You can think of link building in many ways. I like to call it tedious, painful, and a test of patience.
It’s also necessary to compete. Can your business survive without getting one new link in the next year or even five years? Sure. Will your brand miss out on leads, sales, and increased profitability? Probably.
Link building also goes hand and hand with your website’s search ranking results. Search engines track external links to your site. Each one from a trusted source reinforces your site’s credibility.
How do you know if the sites are trustworthy? It all comes down to authority. Several tools size up websites and rate them. Moz gives websites a domain authority score between one and 100. Inbound links are a key to that score. Content Marketing Institute, for example, is 77. HubSpot is 92. Ferro, a coatings company, is 49.
Your site’s domain authority is important too. Higher numbers give your site a better chance to improve rankings and pass up some other companies in the search ranking arenas.
Passive vs. active link building
You can go the “easy” route and crank out exceptional content that helps your website attract links even when you don’t ask for them.
All the noteworthy videos, studies, white papers, blog posts, interactive tools (like calculators), and infographics also can attract links through direct traffic, natural search engine visitors, social media pushes, and more. You never have to make a direct pitch.
But in truth, a successful link-building strategy requires deliberate action. Here are some tips, tools, and reminders to help you mine the gold known as external links. Though you may find some dead ends, you’ll also make some triumphant discoveries.
1. Use link-building tools
These link-building tools help you find, sort, and manage potential link sources, including influencer and competitor research. For each link, learn about authority and trust scores influenced by the type, quality, and number of backlinks. You may even discover you’re failing to add prominent links among your company’s websites. Here are some to consider:
Give Link Prospector a try to identify website marketers who may like your content and add backlinks. Then look at these and other sources:
- Journalists and news media known to include links in their stories
- Bloggers and other writers
- Websites that review products and services (in your niche)
- Trade associations
By researching competitors, you can find all sorts of possible link sources. I call them “me-too” links. Dig into the data to find directories, blogs, newsletters, media, and other websites that may be open to linking to your site. Clearly, many link opportunities are based on relationships those media have cultivated. But you usually can find some gems and reach out to the same publishers.
Some tools, including Ahrefs and Moz, have special features to save you research time. With options called Link Intersect, they let you compare your website to others to see what links those sites have that yours doesn’t. Here is an example from Moz (FedEx has a backlink that DHL lacks):
2. Find influencers and their contact info
Several services can help you find relevant influencers and support your outreach efforts. Here are a few of the most popular:
3. Nurture relationships with influencers
You can also contact people who may become advocates for your content. But what about doing some nurturing on your part? Yes, it’s a long-term tactic, but it can pay off. If you support the influential people in your industry, they will likely link to your content. Start by promoting and commenting on their content.
4. Buy websites and domains (but be careful)
You can inherit backlinks If you acquire the right website (with content) or domain name that used to be tied to content. But size up those backlinks before pointing the websites and/or domain names to yours. Ensure they seem to be legitimate (look at the authority scores, number of links, etc.)
Acquiring and redirecting a site with quality #content or a good domain name can help your rankings and possibly your domain authority, says @MikeOnlineCoach via @CMIContent @semrush. #SEO Click To Tweet
When you redirect the acquired website to yours, the full benefit of the authority of the redirected site may not materialize. Google doesn’t guarantee anything. For example, if your original site’s authority score is 60 and the other website’s score is 70, the original site won’t necessarily jump to 70.
Keep taps on your rankings. I’ve seen cases where a website’s authority doesn’t improve for weeks, but its rankings quickly improve, especially when the publisher adds much of the content from the old website. In other words, Google will know you gave the content a wonderful new home and begin to honor your site when you create 301 redirects that basically say, “Yes, I’m the official owner of the content now.”
How to Create SEO-Friendly Content (Ultimate 2021 Checklist)
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5. Ask publishers to update their backlinks after you buy and redirect a domain
A 301 redirect link forwards visitors from the old web page to your website. For example, a consumer magazine linked to a toy manufacturer in a gift guide. You buy the toy manufacturer’s domain and redirect the site. Now, anyone who clicks on that link will end up at your website.
Do you need to go to the trouble of asking the magazine to link to your website instead? Absolutely. In my view, a direct link is more powerful. If your acquired site has thousands of backlinks, contact the publishers with the highest authority score.
6. Create surveys and studies
Tap survey managers and top executives for their opinions on best practices, trends, and industry forecasts. Create a landing page with an executive summary. Resist the pressure to gate that key data to acquire new leads. Why? Content that requires registration is likely to get fewer links.
You also can divide the study into multiple pages on your website to get some added SEO value. Reference and link to the full PDF report on every page. Block search engines from indexing the PDF so they focus on crawling each of the pages.
7. Roll out how-to guides, e-books, and reports
Educational content won’t always attract many links. It depends on the topic and the quality of your content. For example, a post on how to choose a metallurgy company may not prompt marketers to dish out link love. But if you ask, there is hope.
Some companies have gated content like this report from Dialpad: Leveraging Contact Center Analytics.
Others offer tons of advice without even asking for an email address. Brian Dean from Backlinko is one of the masters. His Copywriting: The Definitive Guide is a prime example:
Content Marketing Institute routinely offers free guides like How to Measure Content Marketing: The (Updated) Essential Guide.
8. Go natural
Your best link-building bet is to go the natural route, allowing countless websites to link to yours because of your great content. Although they won’t always be high-profile places, search engines will value the diverse sources and the diverse ways they link (anchor text will vary).
Northwell Health’s piece Talking to Your Kids About Coronavirus caught the attention of (and link) in The New York Times article Helping Children with Anxiety in the Pandemic.
9. Support charities
Supporting causes and initiatives can be an easy way to build links. You might question the value if the sites are not relevant to your industry. But search engines look at the number and quality of links, not only relevancy.
In an article about Raising Men Lawncare Service, TODAY gave Briggs & Stratton a link in recognition of their support of the good cause:
Retailer Burlington gained a link as a major sponsor of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
10. Distribute news releases
Years ago, search engines frowned when companies loaded news releases with backlinks. But that doesn’t mean news releases have no value. They’re still valuable to get the word out about your latest research or products.
A news release service may include the no-follow tag, which means your website won’t benefit from the publishing site’s authority. However, you’ll still get traffic. And who knows? Others may see the news release and link directly to your website.
11. Write testimonials
If you buy a product or service for your business, offer praise on the vendors’ websites if they offer backlinks to customers.
12. Leverage social media
It may seem obvious, but some companies fall short on social media because they don’t try hard enough. On Twitter, you can promote good content – or portions of it – several times. It’s not overkill, not when you share other publishers’ content and engage with followers far more often than you call attention to your content. Tweet about your latest video or research. Similar to news releases, you create awareness and could possibly earn a link.
13. Create useful things
14. Consider guest blogging
It still works if you write something original for an online publication. You can get a link to your website in the article and your bio. Check out CMI’s Guest Blogging: A Step-by-Step Guide.
15. Involve corporate leadership
Identify leaders in your company who have name recognition. You can get all sorts of links when they’re listed as conference speakers or featured as regular contributors to online magazines and blogs. Make a list of their key contacts and connections to ensure they’re aware too.
16. Research websites with .edu domain extensions
Over the years, marketers have suggested that links on domains with edu-extensions have extra value. Maybe it’s because of the eligibility requirements (a .edu domain name isn’t available to everyone). Even if search engines don’t view them differently, they’re often worth targeting because of their age and authority. Look for individual faculty, school, or program pages that link to companies and resources.
17. Join business groups
Whether it’s a local chamber or a national association, you can get links to your business.
18. Be active in local communities
From churches to civic organizations, you have ample opportunities to support people and places that may link to your website.
19. Promote links through email
Yes, you want people to open the email and click the links. But if they like the content, they may highlight and link to it on their websites.
20. Look for general industry and niche directories
Evaluate these directories by looking at their authority score and seeing whether they feature competitors. Pay attention to the number of listings. For example, manufacturers may want to consider the IQS Directory from Industrial Quick Search:
21. Include ego bait
You can mention one or more experts in your content and promote it socially. Will they link to your content just because you cited their insights? Maybe. But if you don’t have a relationship, they may not link even if they come across it or if you contact them directly.
22. Develop expert roundups
Your relationship odds could be enhanced if you ask experts to contribute to an article, such as providing their favorite tool or best practice.
23. Publish a Q&A
You might arrange an interview with an industry expert and include their perspectives on a key topic. Maybe the expert will link back because you reached out, respected their ideas, and took the time to develop a piece.
24. Claim broken links
Hunt down broken links on websites and reach out to website owners and managers to let them know. Offer your content as a substitute. A Simple (But Complete) Guide to Broken Link Building offers numerous tips about this tactic.
25. Get more inbound links from existing sources
Which sites link to your site that might be willing to include a link on another page? It never hurts to have multiple links from one source. You just don’t want to “game” search engines by getting a ton of links from one website. In other words, don’t seek a backlink in their footers.
26. Find product and brand mentions
Search for your products and brand. You may find websites that mention your company and may be open to linking to your website. Many won’t, as a matter of policy, but some may.
27. Be careful with self-created links
I’m not saying self-created or non-editorial links are useless. Their value may be limited and they could be viewed as spammy (i.e., blog comments and forum profiles). You should be cautious and avoid going overboard.
28. Use services that appeal to journalists
With HARO, journalists share what stories they’re working on. Industry experts offer to be sources. It’s one way to earn backlinks when stories are published. Some participating media have more credibility than others. A similar website is JustReachOut.
29. Keep an open mind about “nofollow” links
Way back in 2005, Google introduced the “nofollow” source code tag to combat spammy tactics some marketers used to game ranking factors (like adding tons of backlinks links in forum comments).
The presence of “nofollow” tags tells Google not to give the destination website any credit for the link. Encouraged by Google, publishers use the “nofollow” HTML attribute with sponsor and advertiser links. They know it’s too easy to secure a paid link rather than earn one naturally.
But in 2019, Google caused a stir by saying “nofollow’ may be considered only a hint and the link may not be overlooked. Which “nofollow” links matter and which don’t remain a mystery. Any “nofollow” link can be a traffic driver –a social media profile or a link from your logo that appears on another website with other event sponsors. Nofollow vs. Follow Links: Everything You Need to Know and Google’s New Treatment of Nofollow Links Has Arrived offer additional insights.
30. Clean up your inbound links
One of the worst things about SEO is that your site can be penalized even when you’re not at fault. Unfortunately, some disreputable, spammy, irrelevant, waste-of-digital-space websites may link to your site even when you don’t want the link.
You can use disavow tools with Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools – and hope for the best. Basically, you let search engines know which websites you don’t want to be associated with. You also are expected to beg the websites to stop linking to your site (if they will listen). Simply trust Google will agree that they’re awful links and honor your request to ignore them.
Press forward to get backlinks
At the end of the day, good content will attract links. But the degree of your visibility will depend on your link-building efforts. What’s your experience? What approaches work best for your business?
Please note: All tools included in this article were identified by the author, not the CMI team. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute