In 2017, there’s still no argument that links are one of the most important ranking signals used by Google. Even as Google scales up their AI, machine learning, and user experience factors for ranking websites, the fact remains that quality backlinks are the best things you can build to improve your rankings.
The problem with link building is that it is split into three different camps: white, gray, and black. Within these camps, there are varying theories on how to best approach building links. It’s all quite confusing for a beginner. Should you be white hat, black hat, or somewhere in between?
The answer is moving ever closer to white hat. This is not to say that grey and black hat link building tactics aren’t effective — far from it. But the require a much higher risk tolerance than many marketers are willing to accept these days.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- The anatomy of a good backlink vs. a bad backlink
- The “Holy Trinity” of skills you need to excel as a link builder
- The best ways to build links in 2017
- Tool recommendations for every part of the link building process
- The Anatomy of a Link
- Components of Link Quality
- Link Building Skills
- Research Process
- Outreach Process
- Link Building Strategies
- Link Magnets and “Ego Baiting”
- Broken Link Building / Link Reclaiming
- Surfing The News
- Guest Blogging
- Content Repurposing and Syndication
- Press Releases
- Local Citations
- Blog, Forum, and Community Participation
- Answering Questions
- Sponsorships and Sponsored Content
- Private Blog Networks
- Link Building Tools
- Competitor and Link Research
- Content Research
- Web Monitoring
- Hiring Freelancers
Before we get into the different strategies to get backlinks, it’s important to have a solid understanding of link anatomy. All links are not created equal — learning how to evaluate a link is the first step in getting backlinks that matter in 2017.
At its core, a backlink is best thought of as a “vote” for your page or website. But the metaphor breaks down a bit because not all of these votes are treated equally. The strength of a backlink based on the weighting of many different factors.
The quality of a link is comprised of several different factors. We’ll look at each factor in detail below:
The most important metrics that determine a link’s quality are the authority of both the linking page and the linking domain. These are known as the Domain Rating and URL Rating and are estimated metrics (because Google does not release the way they score websites).
The higher the authority of both the domain and the linking page URL, the more authority “flows” through to your site as a result. Building backlinks from high authority websites is thus one of the most important metrics to filter for.
Follow vs. Nofollow
The rel=”nofollow” attribute has been around for ages, with the purpose of signaling to Google that a website should not receive a boost from a backlink with the nofollow attribute. However, the jury is out on whether nofollow backlinks contribute to rankings or not, with most of the SEO community under the impression that they have some effect, but not as much effect as a standard follow backlink.
When link building, a good rule of thumb is not to let the fact that a link may be nofollow dissuade you from securing that link if you think it will still help you accomplish your goals.
Because Google programmatically determines how much weight a backlink should be given, they must take into account as much objective data as possible. The location of a backlink on a web page is information they analyze. This includes:
- Whether the link is in-content, in a bio box, footer, or sidebar
- The text immediately before and after the link in question
- If the link is in a spot on the page that Google deems “clickable.”
The most interesting nugget here is the “clickable” aspect of a link. It stands to reason that if a website places a link in a place that is highly clickable, then the link should be given more weight than a link in an author biography box or hidden in the footer. In fact, Google even has a patent for what they call a Reasonable Surfer, which gives us a clue that they give a higher weighting to “prominent” link placement.
We’ve known for a long time that anchor text is a strong ranking factor. The question is, how much optimization is too much? Google released the Penguin update to target anchor text over-optimization because it is such an easy ranking factor to manipulate, especially if you are building links yourself.
There are three “types” of anchor text:
- Exact match/Commercial: “best dog toys”
- Partial match: “list of the best dog toys”
- URL: http://www.dogs.com/best-dog-toys/
The best approach to anchor text in 2017 is to not worry about it at all. Exact and partial match anchor text is correlated with higher rankings, but the penalty you could incur from trying to over-optimize your anchor text is quite high. When building links, be content with whatever anchor text the person linking to you decides to use.
My rule of thumb on links I control, ie. Guest posts. Just try to focus on what is going to make a person click a link rather than worry about what seo benefit there is.
ie. “Read this guide on backlinks”, “Read the full guide”, “Learn more on whitehat linkbuilding”. These are some of the anchors I would use to promote this page. Not so much of “backlinks” etc.
Besides anchor text, Google uses a few other factors to determine how relevant a link is to your site and the keyword you’re targeting. Specifically, the total number of outbound links on the page gives Google a clue as to how valuable a single outbound link on that page should be.
In general, the more outbound links on a page, the less valuable a single link will be. When you’re getting backlinks for your website, prime targets are pages with a low number of outbound links.
A Word on Unnatural Links
Before we get into link building techniques, let’s clear up a common misconception in the SEO industry: the definition of an unnatural link.
Google would have you believe that unnatural links are any links that you put forth an effort to get. The truth is simple: thinking of links as natural vs. unnatural is a false dichotomy.
The truth is that link building lies on a spectrum. Any link you build that requires the discretion of the “linking party” is fair game. These links include links built from guest posting, outreach, and other “manual” methods. Although you’re putting in a lot of work to get these links, they’re not unnatural — someone else willingly agreed to allow those links on their site, presumably because they feel the link increases the value of the page to a visitor.
- How 16 Companies are Dominating the World’s Google Search Results
- Guide to Link Quality, Link Penalties and “Bad Links”
The SEO industry is a funny thing. Every time a link building tactic dies or Google releases a new update (like the rumored “Fred” update), people ask, “Does link building still work? Is link building dead forever?”
Until Google completely devalues backlinks as a ranking signal, the answer is simple: link building still works. And it’s more valuable than ever. As it becomes harder to trick Google, the value of real backlinks is sky high.
However, it’s true that building high-quality backlinks is more difficult. It requires a new set of skills that many SEOs and marketers need to develop more fully to increase their link building success.
The “Holy Trinity” of Link Building Skills
To find success in your link building efforts in 2017, you must:
- Build robust processes and be analytical in your approach
- Be creative in your efforts and understand human psychology
- Be empathetic and communicate on a human-to-human level
You may have noticed these skills don’t overlap much. The analytical SEO may have a difficult time with communication and empathy, while the highly personable marketer might lag behind on their link building processes.
To build the best links, you need to develop the skills you’re weaker at to become a well-rounded link builder.
The first “hard skill” in link building is how you research backlink targets. Without a strong research process, you’ll end up reaching out to bad prospects and annoying people along the way.
In a way, you can think of link building as a sales funnel, and the research phase is the top of the funnel. By carefully vetting prospects, you save yourself a ton of work during the outreach and follow-up phases of link building.
Research Backlink Profiles of Competitors
The most logical way to discover backlink prospects is to mine your competitors for the websites that link to them. You can use a whole host of tools to do this research, but the best backlink index on the internet right now is Ahrefs. They’re a bit expensive but worth the money in my opinion.
Type a competitor into one of these tools, and you’ll get a list of the backlinks that point to their site. Combing through these backlinks will show you:
- How your competitors are building links
- Quick wins — profiles, blog comments, guest posts, and resource pages
- Hard, but high-value link targets for manual outreach
During the research process, your goal is to identify link building strategies that have worked for competitors, as well as individual backlink targets that you can outreach to.
Once you’ve researched enough and built a list of prospects, it’s time for the outreach process. Outreach can take many different forms, which makes it more of an art than a science. If you’re a process-oriented SEO, the outreach process can sometimes feel ambiguous and unstructured. That’s OK — learn to embrace it and flow with the different types of outreach and responses you get and your success getting links will skyrocket.
Finally, we’re on to whitehat link building strategies for 2017! It’s important to remember that the overall process behind getting links remains the same as it always has been. What changes are the specific methods by which marketers build backlinks.
Creating content that acts as a “link magnet” means creating content that is distinctly different from your competitor’s content around the same topic. It’s content that’s easy to build links to because it:
- Takes a unique or polarizing position
- Is an order of magnitude better than competing content
- Differentiates itself from similar content
Creating link magnets is less a specific tactic and more of a mindset. When you approach content in this way, building links to becomes much easier. Because you’ve put in the time to create content that is truly unique, you could argue that it deserves to rank.
“Ego Bait” is best thought of as a subset of link magnets, and relies heavily on human psychology to expedite link building. The name conjures up images of Machiavellian manipulation, but at its core Ego Bait is simply featuring other people in your content and then telling them about it.
Let’s face it — there’s no industry that is completely dominated by one person, so share the wealth and link to, reference, and quote other players in your industry. Then, tell them they were featured with an email outreach campaign or tweet. If you do it in a tactful way, you should get a few shares, links, and even collaboration opportunities out of it.
Ego baits can take the form of:
- Roundup posts
- Quoting excerpts of an influencer’s post
- Simple mentions
- Deconstructing Linkbait: How to Create Content That Attracts Backlinks
- SEO Guide to Creating Viral Linkbait and Infographics
- A Simple Ego Bait Method That Can Get You Great Links
- 5 Simple Ways to Leverage Blog Mentions
As mentioned above, interviewing is one form of ego bait. It deserves its own section because it’s so powerful. Interviews aren’t just conducted over email and posted to a blog. In fact, in a perfect world, you’d conduct a video interview, then repurpose that content into:
- A podcast
- An in-depth blog post
- A webinar
- Social media messages, quotes, and images
And within every one of these content formats is the opportunity to gain links from the person you interviewed and their following. The interview tactic has been used by businesses like Entrepreneur on Fire as the main way that the business grew from nothing to hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit every month.
Whoever first came up with broken link building was a genius: it’s a true win-win for you and the person that you’re reaching out to. You get a backlink, and they’re able to fix a mistake on their page.
If you decide to engage in broken link building, there are two ways to go about it:
- Recreate a popular resource that no longer exists, then outreach to all of the websites still linking to the nonexistent resource
- Scan your website for existing content and conduct a small broken link building campaign for each piece of content
Both methods work well, provided your outreach templates aren’t spammy or pushy. Broken link building is a relatively easy method, which means a lot of marketers are using it. Differentiate yourself from the pack with a personable, empathetic outreach email.
Reclaiming links is a twist on broken link building. There are four different variations on the theme:
- Fixing broken internal links — often the best time investment
- Fixing broken backlinks pointing to your site
- Live-monitoring for mentions of your content or brand that don’t link to you
- Monitoring use of your content, images, or videos that don’t link to you
These tactics are listed in order of easiest to hardest. Fixing broken internal links is a strategy many SEOs neglect or don’t consider, which is a shame. It’s by far the quickest link building win you can attain as you have complete control over your own site. Use a tool like Screaming Frog SEO Spider to identify broken links and patch them up.
The second highest return on your time is reaching out to websites that are linking to your website incorrectly. Maybe there’s a spelling error, or there’s a URL that’s no longer in use. If the latter is the case, you can use the Redirection WordPress plugin and take care of the redirect on your side. This way you’ll save time and effort reaching out to other sites.
If, however, the error is on their side, all you’ll need to do is give them a friendly nudge email correcting the URL and thanking them for linking to you in the first place.
Surfing The News
This link building strategy requires a finely-tuned eye for what’s trending and what gets people fired up. It relies heavily on covering newsworthy or “buzzing” topics, then reaching out to larger news organizations, magazines, and publications for a link.
The key with this strategy is timing. If you notice a story that’s tangentially related to your industry, write a piece outlining your unique angle or perspective and pitch journalists. Whenever a hot topic is trending, journalists are absolutely starving for quotes, resources, and opinions from experts in the field. With the right approach, you can be that expert and pick up a bunch of extremely high-quality links along the way.
Ah, the tried and true guest blogging technique. The former Head of Web Spam at Google, Matt Cutts, previously declared guest blogging a dead technique:
Back in the day, guest blogging used to be a respectable thing, much like getting a coveted, respected author to write the introduction of your book. It’s not that way any more.
However, it’s alive and well in 2017…provided you approach it the correct way. If you’re guest blogging on low-authority websites and spamming the articles a bunch of over-optimized links, then you’re asking for a penalty from Google.
Instead, think of guest blogging as relationship building first, and link building second. Seek win-win opportunities where you can contribute a valuable piece of content to a website that has an audience that overlaps your own.
In 2017, it’s all about the personal touch. That’s where the better link builders have the edge.
You might be thinking, “Isn’t infographic-based link building out of date?” In a way, yes it is. Like most link building techniques, it’s been used and abused by marketers looking for easy growth.
This might lead you to believe that there’s no value in infographics anymore. But that couldn’t be more wrong. As most people aren’t investing heavily in infographics anymore, there’s never been a better time to double-down on high-quality, valuable infographic content.
Instead of pitching infographics and offering to write a custom introduction as Brian Dean of Backlinko pioneered, you may want to try writing an entire guest post and embedding the infographic in it as an additional value-add. This will set you apart from the hordes of link builders trying to get cheap infographic links.
I know, I know. “Images” is a broad type of link building that contains within it many specific tactics. But images are often an under-utilized tool in a link builder’s kit. With a little creativity, you can build very high-quality backlinks with images. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Creating Pinterest-optimized images for every piece of content
- Blending ego bait with images by creating image quotes of influencers
- Creating memes and other viral content for your space
A key to building links with images is that the images must be resources in their own right. They must be images that someone else in your industry who’s working on a piece of content wants to use in their article.
Let’s face it: producing content in 2017 is expensive, and it’s not getting cheaper. The push towards higher-quality and in-depth content is driving up the money and time it takes to produce something that’s truly linkable.
Knowing this, you should try to squeeze as much juice out of a single piece of content as possible. Imagine you created a video for your website and you’re looking to get the most out of it. You should:
- Turn it into a blog post (or a series of blog posts)
- Isolate the audio and turn it into a podcast episode
- Take the most important points from the video and turn them into a checklist or other downloadable asset
- Take quotes from the video and share them with an image on all of your social media platforms
By repurposing your content, you drive down your content costs and drive up the amount of reach and backlinks you receive from it.
If you’re investing a lot of time and money into blog articles, you should also consider content syndication. There are plenty of media outlets in every niche that live off of the backs of other people’s content — so give it to them! You’ll lock down another platform to expand your reach, but more importantly also receive a backlink every time a piece of your content is syndicated out.
Directory link building is one of the oldest tactics there is, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely devalued. It requires a nuanced touch in 2017. Gone are the days when you could pay a service to submit your site to hundreds or even thousands of directories and score sweet, sweet backlinks.
When building directory links, the only thing that matters is the overall quality of the directory. Here are a few ways to ensure you’re building good directory links:
- The directory has a human being approving all submissions
- The directory is old and doesn’t contain too many low-quality links
- The directory itself has a strong, diversified backlink profile
If a directory matches these criteria, it’s probably a good link to build. That said, don’t go overboard with this strategy — it should be a “quick win” that you move on from after you do a round of link building.
Just like directories, most people think that press releases are a dead strategy and have been for years. However, if you take press releases at face value and attempt to land press with them, they’re all of a sudden a genius link building strategy once again.
If you’re launching a new website, product, service, or have another piece of newsworthy content to share, consider a press release link building campaign. Couple it with outreach to interested media outlets, websites, and industry journals to scale the effectiveness of the strategy.
Although citations are similar to business directory links, they’re different in one important way: the NAP. Your name, address, and phone number must be present to “count” in Google’s eyes as a citation.
Citations are an odd type of link, in that you don’t even need a link for them to count! Oftentimes your NAP being listed on a site is enough for Google to give your site a bit of a boost in the SERPs.
You can be a bit more aggressive with these links as a business directory might not even link to you. That said, you do have to be a legitimate business to be listed in many of the highest-quality directories.
Blog, Forum, and Community Participation
Good old fashioned community participation is a link building tactic that’s never going to go out of style…provided you approach it the right way. It’s one of the easiest ways to get a large amount of backlinks to your site, but more importantly to drive referral traffic and build a community.
As an active participant in your niche, you should have a few accounts on:
- Popular blogs
- Related forums
- Active communities
And dedicate some time to them every week. To avoid being seen as spammy, concentrate on offering value instead of dropping links. On some platforms — like Reddit — you can drive massive traffic, but one misstep and you’ll have the entire community holding pitchforks and demanding your head for marketing too aggressively.
In short: community participation is low-hanging fruit and can help build an army of engaged followers who will start to do your promotion for you.
Answering questions ties in with the blog, forum, and community participation strategy. It’s a separate tactic here because there are websites specifically dedicated to answering questions around a topic. In the past, the most popular platform was Yahoo! Answers, but there are more sophisticated platforms like Quora that have since popped up.
To tell the truth, both of them are still fantastic platforms for building your image as a credible authority on your topic. Just like community participation, answering questions around your topic is not only a link building strategy but a way to connect with your audience and build trust. It should be mixed into your linkb building strategy as an ongoing tactic.
Sponsorships and Sponsored Content
Sponsorships are also referred to as charity links or scholarship links. They involve sponsoring, donating to, or holding a scholarship for a particular organization or topic. Investing some money in a sponsorship like this is a fantastic way to snap up .gov and .edu links, which are weighted higher in Google’s algorithm. In fact, some marketers have quickly ranked a new website solely from this strategy.
Sponsored content, on the other hand, involves paying other influencers to write up your product or service. This treads dangerously close to paying for links, so you have to make sure the links you build this way are nofollow. In the past, Google overlooked this strategy, but that time is over. Be content with your nofollow links…they still pass link juice anyways.
Private Blog Networks
We’ve saved the best for last: PBNs, or Private Blog Networks. The SEO community is split in half by this type of link building, with some saying it’s a completely safe strategy if done correctly and other saying it should never be done as it’s pure black-hat link building.
The real answer is: it’s up to you. Because PBN links are truly black-hat links, they carry with them a non-zero risk of being penalized by Google. If you use them, you must take heavy precautions to cloak your use, or you risk being spotted and de-indexed or penalized.
Because link building is such an involved process, there is a whole host of tools to help you along at every step of the way. The SEO industry is a bit cluttered with tool after tool, so this is a curated list of the best tools for each part of the link building process.
There are other tools out there, but these are the ones that have stood the test of time and are preferred by most SEOs.
The fastest way to build links is to replicate the link building strategy of your competitors. After all, if you can get a list of their backlinks, you have a list of website that you know are willing to link to websites similar to your own. These tools help expedite the research process.
Right now, Ahrefs is the best backlink checking tool in existence. They boast the largest backlink index out there, which is enough of a reason to use them. But on top of that, they also offer a robust suite of tools to manipulate and filter backlink data to make the research process easier.
Majestic SEO is another backlink index tool that’s been around longer than Ahrefs and has a similarly-sized index of backlinks. Which you use is personal preference and often comes down to pricing and how much you’ll use the other features that both of these tools offer.
The OSE from Moz is yet another tool for combing through backlinks and often referred to as the smallest backlink index. They also update less frequently than Ahrefs or Majestic, which makes them lag behind a bit as far as market share goes.
Content is flooding the internet, but good content still rises to the top. By researching the best content in your industry and reverse-engineering both the content itself and the links pointing to it, you’re off to a good start in your link building efforts. These tools help make the research process easier.
Buzzsumo is more than just a content research tool, but it came to be known for this part of its suite. All you have to do is pop in a keyword or website, and it will spit out the most popular content. On top of that, it also shows who shared the content and on what platforms. It’s a fantastic tool for scaling the promotion of your content by reaching out to specific influencers.
Ahrefs has a version of Buzzsumo built into its suite of tools, called the Content Explorer. It works in a similar fashion. What makes it different is that you can then analyze the URLs with the full range of Ahrefs tools after identifying popular content — including downloading a list of backlinks.
In link building, time is of the essence. If you can hop on a link building opportunity before your competitors, you can score backlinks that no one else can get, giving you a massive edge in the SERPs. Here are a few tools for live-monitoring the web for keywords or backlinks.
The classic tool in this space is good old Google Alerts. It’s free, and you can set up as many alerts as you want around a domain, keyword, or topic.
Mention is a software tool specifically dedicated to live-monitoring both the web and social media platforms for your brand. Most SEOs use it to monitor competitors, topics, and specific keywords so they can be at the ready when a link building opportunity presents itself.
Once you have a well-researched list of backlink targets, the arduous outreach process begins. Most marketers dipping their toes into scaling whitehat link building give up somewhere in the outreach process because it seems impossible to keep track of prospects efficiently. These tools help bring some order to the chaos.
Buzzstream is one of the first and oldest tools specifically dedicated to link building and press outreach. It not only allows you to send an email and follow up through the platform, but acts as a prospecting tool and a database. It takes a bit of time to familiarize yourself with the platform, but once you get up to speed, it’s extremely powerful.
Built specifically for blogger outreach, this tool is similar to Buzzstream but provides a bit more filtration and prospecting tools than its older competitor.
Yesware is more for salespeople than link builders, but many marketers have used it to great effect. It’s a chrome extension that allows you to monitor who opens your emails and clicks your links. You can then reach out to people who haven’t responded, but you know are somewhat engaged with your email.
Find That Email is an accurate email finding tool used by Sales Representatives, Recruiters and Marketers. It’s known for it’s accuracy in finding emails, which helps in reducing bounce rates that saves money and improves the company’s sender reputation.
They don’t guess emails or take emails from publicly available information, algorithms go through various datasets from various data sources and accurately arrives at the right email address.
Mailshake hooks into your Gmail account and allows you to drop in .csv files of outreach prospects, then schedule out customized-but-templated emails. The main benefit to this tool is the huge amount of pre-written templates it comes with and the advanced auto-followup sending options.
The link building process is a long one with many moving parts. No matter what type of link building you’re doing, there will be some “grunt work” that you might want to hire out. Here are two resources to lean on if you decide to hire a freelancer.
A fantastic database of freelancers from around the world. The best thing about Upwork’s platform is the granular filtration system, allowing you only to see candidates that fit your exact specifications.
Another tool for hiring freelancers. Similar to Upwork. Consider posting a job to both platforms and selecting the best applicant overall to increase the quality of your hires.