In SEO it’s widely agreed that one of the most important ranking factors – determining where your website appears on a results page – is your link profile: the links that point to your website. This is where link building comes in, but what exactly is it?
This guide aims to get down to basics and explain what link building is, why we do it and how it’s done.
Link building definition
What is a link builder?
A link builder is a marketing professional whose job it is to acquire links. This could be an in-house marketer, trying to improve the link profile of their employer, or it could be a freelance or agency marketer, working for any number of clients.
It is a link builder’s job to devise ways to make the website they are working on link-worthy and able to attract links that they deserve. There are many ways to do this – which we’ll get to soon – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Because it can significantly benefit a website when done right, link building is a very competitive field, with many link builders competing against each other to build links on a finite number of quality websites (websites that are authoritative and relevant to your industry or niche).
The best link builders manage to make themselves stand out from the crowd using a variety of tactics (something else we’ll look at soon), and such digital marketers are highly sought after.
What are backlinks?
In SEO, a backlink is another term for a hyperlink from another website to yours. The ‘back’ in backlink refers to the other website linking back to yours, simple as that!
Backlinks are also known as inbound links, for obvious reasons, or simply ‘links’ among digital marketers. Not all links are created equal though, a link from the BBC is going to carry more weight than a link from a random blog that no one has ever heard of. There are also nofollow links which add a little bit of complexity.
But first we need a little context:
Search engines give preference to websites that acquire quality backlinks, and each link is seen as a vote of confidence in a website. If another website links to yours, that can be seen as a sign that the website trusts you and therefore, link equity is passed along to you via the link. Links from authoritative, well respected websites related to your niche pass along more link equity than links from sites that are not.
Think of it in the offline world – if you ask a group of friends for a recommendation for a plumber and five of them recommend the same person, that’s going to mean you trust that plumber’s work a lot more than a random review you read online.
So, where do nofollow links come in?
Follow (or standard) links
Follow links, often referred to as dofollow links (although ‘dofollow’ is not a strictly accurate term!), pass on authority to your website, which give you a boost and contribute to you ranking better in search engines. In Google, they pass PageRank which is the score that Google give to every page they have in their index to determine how authoritative each page is. If you want to go mega geeky on PageRank, read this paper which was written by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998.
It is generally believed that nofollow links don’t pass on any authority because they are created with a nofollow HTML tag, which tells search engines to ignore them and not factor them into search engine rankings. Websites can still gain referral traffic from a nofollow link, but they might not be much help in terms of improving rankings.
What is an outbound link?
An outbound link is simply a hyperlink on your website linking out to a different website.
Some marketers worry about linking out, with fears that it might damage their search engine rankings, hurt their reputation or create opportunities for visitors to exit their site. However, the industry consensus is that outbound links can be beneficial in a few ways.
A study by Reboot concluded that linking out to sites can have a positive effect. It stated:
‘Outgoing relevant links to authoritative sites are considered in the algorithms and do have a positive impact on rankings.’
Plus the theory that outbound links cause you to lose authority seems to be a fallacy. Also, linking to sources of information that back up your own content makes perfect sense and can be an indicator of trust in your site.
What is a quality link?
We’ve said that building quality links to your website can be beneficial, but what exactly is a quality link? To put it simply:
Above, we mentioned PageRank which is Google’s internal measure of quality of a page from a links perspective. Up until 2013, Google gave us a tool called the PageRank toolbar which told us what an approximate PageRank score was for any page that we visited. It wasn’t perfect, Google would update it every few months and were clear that it wouldn’t exactly match their internal measurements which were far more complex, but it gave us a glimpse into their view of a page. They retired this feature in 2016 and stopped updating toolbar PageRank in 2013. They continue to use it internally though, we just can’t get an idea of it anymore.
Therefore these days, analysing authority relies heavily on 3rd party tools, which give you metrics related to your link partner (the site linking to you). Many digital marketers use Moz’s Domain Authority (DA) metric to evaluate a potential link partner, usually avoiding websites with a low DA, as they’re less likely to pass much authority to you via a backlink. Moz’s Spam Score is also a quick way to get an idea of the quality of a website, without trawling through its pages. There are plenty more tools offered by organisations such as Majestic, Searchmetrics, Ahrefs and SEMrush. These tools should help you gauge whether a link partner is authoritative. But authority isn’t everything, a quality link also has to be relevant.
If your website sells household paint and you get a backlink from a fashion blog, this won’t be much help to your SEO efforts, but if you build a link on a handyman site or a resource page listing decorating supplies, it could make a positive difference. Tools can actually help here too. Majestic’s Topical Trust Flow is a metric that measures the relevance of links pointing to a website, and you can use this to assess potential link partners while compiling your prospects.
For example, you can analyse a ranking competitor’s links by exporting them to Majestic. Sort them by Topical Trust Flow and you will see the overall topic of the linking sites – such as News/Media Industry for Huffington Post, or Recreation/Humour for Buzzfeed. Then simply filter high-low by Trust Flow (for the trust perceived in those websites), pick out the sites that are on topic and add them to your prospecting list. This prevents you from wasting time outreaching to irrelevant websites, and helps you find potential link partners who are worth contacting.
The balance of importance between relevance and authority is up for debate, but if you can build links with both consistently, it’s likely to lead to improvements in your rankings.
Overall though, you still can’t beat manual reviews of websites to decide if a page is relevant to your business and good quality. Therefore, we still recommend spending time manually reviewing potential links rather than relying 100% on tools to do the job.
Types of link building and risks
Some link building tactics can present risks to a website because Google has published guidelines on what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to actively building links. However, there are still plenty of grey areas where you can easily trip up and there are various tactics which are perfectly legitimate, but can be abused and fall foul of Google guidelines.
When it comes to the risks, you may hear the terms white hat, grey hat and black hat thrown around. These originally came from the terminology used by ethical (and non-ethical) hackers. In summary, white hat is used for tactics that are not risky at all to a business. Grey hat is used for tactics that may be legitimate but when pushed, could be considered risky. Black hat are blatantly risky and could even fall into the realm of being illegal.
When determining what tactics to use and how risky to go with them, it’s important to think about the website and business that you’re working with. If you’re playing around with a website you own which you don’t really care about, you could be as risky as you want to see what happens and whether certain tactics are effective or not. On the other hand, if you’re working with a legitimate business and they rely on search traffic to function, it’s a very bad idea to use risky tactics – especially if the owners of a business haven’t agreed to it.
Why is link building important?
Link building is very important in SEO because of the two fundamental ways that search engines use links.
They use links to discover new web pages
They use links to help decide how a web page should rank
One of Google’s strongest signals of how well a page should rank is the links pointing to it. This came about because of the theory that a page wouldn’t get links to it if it wasn’t a good resource. Some SEOs initially took advantage of this theory, building numerous irrelevant, poor quality links, which actually improved results, for a while. But Google’s continuing algorithm updates (such as Penguin) put an end to that and penalised sites that didn’t deserve to rank. We still see websites ranking when they shouldn’t, but the problem is less common than it used to be and the timeframe for a spammy website ranking is much shorter these days. Spam still exists though and it’s likely that it always will whilst links are a signal that Google use in rankings.
While no-one outside Google (or the other search engines) knows exactly what their algorithm is to determine search results, it’s widely accepted in the SEO industry that links are still a major ranking factor. And that if you can build high quality links, this will help to improve your rankings and your traffic.
How link building works
Link building will work differently in different scenarios. Some marketers will be in-house, some in an agency, and some freelance. People will work in teams from a single person to a whole team of link builders and budgets can vary wildly from hundreds of pounds or dollars, to tens of thousands. All of these factors will affect how link building works for you.
But once you have your budget in place you can set aside a chunk of time, plan your strategy and set your targets. Then it’s time to build some links!
How to build backlinks
There are numerous link building tactics that you can employ to gain backlinks for your website, or that of your client. The techniques you choose will depend on the topic of your site, your resources, the industry or niche it’s in and your audience.
Let’s take a more detailed look at some of the link building strategies that we like at Aira and typically recommend to our clients.
Data visualisation is a link building approach that can be very successful when done well. This technique involves creating a visual piece of content, that expresses some data that you have discovered. This could be either your own research or data that has already been gathered by someone else. A data visualisation can be either a static graphic, a piece of interactive content or an animation.
A static graphic is what you might recognise as a traditional infographic. This is an image that visualises the information that you have found. Static graphics have been successful because you can share them with relevant websites and offer them as free content in return for a link (posed a little more delicately this this!) Or you can offer to write an introduction to your graphic and add a backlink yourself within your intro. If you can offer some truly great content that a website’s audience would love, the webmaster will often be happy to link to you. Here’s a static graphic that we did for Vouchercloud, which reveals every country’s top tourist attractions. It’s simple but it proved very effective and got a lot of traction when we launched it.
Like static graphics interactive pieces can be shared with webmasters, via a simple embed code, in return for a backlink.
The more your content resonates with its intended audience, the better your chance of building quality links, and animation is another way to create engaging data visualisations. Like the other visualisation types we’ve mentioned animations can be easily uploaded and shared on various platforms and media. A simple gif feature can be very effective, or you could create something a lot more complex. What’s key is that it looks great and it’s helpful or entertaining to the target audience. Again you can acquire an attribution link from websites that want to share your content, or you can try and include one in a supporting introduction.
Illustrating that you or your clients are thought leaders is a great way to acquire strong links. There are a few ways to do this, so let’s jump right in.
Guest posting is one of the original link building tactics, and it still has a place (when done right, as with all techniques mentioned here) despite former head of web spam at Google, Matt Cutts, suggesting guest blogging for links should stop a few years back. You offer value to another website by writing an original post for them. They either link back to you or allow you to add a link in the body of your post, or in an author biography section. Sites that openly accept guest posts get inundated with requests so if you are outreaching to blogs, make sure you understand what they publish, make sure you have a strong pitch, and then make sure you write something of real quality. If you do, you can build a relationship, which means the option to build more links in the future.
Reactive commentary is also known as newsjacking. This is where you use a breaking story to share your relevant content, or comments (if you or a client is an industry expert), in order to get coverage, and links, online. You obviously have to keep a close eye on the news to be able to do this, and only bother pitching your content/comments if they are right on topic. For example, when The Sun Motors were discussing temp jobs we offered expert advice from our client Autotech Recruit, who were ideally placed to comment.
As mentioned above, if you or your client is an expert in your field, this is the basis for some quality, and link-worthy content. And you don’t have to do this on the back of a news story. You can pitch journalists, bloggers, vloggers, podcasts and more. Having a strong profile from regularly publishing insightful content really helps here. We gained coverage for our client RS Components with an interview in which their Senior VP of Digital discussed the art of employee retention. It’s a subject in which she has expertise and the pitch fitted perfectly with the publication, The HR Director.
Tactical link building is less PR-orientated than some of the methods mentioned so far, and it gives you a number of other ways to acquire quality links. The following methods are widely practiced and can be hugely successful.
Unlinked brand mentions
An unlinked brand mention is where a mention of your brand is located, somewhere on the internet, without a link pointing back to your site. These mentions are incredibly common and offer a simple way to gain some additional inbound links. There’s lots of guidance on finding these mentions, and once you’ve done that it’s time to select the quality sites mentioning you, and send a polite email asking if they’d be happy to include a link.
Broken link building
This is a technique where you find a broken link, and offer to replace it with content of your own that fills the gap. Broken links detract from a user experience so webmasters are sometimes happy to swap the dead one for your content, if it recreates or improves on it (and your outreach is not pushy). Plus, if you find a broken link, there are ways to find all the other websites that include it, who you can then outreach to. As with unlinked brand mentions, only bother contacting relevant, authoritative sites.
It’s worth noting though that broken link building is a very labour-intensive approach and doesn’t always reap as many rewards as you’d like!
Citations & directory submissions
A citation is a listing on an online directory mentioning your business’ name, phone number, physical address and more. Many directories allow you to include a backlink in your citation, but some don’t. The variety of directories is huge and the quality of them varies wildly, so it’s key to ensure you only submit to good quality sites. Topical directories relating to your niche (such as catering-focused site Mobcater) are worth having, as are directories focused on your business’ physical location (like Warwick Pages, for example). The latter type can help with local SEO as the volume and consistency across citations are a major factor used by search engines to decide where to rank businesses in local search results. There are also a number of more generic business listing directories (such as Yell.com and Yelp) that are considered beneficial, but it pays to be vigilant and check website metrics such as Domain Authority and Spam Score.
Overall, the value of citations and directories has diminished over the last few years because they are often abused by SEOs. These days, they can still pass some value but should be used when it’s genuinely relevant and useful for the website to be part of that directory.
Reciprocal link building
Reciprocal link building is a technique where you link out to another website and they link back to you in return. It can also involve more than two websites, linking to each other with the aim of improving rankings and subsequently increasing traffic. But do reciprocal links work and is this an approach that could lead to penalties in the future?
One issue is that reciprocal linking can be abused. Website owners with more than one site, for instance, can link between their domains. Another point is that if webmasters swap links for SEO benefits, they might not fully considering whether the links would benefit their audience and improve their experience. However, sometimes it might make perfect sense for websites to exchange links and for that to benefit both sites and their users. For example a blog about climate change and a blog about green living – users of each may well be interested in the other.
It comes down to whether an exchange of links would add value to your website and the one you’re linking to. If the other site is related to your niche and it’s authoritative, it would probably be beneficial. But reciprocal links should only form a small portion of your link portfolio, as a large amount would look unnatural and could risk future penalties.
Tips for successful email outreach
However good your content is, you need to outreach, and you need to do it well if you want to build quality links. Here are four essential tips for successful outreach:
1. Prospect with care
The success of a link building campaign is dependent firstly on the quality of your list of prospects – the people you’re outreaching to. Here we come back to relevance. Do your prospects cover the topic of your content? Will they really be interested in what you’ve created? If not, don’t waste your time – find prospects who will be very likely to want to cover your content. Here are some tips and tricks from Search Engine Land to get your prospecting off on the right foot.
2. Follow the 3 Ps
A great outreach email should be Personalised, Positioned and Persuasive. So said Matt Gratt back in 2012, and his advice is still spot on. Internet users are increasingly vigilant of spam, so generic email templates the without 3 Ps will probably go straight in the spam folder. Plus they might not open your next email. Personalised means not just finding the right email address and name of the person you’re reaching out to, but crafting an email that includes enough unique information about the prospect that your message could never seem like a template – even if it is. Positioned means understanding the purpose of the websites in your prospects list and what they want to achieve. A blog may want to gain clicks and shares, whereas a library resource page might be focused on gathering informative content about a niche topic. Your approach must be positioned if you want to win links. Persuasive means explaining why your content is better than the rest and why it would be valuable for the prospect and their audience.
3. Use personalised templates
The best way to ensure personalisation and persuasion is to write a completely unique email from scratch every time, and you should do that if you can. But many outreachers simply don’t have the time to do this, and the right template can still work. The templated sections can describe your content generally and why you’re getting in touch, but a successful template has to have fields that allow you to personalise your message for each prospect. Platforms like Buzzstream offer dynamic fields that pull through personal information related to each prospect, but you still need to include something more personal based on reading the prospect’s site or even their social media posts to make your outreach more human.
4. Follow up (without harassing your prospects)
A good outreacher will tell you that it’s always worth following up with prospects who haven’t replied to your outreach. Yes, some will tell you to leave them alone, but sometimes you will get a nice reply apologising for missing your initial email, and saying ‘yes please’, they would like to see your content. One or two follow-up emails are OK, but don’t harass prospects with four or five, it’s very unlikely to gain you a link and you’ll just look desperate! You can always pick up the phone and start to build the relationship that way too, which will pay off in the long run.
Link building examples
Now you know the techniques, but what does a link building campaign actually look like? If you’d like to see some link building examples to show just how well these strategies can work, take a look at these case studies we put together.