy and build great content does not mean links will happen naturally. Unless you’re The New York Times of your industry, even your best content will need to be put in front of the right people — such as the editors and webmasters of industry-relevant blogs and publishers — and pitched in the right manner to obtain backlinks.
That’s why we call it link building. Just like building anything else, it requires time and effort to build links — they don’t just happen if you pay enough money or produce enough content.
There are dozens of tactics you can use to build links — some of which provide long-lasting value, some of which don’t. We’ll spare you the details, and narrow in on two of the most prevalently used tactics to earn valuable links:
Ready to get started?
Robots do not link to you — real people who find your content compelling do. That’s why you need to write linkworthy content with real people in mind, and pitch it out to those industry-relevant blogs and publications that will find your content useful to their audience.
This concept is called outreach, and it’s a great way to secure high-quality links.
Here’s how it works:
Okay, so outreach campaigns aren’t exactly as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4 … done. In reality, they’re much more complicated — whole books could be written on how to identify content gaps, craft the perfect outreach email, or develop valuable linkable assets.
Good link-building companies approach outreach campaigns as part strategy, part art. Through experience, good SEOs learn what makes a campaign work — and what makes it flop. The only way to learn how, exactly, to execute a successful link-building campaign is by doing it.
Outreach is a great way to earn contextually relevant links. But it is hardly the only way to earn links. You can also create link-worthy buzz surrounding your company by participating in your community.
What does “link-worthy buzz” look like? Well, it could be anything that is so exciting that others in the community — even those outside your industry — would want to link to your site.
Here are some ideas:
We could — and likely will in a future blog post — go into greater detail as to the dozens of other link building tactics. But the moral of the story is this:
There is no “plug-and-chug” way to build quality links. It requires thoughtful strategy, painstaking effort, and lots and lots of patience.
The Dangers of Link Building
You’re working with an SEO company, and its team members promise to build hundreds of quality links to your site in a matter of weeks. They promise this influx of links will skyrocket you to the top of SERP results in no time.
There’s just one problem. These promises are, quite literally, too good to be true.
They’re either lying to you, working against Google’s webmaster guidelines, or have little concept of how link building actually works. Either way, they are not the link-building partner for you.
Link building is cumbersome — at least if you want to do it right — and attaining quality links takes time. It pays to do link building right and play by Google’s rules: it may take longer, but in the end, you will see a steady increase in leads, calls, and, more to the point, paying customers. And you won’t stand the risk of losing it all due to a Google penalty or update.
Doing link building the right way is tough. Naturally, some businesses will gravitate toward link-building tactics that promise quick gains. Unfortunately, these speedy wins come at a cost.
Google’s goal is to provide the best results to its users. If you’re manipulating ranking signals like links and showing up based on bought links rather than merit, you are going directly against this goal. If you’re caught participating in any type of link scheme, Google might slap you with a penalty, and your rankings will take a nosedive while your organic search traffic drops off.
Google will not compromise on this. Either the system will flag your site and automatically issue you a penalty, or it will manually demote your site in SERP rankings.
Once you receive a penalty, it can take weeks — or even months — to get back on Google’s good side. You’ll need to formally apply for reconsideration, which is a long and arduous process.
JCPenney is a cautionary tale.
In 2010, it ranked No. 1 for nearly all retail terms: dresses, area rugs, bedding, etc. It brought in $17.8 billion in revenue.
How did it experience such SEO success? Well, JCPenney’s strategy was to poke holes in Google’s algorithm, building thousands of low-value links surrounding a myriad of keywords to trick Google into ranking its site.
When Google became wise to JCPenney’s low-quality link scheme, the retail giant’s average SERP position for key queries dropped from 1.3 to 52. And a revenue drop followed. Yikes.
Obviously, JCPenney fired its SEO agency and stopped its manipulative link-building tactics. Fast forward to 2017, and its ranking well again, but it was a long, long road to get here.
Learn from its mistakes. Link manipulation is not illegal, but it does put your site at serious risk of incurring a Google penalty like JCPenney did.
Speaking of Google penalties:
Let’s explore how, exactly, a slipshod link-building strategy can get you one.
In order to continually provide the best UX around, Google needs to be very conscious of how SEOs can manipulate signals to rank.
Links are simply a measure of quality. At the end of the day, Google wants to provide the best content — not the content with the most links.
Google can tell “natural” links from “forced” links — and if your links don’t provide anything of value, any gains you make will be short-lived.
Quality link building vs. link manipulation
QUALITY LINK BUILDING CAMPAIGNS
MANIPULATIVE LINK BUILDING CAMPAIGNS
Google-approved tactics like building editorial links through creating quality content and conducting outreach campaigns
Building low-value links quickly through tactics like buying links or exchanging links. For a full list of “unapproved” tactics, look at Google’s webmaster guidelines.
Aim to contribute value to its customers and industry. And to the internet as a whole.
Aim only to allow the site to soar in rankings
Slow, but long-term
Quick, but short-lived.
Little to none
The only surefire way to not get a Google penalty is to do everything by the book: Build natural links over time by creating killer content and pitching it to the right people.
Work with an honest link-building agency that plays by the rules, and you’ll see major gains that won’t be taken away overnight by a Google penalty.
If you build links too quickly, over-optimize your anchor text, or the authority of the linking domains isn’t diverse enough, it will tip Google off that you are manipulating links and you might get slapped with a penalty.
Get the Most Out of Your Link Building Campaign
Link building requires patience, skill, and lots of know-how. You need to work with a digital marketing partner who can to analyze your website and create a tailor-made link-building strategy. After all, every company is different, and only unique solutions can solve unique problems.
We think beyond your link-building strategy to see a comprehensive picture of how your digital marketing efforts are driving bottom-line results for your company.
That’s why we always use cold-hard data and a commitment to our clients to guide us to the end-result: growing your business.
Bespoke solutions are worth the time because, in our experience, they work.
Fill out the form or drop us a line to get started today.