Backlinks (not all) have a strong influence on Google rankings. Notice I said ‘not all’ in the first sentence of this guide. Yes, Google looks at the trust & authority, relevancy, link position and anchor text when it comes to evaluating your links. Therefore, not every backlink is equal.
Build your link profiles naturally at a steady and consistent rate. Any sudden spikes in your backlinks profile could seem unnatural and potentially spammy. Google rewards high-quality links from authoritative sites and will penalise sites if they actively build low quality, manipulative or spammy links with a manual action penalty. Link building is not only a big ranking factor, but the other benefits also include referral traffic, building brand awareness and relationships.
A successful link building strategy will largely depend on your audience, industry, resource availability, time & most importantly budget. In this guide, I will be covering ethical link building strategies that work;
- How does Google Evaluate Backlinks?
- Best Link Building Strategies
- Content-based Link Building – Tools, Hooks & Assets
- How to Find Journalists or the Right Media Contacts to reach out to?
- Google Link Penalties: How to Avoid and Deal with it?
- Backlink Audit Tools
- Types of Backlinks by Site Type
- Link Building Metrics & Results
- Further Reading – with lots of Great Examples
How does Google Evaluate Backlinks?
As explained above, Google looks at the website’s trust & authority, relevancy, link position and anchor text when it comes to evaluating your links. Let’s look at each of these in details;
Trust, Authority & Relevance: These are the most important indications of the quality of a backlink. Different backlink audit tool providers use unique site quality metrics to determine the trust and authority of a backlink. For example;
Majestic provides extremely reliable widely used link quality metrics such as Trust Flow, Citation Flow and Trust Ratio to determine the quality of a link.
SEMrush indicates the Authority score and Toxic score of a link. The higher the authority score and the lower the toxic score of the link, the better. Of course, the link needs to be topically relevant as well.
Ahrefs indicates the domain rating and estimated monthly organic search traffic of a link.
Tools such as SEMrush, Majestic, Ahrefs etc can only help you to a certain degree. We should always do a manual check to evaluate the quality and topically relevance of a page.
Link Position: When it comes to link position of your backlink on the page, Google adds more weight to a link that is high within the main content of the page. Links placed in the footer, navigation, sidebar or other boilerplate sections of a site are not valuable enough. Also, it is generally better to ensure your link is placed as high up in the site structure as possible as they carry more weight. So, links close to the homepage are typically more valuable.
The number of external links: The number of external links on a page is important. Page rank is spread out through all links on the page. The more a page links out, the more value becomes diluted. Therefore, if a page links out excessively, the weight in each vote diminishes.
No. of Unique Domains: Acquiring backlinks from as many unique domains is more effective than building them from previously linking sites.
Anchor Text: Google gives more weight to links with relevant anchor text. Always try to get a backlink with relevant descriptive anchor text when possible. However, over-optimising the anchor text by keyword stuffing is harmful.
Link Attributes: The link attributes of your backlink could be either nofollow, sponsored or UGC. Historically if a link had a nofollow attribute applied, it would not pass any PageRank and were ignored by Google. As of March 2020, however, Google treats the nofollow attributes as a hint which means, Google may choose to ignore the nofollow directive and use nofollow links to influence rankings, crawling and indexing in some cases.
Best Link Building Strategies
- Content Marketing: When it comes to link building, earned links are some of the best natural links you will ever receive as they are often highly relevant and authoritative. If you have great valuable newsworthy or linkable content on your website, other site owners will naturally link to you.
- Start by developing topics that are relevant, interesting and resonates with your target audience
- Offer unique insights or advice on the chosen topic. Include original and unique research and make it insightful (and exceptional).
- Collate the latest advice from other industry experts to validate your content. Remember to cite authoritative sources.
- Publish the content on your site and ensure the content is easily accessible and well linked internally.
- Push your content to the world. Share it on your newsfeed, newsletter and even social media channels such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn to name a few, to boost social activity.
- You should continually review your content and improve it to make it useful for other websites to continue linking to it. Ultimately, you want to be the go-to site for noteworthy content.
- Utilise your digital PR team to effectively market your content to gain high-quality links from media outlets. You can amplify the reach of your strong content using traditional PR strategies by outreaching to existing contacts, journalists, influencers/bloggers by pitching them your content. The PR team should follow up to make sure to have the best chance of gaining the links for you. Leveraging on your PR team contacts to share your link-worthy content to attract those links is one of the most effective link building strategies in the current times. Think outside the box and come up with bespoke creative seasonal campaigns that are useful, enticing and adds value to your audience. Brainstorm and come up with ideas that journalists are going to share and write about.
- Repurpose existing content: Pick any of your past successful seasonal content marketing campaigns and analyse their links. If you notice they have had a sudden spike in backlinks, sites/publications are still interested in the piece. Re-angle or simply re-purpose it to make it current and actively outreach the campaign to make the most of the renewed interest.
- Gaining backlinks on high authority trustworthy sites such as from educational/government/health institutions/local councils is highly valuable from link authority perspective. It is really hard to get a link from these sites but not impossible. Here are some ways to get links on these high authority sites;
- Offer Scholarships.
- Discounts for students and staff.
- Job vacancies or internships.
- Interviews with staff and alumni.
- and more…
- Doing a good deed often gets talked about on social media and press, in turn, helping build your link profile.
- Submit your site to local listings to improve your local SEO.
- Create a top / best list or industry expert interview post featuring individuals or brands. These posts usually get the attention of the people or brands you feature in it and thereby are more inclined to share the content or link to it. It is essential to build relationships with these people to have the best chance of success. One way could be to reach out to them via social media or email and tell them about your post mention.
- Consider Corporate and Industry event partnerships/sponsorships or even sponsoring your local charity or event. These are some great ways (relatively easier) to earn strong, relevant links. Moderating, Sponsoring or speaking at events can sometimes earn you a link from the event website which tend to be trusted sites worth getting linked from. The exposure you or your brand receives on event websites can in-turn generate additional natural links via publicity.
- Another strategy is to gain local links. Targeting local links not only improves your local rankings but also contributes to your general link profile. Joining the chamber of commerce or links from shopping mall sites are quick ways to increase your local backlinks.
- Leaving testimonials on your partner sites will not only generate a link to your site but will also build a lasting relationship with your vendor/partner. The backlink, in turn, generates authority for your brand as well.
- Guest blogging (use with caution). According to Google’s John Mueller, guest blogging could result in unnatural links and hence must be used with caution. In June 2020, SEMRush paused guest blogging service after Google policy scrutiny. Some SEO’s continue to suggest guest blogging (approaching other websites or blogs to publish content written by you) as a link building tactic. This can be easy and effective and a way to gain links using relevant content, but should be used with caution. Google will also crackdown on sites that offer guest blogging for a fee or incentivised in some shape or form.
- Getting links from web directories used to be the go-to strategy pre-penguin days to quickly build a backlink profile. Most web directories are spammy, so this should be used with caution. Stick to trustworthy directories that offer genuine value to either your business or more importantly, your customers. Getting links on well-known directories such as Yelp or high-quality industry-specific directories are valuable. Steer away from the generic directories and totally avoid bulk directory submitters.
- Try to identify existing issues with a site that you want to outreach to such as broken links or out-of-date content. Contact the relevant contact in a friendly manner to notify the issue on a page. This will help to establish a relationship and build trust with the contact for your potential future content marketing.
- Get a Creative Commons licence for your content to increase your chance of getting a link. Marking your content with a creative commons licence informs people that they could use and distribute your content whilst ensuring you are credited with a link and retain the copyright. Including this makes understanding the possible uses of the material easier.
- 404 Broken Link building: Sometimes you may come across broken links that exist on valuable high-quality sites. You may even come across competitor links broken on some websites. The idea here is to reach out to the website owner/editor to help fix the broken links by providing your website link (if the content is relevant) as an alternative to link to.
- Link Reclamation. The strategy here is to approach the website owners to link to you;
- If a website writes about you and mentions your brand without linking to it. This is known as an unlinked brand mention. Gaining a link by reaching out to the website owner/editor to request to link to you is beneficial both from a link perspective as well as traffic to your site. BuzzSumo, SEMRush “Brand Monitoring”, Ahrefs Alerts, Google Alerts (for your brand name) or Mention are some great tools that can help find non-linking brand mentions. You could also find websites that post your images without attribution using tools such as TinEye.
- 404s Link Reclamation: Links that point to pages on your website that no longer exist if they are either broken, lost or removed. You could either reinstate the broken page or simply apply a permanent redirect on the broken link to a relevant alternative page to allow the link juice to flow to the new page. Or you could reach out to the site owner to update the broken link. Tools such as Majestic, Link Explorer & Ahrefs provide an easy way to identify broken links. Monitoring this regularly is a quick win to gain back some of the lost valuable link equity. I have personally benefitted from using Majestic to export legacy backlinks from the historical index and look for opportunities – 404’s and chaining redirects. A quick win is to fix these 404’s by redirecting the broken link to the closest relevant page and remove any intermediate chains from the redirect chain.
- Helping a reporter out can get you media exposure, authoritative links and traffic.
- Get links on Resource list pages. A resource list is a page that links to many other topically relevant pages. If a page is linked from a resource page, it is considered an authority on the topic. It’s a quick win to get a link from a resource page if your competitors are included.
An easy way to find such resource pages around a particular keyword/topic is by performing an advanced Google search. Try one of the below simple Google searches;
“keyword phrase” inurl:resources (search for resources within URL)
“keyword phrase” intitle:resources (search for resources within the page title)
site:.gov “keyword phrase” resources (search for resources on .gov sites only)
“keyword phrase” inurl:links
“keyword phrase” intitle:links
site:.gov “keyword phrase” links
Common Spammy Link Building Strategies you must AVOID: PAID links are a clear violation of Google’s guidelines. If you are legitimately paying for links to boost site traffic, be sure to add a “nofollow” or “sponsored” attribute. Other link types to avoid are Article submission/syndication services, PBNs/directory networks, non-moderated blog links, mass press release submitters, article directory submissions, embeddable widgets/Infographic embed links, unmoderated directories, guestbooks, forum signatures, social bookmarking sites, user profile pages, reciprocal linking to boost SEO etc.
Content-based Link Building – Tools, Hooks & Assets
Most content gets no links and few shares. So what do you consider to be the most effective content, good enough to generate a high number of authoritative links and shares? Below are some hooks & content ideas that could achieve a high level of both shares and links;
- Educational/how-to content: Long-form detailed content such as How-to guides or whitepapers. Create Content hubs that grow over time to become a resource hub.
- Opinion-forming authoritative content that creates inspiration or controversy.
- Research trends: Original research attracts links.
- Interactive quizzes or video content.
- A newsworthy story such as industry news, case studies, company milestones, reviews, content round-ups etc.
- Identification/evaluation of trends: Data visualisation and infographics such as results from an industry study.
- You could create tools and possibly offer them for free.
- Funny, image galleries or controversial content.
There are a number of free tools and websites that can support you with content-based link building campaign ideas, research or outreach.
- AnswerThePublic: Discover what people are asking about by any keyword topic, brand or product – displays Google’s autocomplete searches.
- AlsoAsked: Discover and visualise the questions people are asking – Google’s “People Also Asked” data.
- Google Trends: Explore trending stores & search trends around the world.
- Reddit: An American social news aggregation and discussion website.
- Social Blade: This tool can be used to track YouTube Twitch, Twitter, Instagram stats and more!
- Twitter / Google Alerts
How to Find Journalists or the Right Media Contacts to reach out to?
They are tools that can help you find the right media contacts, relevant journalists, editors, influencers and other relevant media publication contacts for pitching your content. Bear in mind that If you’re a small or new website, your budgets are probably low. It may be more effective to reach out to smaller publications first such as local news sites, magazines, local or relevant blogs, smaller trade and industry publications etc. If you are an established brand or a larger site, you can go after the bigger Tier 1 media publications such as TechCrunch, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal or other larger trade publications. I have listed a few tools to find contacts or publications to amplify your content marketing;
- Prowly: PR Software to get media coverage.
- BuzzSumo: Find the content that works and relevant influencers.
- ResponseSource: Connecting the media.
- Press Plugs: journalists submit requests. Help a journalist out and gain small business PR.
- Journolink: Affordable press release distribution.
- On Twitter check out the hashtag #journorequest – social listening for journalists
Get it right the first time and your efforts will get easier. If you give them a good story, they will cover it. You must continually build trusted relationships with these journalists for ongoing coverage you seek for the valuable and relevant content that you produce.
Once you know who you’re pitching your content to, you’ll need to craft your pitch creatively in order to stand out. A tip would be to explain why your story/content will interest the audience.
Always keep a record of the sites or contacts you’ve reached out to and the date you did so. This will allow you to plan your follow-ups in case you don’t hear from them the first time. But do not pester them if you don’t hear back from them the second time. There is no ideal pitch format. Here are some tips;
- Keep your pitch short and to the point.
- Never use a template or an automated request.
- Personalise each pitch relevant to the publication’s target audience using a friendly tone.
- Be clear about the value your content offers to their readers.
Google Link Penalties: How to Avoid and Deal with it?
Building quality links have been more important than ever since 2012 when Google introduced the first version of its Penguin algorithm. This was essentially introduced to penalise sites using manipulative or spammy link building tactics such as paid links, link farms, spammy directories, comment spam etc to build links. You may either receive an algorithmic penalty and a manual penalty.
Ensure you always audit your link profile regularly (at-least-once every quarter) for potentially harmful links and remove them where possible as well as disavow them.
Backlink Audit Tools
There are various 3rd party tools such as Majestic, Ahrefs, LinkResearchTools etc to review the quality and relevance of not only your backlinks but your competitor backlinks as well. I highly recommend Majestic or Ahrefs. You can also use the links report on Google search console to get a quick snapshot of your backlinks, anchor text as well as the most popular pages. It also gives you a good snapshot of the anchor text used for your site. However, you don’t have a view of the link metrics or link attribute types on your search console.
It’s worth noting that, Google does not assess a link based on the link metrics provided by these tools. However, the metrics are a good starting point to evaluate the quality of the link.
Types of Backlinks by Site Type
Below is a quick overview of the different site types, you may receive your backlink from;
- Educational / Gov sites / Health Institutions: These are sites with high authority and therefore invaluable and could make a huge difference to your site.
- Mainstream News Publication sites: They can be trusted and typically have a strong backlink profile themselves.
The above sites are your premium links that will contribute to your EAT (expertise, authority and trust). These sites should form the core of your link building strategy.
- Industry or Thematically Related sites: These are typically strong relevant sites adding to your site’s EAT.
- Blogs sites. These are a great resource, but must be checked for quality and relevancy. Some of these sites may not be valuable from an SEO point of view, but they could still be invaluable to spread the word and so should be a part of the overall link building strategy.
- Unrelated Sites: If you get an earned link on these sites, they may still be valuable. But don’t actively outreach to unrelated sites.
- Social Media Links: Links on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter etc are all nofollowed by default and don’t pass any PageRank.
Link Building Metrics & Results
Link building should be a big part of your wider SEO strategy. Ensure your link building campaign is in sync with your overall business/marketing goals.
You may not see the efforts of your link building pay off immediately. It could take anywhere from 3 – 6 months, for a link building campaign to have any effect in terms of ranking improvements, traffic increases or improvements in link metrics such as trust flow/citation flow. Other factors that could affect the results would depend on your industry and competitors, the competitiveness of the target keywords and your domain strength.
FURTHER READING OR VIDEOS ON HOW TO GET BACKLINKS IN 2020?
At MozCon 2020, Andy Crestodina gave a wonderful presentation on thought leadership in the SEO industry. Download his slides here.
At MozCon 2020, Shannon McGuirk gave a wonderful presentation about the truth about digital PR campaigns. Download her slides here.