Content-led link building

This year, we wanted to take a deeper dive into the most popular method for building links - content. All questions below were shown to respondents who stated that they use content as part of their link building process.

Do you produce content with the goal of generating links?

For the 89% of respondents who said that they produced content with the goal of getting links, we gave them a specific set of questions with the goal of getting specific insights about what is the most popular way to build links.

Those who said that they used content marketing to generate links were then shown a series of questions specifically about this technique. We saw in our 2020 report that this was the most popular tactic for generating links and this trend continued in 2021, so we wanted to take a deeper dive into this.

If you do create content specifically to generate links, in the past 12 months have you created a campaign that generated:

Here we were interested in learning the number of links a content campaign typically gets. Over half of respondents (60%) said they’d run a campaign that generated 1-9 links, closely followed by campaigns that have generated 10-19 links (56%).

Reassuringly for some of us, 31% admitted that they’d run campaigns in the last 12 months that had generated zero links

What the experts think…

As I mentioned last year, I think this is a great indication of the realities of content-driven link building. As an industry we have a tendency to share only our best-performing campaigns, which (I think) has the unintended consequence of making some people feel like they're the only ones not succeeding at this stuff.

Seeing that 31% of respondents have launched a campaign in the last year that generated no links at all, and close to 60% have launched a campaign which generated 1-9 links is a testament to how tough this stuff is. I think we'd do well to remember that campaigns which generate in excess of 250 links are outliers, as opposed to the norm.

What's interesting about this answer and the one before it, is that 9/10 people are creating content with the goal of generating links, yet 31% (almost a third!) are launching campaigns that get zero links. Later in the survey, (the majority of) respondents stated that if campaigns don't hit link targets, they move on to another campaign.

My observation here is that this is a potential missed opportunity. The most difficult part of this process (in my eyes) has been done, simply moving on to other campaigns doesn't help respondents understand why they weren't getting links.

This is really refreshing to see and I think it is an important statistic for new entrants to the industry to be aware of. We often don't hear about these campaigns from other agencies on social media, which is understandable as we tend to shout about our biggest successes, but this demonstrates that not every campaign generates 50+ links.

I think it's quite interesting that the percentage of those that have gone 'viral' is so much lower than those that have got zero. I feel like this is not spoken about enough in the industry, personally

If you're only looking at case studies on Twitter or LinkedIn, I think you'd be quite surprised by these results - that the resounding majority of people have had campaigns with less than 10 links. On the flip side however, I'm massively impressed by those people who have achieved hundreds and even thousands of links from one piece of content - that is outstanding work! But i hope the results show that these are not regular occurrences.

Something that this data also doesnt show is the other factors behind these campaigns: what was the budget, did the client limit your media list, was the idea watered down due to tricky client relationships etc etc. All these things can factor into how your campaign performs which are sometimes completely out of your hands.

Of everything on this survey, I think this is one of the most important things to talk about. Yes, we need to build links. And it's no surprise that we all want to shout about our biggest wins. But I'm speaking to so many more people at the moment who are experiencing a complete crisis of confidence over failed link building projects. And when something goes wrong, it's easy to feel like you're doing so much worse than anyone else.

Naturally, as more and more people turn to content marketing and digital PR tactics, the space gets more crowded. Journalists are getting HUNDREDS of emails a day. So even if what you have is brilliant, there's always going to be that element of things that's out of your control.

What if your email just lands in that important inbox just as they're getting a response to something really important? What if it lands on a day they just happen to be out of office? What happens if they login and there's 400 unreads in the inbox and yours just gets scanned over? Yes, you can have tactics and strategies in place to chase up, or optimise timing. But let's not fool ourselves into believing that there isn't an element of this that's luck even after you've produced something wonderful.

The fact that almost a third of respondents admit to having produced things that generated no links is likely, in part, a symptom of that increased competition for attention. I don't believe that 31% of respondents are BAD at this. Not at all. We can all improve, but I really don't buy that 31% are fundamentally bad at building links through content.

I think this is something we should be talking about more because it's really difficult to write a failed project as a "bad day at work." If it results in increased imposter syndrome feelings it can have a genuine negative impact on mental health and put people off progressing their careers in this space.

This is probably one of the more reassuring stats in here. Posts on Twitter/LinkedIn are often biased towards success, but this shows the reality a bit more accurately. No matter how hard we try, we still sometimes fail, and that's fine.

I think it will be reassuring for many people to see that almost a third of respondents have launched campaigns that achieved 0 links.

I think we can often spend time comparing our own results and campaigns to others that we see sharing their successes on the likes of Twitter. This can naturally lead to worry that we're not good enough if all of our campaigns don't generate the same results. But its important to remember that they're shouting about their highlight reel, and not the reality of all campaigns.

Every prolific content creator has their fair share of failures. Like any endeavour, you won't be successful every time. And you have to average out the successes over a number of campaigns. Don't be discouraged by 'failures'. It happens to us all. Learn from it, improve your processes and frameworks to try and prevent making the same mistake again, then dust yourself off and keep going.

After you’ve launched a piece of content, how long do you typically continue to outreach that campaign?

The most popular response here was to outreach a campaign for 3-4 weeks after launch which 31% of respondents said. Closely behind this was 27% of respondents who said that campaigns had no end date and that outreach would continue on an ongoing basis.

What the experts think…

With all content it's great to keep an eye on any news hooks that would be a reasons to outreach your content again

I'm a big fan of "no end date." And I'm really pleased to see a reasonable number of respondents adopting that approach.

I think this figure will be higher again next year as I do believe we'll see a shift more into thinking about this sort of content as an on going key piece of the puzzle as opposed to a standalone bit of work here and there. And when outreach is on going, we get to look at the value over the long term as opposed to just looking at the value over a short period of time.

Personally, I like to look at the value of content over a year rather than just a few weeks. Not always something clients are on board with though, granted!

The outreach time for a campaign can depend on a number of factors, including how big the retainer of the account is, what the nature of the campaign is, and how the outreach of the campaign is performing. I do, however, find it interesting that the most popular response is to outreach a campaign for 3-4 weeks after launch, since I personally feel that this is quite a short time frame. Ideally, we want to be creating evergreen content which we have the option to update later down the line and outreach again.

I always considered about 4 weeks the norm when I worked at Distilled. However, I now prefer the approach I've seen other agencies take where they keep looking for new opportunities to outreach the campaign

Do you set link targets for each campaign that you launch?

When it comes to setting targets for content-driven link building campaigns, 60% of respondents said that they didn’t set targets.

What the experts think…

No, I've never set link targets for a specific campaign - instead I set link targets for monthly and quarterly activity. These activities tend to include several campaigns.

It is quite curious to see that 60% of campaigns are launched without set targets. While it is understandably difficult to tie links to performance KPIs (ie sales, signups) I'm intrigued that especially for content-driven campaigns there isn't a goal in terms of quality (and quantity) and reach.

Wondering if these are internal targets or targets set with the client. I'm a big believer in internal targets, as they help learn from success/failure and see what works/doesn't, but setting link targets_ for each_ campaign with the client sounds a bit tedious and makes our work easier to judge as pass-fail, when the outcome of content marketing / digital PR, esp. over a long period of time is a bit more nuanced than that. Plus, there are so many examples of campaigns being appreciated both by people/teams that made them and the clients despite those campaigns not hitting their targets.

This is an interesting result. When I've worked in link generation in the past, clients have wanted to see up front what we hope to achieve (though we know we can't 100% predict anything). Successful link-building to me is about successful content, working well on relevant sites, not "x links from x sites" - so this is refreshing to see!

Personally I'm a fan of having quarterly or 6 month link targets. At the end of the day, if you're client is on a retainer then they are looking for high quality links from great stories - in my experience they don't mind if more come from one campaign than another.

Having that flexibility means that if, in the unlikely scenario, your campaign just isn't working and you've tried everything to fix it then you can just move on to something new, rather than ploughing time into something that's not performing.

Also not having targets at all i think can sometimes lead to client/agency mixed expectations. Nothing worse that you thinking you've done great by securing 40 links when the client was expecting 400.

We stopped doing this (selling link numbers) after seeing some of your previous surveys. We generally just sell the work now and are better able to predict what it will bring in in terms of links. Though I'm willing to spend extra on campaigns that didn't deliver on our end for clients.

Typically, how many links does a campaign need to have in order to be deemed a success?

In order to be deemed successful, 33% of our respondents said that a campaign needed to deliver between 10-19 links, followed by 1-9 links. This means that overall, over half (61%) of respondents expect a campaign to reach 1-19 links in order to be deemed a success.

What the experts think…

When creating targets for content campaigns, I tend to aim for an average link count over a number of campaigns, typically 3 or 4. There is a risk/reward aspect to this type of content. It's like investing in the stock market. A good financial advisor wouldn't tell you to put all your money into one company. You smooth out the ups and downs by investing in a number of pieces of content.

Woah - 3% of people feel like they need over 100 links for it to be deemed a success, that seems like a high bar to put for yourself!

Personally, when I see a campaign go over 35 links I feel pretty pleased - however more and more now I'm scrutinising the actual 'value' of the links. I don't count 100 syndicated links as the same as 100 non-syndicated link, I also would take 5 links from great quality sites over 15 from poor quality ones, and I feel like that link from a site that has not linked to your client before is something to really shout about. So really - just looking at the numbers of links is a bit limiting.

I was really heartened to read this. I'd strongly agree that a campaign that generates 10-19 links (assuming those links are from high tier or otherwise authoritative sites) should be considered a success. This stuff is much harder than it looks :)

Very strange to see a quantity of links as a metric or goal... The correlation with a positive business outcome and real ROI is so tenuous, and so antiquated.

This is kind of astounding. Under 20 links for a successful campaign? If we assume links = followed links, then maybe fine, but still seems rather low.

Then again, goes to show that going maybe aiming for 50+ links every time is a bit of a stretch, and going for 10-20 links per campaign at a sustained rate of 8-10 campaign per year is a valid way of benchmarking success in digital PR.

Do you count syndicated links toward your overall link target?

When it comes to links that are created as a result of syndication, 33% of respondents said that they didn’t count these links at all. The remaining 67% said that they do count them in some form, with 33% saying they reduced them in value somehow.

24% said that they count syndicated links in the same way as other links.

What the experts think…

If you're reporting on link numbers and being held to a link number target, either by a client or internal manager, then that's likelier to result in people reporting syndicated links, I think.

We often find lots of these syndicated pieces fall out of the index altogether after a time.

I find it interesting that such a high percentage do not count syndicated links toward their overall link target. I wonder if this is driven by the agency or the client i.e. do neither of them sees any value at all in syndicated links?

Such a good question! I think the best approach to syndicated links is to just be totally transparent with your client. Explain both how they might not be as valuable in terms of SEO, but also how they are still valuable in terms of reach, traffic and brand awareness (so more PR metrics).

If a campaign misses the link target, what is the usual course of action?

When it comes to campaigns that miss link targets, the majority of our respondents said that they either move onto a new campaign (49%) or they keep going but with a limit of time/budget (39%).

The fewest people (13%) said that they will keep going no matter what until they hit the link target.

What the experts think…

A word of advice to those who keep going no matter what: don't risk burnout by pushing a failed campaign that shows no signs of improvement.

Going back to the drawing board will replenish your mental energy and give you the opportunity to learn from what didn't work the first time.

Moving on to a different campaign is difficult because it means admitting defeat. But, it certainly softens the blow when you have results for the second and third campaigns that you did because you pivoted instead of stubbornly continuing.

Wow, I can't believe people don't cut their losses if it's not working and keep going no matter time or budget. This has really stood out to me.. I think we (industry/everyone) need to learn wen to step away sometimes and the time and budget would be better elsewhere

We move onto another campaign but we always go back to the campaign that didn't perform well. It's always worth revisiting when relevant again.

If a campaign isn't working, see if you can revisit the different aspects of it:

Are there more angles you can pull out of the data?
Are there different publications you could go to?
Is there an upcoming event or time of year you could tie into?

Knowing when to move on is definitely a good skill to have. I'd recommend keeping a backlog of campaigns you can come back to and revisit, tweak, change your angle and try again.

After you’ve launched a campaign, where do you find that websites link to the most?

When it comes to content-driven link building, the majority of respondents (78%) said that when links were acquired, they usually pointed toward the page where the campaign was hosted.

What the experts think…

The result here is fascinating because my experience working for a brand has been the opposite. The majority of our campaign links pointed to the homepage.

Do you think that links to the homepage of a domain are more or less valuable than links to a campaign URL when it comes to driving increased rankings and traffic?

We were then interested in the effect of links pointing to different areas of a domain on organic rankings and traffic. There was no clear winner here with answers being split pretty evenly across there being no noticeable difference or links being less valuable.

What the experts think…

Wow so basically an even split on answers here! In my experience it's a classic 'it depends' situation. I've worked on clients who already have a lot of links to the homepage, so our focus was on more specific area and pages that needed improvement.

In terms of rankings, links to the content will do better than the home page IF the content is topically related to terms we want the site to rank for. If not, it's much of a muchness. It's a link to the domain.

Have I seen a 'noticeable difference' that I can point my finger to? No

Do I think that links to the homepage of a domain are less valuable? No

BUT I do believe that links to other pages of the website are more valuable than those to the homepage - the homepage already has tons of equity.

I guess the question revealed here is "...when it comes to driving increased rankings and traffic for what?"

If you're building links to a separate content piece, I could totally imagine that the homepage is linking out to a better selection of commercial pages, therefore is a better link target.

Links that reference a campaign but lead readers to the homepage are terrible user experience... What are people supposed to do?

Links generated from off-topic campaigns positively impact traffic and rankings.

Next up, we asked respondents for their opinion on whether off-topic content campaigns would positively impact traffic and rankings. 38% of respondents were on the fence with this one and in total, 81% were on the fence or slightly off it by either slightly disagreeing or slightly agreeing. 

What the experts think…

Topical relevance remains one of the most divisive components of an effective off-site strategy. There are strong arguments for and against and it's interesting to see them so visibly apparent in these results.

If a brand operates in an industry with a limited reach then going off-topic may be an effective way to deliver results, but for those with a broader audience it's not just authority or volume but relevance of coverage and links that will put you above competitors.

In my experience focussing the majority of off-site activity 'on topic' and playing heavily in relevance will ultimately deliver more effective customer touchpoints and allow SEO activtiy to better integrate with other marketing channels such as PR and Brand.

I think there is regularly a disparity in expectations between outreach teams and clients/stakeholders that often touches on this topic of tangentiality. Often businesses thin in terms of the AIDA funnel, and therefore believe that only directly related content will benefit them. However, there is another step above (or outside) the traditional funnel which is this somewhat nebulous concept of authority. You can map the benefits of increasingly more closely related content to this funnel pretty well with that addition. A very tangentially related topic will likely not drive a tremendous amount of traffic, but with links from the right publications it can drive authority. Placements in industry pubs around topics that aren't directly related to a business can drive traffic, but potentially fewer leads, and so on down the funnel. All of these approaches can earn links, but the business impact of those links can be drastically different, and a disconnect in expectations can mean anything from frustrated clients to the perception that a program simply isn't working.

These are not the results I was expecting here at all :)

It feels to me as if most people are kind of on the fence with this one.

Alternatively of course it may be that people have limited experiences with actually doing stuff like this, and so they just don't know.

In my experience many clients are wary of producing off-topic campaigns, although I think this potentially has more to do with the an understandable unease around creating things which are off-brand, as opposed to pure SEO or ranking considerations.

For what it's worth, I'd strongly agree that off-topic campaigns positively impact traffic and rankings, but whether or not a company chooses to engage in this type of activity is another debate entirely :)

The impact of off-topic campaigns can be more clearly seen when you're trying to build general domain authority, but is much harder to identify when the site is already strong. A shift to more topically relevant content at that point would make more sense, and should potentially come with a reduction in the total link target, due to the increased impact of the relevance of the content and links.

Links generated from tangentially related topics (e.g. topics that interest a company’s customers, but aren’t strictly product or service related) positively impact rankings.

To try and drill into this a bit more, we asked respondents about campaigns where the topics were related to a product or service but not necessarily directly related. Results here were a lot clearer with 79% of respondents saying that agreed or strongly agreed that campaigns using related topics would positively impact rankings.

What the experts think…

While links from unrelated topics can certainly drive results (for now), personally I'd also want to see a close topical relation to the brand and product I am running the campaign for. Good links should be beneficial to the brand overall, align with the brand message and/or product, have a good level of reach in regards to the right audience and drive awareness.

This is closer to what I'd expected in terms of responses, however I'd have gone harder here - I'd strongly agree that campaigns on tangential topics positively impact rankings.

As an SEO, I'd personally pay 5-10x more (in effort, money, or both) for a topically relevant link than one that was irrelevant.

Only links generated from content that is very closely related to a company’s product or service will positively impact rankings. Off-topic or tangentially-related content has no impact on rankings.

And to finish up on this theme, we asked about the impact of closely related content on a company’s product and service and whether topics closely related to a company’s product or service don’t impact rankings. The majority of respondents either strongly disagreed or disagreed (50%) that such content has no impact on rankings.

What the experts think…

Now this is super-interesting.

Essentially it's just the reverse of this question:

"Links generated from off-topic campaigns positively impact traffic and rankings."

and yet, the results are quite different - more people either strongly disagree or disagree here, than either strongly agreed or agreed previously.

Nice to see this evolution in thinking from the field. Brands can be built anywhere people pay attention, and Google's far more likely to care about the quality of the source than the raw relevance of the domain's audience or content.

What is the most challenging part of the content-led link building process for you?

Looking at the process for building links using content, 35% of respondents said that the most challenging part was getting links from outreach targets. Next up was coming up with ideas for campaigns which 23% of respondents found the most challenging.

What the experts think…

Interesting to see that securing the links came out on top here. I was expecting limited resource/time or finding enough domains to get links (in niche areas particularly) to be the biggest challenge. Then again, there's a fine line between following up on cold leads and coming across as persistent/off-putting.

Even though "getting links" is the top choice, I'd argue that ideas (23.1+19.7 ≈ 43%) seem to be the biggest challenge. To come up with an idea isn't enough, you still need to develop it, frame it, and pitch it in a way that gets it signed off.

This right here is the reason why trying to scale content-led link building campaigns is a waste of time. I've read people saying what we do is a numbers game but it's not.

No matter how many emails you send or how many sites you add to your target list, if your content is not link-worthy then you will struggle getting links. Grab all the time and effort you're dedicating to scaling link building and put it into the content you're producing.

Fascinating! I have a feeling that the results might be skewed to "getting links" because a large number of participants are Digital PRs.
Personally, as someone leading the SEO Team for a brand, my most challenging part is resource and budget approval that building out a Digital PR function/getting agency resource is a worthwhile investment.

I wonder if this has changed since 2019 and the pandemic, if people feel now the most challenging part is getting the links, not the ideation etc

Good ideas makes the outreach process easier. If you're finding the outreach part hard there are a lot more easy fixes in targets and outreach. But a fantastic email and prospecting list won't save poor execution of a campaign.

When it comes to the execution of your idea, which of the following do you find to be the most effective in generating links?

There are many ways to bring an idea to life and we were keen to know what types of execution are most effective in generating links. 57% of respondents said that long-form, report style content was the most effective, followed by interactive content (41%) and blog posts (35%).

What the experts think…

For years we've seen marketing gurus talk about how the length of content doesn't matter but it's interesting to see that 57% of the respondents pointed to long-form report style content as being the most effective in generating links. The reason why I believe this style of content generates the most links is because it often brings new insights to an industry that are rooted in data. In addition, if the content is long-form - it often will have multiple data points or key facts referenced throughout the article. The increased number of data points offers more opportunities for people to see and identify relevant angles and stats for them to use in their own work.

Whether a long-form report or a blog post, creating great content that readers love is still the most effective way of building backlinks. In my experience, the content that typically gets the most backlinks is the one backed by original research and data. But it’s not just about publishing a few piecharts and graphs. The key is to help readers find meaning in the data you present by telling a compelling story. A good story is often one that’s related to recent events that made the headlines, or provides context on an issue that affects a wide range of readers in your industry. For example, in 2021 we’ll continue to see stories and data about the impact of the pandemic and working from home getting mentions and backlinks.

Not surprising that products (both real and fake) often present the most difficult targets to generate links to. It seems folks are less willing to link when they sniff out commercial intent, and it's much more difficult to show the value of a potential product to a new audience, as opposed to a targeted piece of content.

Questions like this make me nervy, because of course, there's no such thing as an effective execution - people don't link to executions, they link to ideas.

Nevertheless, I feel like it's potentially interesting that report-style content is beating out interactive pieces. I feel like perhaps a few years ago the top two might have been reversed; likely because people were leaning more heavily towards interactivity than they do now.

For what it's worth, I think that's a good thing - for a while I feel like there was a perception that you had to create expensive interactive pieces in order to generate links, (I was guilty of thinking this too), but that's clearly not the case.

I think a lot of content creators and amplifiers are missing out on the value and opportunity of short, visual or video content (the kind that earns tons of amplification across social, and then picks up links from publications thereafter).

Interactivity for interactivity's sake is a waste of resources that should be spent getting more data or working on a different project entirely. Ensuring that the method you're using suits the message of your story is the most important factor when it comes to execution. By all means go for the bells and whistles, but not gratuitously, and not at the expense of substance.

I find this result particularly interesting. We often see big interactive campaigns or stunts winning awards for link building and content marketing. Yet here we see that long form content is actually voted as the most effective. This should be reassuring especially for those lacking the budget for expensive interactive campaigns.

Big content for the win? I guess longer is better in terms of link campaign performance so that makes it better for SEO ;)

I think what resonates best somewhat depends on your industry, audience and target publications. I've seen good results from long-form and interactive content, but also from shorter articles and press releases if the content of it was unique and relevant. I'd also consider time/budget invest vs campaign potential as a factor when choosing a potential format.

Blog posts being so high up is a testament to the fact that if you have a good story/insight/tip, the format can often be very simple and doesn't need a fancy execution.

The success of long-form, report-style content likely has something to do with the fact that this format lends itself nicely to leveraging data, showcasing insights, and articulating thought leadership (which so often part of the brief, especially with B2B clients).