Generating high-quality links is crucial for SEO success so employing the right tactics should form a major part of part of your 2018 strategy. In this post, Yard’s Technical Lead & Strategist Scott McLay shares his advice for pulling together a foolproof link building strategy to increase organic traffic to your site.
Getting the strategy right
Every client is different, even if they are competing within the same market, so the first step of any link building campaign is setting out the overall strategy. Proper planning can make the difference between success and failure.
The best questions to ask yourself and your team are:
- What does the current profile look like? (if the client has an existing website)
- Do I need to remove links before I start?
- Do I need to gain authority or noise?
- Do I actually need more links or would I benefit from other factors?
- How will I generate the links?
- Should I run creative projects such as long-form content or visual assets?
- Should I do blogger outreach / guest posts?
- Should I suggest webmasters replace broken links with my client?
- How will I reach out to webmasters?
- Social networks?
- Networking events?
- What type of anchor text should I work with?
- Is there enough covering fire from brand and phrase anchor text?
- What would Google’s web spam team look for during manual reviews?
- What type of anchor text would look most natural for the sites you want to target?
- Is there enough supporting pages for the landing page or should more be created?
The rest of this post will answer some of these questions.
Link building methods
It’s important to remember that link building has been an important part of SEO for over a decade, and in that time tactics have come and gone. Methods initially considered white hat were reclassified as grey/black hat or just downright dangerous – after all, that’s what makes negative SEO possible.
While it would be easier to cover the few methods that are recommended today, I feel it would be better to cover the majority of tactics, then label each with the appropriate public health warning. Although these risks can also be mitigated by using the nofollow attribute – just don’t expect SEO value.
Remember there is no such thing as “safe” link building, every link carries an element of risk.
Risk: Low – none
A simple yet effective tactic – everyone has an ego. The best way to perform ego bait is to first think of a topic which has relevance to your client then research influential businesses / people who would be likely to provide a link.
A good example of this would be a piece of content we created for ROX jewellers that targeted local businesses – this lead to a number of them linking to the client:
It’s important to remember two things:
- The better the content is, the more chance of getting links
- Outreach to other websites that will have an interest in the content to increase the effectiveness
Competitor backlink mining
Risk: Medium – none, use common sense
Competitor backlink mining is one of the easiest ways to discover potential websites that might link to your content; if they linked to a competitor, then why not you?
Using tools such as Majestic or Ahrefs makes it relatively simple to find out who links to a competitor and why, meaning it can be pretty easy to replicate. One thing to remember, just because a competitor has a link, it does not mean it is providing value.
Backlink databases can’t tell you if a link still has value or if the website it is on has been penalised by Google, so use common sense when cherry-picking links to ensure you only get the best ones.
While this method can uncover a number of good link opportunities, it is unlikely that you will get ahead of competitors by getting the same links as them – but it will help close the gap.
Unlinked brand mentions
Risk: Low – none
Isn’t it a travesty that not everyone who mentions your brand links to it?
Some websites have policies regarding who they link to, but others simply don’t think about adding a link at all, leading to potential opportunities. Tools such as Ahrefs alerts will help track down these mentions and gain valuable links in the process.
Overall, this is probably one of the easiest methods of gaining links that will help increase the overall authority of a website – all it takes is time.
Regaining lost links
Risk: Low – moderate, use common sense
The internet is constantly changing, pages are updated and removed over time and this can have an impact on your client’s link profile. Using tools like Majestic and Ahrefs to track removed links is a good way to keep on top of this.
The first step is to find out why the link was lost – this may be obvious, i.e. the content was removed from the website, although if you are unsure simply email them. The second step is finding out how to get that link back – a few questions you can ask yourself are:
Is the content being linked to out of date?
Can that content be improved?
If the page was removed – what other pages do they have that could link to the content?
Risk: Moderate – high
What can I say, we had a good thing going and we went and fucked it right up – this is why SEOs can’t have nice things!
Guest posting used to be a great, low cost way to get links. The method was simple – pitch articles to bloggers and get a link, but as other link building tactics started becoming riskier, guest posting became flavour of the month.
It didn’t take long before Google started to consider this as being in violation of their guidelines due to the level of low-quality spam that was usually reserved for article marketing.
While guest posting can still do a job, the additional mitigation required to make the risk palatable for a client means it’s not as cost-effective as other link building tactics.
Guest posting v2
At the time when guest posting was becoming a less effective strategy, I did a fair bit of testing to see how it could be made safer for clients and more cost-effective – so I combined PBNs with guest posting – a tactic already being used by others.
I had members of staff start their own blogs based on things they were interested in, but still semi-relevant to the client they were working on. The staff essentially became bloggers in their own right, creating great content – doing everything under their own names, although none of this linked back to clients.
Instead of the blogs being linked to the clients, the team instead reached out to publications such as The Telegraph, The Guardian and Huffington Post as bloggers and pitched them stories – in which we obviously found ways to include links to clients.
The links we were gaining from this activity were much better than those acquired through traditional guest posting techniques, so it made the additional effort of keeping blogs up to date worth it.
This tactic used to be one of the best methods of obtaining high-value links; in fact, it was so effective that many SERPs could be considered P2P (pay to play). The theory was simple, find websites closely related to your client that had decent TBPR (Toolbar PageRank) and offer them money to link.
At first, any link on a page with high metrics was considered great, but as Google cracked down more and more on this tactic, SEOs had to change what types of links they were buying – trying to stay ahead of Google was the fun part in those days.
Although link buying still works well today, it is neither a cost effective solution or recommended method of link building – more often than not this will result in your client getting a manual action (ranking penalty) or algorithmic filter (limited ranking potential) if you don’t cover your tracks well enough.
Private blog networks (PBN)
Private blog networks are essentially a network or group of websites that are used to send link juice by proxy to clients. Historically this method can be split into two groups:
- Buying dropped domains that had good backlinks
- Build websites then use lower grade link building techniques that you wouldn’t use directly for a client to build up their value
As with link buying, this was a tactic that required you to be one step ahead of Google once they caught onto it – with networks that were once interlinked to increase the value becoming as far removed from each other as possible.
While this method does still work, it’s not something I would recommend as a viable strategy for clients.
Risk: Low – high
If your client is running competitions, you can contact bloggers in your niche and ask politely if they would blog about it. However, running a competition just to gain links is generally not worth it in today’s climate as it falls foul of Google Webmaster Guidelines.
CMS themes / plugins
Producing themes and plugins for popular CMS platforms that contained links used to generate hundreds of links per month. At one point, you could even pay developers to add your link to their theme, but like everything else we fucked it and it’s now considered as violating Google’s terms and conditions.
Before search engines took off, directories were considered the gateway to the web. They were hand-crafted encyclopedias of websites from around the web, neatly organised into categories. Today, these are the links you don’t want to see in a link profile (yes, another one we well and truly fucked).
While some directories do have their uses, for example gaining citations for local search, the vast majority of directories out there are pretty toxic and are ignored by Google, meaning that adding links to them is a waste of time.
Blog and forum commenting
All I can say here is don’t do it – no matter how hard you try, it will still end up looking like spam. Instead, use comments as a way of engaging with communities to gain other link opportunities.
Hacking for links
Risk: Jail time
Okay, so I will not confirm nor deny that this was a tactic used by myself in my link spamming days, but in the early days of SEO, it was pretty easy to get access to hosting accounts via social engineering through a number of web hosts if you knew their procedures. Plus, it was easier than more traditional hacking techniques.
While it’s still possible to do, security measures have been improved over the last decade. Someone once told me it may be a bit illegal too, so please don’t try this.
When it comes to link building, the one common thing I hear is “I’ve run out of websites to get links from”, which usually just means they have run out of ideas when sourcing, the content is not good enough, or their outreach is inefficient. At the end of the day, Google reported having 140 Trillion web pages within its index back in 2016, so there is enough opportunity out there.
One thing I’ve noticed is that SEOs tend to be drawn towards bloggers when trying to get links, instead of looking for businesses and government-run websites which are related to the content – this will provide a much larger pool to work from. This has led to Yard obtaining links from many reputable sources for clients, from regional police force websites to Innocent’s website (sadly the image is now broken – must get that fixed). If you don’t hustle, you don’t get!
This is one of the default methods of finding potential websites – once you know who you want to target, it’s as simple as using relevant searches. This also ensures that you are not contacting websites that have already been deindexed by Google.
More often than not Google will return a huge number of websites, more often too many to go through by hand so I would recommend using advanced search operators to refine the results i.e.:
[search term] -site:Wikipedia.org -site:blogspot.com -site:telegraph.co.uk -site:wordpress.com -site:about.com -site:guardian.co.uk -“directory” -“add link” -“advertising”
It is also important to remember that every country will provide different website suggestions for the same search, so if you get through everything within your country’s index, you can also try other countries that use the same or similar language.
Using trusted directories
While most web directories out there are generally full of spam, there are a few which have maintained a decent level of quality, such as JoeAnt. Digging through relevant categories can lead to discovering new opportunities.
It’s clear to see that link building tactics have evolved and will continue to do so. The methods discussed above will also evolve, so your strategy and tactics will need to be kept fresh too.
At the end of the day, an effective strategy is not just about generating the most links – you need to be focused on driving the most value for your clients through SEO, depending on their organisational objectives. However, you’ll find that most sites that rank well on Google will indeed have a healthy backlink profile, and behind it an effective link building strategy.
What link building methods do you use?