Did you know that the number of domains linking to a page (backlinks) had the highest correlation to rankings in Google than any other factor?
Did you also know that the #1 position on Google has 3.8x more links than positions 2-10, on average?
Bottom line: backlinks rule the SEO world. It’s undebatable.
In this article, we’re going to teach you how to build them.
That’s right: link building. Because waiting for backlinks to fall in your lap is like waiting for Santa to come down your chimney: (*spoiler alert*) it’ll never happen.
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What is link building?
Link building is the practice of getting other websites to link back to yours.
The purpose of link building is to acquire more backlinks. Simple.
But not just any backlinks. You want backlinks from websites related to your industry or topical expertise and that come from other reputable, trusted websites.
What’s a backlink?
Lucky for you, we wrote an entire article on backlinks.
But let’s review here: a backlink is just a hyperlink from someone else’s website back to yours.
Backlinks (aka “inbound links”) are one of Google’s top three ranking factors, and acquiring more backlinks from high domain authority websites is how you increase your keyword rankings in search engines results pages (SERPs).
For example, this is a backlink from Shopify to us:
Why are backlinks the holy grail of search engine optimization?
Because Google assumes that the most popular websites online get linked to the most often. And they’re right. In fact, they built their entire search algorithm around this premise (called PageRank).
More links = higher rankings + more organic traffic.
Why is link building important for SEO?
Like we mentioned, without links, you won’t make it to the top of Google search for competitive keywords. And without rankings, you can say goodbye to organic traffic.
Then there’s referral traffic: a good backlink doesn’t just help boost rankings; it helps drive targeted traffic to your website from the website that linked to you.
One problem: acquiring links organically (without building them) is difficult.
In fact, 66% of all websites online don’t have a single backlink.
The truth: if you want to grow the number of high-quality links to your website so you can increase rankings, organic traffic, and referral traffic, then you need to take an active role in acquiring them.
It doesn’t matter if you sell the Mona Lisa of your industry. If the right people don’t know it exists, it will never acquire backlinks.
How to develop a link building strategy
Strategy before tactics, always. Just like anything else.
Before you choose your link building tactics, first you need to analyze your options and pick a path forward.
That starts with asking the right questions about what's possible.
1. Separate the good from the bad
Any strategy should seek to pursue quality links, not spammy links. Obviously.
We explore the difference between good links and bad links in our backlinks article here, so I’ll keep it brief, but a good link includes as many of the following as possible:
- High domain authority relative to your industry
- Referral traffic comprised of ideal customers
- Topically relevant to your website
- Passes link authority (i.e. not “nofollow”)
- Descriptive anchor text
- Naturally placed (not manipulative)
Note: as many as possible.
That’s because a link that sends targeted referral traffic but that may not help rankings because it comes from a low authority website is still a good link. Sure, if that link also came from a high authority website it would be better, but referral traffic alone is worthy of pursuit for link building.
2. Set your link building goals
Don’t approach link building with your blinders on. Think like a marketer, not a tactical buffoon.
Backlinks have value even if they don’t help you increase rankings. Just like they have value even if they don’t send referral traffic.
Depending on your business goals, your link building goals will vary. But before you begin, decide which of the following you want to accomplish with your link building:
Do you want to build high domain authority links so you can increase rankings, whether or not those links send much traffic?
Is it more important to drive targeted traffic to your products and services so you can increase immediate sales?
Brand building (awareness)
Do you want to have your business featured next to other reputable businesses so you can generate awareness and build a stronger brand long term?
Do you own a local business that needs to boost your Local Pack rankings, appear in maps, or help customers find you when they’re looking?
Whichever goal you want to pursue (maybe it’s all of the above), each will require a different set of tactics to achieve it.
3. Determine the types of links you’ll pursue
Quality is a wide spectrum. There’s tons of quality backlink opportunities, all with different benefits. Depending on which you pursue, they may require different tactics.
Here are some of the different types of good links you should consider pursuing:
- Editorial links
- Directory links
- Testimonial links
- Social media links
- Sponsored links (paid)
An editorial link is a link that appears naturally within the body of an article.
For example, this is an editorial backlink we received from CXL.com in a recent article they wrote about crafting a value proposition for your agency:
Google has confirmed that internal editorial links carry more weight than links on other parts of a web page, like a sidebar, header or footer.
One can only assume that the same applies for external links (backlinks to another site).
Plus, with editorial backlinks, not only can you improve rankings, but you can drive referral traffic and generate awareness
A directory backlink (sometimes referred to as a citation), is a link placed on a general business directory like Yelp.com, on an industry-specific directory like RealSelf.com, on a review platform like G2, or on association or member websites like the BBB or your local chamber of commerce.
For example, here is our business listing on G2’s review website:
Aside from helping to support rankings, a directory link helps potential customers find you and, if the listing includes reviews, make a more informed decision. After all, if someone discovers you via a business directory, it’s because they’re searching for the category of products or services you sell.
Testimonial links come from authentic reviews, testimonials, or customer stories that get featured on a business’ or partner’s website. You know how some websites feature testimonials on their homepage, or have dedicated case study pages? Ya, these ones.
For example, we were a case study client for Vervoe. Not only were we happy to contribute a genuine story of our success with the platform, but they gave us a backlink too.
Social media profile links
This one’s simple: any link from a business page or personal page on a social network like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn. Social platforms have high domain authority, period.
For example, this is a backlink from our LinkedIn profile page:
Sponsored links are links you pay for, but that are part of a piece of sponsored content. The intent of sponsored content is not to get a link to increase rankings; it’s to generate awareness and build a brand.
In general, a sponsored link should include a rel=“nofollow” tag (which means search engines will ignore it) or a rel=”sponsored” tag that tells search engines it's a legit sponsored link.
Why would you want to build a link that doesn't influence rankings? Because we’re thinking like marketers, not tactical buffoons, remember?
For example, look at this sponsored post from Hot Wheels (featured in Buzzfeed):
If you scroll down, Hot Wheels includes a link after the conclusion. But if you investigate the HTML, the link is a “nofollow” link, which means it won’t pass authority or help rankings, but it will still drive plenty of referral traffic.
4. Commit to an approach (white vs. grey vs. black)
Let’s be honest: SEO is about who skirts the line better than the next guy. And that line is Google’s quality guidelines.
We’re not going to sit on our soapbox and tell you that you have to build whitehat links.
Yes, we recommend it. But our level of risk aversion may be higher than yours. Just like we may (or may not) have more budget than you (we spend millions of dollars creating linkable assets).
Also, keep in mind that Google doesn’t promote any sort of link building; they want you to earn them all naturally. So any sort of intentional link building is already delving into the world of greyhat SEO.
Either way, decide how far you’ll toe the line:
You acquire them naturally, organically, and by following Google’s quality standards.
You actively build links, but nothing malicious or egregious.
Highly suspicious, low-quality links from link farms, private blog networks, or paid link schemes that usually get penalized by Google eventually.
How to build backlinks
Now that you know the fundamental considerations before creating a sound link building strategy, let’s explore link building tactics.
Depending on your strategy, the combination of tactics you pursue will vary.
Honestly, there are hundreds of link building tactics at your disposal. Like, thousands maybe. So in this article, we’re going to break out tactics into four primary groups that explore the most effective link building tactics available.
- Linkable assets
- Technical link building
- Public relations
- Guest posting
1. Linkable assets (aka content marketing)
A linkable asset is a piece of content so over the top valuable that it functions as a link magnet. Gobs and gobs of people can’t help but link to it from their articles because it brings so much added value to their audience.
If it were up to Google, this would be the only form of link building done. Simply create something incredibly valuable, then wait for someone to find it and link to it.
In fact, it’s what they say in their link scheme guidelines:
“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.”
Too bad that rarely happens.
Well, the part where someone finds it and links to it, that is.
If you want people to link to your assets, first you need to find people who have the resources to provide a link. Which means they need influence, an audience, and a website.
Second, you need to promote it to those spheres of influence via social media (organic and paid), or through link building outreach like cold email, direct messaging, or slack channels. We won’t go deep into outreach here, but Brian Dean of Backlinko has a great guide on it here: How to Send Effective Outreach Emails.
Let’s explore some of the most link-worthy assets you can produce.
People love to link to free (and useful) tools.
Neil Patel’s Ubersuggest (free SEO tool) has acquired over 139,000 backlinks from 25,000 linking root domains.
Coschedule’s free headline analyzer tool has acquired 29,000 backlinks from 7.7 linking root domains.
You can create lightweight tools too.
For example, Byrdie’s skincare ingredient glossary:
Original research and stats
Writers are always looking for real data to add credibility to their claims, which is why research has become one of the most successful linkable assets of all time.
For example, Orbit Media’s annual Blogging Statistics gets tons of links. Their 2021 survey has already received over 12K links from 2.8K linking domains already, and it’s only been a few months.
- Find link-worthy content that ranks for keywords you want to rank for
- Create a linkable asset that’s far and away better
- Reach out to the people who link to that asset and tell them yours is better
We LOVE the Skyscraper Technique at KlientBoost. (Though we need to do a better job of reaching out to people after we create a link-worthy article.)
We used the Skyscraper Technique to grow our blog subscribers to over 10,000 subs and organic traffic to over 27,000 visitors every month.
In fact, this one article has received over 600 links alone following the Skyscraper Technique:
Contrarian but true
Point. Of. View.
There’s nothing more link-worthy than an article that claims the opposite of what everyone else is saying but that is also right (and has the proof to back it).
One of my favorite contrarian but true pieces is a marketing report chock full of research and data from Les Binet and Peter Fields called The Long and Short of It. The entire essay is contrarian but true. If you’re a marketer who isn’t familiar with their research, buckle up: you’re about to have an existential crisis.
Thought leadership requires two things: thoughts and leadership. That means leading the way with original thoughts.
People love to be the bearer of fresh ideas. So thought leadership gets links. LIke, a lot of links.
Say something that hasn’t been said before. Better yet, reinvent a way of doing something so that it’s objectively better.
For example, our founder, Jonathan Dane, invented single keyword ad groups (SKAGS), then wrote an article about it. That article has received over 450 backlinks from 177 websites. Funny enough, when JD wrote about SKAGs on Unbounce’s blog back in 2014, they racked up links too (805 as of today).
Honorable mention of some of our thought leadership:
Courses + guides
Long-form content that’s structured as a chapter guide or a course.
Why do courses and guides attract so many links? Depth.
Courses and guides explore topics deeper than any other form of content and they get rewarded for their thoroughness.
For example, Moz’s SEO Guide to Content Marketing has raked in over 4,500 backlinks from 1.6K linking root domains.
Visual content can include photos, infographics, gifographics, or visual aids like charts and graphs.
Visual content attracts links mainly because people embed visuals within their articles (everyone needs a good visual aid).
For example, one of the most cited visual pieces of content I see get shared every year are the charts from Content Marketing Institute’s annual state of the industry report.
This year’s (2022) annual report has already received over 2K backlinks and CMI just published this article and data one month ago (October; it’s November now). It’s also original research, which we already know gets a massive amount of backlinks, but add to it the well-designed charts and you have a link magnet masterpiece.
2. Technical link building (link building tools)
Technical link building involves using an SEO tool to prospect for backlink opportunities.
We call it “technical” because without a tool, you’d never be able to do this type of link building. And these types of methods usually involve some data exporting too.
What’s technical link building look like? There are loads of examples, but we’ll stick with the three most common:
- Broken link building
- Unlinked mentions
- Competitor link building
Broken link building
Broken link building is when you prospect for links within articles that point to pages that no longer exist (i.e. 404 pages). Broken links are layups because nobody wants to create a poor user experience for their readers by linking to a dead page.
You’d never be able to do this without the help of a backlink tool. But thankfully, with tools like Ahrefs and SEMRush, it’s fairly easy in three simple steps.
Step 1: Use a tool to find broken backlinks on domains you’d like to receive a link from. We prefer Ahrefs broken backlink tool (free). Just input the domain you want to check for broken links, and voilà.
Step 2: Create a piece of content (if you don’t have one already) that can replace the broken link.
Step 3: Reach out to the webmaster or owner and tell them you have a replacement article that will improve his/her reader’s user experience.
Let’s look at an example using KB:
Hit us up if you have a replacement ;)
Also, if you want to find all the websites that link to a particular broken page (so you can reach out to all of them for a backlink), you can do that in Ahrefs too.
In Ahrefs: Site explorer → Pages → Best by Links → filter for HTTP 404 errors
Last, in many cases, since the broken link points to a page that no longer exists, it’s hard to tell what the article was about or why the website linked to it in the first place.
If the URL isn’t a dead giveaway for what the article covered, use Archive.org’s WayBack Machine to find out.
Wayback Machine doesn’t always render old pages like they appeared, but you can at least read the text to figure out what it talked about.
Unlinked brand mentions
Unlinked mentions are mentions of your business or brand that don’t include a backlink.
You can find these mentions online using an SEO tool, then reach out to the website to see if they’ll add a link. Since they already mentioned you, asking to add a link won’t come from left field.
In order to find unlinked mentions, first you need a working list of brand-related topics that people might be talking about online. For us, that might look like the following:
- Johnathan Dane (KB founder)
- Single keyword ad groups
- Breadcrumb technique
- Iceberg effect
- TLC email framework
- Goldchain Dane (don’t ask)
Once you have your list, use a tool (we use Ahrefs) to investigate mentions online.
For example, if we type in “Klientboost -site:klientboost.com” into Ahrefs Content Explorer, it will produce all the websites that mention us, link or no link. We add the “-site:klientboost.com” modifier so Ahrefs doesn’t produce results from our own website.
We have over 7K mentions of “KlientBoost” online.
But since this list includes mentions with links too, we need to export the URLs (export button is to far right, middle) to a tool like Screaming Frog to find the unlinked mentions.
Lucky for us, Ahrefs put together a simple video explaining the entire process:
Once you have your list of unlinked mentions, start reaching out and requesting backlinks.
Competitor link building
This is an SEO cult classic: find out who links to your competitors but doesn’t link to you, then reach out to them to link to you too.
In the past, competitor link building wasn’t so easy, but today, with tools like Ahrefs, it only takes a few minutes to amass a list of high-quality targets you can pirate from your competitors.
Using Ahref’s Link Intersect tool, input your competitors URLs (exact slug or root domain), and find out who links to them but not to you:
3. Public relations
Get yourself a good public relations expert. The. end.
No, but seriously, great link building is mostly public relations anyways.
Public relations gives you an added benefit though: credibility.
If you can get featured (and get a backlink) from a major publication, you can use those “featured in” logos as social proof on your website.
For example, take this article from Allure.com:
Within the article, they link to a New York-based dermatologist’s website next to his quote:
Not only a pull quote, but a backlink.
Note: Many publishers “nofollow” editorial backlinks since so many SEO managers have hit them up for backlinks in the past. Even still, don’t overlook a well-placed backlink on a topically relevant, high domain authority website, even if it doesn’t pass link juice.
Because you can still use that mention/link as social proof:
4. Guest posting
It wouldn’t be a link building article without mentioning guest blogging.
Though not as frequent as it once was (since publishers aren’t so quick to hand out backlinks anymore), guest blogging is a great way to get an editorial backlink from an authority website, as long as you have something valuable to share.
In the early years of KlientBoost, our founder (Johnathan Dane) used guest posting to build our entire brand:
And the list goes on:
Note: Links within guest posts can be problematic according to Google.
Why? Because so many SEOs created spammy, automated guest posts purely for backlinks. And it ruined it for everyone.
Back in 2014, then head of webspam at Google, Matt Cutts, even declared guest post dead.
Fast forward to 2022, and Google hasn’t changed their tune much:
“The part that’s problematic is the links — if you’re providing the content/the links, then those links shouldn’t be passing signals & should have the rel-sponsored / rel-nofollow attached. It’s fine to see it as a way of reaching a broader audience.”
“Essentially if the link is within the guest post, it should be nofollow, even if it’s a “natural” link you’re adding there.
FWIW none of this is new, and I’m not aware of any plans to ramp up manual reviews of this. We catch most of these algorithmically anyway.”
Rule of thumb: If you’re going to pursue guest posting, do it because it puts your point of view in front of a wider audience and helps generate brand awareness for your business. Don’t seek out any guest posting opportunity available just to get a backlink.
Done right, by creating a valuable piece of content for another person's audience, and guest posting can still be a powerful link building technique.
Link building isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires a diversity of skills to get the job done right, plus a lot of grit.
A link builder is part content strategist, part public relations, part investigator, part sales.
First, a good link builder will devise a content strategy that produces something worth linking to. We call this a linkable asset. No assets. No links.
Second, they’ll wrap that link-worthy asset up into a pitch that communicates its value.
Third, they’ll research and investigate all the people and places who may find value in the pitch. Good ones will even build a community of people who might find value in the asset (see public relations).
Then they’ll sell the pitch to their list of targets.
It’s like selling products and services, only the content is the product in this case, and you only accept backlinks as currency.
Now you’re ready to go build your link building campaign.