Best link building strategies recommended by industry experts
To rank a website on Google, you can’t ignore the importance of link building and the need to put together a solid strategy that will help you earn high-quality links. In fact, links remain one of the top three most important ranking factors out there.
That said, whether you are a total SEO beginner and are learning how to build links for the first time or have been doing it for years and just want to find new tactics that still work, there are literally dozens of approaches you can take.
In this guide, you will learn how to build links with strategies and tactics that are still effective and that will help you to earn those top-ranking positions, as well as knowing those that will see you wasting time and resources and that could potentially have a negative impact on your organic visibility.
We will share quick win tactics alongside those that need a little more time and planning.
- What is Link Building?
- Why is Link Building Important For SEO?
- What Are the Key Elements of a Successful Link Building Strategy?
- White Hat vs. Black Hat vs. Grey Hat Link Building
- Toxic Links and the Potential Negative Impact of the Wrong Strategy
- Link Building Strategies You Need to Know in 2020
- Quick-Win Link Building Tactics
- Traditional Link Building Tactics
- Link Earning Tactics
- Paid Link Building Tactics
- How to Use Outreach for Link Building
- Easy Ways to Discover Link Building Opportunities
- Metrics to Measure the Success of Link Building
What is Link Building?
Link building is a key part of any successful SEO strategy that involves getting other websites to link to yours — a simple hyperlink from one site to another. It is also agreed by many that it is one of the hardest parts of ranking a website, whilst one of the most rewarding when you get it right.
Not familiar with how links work?
When website A links to website B, it's a strong hint to Google’s algorithm that it deserves to rank higher for relevant keywords, and you might hear these referred to as inbound links, backlinks, external links, or, quite simply, just links.
The more high quality links that point to your website (and form part of your backlink profile), the higher you should rank on Google, and, therefore, the higher level of organic traffic you should receive.
However, links aren’t all created equal, and some can even cause your website to decrease in visibility, something that we will cover shortly.
There are many different tactics that you can use to build links, some easier to execute than others, and knowing where to get started can sometimes be difficult, especially when you are aware that some can do more harm than good.
Why is Link Building Important For SEO?
Link building takes time and effort. There is no hiding from that fact.
It is also hard to get right, meaning that those who can successfully execute tactics to build better links than their competitors typically see significant growth in organic traffic and revenue.
And that is why you need to understand why links are so important and should account for a considerable portion of your SEO campaigns’ resources.
We delved deep into the importance of link building for SEO in our guide to backlinks, which you should check out for a detailed introduction to the what and the why behind this key pillar of any successful campaign.
However, the main reasons why you need to make sure you are placing a strong focus on link building as an SEO are:
You will rank higher on Google and other search engines.
Google will find new pages on your site faster.
You’ll enjoy increased credibility and trustworthiness as a business.
You could benefit from targeted referral traffic.
You can’t ignore link building, and you need to make sure you are rolling out tactics that give you a competitive advantage, something that we will show you how to do in this guide.
What Are the Key Elements of a Successful Link Building Strategy?
There is more to link building than it may seem, and not just in terms of the complexity of those tactics that deliver the best results and impact. When planning a link building strategy, you need to remember that not all links are equal and that there are key elements that drive forward success.
You shouldn’t be building links blindly.
By that, we mean that you need to know what a great link looks like for you and fully understand that the more effort you put into getting the right links, the better impact you will see.
Here are some of the key components that you need to focus on that make up a great link building strategy to help you understand what a great link profile looks like.
1. Contextual Links
Links on a page that are more likely to be clicked are typically those that hold the most value and can have the biggest impact on rankings and the way that Google measures the value of a link.
If a link is in the main content area of a page, uses a font and color that might make it stand out, and uses text that may make it something likely that someone might click upon it, then it could pass along a fair amount of PageRank. On the other hand, if it combines features that make it less likely to be clicked upon, such as being in the footer of a page, in the same color text as the rest of the text on that page, and the same font type, and uses anchor text that doesn’t interest people, it may not pass along a lot of PageRank.
— Bill Slawski
Contextual links, those placed in the body of a web page's content as opposed to the footer or sidebar, as an example, are typically higher quality links and are key to a successful strategy.
2. A High Percentage of ‘Followed’ Links
Not all links pass PageRank and impact a site's rankings.
Links can have different attributes applied, with the main ones you need to know to be nofollow, sponsored, and UGC links.
Links that have a rel="nofollow" attribute give a hint that Google should not crawl them and that they should not associate the two sites from a ranking perspective.
Rel="sponsored" attributes indicate that a link has been paid for (and therefore should not pass PageRank).
Rel="UGC" showcases links that come from user-generated content such as forums and comments and indicates that these links are not editorially placed and may be manipulative.
If a link is referred to as a 'followed' link (or sometimes, a 'dofollow' link - even though this is technically not the right terminology), it means that there are no attributes in place that prevent PageRank from being passed and a great link profile should contain a high percentage of these, so long as they come from quality sources.
3. Editorially Placed Links
Editorially placed links are simply those that exist because a third-party has taken the decision to add a link from their website to yours, rather than because of payment, some other incentive, or that you were the one responsible for placing it and did so to increase your rankings.
The most effective links are editorially placed, and Google themselves highlight in their guidelines that links that don't fall under this categorization can be deemed unnatural.
4. A Focus on Links From Unique Referring Domains
A great link profile will see links coming from a higher number of unique referring domains rather than the same few time and time again.
A successful strategy should always place a focus upon tactics that will see a link building campaign earn links from new domains that have never linked before to increase the number of unique linking domains.
It is widely reported that having links from a higher number of unique domains can help a site to rank in prominent positions, with Nick Eubanks commenting in this blog post that, "Often times when I see sites ranking with much lower authority, they tend to have a much stronger ratio of linking root domains versus their competitors."
5. A Strong Topical Relevance
Links should be from websites and content that is closely related to your own site's topic, and this is another great example of ensuring that you are not just building any links, but rather the right ones.
Remember that links originally existed on the web to navigate a user from page A to page B, and on this assumption, why would a link take you to something that wasn't topically related?
It doesn't make sense, does it? So be sure to follow this stance with your link building efforts.
A great way to get yourself into this mindset is, when prospecting for link opportunities, is to ask whether you would still pursue it if Google didn't exist or use links as part of its algorithm.
If the answer is yes, perhaps because you would expect it to send quality referral traffic or help to increase your brand's awareness or authority — this usually means it is from a topically related website where your audience hangs out online.
If you would answer no, it is a good indication that the link isn't relevant to your business.
6. A Natural Anchor Text Mix
Anchor text is the text used to link from one page to another.
Naturally, when linking to a website, you would likely reference the brand name, the article title, or perhaps even just use 'click here' or similar.
That said, Google's algorithm utilizes anchor text as an indication of what a page is about and, therefore, it can influence rankings.
However, Google's guidelines clearly state that optimized anchor text (using your main target keywords or commercial terms) is a violation of their guidelines, and excessive use of this is a known contributor towards both manual actions and algorithmic filters being applied.
Your link profile should contain a natural mix, with no obvious spike of links using optimized anchor text.
White Hat vs. Black Hat vs. Grey Hat Link Building
If you are new to SEO and, more specifically, link building, you may have come across references to black hat, grey hat, and black hat tactics.
These need addressing, even though we will look at some of these approaches in more depth further into this guide.
Quite simply, white hat SEO uses tactics that strictly abide by Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and take an ethical approach to earn top-ranking positions. It places a strong focus on optimizing for human audiences and is seen as a long-term approach to earn sustained visibility on the search engines.
On the other hand, black hat SEO uses those that violate these guidelines and try to rank a site higher with manipulative tactics, usually looking to gain quick wins.
Grey hat SEO sits somewhere in the middle, using tactics that could be seen as manipulative and are riskier than white hat tactics, yet aren’t as obvious a violation of Google’s terms than black hat.
Google employs a webspam team whose core focus is to ensure that websites using black hat tactics do not rank.
Toxic Links: The Potential Negative Impact of the Wrong Strategy
If you build the wrong links and use risky black hat tactics, you run the risk of having toxic links in your backlink profile that could negatively affect your rankings and organic traffic.
You need to be aware that using the wrong tactics to build links can have disastrous consequences.
Things to Keep in Mind:
- If Google determines that you are building links that violate its Webmaster Guidelines, you could see your site impacted by either a manual action or by an algorithmic filter (most likely Google Penguin), both of which can see your site drop rankings.
- It is not unusual for it to take months, or even years, to recover from such a negative impact.
- Time to recover is one thing to be aware of when balancing low effort, high-risk tactics with those that are lower risk but need a higher investment in effort.
The most successful strategies deliver sustained success, and you need to be using tactics that aren't going to see your hard work impacted by a webspam filter or fall foul of a manual review.
Link Building Strategies You Need to Know
To build the right links that actually have a positive impact on your organic rankings and traffic, you need to make sure you are using the right strategy.
But first, you need to be clear on the difference between strategies and tactics and explore each of these.
- Strategy = what you are going to do.
- Tactics = how you are going to do it.
Applied to link building, different strategies typically balance different levels of effort and resource with the potential rewards and returns (i.e., the more difficult a tactic is to implement, the better results you will see as it is harder for competitors to do the same), as well as the level of risk surrounding either algorithmic or manual actions taken by Google.
Link Building Survey
A few months ago, a survey on 850 SEO professionals to reveal the link building strategies and tactics that they are relying on the most, revealed a wealth of interesting findings. In fact, guest posting remains the most popular tactic.
But, all too often, we rely on the tactics we are the most familiar with and know the best. With that in mind, let’s cast the net a little wider and explore what five different strategies look like before diving deep into the tactics, hopefully introducing you to some new ways to build great links.
Quick-Win Link Building
It is a common misconception that all link building approaches are resource-intensive. That is simply not true, and while many certainly are, if you are looking for tactics that can help you quickly pick up some good links, you will find plenty of quick-win opportunities.
- Low hanging fruits are usually the easiest links to get, and that means they are also those that your competitors will also reach for first. (That is not to say you shouldn’t be building these links, because you should.)
- A quick win strategy often sees a high return for the lower effort you will need to put into the tactics.
- These wins are what builds a solid foundation and puts you on a level playing field with competitors who have already put these tactics to work.
However, you need to be realistic and understand that this strategy is rarely enough on its own, in competitive sectors, to see you land top-spot rankings.
To take your SEO performance to the next level, you usually need to pivot your strategy towards others once you have landed the quick win opportunities.
Traditional Link Building
Traditional link building tactics rely on you manually placing a link through your efforts. As in, the link building is typically in full control of the outcome of the tactics, as opposed to relying upon a journalist or other third party to want to link out to your site.
And that is exactly why these tactics are often referred to as ‘manual link building.’ But let’s get one thing straight; links that you are in control of usually aren’t the highest quality.
- In the eyes of Google, any links that are not editorially placed (the decision being taken to link being made by someone else) are manipulative.
- Therefore, they are likely to either have less of an impact on rankings, be straight up ignored, or, if the tactics are executed at scale, could harm your site's performance.
That said, these aren’t bad links, as such, and they can absolutely drive benefits such as referral traffic or help to position you as a thought leader, aside from an SEO impact — just be sure to take the time to understand the tactic properly, know the risks associated with them and use them carefully.
Another point to make is that, as with quick-win tactics, a strategy based around traditional link building tactics is likely to be one that can pretty easily be copied by competitors. It is not going to give you a significant competitive advantage.
If you really want to gain this competitive advantage through links, you need to adopt a strategy that will see you earn editorially placed links.
Link earning tactics are high effort but give a high reward. You need to be prepared to invest time and resources into earning links; doing so will see you land links that competitors will struggle to replicate.
And let’s not forget that Google has been telling us for years, as part of their Webmaster Guidelines, that:
The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community.
Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.
— Google Webmaster Guidelines (Link Schemes)
When you earn a link, a third party is actively taking the decision to do so, meaning they are linking because there is a reason to do so; that adds value to their own audience.
These are the true holy grail of link building and the tactics that are essential to success in competitive niches.
Paid Link Building
Despite being a straight-up violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and a tactic that is clearly defined as a link scheme, paid link building is still relatively common for the simple reason that it guarantees results.
Earning links is hard work; there is no denying that. And even manual link building and the wealth of quick-win tactics available still require effort to see results. Some things to remember:
- Using paid links is, in the opinion of many, lazy link building.
- Paid link building is a clear manipulation of Google’s algorithm and a low effort yet extremely high-risk tactic.
- Most paid links end up coming from sites that are not topically aligned, that have a high count of outbound links, and are generally low quality.
- Aside from this risk, don’t forget that if you can buy links, so can your competitors.
There are, of course, a few exceptions to the rule here — those being when earning links to support your SEO strategy isn’t the primary focus, and you are either looking to land referral traffic or build your brand authority and are doing so with sponsored placements and advertorials on quality sites and have either a rel=“nofollow” or rel=“sponsored” attribute in place to prevent negative impact on your search rankings.
As a general rule though, paid links purely to help increase your rankings should be seen as a no go.
Black Hat Link Building
Black hat link building strategies are often aimed to manipulate search engine rankings and, as we outlined above, often focus on unethical tactics that directly violate Google's guidelines and utilize those methods defined as being part of a link scheme.
- There is little, or no, focus on the user, rather, looking to game the algorithm.
- These tactics usually result in a manual action or algorithmic filter being applied, and, as algorithms continue to develop, they can also see links that don't trigger such an adjustment and are simply being ignored.
- Black hat strategies aren't sustainable and shouldn't be considered a viable option to pursue.
We won't be sharing or exploring black hat tactics in-depth. We wouldn't want to give them any exposure as they are not tactics that we believe should be used, especially unless the risks are very well understood.
Common Black Hat Link Building Tactics to Be Aware Of
However, it is important that you are aware of the type of tactics that fall under black hat strategies to ensure you can avoid them if they are recommended by anyone you are working with, or you come across while learning more yourself.
- Paid links that pass PageRank
- Private Blog Networks (PBNs)
- Large-scale article marketing and guest-posting campaigns that use keyword-rich anchor text
- Low-quality directories that exist solely to build links from
- Keyword-rich links that are embedded within widgets on other people's websites
- Links obtained from hacked sites
- Links built using automated programs or services
- Requiring links as part of a Terms of Service or contract
- Comment spam
- Widely distributed footer or sidebar links
Quick-Win Link Building Tactics
Try out these tactics below if you are looking for low effort, high reward tactics that won’t take much time or resource investment to implement.
They are all valuable tactics that make sense to focus some of your efforts on due to their ease to obtain.
1. Broken Link Building
A tried and tested link building tactic that is really easy to get started with, and that can drive some quick-win results is broken link building.
This strategy involves finding relevant pages in your industry that could link out to you and that have broken outbound links. You can reach out and suggest that the broken link is updated to point to a relevant piece of content on your site.
A real quick way of doing this is to monitor your competitors' backlink profile for broken links2. Unlinked Brand Mentions
Most businesses find themselves mentioned in the press from time to time for one of many different reasons, with some natural references and others coming about as a result of your PR team's efforts.
It is not uncommon for this coverage not to link and to just be a brand mention, but it is often easy to see this turned into a link with only minimal effort.
The hard work of securing coverage in the first place has already been done.
You won't always get a link added, but for only minimal effort, those that you do manage to land with this tactic make it worth your while.
3. Reclaim Lost & Broken Links
Over time, links get lost or broken for various reasons that are totally out of your control.
It could be that an author updates a piece of content and removes the link, that it simply gets lost during a site update or even that the page becomes a 404 or is 301 redirected.
It could even be that a page on your site that has links pointing to it becomes a 404. And links pointing to a 404 page won't be counted as part of Google's ranking algorithm.
For whatever reason, you need to monitor your site's lost and broken links and take action to reclaim them:
- Reach out to your original contact at a site and try to get a link added back in or fixed when the issue is at its end.
- If you find that a page on your site has become a 404 and is creating broken links, either redirect this URL to the most suitable page, put the original page live again, or reach out and ask for the link target to be updated.
4. Link Repositioning
A great tactic that comes recommended by Ross Tavendale is link repositioning. This is not a tactic that is often talked about, but one that can be utilized relatively easily and help to make your existing links work harder.
Quite simply, analyze the links pointing to your homepage and pull down any that talk about specifics of the products or services that you offer. Ones that would be more suited to linking to an internal page in your site, rather than the homepage.
As Ross recommended:
What I would do is look at all of the links pointing to my home page and analyze that content to see if any of that is actually about our blue widgets.
Some of it probably is.
I would contact those people who have written about my blue widgets, and I would say, "Hey, you have linked to the home page. Thank you so much. You are an absolute legend, but it is a bad user experience. People are clicking, going to the homepage, and they can't see what you have just written about my blue widget. So, can we get them to point to this one?"
And most of the time people are nice enough to update the link and actually put it to the landing page.
— Ross Tavendale
This is also a great tactic if you launch a series of regionally focused sites, having previously had just one global site.
Let's say you launch a new website for your business that targets customers in the UK. Analyze your link profile and look for .co.uk domains, then reach out and ask for these links to be updated to your new regional site.
5. Supplier Links
If you sell other people's products, there is a good chance that your suppliers and manufacturers link out to retailers from their own websites, and these can be really quick win links to attain.
Pull together a list of all of your manufacturers and suppliers and work through their websites to see whether they are linking to stockists and retailers. If they are, are you included?
Often you will find that these aren't updated as frequently as they should be, and retailers are missing. If you don't see your store listed, reach out to your contact at the supplier and ask whether they can facilitate getting you added.
6. Association & Membership Links
Are you paying to be a member of an industry association such as your local Chamber of Commerce?
If so, such organizations often showcase and link out to their members, and if you are not already listed, it usually only takes an email to request that you're added.
7. Reverse Image Search Link Reclamation
Have you created infographics or published bespoke photos as part of your content strategy in the past?
Perhaps you have got an established industry expert within your business (or your client's) that is often featured in the press?
Head over to Google Images and run a reverse image search.
If you find that there are sites that are using your image but haven't credited you with a link, reach out and ask them to add one.
8. Q&A Platform Links
Remember, we said that link building should be as much about focusing upon tactics that send you great referral traffic and help to build your brand as impacting your search rankings?
While these will only land you nofollow links, using Q&A platforms like Quora and Reddit are great ways to build links that send targeted traffic to your site. These links will also help to diversify your link profile.
Get involved in relevant communities on these platforms, and be sure to add value. This isn't about jumping straight in and adding a link but sharing relevant content and suggestions to help other users who have questions.
Here's a great guide over at Search Engine Journal from Julia McCoy, where you can learn more about using this tactic as part of your strategy.
9. Internal Linking
This is a slightly different tactic.
Often when we talk about link building, our efforts are focused solely on building external links, but a real quick-win tactic can be to spend time improving and optimizing your site's internal linking structure.
You see, internal linking is important to properly distribute PageRank throughout your website, and if you have earned links to certain pages but haven't maximized the impact of those links by passing authority and link equity to other related pages, you could see some noticeable gains with this tactic.
Internal linking, while it takes time and effort to do properly, is totally in your control and something that you can do today, without any input needed from third parties at all.
Traditional Link Building Tactics
There are tactics that were once widely used and abused that have come under scrutiny in recent years. This is usually because they don't result in earned links, rather those where the link builder has an active involvement in the placement of the link.
Now don't get us wrong, these tactics won't necessarily result in toxic links pointing to your site, far from it.
You just need to understand how to use each one and at what point you should stop scaling the number of links built in this way, as well as considering other benefits that these links can bring.
1. Directory Submissions
There was a time when directories were set up solely as a way to build links.
There is no value for users, and some of these sites obviously exist just to link out to others. You don't want to be building links from directories like these.
But, you shouldn't dismiss the tactic as it is still a great way to land some great links, especially if you operate in a tight niche or are a local business.
Look for regional specific directories or those that exist within a niche where the primary purpose is to help users to find a suitable business — common sense will usually tell you whether it is worth being featured on.
Just ask yourself, if you were a potential user, would you find it useful? If yes, it is probably worth having a link from.
2. Guest Blogging
Google's Matt Cutts announced the death of guest blogging in 2014, but that was in relation to the way the industry was abusing the tactic to build links from article bylines on any site that would take their content.
The tactic remains a great way to earn links, so long as it is approached in the right way and that you understand it is not a tactic that will scale up massively.
Forget links for a moment, and having your content published on a relevant blog where you share valuable insights and expertise is a great way to build your profile. The fact that you will usually earn a link to back up who you are is an added bonus.
In fact, a quick search on Google using one of a few different operators can reveal a whole host of guest posting opportunities.
Just remember that if you can easily find opportunities to pitch guest posts to, so can your competitors. And that means that any links you do earn might not give you the competitive advantage that other tactics can.
3. Press Release Distribution & Content Syndication
Google has openly said that they ignore links that come from press releases. The reference here was to using press release distribution services that essentially syndicate your content across a number of different sites.
While this is a tactic that may have had some value once, times have changed, and if you are using PR wire services only to build links, there is a good chance you won't see any value.
However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be pitching out to the press to earn links and coverage, far from it.
4. Blog Comments & Forum Links
You may have noticed that blog comments and forum links are mentioned as types of links that violate Google's guidelines.
This is very much another "it depends" tactic.
Don't leave comments on irrelevant blogs with a link back to your site; that is just straight-up spam, as is leaving links in forum posts that don't add value.
That said, you can still earn traffic from well thought out and relevant comments and forum posts, but this comes when you approach the tactic as a way to add value to discussions and link only when it adds value.
5. Reciprocal Links
Reciprocal links — you link to me, and I'll link to you — are another tactic that is outlined in Google's definition of link schemes and violations of the guidelines, but that is when it is done at scale.
If you have got an opportunity to link to and send referral traffic to a partner in your industry, and they will do the same in return, it is not going to harm you.
Just don't exchange links without considering relevancy and the context.
Link Earning Tactics
Earned links are like the holy grail of link building.
Why? Because someone is making a conscious decision to link specifically to your website, rather than anyone else's.
Using link earning tactics is a way to gain a competitive advantage and land links that your competitors could only dream of — and that they will struggle to replicate.
These are very advanced tactics, but ones that deliver the best results if you are prepared to put in the effort to learn how to leverage them for success.
1. Digital PR
Fast becoming the go-to link building tactic for many SEOs, digital PR came about as a way to earn high authority links from press publications by using PR tactics.
Quite simply, it is the most effective way to naturally earn significant numbers of high-quality editorial links, at scale, and involves creating engaging linkable content assets and using PR pitching and outreach to persuade journalists to cover these stories in their articles and link back to the source.
But there is more than one way to run a successful digital PR campaign, and we will look at four of the most effective approaches.
When you build a digital PR campaign around data, you are ensuring that you have got a wealth of engaging stories to pitch to the press.
The most attractive stories and pitches to journalists are those that include something that they couldn't easily do themselves. They are busy people, often tasked with writing 7 or 8 articles per day; and that includes sourcing quotes, images, producing copy, and more.
- Using data means you are sharing unique stories that are backed by findings from a study or research piece, and journalists absolutely love this.
- Data sources to use in your campaigns can range from your own internal data through to trusted third-party public data sets, such as those from data.gov — the US government's home of open data.
For inspiration, check out this study into the world's hardest working musicians by a music college that analyzes tour date data from Setlist.fm for the most popular Billboard artists to reveal which artists toured the most and played the highest number of shows.
This digital PR campaign earned links from over 30 publications.
A few years ago infographics made it really easy to earn links from top-tier press publications. In fact, even simple 'how to...' infographics could relatively easily pick up significant numbers of links with just a little bit of outreach effort.
Times have changed, and you are unlikely to see much of an impact with simple advice-led and opinion-led infographics (think how-tos and listicles, etc.), but that doesn't mean infographics aren't still effective.