The Link Building Process

Let's begin with the tactics, tools and techniques that are most popular right now. The questions in this section focus on the day-to-day side of link building and sought to learn more about the reality of link building for us all.

What techniques do you use for link building?

This question focused on the techniques that respondents used for link building and allowed them to select all that applied. The clear winner was content marketing which 75% of respondents said that they used specifically to generate links. This was followed by broken link building and guest posting which are used by over half of respondents to generate links – 53% and 51% respectively. One of the most controversial tactics, buying links, made the top 10 with more than one in four (27%) of respondents saying that they used this technique which is explicitly against Google Webmaster Guidelines.

What the experts think…

The order of top 10 link building tactics within this list is not what I expected to see at all - how did broken link building come out in second place? As a tactic, it’s got challenges around scalability and quality but that doesn’t seem to be putting anyone off. Guys, are we really paying for links in 2020? Use that budget on a campaign, launch it well and see those links roll in naturally.

Broken link building still works?! And it’s the second most popular link building tactic?! in 2020?! Remarkable. That entire list of tactics by popularity is, honestly, fascinating.

After reviewing the survey results I was not surprised to see the weight placed on content marketing as a primary link-building method. Although it wasn't explicitly stated in the piece, we've seen many "traditional" SEOs taking steps that place them increasingly in the Digital PR camp. Often the strategies employed in these campaigns favor targeting higher authority publications, relying on the effect of trickle down links over time to meet client demands rather than going for a high volume of mid authority links as part of a single campaign. Indeed, our own research illustrated the relative effectiveness of this type of approach.

The prevalence/popularity of each method must reflect how respondents perceive the ROI of each method, e.g. press releases and expert roundups are only seen as "worth it" by a diminishing number. That said, I am surprised paid links only garnered 29%.

It’s interesting that so many people are still using techniques to generate links that are either explicitly against Google's guidelines such as buying links and swapping products/free services for links, or techniques such as article syndication and directory submissions which I'd personally thought died out around the time of the Penguin update.

The top six techniques however show a clear shift towards more creative and PR-aligned techniques which is reassuring as it shows hopefully a more holistic approach to activity that isn't solely for links but rather to improve brand visibility overall.

While content marketing is firmly at the top of the techniques list, it’s rather odd to see directory submissions and paid links with shares as high as 29% and 27%.

Those who said that they used content marketing to generate links were then shown a series of questions specifically about this technique. We suspected (and were correct) that this would be a popular tactic and therefore wanted to get a little more detail if we could.

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

We started by asking about the success of content marketing at a campaign level and how many links campaigns generated. It’s interesting to note here, that very high-performing link building campaigns are few and far between: just 2% of respondents reported creating a campaign in the past 12 months which generated over 1,000 links.

But what about campaigns which generate more that 100 links? Again, only one in five (21%) reported having created a campaign which generated between 100-149 links in the past 12 months.

It appears the rate of failure is high too – more than one in four (28%) reported having created a campaign which generated no links at all.

What the experts think…

The big numbers made me think of something I've seen again and again these past two years:

Campaigns reported to build 100 links where 90 of them are syndicated with canonical tags, and at least 50 of those will be killed within 12 months when publishers prune their sites.

There's something quite crude about the number of links on its own, now I realise.

It's interesting to point out that 61% of respondents have worked on a campaign that got 1-9 links. And I was actually surprised to see only 28% have worked on a campaign that received zero links - I thought that percentage might have been higher.

I think it's valuable to acknowledge that a significant number of campaigns receive a low number of links. This is all part of the process.

It's not always helpful to measure your own campaigns against those that are showcased at conferences and award ceremonies. Those companies have campaigns that don't do that well too. I promise!

I remember I found it liberating when I first realised that.

My favourite campaigns are those that we can outreach in perpetuity, either because the content is inherently evergreen, or because the stats and stories have the potential to be updated regularly. We’ve outreached campaigns that have gained links every month of the year with only minor seasonal adjustments and adapted angles.

Unless your content is tied to a specific date, I’d always be inclined to ideate with longevity in mind and feel that short-term outreach can only lead to missed opportunities.

This data is really reassuring as I think often we can get hung up on the all-star case studies that generate hundreds of links, when the reality as most of us know is that the majority of campaigns will not generate that.

Not every piece of content or campaign has to generate a huge volume of links; fewer consistent and quality links over time can have a far greater impact than a one-hit wonder campaign.

I think that these stats go some way to proving that content-driven link building campaigns are harder than they look.

For example, if you’ve not managed to create a campaign that achieved over 100 links in the past 12 months, then you’re not alone: in fact, neither have the vast majority - 79% of the respondents surveyed have not seen this level of success either.

As an industry we have a tendency to shout about our successes (which is natural - we’re proud of the work we’ve done), but I’m hoping these stats will offer people a more realistic benchmark.

I will be honest, the amount of people who reported no links (28%) from campaigns was a little shocking. I really want to know what the results of this were, did they try to get some extra links, go back to the client with a goose egg, etc.

Firstly, let’s talk about campaign failures because we’re only talking about viral ones in our industry at the moment.

The research shows that 28% - that’s almost one in three campaigns launched - have got zero links and actually for me, that’s so refreshing to see because I’ve been there too.

Taking a closer look at the research, you can see that the majority of link building campaigns secure between 10-19 links and we shouldn’t be looking at that as disappointing by any means. If you’re launching campaigns frequently and almost 20 high-quality links per launch, you’re doing great.

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

We were also keen to understand what outreach looked like in a bit more detail and asked about the length of time that someone typically spends outreaching a campaign. The most popular answer was 3-4 weeks with 29%. Just under a quarter (22%) of respondents said that there was no end date to their outreach and that it was an ongoing activity.

What the experts think…

For agency staff, the time given over to outreach is often decided contractually, and as such, often isn’t something that those responsible for generating links and coverage have any control over.

I know from my time working agency-side that (for the most part at least), the more time people have to outreach a campaign, the greater the chances of success are.

Sometimes you get it right, and manage to capture the attention of journalists and secure coverage from the start; but that’s the exception, not the rule. Often it takes several rounds of outreach to refine your pitches and secure coverage. I can think of numerous examples of successful campaigns, which did not generate any coverage at all within 4 weeks of launch.

I suspect that the time constraints many respondents are working under - more than half (54% of respondents) say they have 4 or weeks or less to outreach a campaign are negatively impacting results.

One thing that surprised me is that over half of respondents are spending 4 weeks or less on outreach for content pieces. Unless a piece of content is specific to a very short seasonal period (like Christmas or Halloween) then there's real value in continuing to promote longer term - unless of course you're absolutely smashing it in week one! In which case, fair play!

With the share of ongoing promotion reasonably high at 22%, almost every 1 in 2 campaigns aren't promoted beyond 4 weeks after launch. Whereas not possible with every client on every project, success stories of initial flops becoming hit campaigns in the industry suggest the classic model of 2-4 week promotion phase post-launch ought to be reconsidered.

I used to work on campaigns where we typically outreached for 4 weeks and moved on, like clockwork. However, increasingly I'm appreciating the value of continuing to outreach your winners, and finding more opportunities to maximise your return on investment.

We've also seen a shift to longer outreach cycles that are done in phases, through early-access exclusives offered to very high-value publications followed by rounds of outreach to tangentially related outlets.

Outreach doesn't have to end until the content is outdated.

Do you use any of the following tools for link
building purposes?

At this point, all respondents were directed back to the next few questions relating to tools that they use for link building purposes. For this question, we wanted to know what tools people used the most and the spread of different tools.

The clear winner was Ahrefs which over two-thirds (70%) of respondents used for link building. This was followed by SEMrush which just over half (51%) of respondents used.

What the experts think…

Given BuzzSumo's capacity for content research, I'm really surprised to see it rather low down the list. Price point could be one deterrent, but it's one of the most useful tools to discover the most popular content, top publishers and journalists on any subject and in almost any country.

Gorkana is surprisingly low down this list for me. Though it is certainly more expensive than a lot of its competitors, its offering in terms of scale for prospecting both publications and individuals is invaluable.

I'm not overly surprised to see Ahrefs and SEMrush at the top of the list given their "suite" style when it comes to tools and data, plus the accessible price points.

What does surprise me is seeing outreach platforms such as Gorkana, Vuelio and Meltwater so far down the list. This may indicate a bias in the respondents toward SEOs rather than PRs, but I'd still have expected them to be higher given the high number of agencies who took part in the survey. Maybe the high price point on all three makes them harder for non-PR agencies to justify.

If you could only use ONE tool to help with link
building, which one would it be?

We suspected that there would be a large spread of answers here (we SEOs love our tools!) so we wanted to go more specific and asked respondents to choose just one tool if they had no other choice. Ahrefs came out top again but with a pretty significant margin (46%) of the votes.

What the experts think…

Boy do link builders love their AHREFs!

As a relatively recent convert to Ahrefs, it didn't surprise me that it was number 1, but I didn't expect it to be by such a big margin!

In terms of your usage of link indexes, which
of the following tools do you trust the MOST
when it comes to link data? i.e. quality and
quantity combined.

Sticking with tools for a little longer, we also asked about link indexes and which one respondents trusted the most. Once again, Ahrefs was a clear winner with over half (54%) of the votes.

What the experts think…

This may be a controversial statement, but having intimate knowledge of the data quality of various link indexes, I can honestly assert that industry perception doesn't always match reality.

Again, I'm surprised by the margin by which Ahrefs is ahead on this one. I do somewhat concur with Cyrus' comment though in that perception may be different to reality in that not many of us will do an in-depth study of how they all differ. All we have is our day-to-day usage of the tools which may be significant, but I can easily imagine strengths and weaknesses in all indexes depending on a bunch of factors.