When it comes to getting your content to rank on search engines, few things are more crucial than backlinks. Backlinks are how search engines determine the authority of your website and where to rank your pages. But before we dive into how to do link building, let’s step back and walk through the link building basics together.
What is link building?
At its core, link building is deliberately trying to get links to a page on your website. Of course, there are many ways of doing this, some honest and ethical and others not so much. But obviously, we prefer those that are above board. We encourage people to link to our content because it’s valuable and linking benefits us both.
How do backlinks work? (Why link building matters)
To understand why link building matters, we must go back a couple of decades in the history of Google. In the early 2000s, believe it or not, Google was competing with many other search engines, all of which were doing just as well (if not better) than it was. Google, naturally, was vying for that top spot.
But how did it actually get there? Well, Google reasoned that people would use its search engine more if it provided more accurate, relevant results to queries. So, it started to think of better, more creative ways of ranking the best web content—like grading a webpage by the quantity and quality of links to it.
These days, this factor sounds like a complete no-brainer, but in the early days of the web, the SEO focus was more on the number of keywords on a page. Obviously, this imperfect metric led to a lot of issues, like keyword stuffing.
Ranking pages based on links was a revolutionary idea at the time, because unlike with keyword stuffing and other kinds of “SEO,” it was difficult to manipulate or cheat a system based on links. People don’t just link to others easily—they have to really enjoy your content and feel that it’s useful enough to link to. They also have to see your site as authoritative and trustworthy.
To this day, links are still a major ranking factor in Google. Generally speaking, the sites that rank higher have more links from quality, relevant sources.
The two most important components for search engine optimization
Google Search Quality Senior Strategist Andrey Lipattsev went on record to disclose the two most important ranking factors: “[I]t is content. And it’s links pointing to your site.”
That being said, there are hundreds of things that can be done that fall under “search engine optimization.” You can use the Google Search Console to improve the targeting of keywords that go to your content, use internal linking, and so on. But the two most impactful things? Content and links.
If you can get the most authoritative links pointing to a specific article of yours, and that article uses the right keywords and is valuable to the reader, the searcher ultimately gets what they want, and then everything else falls into place naturally for rankings.
Keep in mind, too, that when we say content, we’re not just talking about words on a page. Content can be anything from podcasts to infographics, slideshows, and videos. Of course, you’ll need to have some data surrounding those things so that search engines like Google can “read” it, but Google is smart enough now to be able to determine that if many authoritative sites are pointing to yours, you must have something worth sharing.
Which links are most important?
As you can imagine, not all links are equal—there are lots of different types of links you can get. You can go about getting links from spam sites whose only real purpose is to be a “hub” for backlinks, or you can get links from well-known sites with recognizable brands, like Forbes.com.
Now, Google tends to float in priority between the quantity of links and quality of links, and it’s still trying to find the right balance. Needless to say, both are important.
As an example, let’s say I run a CrossFit blog. All I blog about is CrossFit, so regarding content, it’s the only relevant topic for my intended audience. Now, one link from Forbes is not going to change my ranking considerably. There are just too many factors that come into play: for all Google knows, I could have bought that link or otherwise “cheated” or manipulated the system to get it.
Google is looking for non-manipulative signs that your content is worth ranking high—namely, that your content is genuinely useful. I might go for links from Forbes, but I’d much rather get them from Livestrong.com or Nerdfitness.com, which are both huge fitness sites for their respective target audiences. A link from something unrelated, like a toy site or a pizza blog, wouldn’t be as high quality for me because they don’t cater to the same audience. In this case, it’s better to have 20 links from high-authority websites than 100 links from mediocre ones.
How do you accurately measure the quality of a link?
So now that you know that it’s better to get high-authority links from related brands and websites, you may be asking yourself, “Is there any metric out there that accurately measures the quality of a link?”
There is a way. Moz.com developed an algorithm that computes a 1 out of 100 score known as Domain Authority. This score is the predictive ranking of the authority or “clout” of a domain as a whole. Another facet of this ranking algorithm is Page Authority, which, as you might imagine, is the ranking strength of a specific page.
If you go to Moz.com’s Open Site Explorer, the Domain Authority isn’t going to change. But as you go from page to page, the Page Authority will. Back to our CrossFit example, let’s say you have an article on how to do specific exercises in CrossFit. Its Domain Authority will remain the same no matter what article you put in, but the Page Authority may be higher than that of another page, based on how many links it has.
The algorithm goes from zero to 100, with 100 being the best score. But the higher you get, the harder it becomes to climb, so sites like Facebook or Harvard or Forbes are going to be a 98 or 99 while your average mom-and-pop personal blog is probably going to be a 10. Now, Moz doesn’t share all the details of how it arrives at this number—it’s their “secret sauce.” But it is nonetheless a good metric for assessing the overall link quality of a webpage. Other paid tools, like SEMRush and Ahrefs, have their proprietary zero-to-100 scores as well.
The downside is that Moz’s algorithm doesn’t factor in relevance, so it can’t tell you if the site is relevant to the specific topic you write about. But at least it will give you a general score of how impactful that link would be, and is a good metric to look at when considering potential link partners.
Top 3 tactics for high-impact link building for beginners
There are several link building strategies out there on the web, but the ones you’ll want to focus on as a beginner are those that deliver the most impactful, measurable results, as well as the ones that are easiest to understand. Let’s dive right into this backlink guide.
This tactic really is the low-hanging fruit of a robust backlink building strategy. The process is so easy that many people overlook it because of its simplicity.
The premise is that you have a brand or a company that gets mentioned a lot on the web. There are tools out there, like Ahrefs, Google Mentions, or Buzzsumo, that scour the web for mentions of a company or brand and then deliver a sort of “digest” that shows who’s talking about you and what they’re saying. Often, sites mention a person or company, but they forget to link to them. Some people are lazy, and others are simply forgetful or busy. And of course, there are those who don’t initially want to link to someone.
That’s when you reach out to them (there are tools like Hunter.io for finding their email address). If you get the link, great! If you don’t get it the first time, follow up! Sometimes the second (or third) try is the charm. I’ve often obtained links only after following up once or twice because people occasionally miss my first message.
In terms of finding the middle ground between not reaching out enough and bothering people to the point of annoyance, use your common sense and social intuition. Generally, emailing once isn’t enough, but more than five times is too much.
And that’s it! As I said, it’s dead simple but impactful.
So how do you find out who’s talking about you or your company? The easiest free way is to Google your brand name like so:
“Yourbrandname” -facebook.com -twitter.com
These search operators eliminate your social media links from the search results. You should remove social media links because those have a lot less value as a link overall, and you only want the good stuff.
You can now go through each search result that isn’t tied to or owned by your company and get to the ones where someone has mentioned (but not yet linked to) you.
Optionally, you can hit the Tools button and then select the “Any time” dropdown to filter by a specific time period, such as the past month—useful for large brands that need to filter by priority. Look for anyone who’s mentioned your company’s name, while also verifying that it is indeed your company (and not one with an identical name but in another country, for example).
Now, obviously, there’s bound to be junk out there. But when you do find a page that’s mentioned you, click through, and determine that they are talking about you, that’s when you go into outreach mode and convince them to link to you.
As mentioned earlier, Hunter.io is a good tool that can help with this outreach process. There’s also a Google Chrome extension for Hunter; you hit the button, and Hunter tries to pull up any contact emails stored on the back-end of a website. If it can’t find any, you can alternatively look for the Contact Us page on the site.
Once you’ve found a good email to reach out to, write to them! Naturally, the script that you use is important. You’re welcome to test out different approaches—we’ve done several tests ourselves, but here’s what we’ve found works best.
The first step is to start with some warm opening or compliment. For example: “Hey, I noticed that you mentioned YourCompanyName. Thanks so much! I really appreciate that you took the time to do that.”
And from here, you go into something short, sweet, and concise, because they don’t have time to read an essay (and you hopefully don’t have time to write one!). This section is the point where you ask for what you want and specify how the website can benefit from linking to you. So, you could say:
“It would be great if you could also link to YourCompanyName at example.com/. Linking to us improves the user experience of the page, which in turn helps with your search engine ranking.”
Generally speaking, the typical yield for this is around 5%. That means that if you’ve reached out to people 100 times and are good at what you’re doing, five of them will possibly say yes. So that gives you a general benchmark on how tough link building can be. The process itself, as you can see, is very easy, but the actual yield can be tough. So, of course, feel free to test things out to find a better script.
Now, some tools can simplify this process, so you don’t just rely on Google. For example, Moz’s paid tool Fresh Web Explorer pulls up mentions that you might not find with just regular Googling; it offers lots of different search operators.
Not finding enough mentions of your brand on other websites? Many times, what you’ll find is that people may not mention your company name but rather someone important who works there, like your CFO or CEO. Employees get mentioned because these people go to or sponsor networking events, and doing so presents even more unlinked-mentions opportunities that you may not have even considered. Try searching for these employee name mentions, too.
Finally, if you really want to stay on top of managing mentions, you can even use Google Alerts to send you free daily, weekly, or monthly alerts whenever someone mentions your company name.
Broken link building
Broken link building is essentially finding pages for sites that you want links from, identifying ones with a link that no longer works, and then reaching out to the site and suggesting a replacement (one of your pages).
There are lots of reasons why a broken link exists, and even if you have a moderately sized website, it’s going to happen sooner or later. Pages get moved, become outdated, or get deleted—all sorts of things can happen.
A broken link presents a great opportunity to get a link back to your website. Let’s continue with our CrossFit example. Suppose there’s a fitness blogger who has a broken link on her resource page, which could be around a topic like the “Top 10 Female Fitness bloggers” that links to each blogger while giving a short description.
Perhaps one of the bloggers just stopped updating their site for whatever reason and shut it down. That site as it was known no longer exists, but the original blogger who profiled these female fitness bloggers doesn’t update that link—she has too many other things to do and articles to write to notice.
So, reach out to the blogger who profiled these other sites and mention you noticed a broken link—and that even though the site no longer exists, your site has this great piece on arm workouts for busy women (or whatever else would appeal to them). So, we’d convince them to link to us—and ultimately obtain that link, since a working link is better than a broken one.
The stumbling block that often occurs with this type of outreach is usually between the point at which you reach out to them and when you recommend one of your articles as a replacement. It could be that they’ve never heard of you, or that the article you’re asking them to link to just isn’t that good or relevant. It’s even possible that they’ll thank you for notifying them about that broken link, but they’re not going to link back to you, even if your content is good.
But fear not! Sometimes, site administrators are delighted that you’ve alerted them. They’re thankful that you’ve taken the time to do the work they haven’t and will immediately add your link as a replacement. Since you’ve served up everything they need, they feel no desire to waste precious time finding a replacement link.
Resource pages like the one we described with the CrossFit example are pretty much the staple for finding broken links. They’re the perfect hotbed for this tactic since resource-type posts often link out to a bunch of other resources and tools that may eventually stop being updated.
Now, to find broken links on sites within your industry, you can simply run a URL through any number of free link checker tools, and it will go through all the links on that page and let you know which ones are broken. There are plenty of Chrome extensions that do this, too. There are also free and paid tools, like Screaming Frog, that will crawl an entire site to find broken links.
You can also combine this strategy with the Hunter.io tool mentioned earlier to find people’s contact information and ask them to replace the broken link with yours.
With that taken care of, let’s now move on to the last strategy for backlink building.
Getting competitor’s links
This backlinking strategy isn’t like the others. Rather, it involves going to your competitor’s links and taking those away from them—or even just getting whoever is linking to your competitor to link to you as well.
As an example, let’s go back to our CrossFit site. There’s another fitness site on the web that’s ranking number one for the search terms and phrases we want. But they’re already established in their niche. How would we begin to compete with them if they’re already the dominant presence?
The answer is to beat them at their own game. Find articles they’ve written that may no longer be accurate or relevant. Then, find every site that links to that article and convince them to link to ours instead (or in addition to the other one).
Easier said than done, right? How can you outdo someone who’s already the recognized authority on a keyword or phrase you’re targeting? Frankly, there are still plenty of low-quality pieces of content ranking well on the web. You don’t have to be too intimidated about the process because there are still gaps for improvement if you look for them.
The easiest way is to create a better article by any objective standard, and then mention it when you’re reaching out. So you could say, “Hey, I noticed that you linked to this CrossFit article on AuthorityFitnessSiteExample five years ago. I’ve created a more updated, thorough article that I think your readers would be interested in.”
Now, keep in mind that there are many ways to outdo an already definitive guide on something. You can be more thorough, more data-driven, more concise, or more visual. You could embed Instagram photos, YouTube videos, infographics, animated GIFs, or simply turn a huge wall of text into something truly data backed.
Then you simply rinse and repeat. You’ll still use the same tools as with prior link-building initiatives, including Moz’s Open Site to find the links and Hunter.io to contact them.
Plus, this strategy can be more effective than others since these people have already proven that they are willing and able to link out in the first place, so you don’t need to put in as much effort to convince them to link— demonstrate that you have a piece of content worth linking to.
How to keep track of your backlink outreach
If you’re trying to keep track of all your backlink outreach efforts in your head, it’s going to become a jumbled mess. Whom did I contact? What did they say (if anything?) What’s next?
Instead, you can use a simple spreadsheet to log your link building progress. There are three strategies presented here, so, you can create a tab for each one of the strategies and then log whom you contacted, what their site URL was, and what kind of results you got with them.
This sheet helps ensure that you don’t mistakenly reach out to the same person several times and that you can see what progress you’ve made in successfully getting links, and which sites they’re from.
The bottom line is that you don’t need to make your spreadsheet complicated—in fact, you’re encouraged not to. The more complicated it becomes, the messier it gets—and the longer it takes to reach out to each person. In turn, this slows your productivity and efficiency.
You may be tempted to include a few extra fields for reporting, such as their Domain Authority, Page Authority, anchor text, and the URL to link to, and you certainly can. But overall, keep it simple—you don’t want to spend 20 minutes trying to contact each person because of all the form fields you have to fill out.
Hopefully, you’ve learned three effective tactics for how to do link building after reading this article. As you can see, building backlinks is just a matter of taking the fundamental concept of outreach and then changing it a little to encompass a variety of strategies for identifying opportunities. Just remember that backlink outreach isn’t a one-and-done effort—it must be an ongoing process of outreach and follow-ups if you want to beat your competitors at the same game.
The good news is that by following these steps over time and producing top-notch content, you’ll see your backlink efforts begin to pay off, and you’ll start getting relevant, high-authority links. This process, of course, will improve your Page Authority and Domain Authority. And who knows? With a little luck and consistency on your side, people could soon be asking YOU for backlinks!
Have you tried any of these strategies in your backlink building efforts? How have they paid off for you?
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