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Link building (also known as link-building and linkbuilding) is the practice of promoting your website to other website owners with the primary goal of securing a link (hyperlink) on their site to your page.
If you have a website and want traffic from search, you need to consistently secure good links from relevant websites. It means you need link building. Link building requires strong social skills, excellent communication, persistence, and creativity. It’s marketing, sales, and psychology combined.
Links are vital to increasing traffic online. A website without links isn't going to get any traffic — from search, or from other websites.
That’s the short, nitty-gritty explanation. Now let's take a deeper look.
Link building is the process of securing a link on an independent website back to your own site (or a client's site).
Google search is based around links. The more links you have from relevant and authoritative websites, the better your website will perform in search for relevant queries. Links also drive referral traffic and help develop relationships.
The best SEO companies use customized strategies with diverse tactics designed to convince another website it is in their — or their audience's — best interest to link to a page on your site.
Link building gained popularity with the rise of Google in 1998, and is still vital today.
SEOs, marketers, and website owners use link building to increase traffic to their site through search.
Links are fundamental to the existence of the web.
In fact, it’s called the web due to links — links are the ‘webbing’ that combine the millions of websites into one entity, creating the interconnected web.
There are two primary reasons marketers and businesses should be concerned with links:
Links are valuable for marketing, audience development, relationship building, and search engine optimization.
Links are the primary means of navigating the web.
There are essentially three ways to navigate to a page:
WITHOUT LINKS, THE INTERNET WOULD BE UNNAVIGABLE.
Links account for the vast majority of web navigation. Whether in social media, search, or browsing a popular site like Reddit, odds are you’re clicking links to move from one page to another.
Memorizing URLs and creating thousands of bookmarks simply isn’t practical.
Links power the web, and are absolutely critical to search, website architecture, user experience (UX), audience development, and human accessibility.
SEARCH ENGINES USE LINKS AS A CORE RANKING SIGNAL.
Search is responsible for much of the internet's traffic — one study by Conductor reports more than 60%. When Google unexpectedly crashed in 2013 40% of Internet traffic dropped.
Search is a primary channel of traffic for most businesses online.
An entire industry exists around optimizing websites for search, improving their performance: search engine optimization (SEO).
Link building is an important part of SEO services. Without links, websites can’t rank in competitive search queries.
Google’s core system, which led to their dominance as a search engine, is PageRank. PageRank is Google’s algorithm that places value on links, and affects websites' search ranking.
Humans and search engines both place considerable value on links, and securing links online requires sustained, focused effort.
Quality links don't happen by accident.
GOOD LINKS REQUIRE INTENTIONAL EFFORT.
Google often tells website owners to “create great content.” You need to be creating pages that provide value to your audience.
But valuable content requires promotion. If you want to secure the links your website deserves, you need to be intentional about promoting your pages to websites where your links make sense.
Links don't happen, otherwise.
According to a 2015 joint study by BuzzSumo and Moz, the majority of posts online have zero external links (links from other websites).
The majority of content online has no real chance to receive significant search traffic, which is responsible for the majority of traffic online.
SEOs know the impact a few natural links from quality and relevant websites can have. It no longer takes hundreds or thousands of links to rank. The commodity of a single link has vastly increased, giving quality websites even more power within their respective industries.
In order to secure a link, you need to demonstrate value in a persuasive manner.
Links are important to humans, marketers, and internet usability. Google search is also reliant upon links, both for ranking and crawling.
Let’s take a deeper look at how specifically search works.
Google crawls the web by following links (again making search reliant upon links), creating an index from the pages they find. When you use search you're not searching the live web, but rather Google's index of the web.
Google stores their index in numerous data centers, which are incredibly large and complex.
Google's last reported index size is roughly 130 TRILLION pages, taking up over 100 million gigabytes.
How does Google know which pages to return for a given search (query)? How do they determine which pages are relevant? How do they rank and order those pages?
Google uses algorithms, both machine learning and human coded (by Ranking Engineers), to determine the most relevant results.
There are over 200 ranking signals used by Google's search algorithm. No one knows precisely what these signals are (or even the strength given to each signal) — though many speculate.
There are three different categories of optimization you can perform to improve your website in search:
Technical SEO is the optimization of technology involved in Google crawling and indexing your site. This includes domain architecture, technology stack, robots.txt, server codes, redirects, page speed, internal links, etc.
On-page SEO is the optimization of the content and HTML of your site's pages themselves. This is a more granular view of the elements on the page, which help Google understand the topic and intent of the page. This includes the words on the page, the URL, title, header tags, images, meta tags, etc.
Off-page typically refers to links, although it can also include citations.
Technical and on-page SEO are crucial — you’ll never rank to your site's full potential without clean, optimized on-page and technical SEO. Fortunately you should largely have control over these elements, which are the direct result of how you build your website and its platform.
Technical and on-page SEO both become much more complex as you scale a website (increasing the number and size of pages), and involve more technology.
Off-page is the element you least control in SEO. It requires convincing another website to provide positive signals to your site, which doesn’t happen without a good cause.
Links have perhaps the most ranking value of any single signal. They’re absolutely critical to ranking in competitive search.
Securing a link from an authoritative website in a relevant manner isn’t easy. Google’s original algorithm succeeded because it used links as a core ranking signal, which no other search engine used at the time.
Google’s concern is the same as any business: making money.
Google's primary source of revenue is from search. In fact, before Google split to become Alphabet, search was responsible for the majority of revenue — despite many successful side projects (which have now become their own businesses, under Alphabet).
How does Google make money from search, which is free? With advertisements, at the top or bottom of the search results page. This is an incredibly big business. Google reported 74.5 billion dollars in revenue in 2015, with a consistent growth year-over-year.
To ensure they continue to make money from search, the core of their company, Google has to do two things:
To better understand search, let me show you a search for 'coffee':
I highlighted the Knowledge Graph in orange, the local pack in green, additional search features in red, and the ad in yellow. Let's take a look at each element.
The Knowledge Graph is lGoogle's attempt at explaining real-world information, instead of relying upon another website to answer searcher needs.
The Local Pack is Google satisfying local and mobile searchers.
The additional SERP features represent Google’s attempts at creating an overwhelmingly great user experience, no matter what the intent of the searcher. In the case of this search, they pull in publications about coffee and searches related to coffee.
The advertisement represents Google's revenue. Ads are how Google makes money within search.
Anything not highlighted has made it into the results using at least some search engine optimization, including clean technical structure, optimized on-page content, and link.
Take a moment and appreciate just how much Google puts into search quality — there’s a wealth of informational elements designed to satisfy searcher intent, without even having to click away from Google.
[Coffee] is a completely generic term — often referred to as a 'head term' within SEO — with no clear intent. Yet no matter what the intent of the searcher, the odds are good this result page will answer it. We have real-word knowledge (Knowledge Graph), nearby coffee houses (Local Pack), articles from publications, additional search suggestions, and nine organic results to meet additional intent.
Without much information to work from, Google is able to create an amalgamation of results to answer a variety of searcher intents.
This result also doesn't include personalization, which is common in search. If you consistently search [coffee], you'll see different results appear here.
Also, notice how discreet the ad is; sitting at the bottom with nothing but a green "Ad" to differentiate it from the rest of the search results.
Finally, consider the fact that every website not highlighted wouldn't be in the search without the help of SEO.
Google’s staggering revenue flows from search. SEOs work to increase website's ranking in relevant searches. The highly competitive, lucrative search terms are dominated by SEO efforts.
Google has a vested interest in managing SEOs. If we're able to manipulate low-quality websites into search, we could affect their bottom line, no matter how many non-organic elements they include in search.
OPTIMIZATION VS. MANIPULATION
As SEOs it’s important for us to always start with searcher intent. Before we optimize a page for search, we should first consider if the page actually belongs at the top of search results. If it doesn't, our efforts might be wasted for two reasons:
SEO is deeply strategic by nature: identifying opportunity within an industry, performing competitor analysis, implementing and testing changes, tracking results.
It can be easy to push the bounds of optimization, but it's more important now than ever before to stick to SEO best practices. Follow Google's guidelines to both the letter and the spirit.
The easiest way to manipulate a website to the top of search is to build manipulative links, since links have the highest impact on ranking.
Google works hard to keep their search results clear of these manipulative practices with both manual and algorithmic (Penguin) penalties. These penalties will remove a site from search.
This means we have to only build meaningful links that improve human experience on the web. We need to secure real, relevant links.
All search engines use links as a core ranking signal within their search algorithms.
MORE LINKS ≠ MORE RANKINGS.
Plenty of people have tried to game Google’s search algorithm over the years. In turn, Google is constantly improving the relevance and quality of their search results, finding new ways to cut through the noise and rank the best and most relevant results.
Google improves their understanding of links with major algorithmic updates. Specifically, with machine learning.
GOOGLE'S LINK ALGORITHM IS NICKNAMED PENGUIN.
In link building every SEO must ask, “will this link be useful now, and will it continue to provide value in the future?”
There are a variety of ways to build good links that will continue to have a positive impact on your website.
At Page One Power, we look at four key metrics to determine link quality:
It’s no coincidence we lead our list of link metrics with relevance.
Google often talks about relevance: in their results, in satisfying user intent, and meeting user needs.
Back in 2012 an ex-Googler actually said in an interview with James Norquay that "relevance is the new PageRank".
We determine relevance at Page One Power by asking pertinent questions, before we secure a link:
Would I be excited to show this link to a client? To a family member? To another SEO?
Is this link relevant to the surrounding context? To the entire page? The entire domain?
Quality links add value to the web by improving user (human) experience. We want every link we build to be valuable to:
If we adhere to creating links that are valuable for all parties, then we make the web a better place — while improving the rankings of our client's websites.
At the core of the original PageRank algorithm are authority and trust. The more links you have to your site, the more valuable your own links are. This is because Google counts links as a sign of authority and trust.
Therefore, as you accrue more links you accrue more authority and trust. Although only search engines have access to the PageRank Algorithm, there are a few tools that let us measure the authority and trust of a website:
Combining all of these metrics — along with our experience and expertise — ensures we’re building links that are valuable.
As SEOs, technical considerations are always top-of-mind. That doesn’t mean we’re solely guided by the technical considerations, just that we’re aware of the impact.
We'll avoid a link that might have search value but falls short on our other metrics (relevance and human value). We'll also secure a link that may not have much, if any, SEO impact (nofollow links), but that advance the reputation, reach, and value of a site.
We want links that both humans AND search engines will reward. Here are the technical considerations of a link:
Every link we build is heavily scrutinized.
The terms “tactic” and “strategy” are often used interchangeably in the SEO community, despite having different meanings.
In link building, tactics are the method used to secure links. Strategy is the plan designed to accomplish your goal.
Before you determine tactics, you need a strategy.
There are hundreds of various link building tactics including broken link building, link reclamation, content promotion, resource link building, influencer outreach, guest blogging, to name just a few.
A creative SEO or marketer can always secure links.
It's not enough to secure links for the sake of links. You need to know why you're securing links.
What pages are you going to build links to? What keywords do the pages target? How competitive is the niche? What opportunities exist?
Answer these questions, and you'll have a link building campaign strategy. You'll know not only how you'll build links (the tactics), you'll know why (the strategy).
Here is the research and analysis you should do to form your link building strategy:
There are no cookie-cutter solutions. There are no one-size-fits-all scalable solutions.
Instead, you have to analyze the unique situation of the website and make an informed decision to accomplish your goals.
Let's cover the basic research and analysis you should perform in order to create a strategic plan to guide your link acquisition.
The first step to create an intelligent strategy is to understand your situation. In link building, that means your backlink profile.
Your backlink profile is the composition of all links to your website and pages.
A backlink analysis is fundamental in creating a link building strategy: you need to understand the quality and quantity of links to your site.
There are numerous tools that will help you discover what sites and pages link to your own website. These are typically referred to as "backlink explorers".
Popular backlink explorers:
These tools specialize in helping you discover links to your website and pages.
The process of backlink profile analysis is to review:
Depending on the age and popularity of your website, as well as the link economy in your niche, your backlink profile can vary greatly.
For beginners, I recommend these guides to help you through a backlink audit the first time:
I strongly recommend performing this same analysis on your competitors, as well. We'll cover more of this in the niche analysis stage.
Once you have a strong understanding of your own website's backlink profile, you're ready to perform a linkable asset analysis.
Which pages you build links to is one of the most critical elements in link building.
You need to be strategic about which pages you secure links to. These pages need to align with your goals.
Unfortunately, it's very rare that you can build links directly to your converting or money pages, for two reasons.
If you only target people actively searching to buy a product or service in that moment, you miss a large part of your marketing audience.
This is typically known as the marketing funnel.
This is typically known as the marketing funnel.
In order to successfully build links across your industry, you'll need pages SEOs refer to as "linkable assets".
Linkable assets are pages on your website that serve value to your audience, niche, and community.
These pages can offer value in a variety of manners. They can be guides, lists, videos, tools, resources, events, sponsorships, testimonials, etc.
You want to find pages that other websites would want to link to if they were aware they existed.
Your linkable assets should:
It won't always be a direct opportunity to create customers or clients, either. Remember our marketing funnel above; often, linkable assets target the awareness and interest part of the funnel, helping create brand awareness and affinity.
Finding linkable assets often boils down to locating pages that are popular with your audience, and offer good answers for commonly searched phrases in your industry.
Often, you can locate these pages by reviewing:
For beginners analyzing linkable assets for the first time, I recommend:
Your goal in this stage of your research and analysis is to find pages you can successfully build links to, and serve your business's goals.
Keyword research is a vital piece of any SEO strategy.
You need to identify keywords important to your industry and website. How are people using search to find information about your industry?
Keyword research identifies the important words your audience uses to search online.
Keyword research is directly related to the search results for which your website ranks. Optimization is core to SEO, but you can't optimize unless you understand the terms you should be optimizing across your site and pages.
There are numerous tools to help you perform keyword research:
For link building, your goal in keyword research is to identify:
Resources to help beginners learn keyword research:
This is a deep topic you can spend a considerable amount of time on in SEO. For link building, I recommend focusing on the pages you plan to build links to (your linkable assets).
Analyzing your industry, niche, and competition is vital to every link building strategy.
It's not enough to understand the performance and goals of your own website. You need to understand how your competitors are achieving their goals, as well as the communities and opportunities across your niche.
It's time to see how you stack up to the competition.
A niche analysis is a review of your niche, industry, and competition.
You've learned how to perform keyword research, backlink analysis, and linkable asset analysis. Now do the same on your competition.
Your goal is to learn:
You need to understand what's led to success for the competition, relationship opportunities across your niche, important link tactics, and the general linking environment.
Contributing content to relevant publications, blogs, and websites is another common link building tactic.
You provide valuable content in return for exposure to a new audience and a link back to your site.
Examples of content types commonly used:
The typical process to secure a link through contributing content:
This link building method should be used to target high authority websites within your niche. It’s a slower method of link building, but can create truly great links and high visibility.
It's also a fantastic method to foster relationships, establish an audience, and build a reputation across your industry.
Active engagement in your community is another common tactic to earn quality links.
No company should operate in a silo. As you build relationships across your industry, your site should naturally accrue links.
Relationships and community involvement isn't something you can manufacture or manipulate for the sake of a link alone. But, if you're active and consistently engaged in community events you should be building quality links.
A few common examples of community link building tactics:
The typical steps to earn links through community involvement:
This is typically a long-term tactic. You should scrutinize any way in which your business adds value to the community — typically, there are at least a few link opportunities surrounding community events.
As Matt Cutts famously said,
"LINK BUILDING IS SWEAT PLUS CREATIVITY."
There is no secret shortcut to secure links online.
Thankfully, many in the SEO community are willing to share their experience, expertise, and experiments.
There is a wealth of information online, and many SEOs have compiled lists of their favorite resources.
Here is our recommended list of link building resources:
There is no secret shortcut to securing quality links. You'll need to identify how your website adds value to the web, the opportunities that exist within your niche, and secure the links your website deserves.
With a little creativity, research, analysis, and strategy link building can make the difference your website needs.
Every link should be useful for your website, the website linking, and their audience.
Quality links will help your website earn meaningful organic traffic from Google search.
There are many other factors within SEO, but links still remain very integral to any SEO strategy.
Link building is both a science and an art: technical knowledge and analytical skills are necessary, but the defining element is human creativity.