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In case you didn’t know, backlinks—when other websites hyperlink to your site—are one of the three top organic search engine ranking factors,and, per Google, it doesn’t look like they will be going anywhere anytime soon! This means that, as search engine optimizers, we need to be focusing on link building, or else we will run the risk of being left in the dust by our competitors.
No one wants to be left behind. Here is how you can stay ahead of the curve and smite your competitors into SEO oblivion—or just move past them in the SERPs.
Introduction to Link Building
Link building is the art of getting other websites to link back to you. Google puts a lot of value in links—and probably always will—because they are a good judge of popularity. According to Backlinko, referring domains had the highest correlation to ranking high in Google when they analyzed over one million results in Google. What does this mean? It means links are a high correlative factor to ranking high in Google.
In all honesty, I really dislike the term “link building.” Truthfully, no one is really building links manually anymore, which is where we got the “link building” terminology. Also, link building has had a very bad reputation because it was a term being used when people were manually building links using tools like SENuke and Fiverr gigs. This really gave the SEO practice a “black eye,” pun intended.
There were also things like building social bookmarks, web 2.0 properties, blog comments, and other spammy techniques that every SEO company in India was trying to sell you prior to Penguin 4.0.
If you are still manually building links, then you really need to elevate what you are doing because there is a very high chance that you are wasting a lot of your time. Instead, you want to be focusing on earning and acquiring links. Not manually building them, which will earn you nothing.
Not All Links Are the Same
The main reason that you don’t want to be building links manually is because not all links are equal. The links that you earn organically usually are harder to receive and more valuable, which gives you a higher authority in Google. Then Google will place you higher in the SERPs as a result.
Mainly people don’t have the skill or knowledge to acquire the right kind of links, or they don’t want to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work to earn them. I am not talking about sponsored posts, either. If you pay for sponsored posts, they may help, but, if you can do this easily, so can everyone else, which defeats the purpose.
To illustrate my point of all links not being equal, here is an example of a backlink profile and their URL ratings (in Ahrefs).
As you can see, the vast majority of the links are around the 0-20 range. By focusing on low-quality links and manually building them, you are just wasting your time. You should already have a considerable amount of low-quality links just by being in business and having a website on the internet. Instead, you want to be focusing on what is going to give you the most value for your time.
Return on Time
Links are not all the same—some are more valuable because they have a higher quality. As you might imagine, these higher-quality links can be much more difficult to acquire, but it’s better to have a couple of high-quality links than having a ton of low-quality links.
Some links take a lot of time to acquire, like getting a link from Forbes, while some links don’t take a lot of time, such as making a Facebook fan page. When focusing on acquiring links, be mindful of the time that it takes.
When doing a comarketing or thought leadership initiative, take a look at your collaborator’s domain authority and ask yourself what will be the return on your time? If you spend 10 hours on a thought leadership initiative, you had better be certain that you have a good chance to land some very impactful links or get good marketing value out of it. Otherwise, it will be a complete waste of your time and resources.
On the flip side, don’t be too conservative and scared to waste some resources. Even if you do a comarketing collaboration and it doesn’t go well, or you didn’t get the link you wanted, it’s not the end of the world. Sometimes, you won’t get a ton of value, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete waste. You might be able to find value somewhere else. However, if you’re not getting value on any of your collaborations, then you need to sit down and reevaluate your efforts.
What to Focus On
One of the best ways to get high-quality links with a higher URL rating is to focus on being a thought leader. For example, earlier in this article, I linked to Backlinko’s study because they are a pretty big thought leader in this industry. It was also a very link-worthy piece of content, but we will dive deeper into that later on. Had it been some smaller company that analyzed one million search results, I might not have linked to them because I wouldn’t have known if I could trust them and their results.
Unfortunately, you don’t just start out as a thought leader in your space. You might think you know everything there is to know, and you can pass it along, but you aren’t going to have the “trust” that comes along with it right off the bat.
Yet, you have to start somewhere. This is why thought leadership marketing, as I like to call it, is one of the best ways to acquire links—not only do you acquire them now, as you are building up your credibility, but it will also help you acquire links in the future. It also helps to build your brand, which can have a ton of benefits even outside of SEO.
To a certain degree, SEO is becoming assimilated into more general marketing and customer acquisition channels. Really, this is great for everyone involved, because SEO is coming out of the darkness and gaining more legitimacy as Google continues to strike down search engine optimizers who are trying to game the system.
However, there is still a very bad stigma concerning SEO, which we can hope will be removed—eventually—as long as our thought leaders all focus on the right things: white hat, rather than black hat methods.
Content Creation & Promotion
If you only try one SEO tactic from this entire article, let it be content creation and promotion. Hands down, this is the most effective link acquisition strategy, produces the best long-term sustainable results, and builds your brand more. And, it’s a very simple concept. You post content and then promote it to other audiences, which gives you a chance to get natural links.
This tactic is so powerful that brands have been doing it, for years now, and have had positive results. However, the kicker is that it can be very hard to do when you are just starting out. Therefore, normally what happens is brands start creating content and promoting it—but then stop because they didn’t get the results as quickly as they would have liked to.
Unfortunately, when you are just starting out, you really are starting from scratch. It could take a year—or even two—to get some good traction, but, with the right skill set, you can cut down some of that time. Remember, some of your competitors have been doing this for a very long time, so don’t expect to overtake them in a day or two.
Content ≠ Links
This is the first of many myths we need to debunk right out of the gate.
One problem a lot of people run into when they start doing content creation and promotion is what I call the “publish and pray” method. They read somewhere that the best way to get links is to create high-quality content. So, they publish a lot of quality content—or, at least, what they think is quality—and that’s it. Then they get frustrated, when they don’t get any links, and write off SEO as nonsense.
The problem here is that content doesn’t equal links. Just because you create quality content does not mean that you will get links. How is anyone supposed to read it when all you do is publish it to your blog? How many people are actually reading your blog religiously?
Also, are you sure that it is high quality? Or is it just okay content that you are trying to push out as fast as possible? See what currently ranks in Google for your desired search term and make sure that your content blows that piece out of the water.
Content + Promotion ≠ Links
Here is the second myth we need to debunk.
Content plus promotion doesn’t equal links, either. You might be thinking, but wait—you said I needed to be doing content creation and promotion. I created the content and I promoted it. What else is there?
Think back to your goal here—getting links. You need someone to take time out of their day to send links back to your content. Just creating content and telling someone about it most likely isn’t going to result in hundreds of links. So, how do you get someone to remember your content or take time out of their day to link to you?
Content + Promotion + Value = Links
You add value to their site or their following.
This cannot be said enough. To get high-quality links, you have to give people enough value that they will stop what they are doing and link to you. This is the part by which everyone gets tripped up when it comes to acquiring links. They do not figure out the value part, and it usually crushes their campaigns.
How to Add Value
There are a few different ways that you can add value. Number one is to have insanely unique and interesting content that the reader absolutely could not get anywhere else. If you have this, people are going to link to you consistently, and in the future, as well. At the start of this article, I mentioned the Backlinko study, which analyzed over one million search results. That is a super interesting and unique piece of content that I constantly remember and link to.
Here are some ways to add value to your content and make it “link-worthy:”
This should be fairly straightforward. If you are able to provide statistics or unique data, people are more likely to link to your content to further prove their point. Don’t feel bad if you don’t earn as many links as you want with this method if you are a smaller brand. Statistics work very well for larger brands because there is a higher trust factor.
For instance, Search Metrics releases a “ranking report” which shows what are the biggest correlations of ranking. Had my agency that had 25 or so people released this report, we would not have gotten anywhere near the same traction as Search Metrics because of the trust factor.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use statistics. It just requires time and energy to build up the brand and trust factor. In order to create statistics for your link acquisition, a good practice is to create an infographic or gifographic with your data. This creates something that anyone can use on their site while linking back to you, and it doesn’t create duplicate content.
You want to make sure you really blow the design out of the water and make it easy for people to use your infographic on their website. This gives them great value—but make sure you have them link back to your content for credit, of course.
This can give you a good example of what to do, regarding studies and being able to create your own data. The same strategy of infographics and gifographics can be used here, which I outlined above.
Expert roundups are a great example of unique content. However, they are very time-consuming and can be difficult to execute—similar to studies and statistics—but these can be very rewarding. This is a great way to meet other people in your industry and, one hopes, you can get them to link to it and promote it to their audiences.
Viral content is one of the best ways to produce value for people—usually through funny content or content that can connect with people’s emotions. For instance, videos discussing politics or videos which evoke negative emotions can do very well.
However, for the sake of positivity in this article, we will focus on humor. Using humor does very well, and, personally, I prefer to use it because negative emotions can sometimes damage brands.
For a good example, the Blendtec company, below, has been using their blenders to blend crazy items to show the quality of it.
Their YouTube channel does very well and, as you can see, it is helping them tremendously with SEO.
You can see they have 61,000 backlinks and an Ahrefs score of 71,000, which is great, considering it is just a site which houses their YouTube videos and shows them blending crazy items.
I hope the above examples gave you some good ideas but, truthfully, there are hundreds of ways to create unique and interesting content. The main thing is to create unique and interesting content that relates to your brand and products, and people will be much more likely to link to you.
Once you’ve gotten how you are going to provide value to others, it’s time to sit down and create your content. There are a couple of different ways that you can do this, but here are the two main ones that I like to do:
1. Past Data
You can use tools like Ahrefs or Buzzsumo to look at past data in order to see what has performed well in the past based on links and social media shares. By doing this content research beforehand, you are taking the guesswork out of what will resonate with your audience. After you have an idea of what type of content works well, you need to create similar content, but better. For instance, if someone wrote a really good roundup article from 2012, you can make a more updated guide for 2017, and make it similar. Hello, Skyscraper technique.
Using Google, we can search keyword phrases that we want to rank for and then identify the highest-ranking content. Once you have this identified, you can create better content than what is currently ranking. Be mindful that just because you create better content, it doesn’t mean that you will rank higher instantly. Google needs time to trust your content and for you to get high-quality backlinks. A good way to expedite this process is through promotion strategies.
After your content is done, you need to start promoting it to get the word out; otherwise, no one will ever know that your content even existed.
Here are my favorite promotion strategies, outlined below, that can help you promote your content:
1. Email marketing – The best low-hanging fruit is your email subscriber base. You can promote your content to these readers, and, if they are big fans, you can earn organic backlinks when they share it. This works especially well for eCommerce merchants, who can promote their content inside of their emails, which is a change from them having to do promotional offers to get new readership for their content.
2. Social media – My favorite promotion strategy is to use social media to promote your content. I am not saying you just post it on social media and—suddenly!—it blows up. You have to promote it through social media. I love the Facebook advertising tools—from Instagram to email matching, friend of a friend, and more. Basically, build your content via advertising, and this can happen to you.
3. Email Outreach – No, I’m not repeating myself. Email outreach is different from email marketing. This is the most powerful promotion strategy, but it can be a little more difficult to obtain links. You want to either cold- or warm-email any content editors who have written similar content and let them know about what you have written. You can use Ahrefs content explorer or a similar tool to find those who have written similar content.
You might not want to just ask them to link to you right off of the bat. First, build a relationship, link to them, and let them know that you are interested in what they have written previously.
4. Display Advertising – This is a costlier promotion strategy, but it can be very effective if you have a larger budget and are good at display advertising tools. Utilize them to bring in targeted CPC traffic and earn natural backlinks if the content is good enough!
5. Google – If you promote your content well enough, then you should earn some referring domains and then rise in the SERPs. You should then receive more traffic from search engines and begin receiving more referring domains.
When you rank high in Google, more people are likely to find you and link to you because you are more visible in Google. I do this all the time when looking for studies and data. A lot of my sources I find in Google because it is such an amazing tool.
If you see the screenshot from Ahrefs, it shows a page which has been receiving incoming referring domains because they are in the #1 position. They haven’t done much since their initial promotion strategy, but, since their content is unique and they rank #1 in Google, searchers continue to find it and link to them.
Using comarketing initiatives is a linking strategy that I have been working on, lately, and I have gotten very positive results so far. This is more of a marketing strategy, but it can be used for SEO, as well. However, this is dependent on the following:
You need a clear target market. If you serve everyone, do not think you will get a lot of contribution.
You need to have an established brand to align yourself with other established brands.
You need to have good marketing assets, such as a social media following, a newsletter, and more.
You need to be good at marketing and probably have some experience.
You need to understand that this requires a lot of work.
This is more of an advanced tactic, but it can be very effective. What you want to do is solve all of the dependencies above. Then decide on your target market, identify companies that have a similar target market, and try to get them to do a comarketing piece with you.
This could entail a variety of different pieces. Here are the ones we are doing right now:
A coproduced blog which goes on one of our sites, and then we both promote it to our followers. You can also include an excerpt on their blog which links back to yours. This is a good example of a comarketing blog piece.
You can do a joint Q&A, especially if the other company has a much different product offering than you. I was honored to do one with Skubana, Chad Rubin, and his team. We both did one, and we both promoted it to our audiences, which helps build both of our businesses, pushes us as thought leaders, and gives us good SEO value because we are creating great content together.
You can do a joint webinar on your site with other companies which have similar target markets. These can provide a lot of value outside of SEO but can still provide high-quality inbound links.
You can do a joint Podcast, host expert roundups, make a study, put data together into an infographic, or try other marketing initiatives I may not have thought of. I have been on radio shows before and tried a wide variety of other initiatives. However, the premise is all the same: Produce amazing content together and promote it to your respective audiences.
Don’t be afraid to give more value than you receive, and don’t be afraid to talk about content outside of your comfort zone. In my personal experience, my agency focuses solely on SEO and PPC for eCommerce companies, but, when it comes to our content, we talk about a wide range of subjects outside of our core service offering. We invite guest collaborations from outside companies, we link to a lot of other companies, and, at the end of the day, we just want to provide the most value to our target market.
Are we the best at acquiring links? Probably not, but we are learning fast and working hard to produce the best content possible and get the best results possible. I hope you do the same!
I touched on thought leadership earlier in the article, but let’s dive a little deeper into the strategy. When you compare comarketing and thought leadership, you’ll find that thought leadership is normally a little more one-sided than comarketing. Generally, in comarketing, both parties get a good amount of value from it. When it comes to thought leadership, you do provide value to the company that hosts your piece, but it’s not much when it comes to SEO.
Here are my top thought leadership initiatives that I have found produce real SEO value, help you acquire links, and get your pages higher in the SERPs.
Podcasts are a fun and growing medium for people to receive content. I listen to them on a daily basis, whether I am flying, writing, working, at the dog park, at the gym, etc. More and more consumers will be moving to podcasts in the future, so participating in them can really help build your brand and get links to your website.
Luckily, getting on podcasts is fairly easy—you just need a good story. I don’t do many of them, currently, because I am focusing on other tactics outlined in this article. But, if I did want to focus on podcasts, I would develop two stories:
I like talking about eCommerce marketing and helping online merchants sell more products using search engines. Basically, I want to try to position myself as the SEM expert for eCommerce.
I am growing my digital marketing agency and trying to make it one of the best SEM agencies out there focusing on eCommerce. I did a podcast like this, once before, that you can see here.
Both of these stories are compelling and have a large audience that wants to hear about it. However, you want to be careful—because, sometimes, they can be big-time sinks. You have to find others to do a podcast with—make sure you check out their domain authority, their social media following, and their average listeners so that you can judge the return on your time. Then you have to pitch them your idea and get accepted. Once you have the podcast locked down, then you have to make sure you are prepared—do a dry run or two and seriously spend some time getting ready.
It’s not the end of the world if you do a couple of podcasts and don’t get a ton of value back, but, if you are constantly doing them with no subsequent SEO value, then it is most likely a bad return on your time.
Webinars are a bit more straightforward and, generally, more “invite only.” You can see those who are currently doing webinars in your space, and then pitch them an idea. This can be a little more difficult than for a podcast, but webinars can be very valuable, depending on your brand, story, and how you fit in. This has a mix of return on time when it comes to SEO, but it can be great if you are a lead generation business—depending on the webinar and the audience.
In the article I linked to earlier in the podcast section, it discusses how I grew my agency and then merged it with Visiture. I met my current business partner while doing a speaking engagement at a conference, which also sent them a ton of deals. I would never have received those deals or met my business partner if it hadn’t been for that speaking engagement. Obviously, my return on my time for that conference was insane.
However, speaking engagements can take up hundreds of hours for a single one. Also, I really hope you don’t mind public speaking. I’m pretty used to them, now, and I still get nervous before each one. Just know that they can provide some serious SEO value, especially the bigger ones, as they link to you. Really, these can provide a ton of marketing value for anyone in the lead generation business.
Be sure to be mindful of the audience. Some produce gigantic returns—and then some produce hardly anything. Start on the smaller circuits, and then work your way up if you want to continue doing them.
Editorial Articles or Guest Posting
This is one of my favorite tactics for link acquisition because, normally, it provides the most SEO value for the least amount of time if you have the right system in place.
Really, it’s a simple concept—you provide rock-star content for other websites, which they post, and then you get SEO value through a link or through building your brand. Now, I’m not going to walk you through step-by-step on how to do guest posting, as it is very well-documented already, and you can read that separately; but I do want to give you a fresh perspective on it.
Here are some things I have learned that can help you on your journey of using guest posting—or what I like to call Editorial Content, which tends to make me feel better about life:
1. Only produce rock star content – While this is not always true, usually “more in-depth is better” helps you get the audience to give more responses, stay on the page longer, and interact with it more. Ultimate “how-to” guides, long expert round-ups, etc. work very well, but you can also have concise information in the form of studies and data, which can be a bit shorter and more digestible.
For example, Neil Patel produces regular content, which is easy to follow and takes about five minutes to read. Personally, I would rather have that type of content in my inbox, than something I have to cancel the rest of my day to read. You might have noticed that this article is rather long—right now, we are at about 4,700 words as I type, and I am already five hours and four cups of coffee into it.
The reason for this? I am trying to create content that gives the WOW effect because I know that in-depth is what works best for SEJ’s audience, and—usually—everyone reading this considers themselves an SEO, to a certain degree. My content on other sites, such as smallbiztrends.com, is normally shorter, and more digestible and actionable for a small business owner. Basically, you want to cater to the target market.
2. Give away the house – Too many people worry about other people knowing what they do. Yes, I am a service business, but, really, by the time you read this article, I have most likely moved on to the latest SEO tactics and link building tactics. I normally produce and publish articles within a couple of weeks, so I don’t worry about giving away my secrets—things change so fast in this industry, it’s not going to hurt me. This also helps to really build trust and position yourself as a thought leader.
3. Don’t fret over SEO value – For example, I have zero “do follow” links from most of my high-quality content that I get published on the best websites, such as Search Engine Journal. However, I do get a lot of rock-solid branding and marketing value, and then I get invited to participate in marketing collaborations, and people link to me more than when I just started out.
4. Develop a persona and target market – You want to have consistent content that is centered around a solid target market. For instance, my target market would be marketing managers and eCommerce directors. My content is centered around eCommerce marketing, from CRO, email marketing, and PPC to SEO, etc.
If you do all of these things, you will be able to produce amazing rock-star content to help you build your brand. Is it a lot of work developing 5,000+ word editorial articles which will not give you a ton of SEO value? Yep, it is. But it’s time to roll up your sleeves because there is only one way to be successful, long term in SEO—by building your brand.
Reverse engineering is a very simple concept. You pull all of the backlinks from your competitors and try to replicate them. You can also do it for individual pages that you are trying to rank for. For example, let’s say you are trying to rank for “Women’s Heels.” You would just want to pull all the backlinks for the pages ranking for “Women’s Heels.” You can also pull their entire backlink profile, using a tool like Ahrefs or Majestic SEO.
Once you pull their links, you can try to replicate the good ones. Here are some popular ones that you want to look at and replicate:
Blog Comments – You might be thinking, “Whoa, Ron, you were just talking about all of these amazing white hat link acquisition strategies—and now you are talking about blog comments?!” And, yes, you are right. I am talking about blog comments because, like every other black hat SEO tactic, these used to be a pure form of SEO until using them was spammed to death by every SEO in existence.
Yet, blog comments can still be high-quality “no follow” links, and these can provide … you know … customers to your website (*gasp*). When going through, you can find high-quality blog comments from your competitors and produce your own to not only get links, but, one hopes, referral traffic to someone looking to buy a product or service.
To be honest, this most likely will not provide as much SEO value as other techniques, but the referral traffic and marketing bonuses can really help. As long as you do not spam 100 low-quality blog comments and make ACTUAL real comments, the Google SWAT team will not come and arrest you.
Forum Comments – This is the same premise as above. Produce comments which give people value, make suggestions, and more to get high-quality links which it is hoped provide referral traffic. Just don’t spam. Take the time to write good comments, and Google will not send you the fun message everyone hates to receive in Google webmaster tools.
Editorial Placements – If they got a high-quality editorial article placement, then you can do the same.
Sponsorship Placements – Just so you know, I am 100% against paying for links, and I don’t do it at my agency. This is a big policy for Visiture, but I just want to be unbiased, here, because I have seen sponsorship placements increase rankings. Just do this with caution, as Google does not approve of paying for links, and who knows when they will figure out who pays for them? I wonder if they will soon figure out how to crawl PayPal (ha, ha).
Resources – Whenever there is a list of something that links to a bunch of your competitors, you should try to get the same link. These can be older but still provide a lot of good trust value with Google. Get them if you can!
There are many other ways to reverse engineer, but those are the main ones we see.
Focus on Creativity and Innovation
Generally, if you are not creating your own tactics and trying out new things, you can be left behind in link building. I have outlined some new link acquisition tactics, above, but, as I am writing this, I am already thinking of new strategies to use to gain high-quality inbound links.
That is the nature of the link acquisition game. He or she who pushes innovation generally wins. Focus on being the innovator, and not the adopter, in order to acquire high-quality inbound links.
I hope this helps you on your SEO journey. Create high-quality inbound links through solid content, and Google will favor you. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing a link you earn on your personal Facebook, then it does not have enough quality.
If you have any linking strategies to add, please email me or tweet me. I would love to add more and continue making these guides once a month to keep everyone in the loop on the latest and greatest linking strategies. But, truthfully, link building and link acquisition are just byproducts of good digital marketing. Focus on acquiring customers through solid digital marketing, and the links will come!
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Ronald Dod is the Chief Marketing Officer and Co-founder of Visiture, an end-to-end eCommerce marketing agency focused on helping online merchants acquire more customers through the use of search engines, social media platforms, marketplaces, and their online storefronts. His passion is helping leading brands use data to make more effective decisions in order to drive new traffic and conversions.
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