Link Building: The heart and soul of off-page SEO.
Really wish I could have gotten that to rhyme.
Link building is one of the top 3, if not the top, Google ranking factor that you need to master, systemize, and deploy consistently if you want your website to dominate search engines.
To master link building you must be well versed in content strategy, content creation, prospecting, domain quality evaluation, email, outreach, email outreach, conversation, negotiation, and resilience.
This article will cover high-level concepts about link building, while dropping some never before heard nuggets of gold, with the goal of getting you fully acclimated to understanding the 30,000-foot view of how link building works, why it’s important, and how to implement it into your agency, business, or SEO strategy.
This topic is a beast, so before we get into it – let’s kick off with a joke to keep the mood fun: What city in South Korea has the best search engine experts?…..SEOul
What is Link Building?
Link Building Definition: Link building (aka “link-building”, “linkbuilding”, or “backlinking”) is the process of getting other websites to hyperlink to your website, with the goal of improving the search engine rankings of your site.
Links are the primary method of navigation on the internet. They direct humans (and search engine crawlers) from one web page to another.
Humans (and search engines) inherently associate links as a signal of authority and trust.
For example, if Forbes.com writes an article that has a link to your website it is generally perceived as a recommendation to go and check out your business. Both humans and search engines consider a link like a “referral” or “recommendation” or “vote of confidence” from one site to another.
Getting links to your website is valuable for acquiring new traffic, audience building, developing relationships, and obviously SEO.
When other authoritative, trusted, and relevant (to your business) websites link to your website some of their “power” is transferred to your website.
This is called “getting a backlink”. The more websites that you can get to link to your website (assuming once again that they themselves are relevant and trusted) the more power your website will accumulate.
Why is Link Building so important?
The original Google algorithm was based primarily on evaluating websites based on how many backlinks a website had from other sites on the internet.
Even though that was all the way back in 1998 and the algorithm has evolved a lot since then, having other websites link to you is still one of the top SEO ranking factors – by far.
The only difference is that today there are a lot more factors which us SEOs need to understand when acquiring links.
You don’t want a link from anyone.
You need to be strategic and selective about who you get links from, and this is the art & science of link building.
- Link building (done right) improves your domain’s authority, power & trust.
- Link building is a great way to get traffic from other websites to come to your website.
Just to drive this point home, here is what happens when you publish content on your website and then start link building.
About 3 months into our SEO campaign at the time of this screenshot.
Link Building Fundamentals
A link (aka hyperlink) is the connection between one webpage and another webpage.
Some basic properties of backlinks
Internal vs. External
- A link can be an external link, which sends you to some other website. For example, the link in this sentence which sends you to SERP App, our SEO management tool.
- A link can also be an internal link, which sends you to a different webpage on the same website, like this link which sends you to our homepage.
- The clickable part of a link is called anchor text, and it gives people (and search engines) a bit of context/information about where they are about to go if they click the link.
Dofollow vs. Nofollow
- A link can be dofollow, which means that search engines will crawl the link and transfer power from one website to another. These are the links you normally want to get if possible.
- A link can be nofollow, which means that search engines won’t crawl the link and you will not get any power coming to your website. If you can get a nofollow link from a very relevant website it is still good to acquire, but it will not help you out nearly as much as a dofollow link.
Built vs. Earned
- A link can be a “built link” which means that you can personally go out and build it whenever you link. An example of this would be posting a tweet with a link to your newest blog article or created a Facebook business page that has a link to your business website in the profile area.
- A link can also be an “earned link” which means that you acquired a link that you cannot build at your own will. An example of this would be another website you don’t have editor access to (like Forbes, New York Times, or even a small blogger in your niche) that puts a link to your website somewhere in their content.
Natural vs. Outreached
- A link is considered a “natural link” (or natural earned link) if another website links to your website and you never even had to ask. Maybe they just came across your content on their own, liked what they saw, and decided to add a link to your website. Happens all the time.
- A link can also be acquired by using “outreach”. This means you find a website you want a link from, contact the author of the post or the owner of the website, and ask them to include a link to your website.
Link Building Campaigns
Now that you know the fundamentals of link building, and why it is important to build links it’s time to talk about how to create a link building campaign that will grow the organic traffic to your website.
Link building campaigns can be very complex, so it is our goal to give you all the tools you need to simplify it & succeed.
You will want to have 2 primary types of link building campaigns:
- A campaign to acquire “built links”
- A campaign to acquire “earned links”
Built Links Campaign
This is really less of a “campaign” by the definition of the word and more of just a process you want to follow.
A campaign is defined as “work in an organized and active way toward a particular goal, typically a political or social one.”
Colloquially when we talk about a link building campaign we are normally referring to outreach & earned links.
But, this should really be done after the foundational stuff has been started so let’s go through the basics of “built links”.
But essentially you want to start by:
- Create all the normal social profiles for your business
- Claim your business on various business directories
- Engage in conversations with people online (forums, blog post comments, social communities, etc.)
- Schedule a press release for something newsworthy
We cover this in much more depth in our guide about building backlinks.
Let’s keep this train of thought on earned links.
Link Building Campaign Overview
- A quality website
- A face of the website (the human element)
- Quality content
- A Repeatable Process (aka “system” or “SOP”)
- Link building tools
What result are you trying to achieve, and how do you plan to measure it?
Every link building campaign needs goals & KPIs (key performance indicators).
- A goal is an overall broad ambition or effort – the desired end result.
- A KPI is a quantifiable measurement used to evaluate the level of success of your campaign.
You can have 1 or many goals, and 1 or many KPIs but at least have 1.
Examples of Link Building Campaign goals:
- Acquire 10 new unique backlinks
- Improve the DR of my website by 5 points
- Rank for a certain keyword
Establish your goal(s), and move forward.
A quality website
No one is going to link to you if your website is trash.
Well, I shouldn’t say no one because people link to trash websites all the time – but it will be much harder for you to acquire links if your website looks bad, untrustworthy, or just downright stupid.
Unless your website is Lings Cars:
look at all those links!
But Lings Cars is an outlier – an exception to the rule. Never create a strategy around the outliers.
Make sure you have quality website design.
A human element
Having a “face of the website” is not required, but it is definitely helpful.
People relate to people – not inanimate objections. If someone can go to your website, see a picture of your, understand who you are, etc. it will make your job of building relationships (and subsequently building links) much easier.
Create & openly display your human element.
Quality content (aka “link-able assets”) is a piece of content on your website that people get value from.
In “SEO speak”, quality content means that you have some kind of asset that another website owner would feel good about linking to.
Example of quality content:
- A well-written blog post
- An expert guide
- An awesome infographic
- An interactive tool (like a mortgage calculator)
- An original piece of research
Why does it matter? Other website owners are trying to cultivate trust with their audience and many times that means having to send their hard-earned visitors somewhere else to get additional information on a topic.
For example, a social media marketing expert who mentions SEO in her blog post. Maybe her readers don’t really know what SEO is (after all they are there for social media marketing, which is a different discipline).
She might want to link out to an authority on the subject of SEO so her readers can get a bit more understanding on the topic – without having to spend her time writing a bunch of content on SEO – which she may or may not even be an expert on herself.
Before you can start earning links to your website you need awesome content that someone would want to link to in the first place.
Identify (or create) quality content on your website.
A Repeatable Process
A successful link building campaign needs to have a standard operating procedure (SOP).
An SOP allows you (or your team) to carry out complex operations at a high level of performance, reduce errors and consistently achieve the same awesome result.
Document everything you have to repeatedly do and turn it into a step-by-step process that can be followed by anyone on your team.
Link Building Tools
And finally, you will need some tools. I am not talking about software that automatically builds links for you. I am talking about tools like:
- A place to keep track of prospects (ex: Google Drive or Excel)
- A website evaluation tool (ex: Ahrefs or SEM Rush)
- Contact information finders (ex: Hunter.io)
- Email Schedulers (ex: Mailshake or GMASS)
- A CRM (ex: Streak)
- A place to track your successful links (ex: SERP App)
Having the correct tools for the job will allow you to increase your output & success by 10x, 100x, or even 1000x compared to doing everything manually.
What Makes a Good Link?
The key to a successful prospecting phase is to find quality websites. What makes a website prospect a quality one? Our team uses an easy to remember acronym when evaluating the quality of a potential backlink prospect: ART.
- A: Authority
- R: Relevance
- T: Trust or Traffic
Evaluating the quality of a. link will be based on these three ART factors – but keep in mind that you want to be evaluating the A.R.T of not only the website as a whole but also the specific page where you want to get a link from (domain-level factors vs. page-level factors).
Authority of the page
The “authority” or “strength” of a certain webpage comes from the quantity/quality of backlinks (and interlinks from other authoritative pages) it has.
Remember that hyperlinks “pass link power” to their destination, so if you get a link from a webpage that has a bunch of links pointing to it you are getting more power passed directly to your page.
For example, if I was running a link building campaign to improve the rankings of. our Keyword Research article, I would rather have a link from Ahrefs.com on this page with 692 referring domains:
Then this page with 1:
You can easily check the authority of a website by looking at the “UR” in Ahrefs. Be sure to enter the entire URL into site explorer so you get the stats on. the specific page:
Try to get links from webpages that have a lot of links themselves.
Authority of the domain
The “authority” or “strength” of an entire website comes from the quantity/quality of backlinks the whole website has coming to all of its pages.
In general, getting a link from a very strong website, like Forbes, would be much more “powerful” than a link from some unknown blog.
You can easily check the authority of a website by looking at the DR in Ahrefs:
Try to get links from websites that have a lot of links & authority.
- Keywords in Domain: Getting a link from a website with relevant keywords in the domain adds relevance.
- Keywords in URL: Getting a link from a website with relevant keywords in the page URL adds relevance.
- Keywords in Page Title: Getting a link from a website with relevant keywords in the Page Title adds relevance.
- Anchor text: The clickable portion of the link adds relevance. Keywords in anchor text add relevance, but you need to be careful with this.
- Co-occurrence: The text surrounding the link provides context and can add relevance.
- Link position: Where the link appears on the page adds relevance.
A Sample of Link Building in Action
The first step of your link building campaign will be to identify a list of prospects.
This means creating a spreadsheet of URLs that you would want links from – other websites in your industry that have already built up some authority.
We’ve covered all the basics now. Now, let’s talk about how this looks in practice.
- Find Competitors & Prospects
- Find contact information
- Get a link
Find competitors & prospects
Prospects are other websites that would be most likely to link to your content.
To find them, we must first find your competitors. Super easy to do.
The obvious websites that make good prospects are websites that have already linked to similar content as yours. Simply go to Ahrefs > Keywords Explorer and pop in the KEYWORD that you are trying to rank for.
Scroll down to “SERP Overview”, expand the results to 100, and export the list:
Now you have a list of all the pages that are ranking for the keyword you want. These are your competitors for this keyword. Now for the prospects.
Now you have a CSV with 100 competitors.
So, from this list of 100 competitors, we find the prospects by using Ahrefs again. Take the first URL and add it to Ahrefs > Site Explorer > Backlinks. Set filters to: “One link per domain”, “Do Follow” and then export.
This will leave you with another CSV of all the people who LINK to a resource similar to the one you are trying to rank for (and promote). In this example, it will give us 11,968 prospects.
Repeat this process for all 100 competitors, and then combine the spreadsheets and you will have an incredible amount of potential prospects to get links from. If you want help doing this at scale, or learning ways to make it more automated & efficient, we discuss these processes in depth inside SERP University.
Find contact information
Once you have a spreadsheet of all your prospects, you simply need to find a way to contact them.
There are many great ways to get people’s contact information these days, which we cover extensively in our guide on how to find anyone’s contact information.
But since this is still a high-level article, let’s keep it simple.
Use a tool like Hunter to find contact emails from each prospect’s website:
Or even in bulk:
Now that you have a list of likely-to-link prospects and their contact information you simply have to reach out (aka outreach) to them!
Send emails to each one of these people introducing yourself and your content and ask for a link.
Why would people link to you? What’s in it for them?
Remember: Link building is always an exchange of value. If you built a really quality piece of content that provides value to your prospects readers, that is value.
Many times that is enough to get a link. Sometimes not. You may have to be more creative in order to get a link.
Here are some ways that can improve your chances of getting a link:
- Paying money
- Promoting your prospects website to your audience
- Building a stronger relationship with the person
Each has its own pros & cons
Get the link
After you figure out the correct value exchange that secures your link – you’ve won!
Make sure your hard work doesn’t go to waste – track your links!
The best way to track your links is with SERP App – a custom web software we made for internal use and is now “publicly” available. It keeps track of all your links, monitors them for uptime, dofollow vs. nofollow, anchor text ratios, etc. It also allows you to provide reporting on your work to your internal team, or outside clientele.
When To Start Link Building
Too many SEOs start link building way too early. This is a mistake for 2 reasons:
- Link building is easier, faster & more effective when you have a solid foundation.
- Link building is expensive; you can save money by not link building to some pages that will rank naturally if you get your foundation right.
Getting all the “pre link building” stuff done first will save you time & money. So before you start link building make sure you have these foundations done first:
Before spending any money on marketing make sure your analytics are on point. There is a very famous business quote from Peter Drucker that says: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Very true.
You cannot make informed data-backed marketing decisions if you don’t have proper analytics collecting data properly in the first place.
- Google Analytics
There is another “very famous” quote from Devin Schumacher that says: “If you aren’t tracking it, your client is inevitably going to fire you because you can’t prove that what you’re doing is responsible for their success.” Very true.
If you can’t empirically show yourself, your boss, your team, or your client that what you are doing is actually making an impact (something that requires proper analytics).
- Google Tag Manager
- Google Search Console
- Call Tracking
- SEO Tracking
Have a properly setup website structure (aka “website silo” or “sitemap”) is a critical foundational piece to complete before building links.
Why? Because when your website is set up properly, you can build links to ONE page on your site and get a similar benefit of building links to multiple pages on a non-siloed site.
For example, if your website is set up properly (with link hubs, and good website url structure) the “link juice” from backlinks you acquire will flow to your other pages more easily, and send the power around via internal links.
- Create a proper website silo before building links
Technical Errors & Optimizations
Technical errors can mess up your website and make it look like a big flaming pile of SEO poo to search engines.
Note: I wanted to put a poop GIF here, but decided against it. You’re welcome. They can also negatively affect user experience.
For both of these reasons, you want to fix & optimize all of the technical aspects that you can before you spend money on links.
Technical Optimizations to Look for:
- Page speed
- Keyword cannibalization
- Duplicate content
- Canonical errors
- Duplicate meta information
- Redirect chains
- Fix all broken links (404s & broken external links)
- Improper link rel (dofollow, nofollow, etc.)
Optimize & improve the content on your website for linkability, and rankability.
Minor optimizations in content can yield significant results from on-page SEO & improve your success with building backlinks.
- Improve the keyword breadth of your articles by running a content audit
- Identify and improve any “key pieces of content” on your website that could attract links
Link Building takes a lot of work but pays off in spades.
Each situation is different: are you building links for your site? a client? multiple clients? etc.
Your situation will dictate your process, and we are happy to help give you insight on what could work best.
This article “Link Building: How To Master Link Building for SEO & Crush The SERPs” was written by Devin Schumacher, and originally appeared on SERP Co.